An Open Letter to Everett True: 5 Songs from the Boy Who Listened to “Nerdvana”by Chad Thomas Johnston on Apr 4, 2012 • 4:40 am 4 Comments
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I originally posted this piece on January 9, 2012. On April 1, I received a tweet from Everett True regarding this piece. It said, “I reckon we should reprint that on Collapse Board. what d’ya think?” He posted the article on the evening of April 2 here. At the top of the piece, he left an editor’s note, reading, “I really like the premise of this article – it’s very unusual within the context of Collapse Board – which is why I asked Chad if I could reprint it.” If you have not read his Nirvana biography, I recommend it highly. It is a book only he could write, and I mean that in a good way.
I grew up in an alternate dimension where Nirvana didn’t exist.
(That’s the introductory hook that’s supposed to make you want to read this, of course, since you are arguably the universe’s foremost authority on Kurt Cobain and Co.)
Now for something less striking (although I will return to this alternate dimension blather in a minute): I want to thank you for writing Nirvana: The Biography. I read it while my own child was incubating In Utero inside my wife, and your book likewise incubated in my mind for a spell after I read it.
Your book was a gift to me in so many ways. Upon reading it, I found myself wondering what I could possibly give you in return. In the age of social media, after all, readers can actually express their gratitude to authors when they are inclined to do so in the form of a bloated open letter such as this one. You see, Everett, peasants wonder what to give kings, who have everything. After reading your book I found myself likewise wondering what I could possibly give music journalism’s reigning authority (you) since you have probably heard everything.
Like the little drummer boy, I bring my gift to you: Pah-rum-pah-pum-pum …
It does indeed involve drumming, although I am not offering you free drum lessons. You would fare better if the Shaggs‘ drummer taught you, I promise.
Back to that alternate dimension blather.
When you were celebrating the Sub Pop scene in print in Melody Maker, I was celebrating an even more obscure scene in my bedroom with my air guitar. Had you been present to report on the proceedings, you might have referred to it as the “Sub Sub Pop” scene, had you been inclined to refer to it at all.
While you were covering Nirvana, I was listening to music Beavis and Butthead might have referred to as “Nerdvana.” That is to say I was listening to Christian alternative rock (I am not even kidding, Everett), and my peers were kind enough to tolerate my rabid obsession with a number of bands who are even more obscure now that they were when I was foaming at the mouth about them in the ’90s.
I know, I know. Jesus said Christians would be hated, and boy was He right when it came to His followers who spread His message with a Flying V.
It may be that in a poll, Christian rock ranks only slightly above Zamfir the pan flutist in coolness. Even the people who loathed Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music are likely to lunge for that wrecking-ball-of-a-record in a heartbeat if given the option to listen to it instead of, well, Stryper. But I am not writing about Stryper.
I might be wearing a yellow and black catsuit as a I write this, however.
I am writing to share music with you, Everett. I want to write about the bands that filled the “Buzz Bin” of my imagination in the ’90s. These bands were an alternative to the alternative music Nirvana was playing, as meta as that sounds.
I will admit, I knew about Nirvana (I loved them), but as the son of a minister I could hardly listen to them. I was actually one of those well-behaved minister’s kids who ate his musical vegetables at his parents’ prompting. I licked the plate clean, and eagerly.
So it was as if Nirvana did not exist in my world. My world was soundtracked by alternative music to be sure, but it was populated by an alternate cast of characters. The genre would be immediately recognizable to any outsider, but the faces would be unfamiliar.
I championed these bands in my youth, distanced myself from them in young adulthood, and then rediscovered them after a hiatus from listening to them. Somewhere in between, I bought all of Nirvana’s albums and let my obsession with them come to full fruition. This is where you come in, Mr. True.
I want to tell you about a few of these bands, and here is how I want to frame this experience for you: You must first jettison from your mind any preconceived notions you might already have about so-called “Christian music,” and be open to listening to these songs as stand-alone artifacts from a sub-culture that should be taken on its own terms. Yes, Beavis and Butthead would have been inclined to deconstruct this music with a series of burps and farts sounding something like Morse code. That is, it is easy to ridicule Christian music. But it may be far more interesting to listen to it for the sake of listening to something you have never heard before. I would urge you to discover these songs as you might discover arrowheads in the soil in your own backyard. Consider them cultural artifacts.
