Evening rambling, with an nod toward Nick Tosches

[For a while, I kept my writing juices warm on Facebook. This, amongst others, was originally published as a note over there. Enjoy. From 3-4 October:]

My feet are at the head of the bed, while my wife gently snores, her hand on my calf. The warmest part of my body. It’s 10.37 and we old farts are in bed, the younger sleeps, the elder wide awake.

I went over to ebay and browsed some things that I used to look for. No one sells game-worn Minnesota North Stars jerseys anymore. I then recalled seeing somewhere that Starflyer 59’s highly obscure first live record allegedly sold for $500. Five songs, $100 a pop. Unfortunately, no one was selling. I have a copy, purchased at Cornerstone 96, weeks before my brother and now sister-in-law were married and the day before Lee Bozeman destroyed what I thought music could be in a short, impromptu midnight set. Funny thing is, I had Luxury’s ‘Solid Gold’ running through my head earlier today.

It’s been a nostalgic type of day here. Life right now isn’t treating me very well these days, or so it seems, so nostalgia seems like a good way to stave off an existential malaise. Not sure it’s working, but that’s how these things go.

And, of course, those good old days were probably not so good, hormones and awkwardness and gigantic spectacles and whatnot. In those days, I would wonder what I would look like as an adult. I look in the mirror and gasp at what I have become. To borrow from my brother’s birthday card sent to me not so long ago: “Crap, 27 is OLD!”

I moved on from Starflyer to see what Michael Knott stuff was out there. Not a bad selection, and the prices were reasonable, but not reasonable enough to make a move. In the 90s, there was a huge market for rare and OOP Christian records. They were rare and OOP because the labels often lacked the finances and strategic wherewithal to survive, and that the Christian market was so impenetrable that many, many talented artists were relegated to obscurity and the few brokers who were able to obtain them, in a pre-e-commerce marketplace, gladly charged gobs of money. Knott’s label, Blonde Vinyl, tanked because of a distributor going in the tank. So ‘Screaming Brittle Siren’ would go for upwards of $100. It was $27 tonight, and a 14-year-old inside me said ‘BUY!’.

The 27-year-old refused.

At Cornerstone in 1996, some kid made a t-shirt that said, “Pray for Mike Knott”. Knott was (and probably is) a troubled soul. Insightful, sharp, haunted, brilliant. He was almost singlehandedly responsible for the rise of an albeit shortlived Christian music scene that would have never settled for the horsecrap, whiny “there must be something mooooooooore!” emo-esque pap that is all too cool these days. (I’ve been meaning to write about that phrase for a while now. Rest assured, ’tis coming.) Rumor insists that Knott was the silent partner who gave Brandon Ebel the capital to start a label in his California apartment called Tooth and Nail. Unfortunately, the inference that comes from a t-shirt is not familial concern, but backdoor condemnation.

Even more unfortunately, I saw Knott play–ironically, with Bozeman; another memorable show–in a small club in Kansas City years ago. It was the last time he actually toured, to my knowledge. I wasn’t sure at the time, but he was probably drunk. A guy like that doesn’t need prayer, he needs love.

I waited for my wife to leave work tonight and a mother was going into the place of employment with her small children. One in the cart, the other practically dragged by the arm. And, in this moment of reflection, it all makes sense: people can only function when they are loved, in the assurance of being loved, we can feel free to be like children, because children are adorable when they are in the presence of love. Things aren’t right when there is no understanding of love. People feel for a lost or missing child. People celebrate when a child is found. I still remember being separated from my mom as a very little child at a JCPenney in Burnsville, Minnesota. It wasn’t long; of course, as a toddler, it seemed like an eternity. Mom still gets upset when that story comes up, and I’m sadistic enough to joke that she left me, when I wandered off on my own recognizance. The child isn’t the only one who panics; we all do.

Knott’s panic was very public because of his standing as an artist with Christian conviction. And the industry eventually responded by cutting his music off from outlets. As far as I know, he doesn’t record anymore, he just paints. The great troubadour has gone silent, if not for his brush and canvas.