If nothing else, consider these songs curiosities to behold. You may dismiss them outright, or you may find them to be interesting enough on their own merit. Either way, this letter and these songs constitute a thank you. My gratitude may be the grating kind, but I hope you will at least appreciate the spirit in which the gift is given.
In case you are wondering who I am, I am a 33-year-old resident of Lawrence, KS who works a day job, but spends his free time as a husband and father who also happens to write. My literary agent is based in Seattle, of all places, although I have no other connections with the grunge capital of the world. In the book my agent is currently shopping to major publishing houses – a memoir titled The Stained-Glass Kaleidoscope: Essays at Play in the Churchyard of the Mind – I write about how I was obsessed with Nirvana during my teenage years, but could not listen to the band’s songs in good conscience. I mean, there was a baby penis on the cover of Nevermind. (I honestly was not horrified by this, but others were.) As I write in the book, “penises have never flown too well in Christian circles.” It’s true. To this day, I still have yet to see a flying penis at church, and I doubt I ever will.
If you are interested in reading my book or merely my chapter on Nirvana, let me know. I will send it your way.
To those of you who are not Everett True but are reading this nonetheless, please buy Mr. True’s book. It’s 600+ pages of goodness about his involvement with Nirvana in the ’90s. Mr. True does a superb job of providing context for the reader’s understanding of the music scenes that were developing in both Olympia and Seattle in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The result is a personal work that is chock full of details and remembrances, providing an intimate in-depth account of what happened behind the Flannel Curtain in Seattle and beyond.
Without further ado, here are a few songs from the alternate dimension I inhabited in the ’90s.
1. Starflyer 59 “A Housewife Love Song” (from the Gold LP, Tooth and Nail Records)
Starflyer 59 (known to its fans as SF59) began as a shoegazer outfit – the first of its kind in Christian indie-music history, or “Chrindie” history, as author Joel Heng Hartse puts it in his book Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll.
This particular song is from the band’s second outing, Gold, in which SF59 frontman Jason Martin decides to marry his syrupy shoegazer music to the sludgy stylings of Black Sabbath. The flat snare drums are an intentional homage to the ’70s, and guitars hang black and billowy overhead, like smoke in a house on fire. The result? A dreamy dirge, and an ode to domesticity.
Everett, notice the words “Ever True” on the dishcloth near the beginning of this video. Loving tribute or mere coincidence?
2. L. S. U. (Lifesavers Underground) “Ellis in the Orchard” (from the Grape Prophet LP, Blonde Vinyl Records)
This is the opening song from L. S. U.’s rock opera The Grape Prophet (which is not the album cover featured to the left).
Really, Everett, you should go to the band’s Bandcamp page and download this record in its entirety. Naysayers will make Jane’s Addiction comparisons, and they will not be wrong. But there is so much more to frontman Michael Knott and this record, which is as combustible and bizarre as any truly remarkable alternative record from the ’90s.
Knott’s first band Lifesavers wrote friendly enough radio fare for the Christian market, but he always saved his darkest ruminations for his alter-ego, Lifesavers Underground. The band’s debut, Shaded Pain, remains a classic in Christian music history. Of course, it caused Christian DJ’s to double over in pain, as this album is Bauhaus black in tone. Rolling Stone‘s J. Edward Keyes gives it 4.5 stars in his All Music Guide review, and he awards The Grape Prophet the same score. Rightly so, in my estimation.
I could tell you about Michael Knott’s other 40 albums, or about Blonde Vinyl, the record label he fronted, which crashed to the ground like a musical Hindenburg, leaving Knott over $100,000 in debt in an industry where artists never go gold, let alone aluminum. I could tell you about Knott’s band The Aunt Bettys, who signed to Elektra’s EastWest division with Seymour Stein’s personal endorsement in 1996, but who were dismissed when Stein left the label. I could tell you about Knott’s paintings, or the time he played a show at the church my dad pastors in Rolla, Missouri.
But instead, I will simply urge you to listen to the song below. There is no official video. Even if there was one, would MTV have played it? Probably not. On a related note, Synconation provides an excellent overview of The Grape Prophet here, classifying it as one of “The Best Albums You’ve Never Heard.”
3. Poor Old Lu “My World Falls Down” (from the Sin LP, Alarma Records)
You mention John Goodmanson in your book, and if you look at his recording résumé, you will see this band’s Sin album as his 20th credit. It is a gem from beginning to end, albeit a rough, unpolished one. Scott Hunter’s asthmatic rasp remains one of the most unique voices I have heard in rock ‘n’ roll to this day.
You will note that this is the first of the three songs I have shown you that actually mentions God by name. These bands were not trying to sell Jesus. They were not out to pad Pat Robertson’s bank accounts with bills bearing Benjamin Franklin’s face and flowing hair (even though we Christians like to imagine Jesus with flowing hair). These songwriters were making meaning out of their experiences as human beings, and singing about them just as any other artist does. Their messages, whether cloaked in allegorical garb like L. S. U.’s Grape Prophet, or expressed more explicitly in this case, are religious only because the band members found hope and meaning in the person of Jesus Christ. It is what these songwriters meant to convey that matters to me, which is why it is important to listen to these songs with biases checked at the door.
4. The Prayer Chain “Grylliade” (from the Mercury LP, Rode Dog/Reunion Records)
Here’s where I put all my cards on the table: When I was 16, the Prayer Chain was my favorite band in the world, period. I wore the band’s T-shirts to school and sported the band’s Neverland Sessions LP sticker on my trumpet case in band (Yes, another reason why I was a nerd in high school). People inevitably asked me who the band was, and I had to out myself as a Christian, a Christian music junkie, and … well, basically, a complete and total weirdo.
I used to write the band on a regular basis, and eventually the band’s bassist Eric Campuzano wrote me back. He sent me a handwritten letter, guitar picks (I had the audacity to ask for them), a copy of the band’s then out-of-print independent debut, and the aforementioned sticker. I have no idea how I did not soil my pants the day I received that package in the mail, Everett.
It was the songs that slew me, Everett. It was the way the band blended tribal elements with more traditional rock elements, and made a sound that was both earthy and spiritual all at once. It was, for me, an ode to the human being as a creation of God. An acknowledgment of our physical mortality and our spiritual immortality, all summarized in a song.
The song below is from the band’s final record, Mercury. It is a bitter pill to swallow because it is essentially a document of the band turning on itself – a record of one band member drawing blood from another. There is an undeniable darkness about the Psalms in the Bible, and the members of the Prayer Chain knew that, and were not afraid to acknowledge the darker elements of their humanity in songs.
The story of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is well known, but the story of Mercury is not. When the band pitched Mercury to the higher-ups at their record label, the suits were mortified. The band was essentially forced to return to the studio and make a record that would not send tears of terror streaming down the faces of Christian record buyers everywhere. The record as it was originally intended to be heard can be purchased at Bandcamp for a cool $5.99. As with The Grape Prophet, Rolling Stone’s J. Edward Keyes awards Mercury 4.5 out of 5 stars in his All Music Guide review, stating simply, “The record feels like a horror film.”
5. Scaterd Few “Kill the Sarx” (from the Sin Disease LP, Alarma Records)
In a just universe, this record would be a punk rock classic. Scaterd Few toured with Bad Brains, and rightly so. The punk-metal-reggae connection is there. But this record is not a Bad Brains ripoff. It is, however, a dizzying record that threatens to liquefy the brain like Lye soap when introduced through the ear canal.
I am going to quote J. Edward Keyes again. I am quoting him for a reason, in fact. He used to write Christian music reviews because he used to be a Christian. He is an atheist now, but even as someone who no longer believes, he recognizes that there were bombproof records even in the Christian industry. Keyes is a world-class writer, a music fanatic, and someone whose opinion I respect 100% when it comes to music.
Sin Disease gets a 4.5 star review in his All Music Guide write-up. His description? “Merciless, brutal, neurotic, Tourettic, and consistently stunning, Scaterd Few‘s debut didn’t push the boundaries of rock – it annihilated them.” I could not agree more.
Everett, I hope you’ve heard something new today. I hope I’ve shown you something, just as you showed me wonders heretofore untold in your illuminating Nirvana biography. The world needs more people who are as rabid about music as you are, and I thank you again for your contributions to the field of music journalism. You remain The Legend!
Chad Thomas Johnston