I then turned my ebay interest to the 77s. In 1986, they put out one of the finest pop records one could imagine, and thanks to an agreement between Exit Records and Island, some CCM artists were getting attention outside the Christian sphere. That self-titled record contained the high watermark of the Sevens’ catalog, and it was supposed to garner serious attention from the airwaves, print media, etc. A funny thing happened: a little record called ‘The Joshua Tree’. Exit’s deal with Island crumbled shortly thereafter and the 77s were left for dead. They kicked around for a while, came back with another fledgling CCM label (Brainstorm) and were hailed as legends, even though Mike Roe was dealing with similar troubles as Knott.

They put out two records in the wake of the Island fiasco that were quite good. Both were on ebay: ‘Eighty Eight’, a live record, which I have on cassette but was unavailable on this night on CD; and 1990’s ‘Sticks and Stones’, supposedly a stunning collection of b-sides and other unreleased stuff. That one is the rarity.

I was at Spencer Lake Bible Camp I don’t know how many years ago, and at that time they had a little shack that served as their bookstore, only open toward the end of the camp week. And, as all good evangelicals know, the Christian bookstore is also the place to scour past the awful Carman and Petra records for the actually adequate music. There it was in the showcase. I had no idea what it was at the time, I was probably 11 years old. But it was the only time I ever saw ‘Sticks and Stones’ for sale. And, of course, not only would I not have cared, but I was also poor. Christian records always cost too much, there was no such thing as The Nice Price in the local Christian bookstore.

‘Sticks and Stones’ I know for a fact has sold upwards of $200. On this night, the price was $40.

And again, the 27-year-old wrested with the inner adolescent and prevailed. My tongue touches the permanent retainers behind the upper and lower front teeth to remind me of how bad things were in those years when Spencer Lake was part of the summer routine.

Perhaps it’s the economy, but a better guess is that the reason the demand for these things is so down is because the market that gave rise to their importance has been utterly destroyed. The Christian music industry is a joke, and most Christian musicians don’t bother trying to cater to that crowd. Why perform for them when 1) they don’t pay unless you’re one of them; and 2) they’re out for your head should a more or folkway be broken? I seldom purchase a ‘Christian’ record anymore, if at all. Most of my friends don’t, either. The concept seems foreign to me now: what makes a record ‘Christian’ anyway? What makes a record ‘Christian’ when those artists hailed by Nash-Vegas are hypocritical because they’re doing precisely what ‘secular’ artists have always done in hotel rooms, at clubs, on tour. (And at least three once-prominent acts come to mind, in stories related from quite reliable sources.) If I purchase a record, it’s because I like the music or I appreciate the artist. Meaning can be derived from there, which is why the same tinglies Christians get from whomever happens to be the ‘worship leader’ du jour are the same tinglies I got when I saw Two Gallants rock out in a church basemen on State Street in Madison a few years back. Once upon a time, I thought that was the Spirit. It just turned out to be great music.

I still hold the Spirit near and dear to me, and that’s why my enthusiasm toward ‘worship’ is largely curbed.

RadRockers used to hold connoisseurs of the Christian underground hostage with exorbitant prices for European-only Saviour Machine releases and rare 77s EPs and whatnot. So would True Tunes. I don’t even know if they exist anymore, I’ve been at this for an hour and I don’t feel like checking. What happened to them is the same that happened to the Christian music industry at large, we substituted Christian experience for an entertaining experience. With apologies to Dostoevsky, Christian art imitated Christian life, then Christian life imitated Christian art, and eventually the Christian aspects of both canceled each other out. The language could explain our plight in general, as well: in reality, the fiction created by Christian art was spawned from the fiction that was the Christian life. When someone like Knott came along and made Christian art that reflected real life, that art was deemed not Christian because it threatened the structural fiction.

And that’s why Christian radio is all ‘worship’, all the time now; a horrifying reflection of the drugged people we are.

And when there is no general market, there can be no aftermarket. Goodbye and good riddance to CCM unintentionally means goodbye to the market I raised myself on, with help from a handful of others. You can’t go to the Lighthouse bookstore in Green Bay and ask the right people to see the rare and beautiful music behind the counter, hidden like the smut behind the counter at a gas station. I’m not even sure the Lighthouse is in business anymore. Searching online for some of these remnants of a dead and dying culture isn’t as rewarding as searching them out in person. I have a life now, a wife, friends and a community entrusted to my care for the time being. It’s fun to look, but I am reminded, as was the preacher in Ecclesiastes: Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!

Those days are gone, many of those artists have disappeared to places where ebay won’t even follow. And, as the relentless march of time drones on, neither can I.

Midnight looms, and I am another day older.


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