Jesus Sound Explosion
Mark Curtis Anderson
(University of Georgia Press)
On the one hand, there's Jesus; on the other, Led Zeppelin. Jesus Sound Explosion, Mark Curtis Anderson's memoir of growing up Christian in the 70s, is about a life spent bouncing between the two like a pinball. The certainties of the Baptist four spiritual laws versus the rich ambiguities of Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town, singing in church choir and then drumming in a garage band at a college that prohibits dancing--these are snapshots from Anderson's life as the rock-loving son of a Baptist preacher.
These days Anderson teaches writing at the University of Minnesota and drums in a country-gospel-punk band at the nontraditional House of Mercy Church, voted "Best Church for the Nonchurchgoing" by the Twin Cities weekly City Pages. Before that he spent about 15 years as a clerk at the Electric Fetus record store in Minneapolis. It's not an elaborate resume, and Jesus Sound Explosion is a remarkably down-to-earth, unpretentious read. But it's far from artless. Anderson's generous sensibility melds barbs of anger with genuine affection for those he grew up with in the faith. His ability to gently poke fun at himself as well as those around him is highly engaging, and his takes on both rock and Christianity are refreshingly skeptical, calling into question what's meant by a "rock 'n' roll lifestyle" and showing how that lifestyle can be not much more than a cliche.
In 1976 Anderson and his friends can head down to the mall and pick up a "Concert Kit," a plastic rectangle containing a pipe, screens, rolling papers, and a roach clip. A mass-produced interpretation of 60s counterculture, the kit was, in Anderson's words, marketed, "along with corporate Album-Oriented-Radio, for The Burnout, a ready-to-smoke self that could be donned like a favorite concert T-shirt." And shrugged off just as easily: the minister's son makes his way among good-natured evening and weekend burnouts who like to party but still try to get Bs on their report cards. But the strictness of Anderson's upbringing renders sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll much more serious than they are for his peers. His beer blasts and smoke-out excursions are axiomatically more grave than the peccadilloes of his nonevangelical friends because of the heavy load of guilt they engender.
In contrast to the packaged rebellion of the Concert Kit, when Anderson's college band sparks a truly radical dance revolt on the campus of Bethel College, the lead singer is a short-haired, teetotaling nonsmoker who wears creased double knit slacks. No one at the evangelical school in the early 80s is trying to outcool anyone else, and if the administration had its way they'd be trying to one-up each other with Bible quotations rather than the latest punk or new wave single. In a world where rock 'n' roll is forbidden, unless it has some kind of Christian content, it doesn't much matter what you wear or how long your hair is. Credibility is instant, derived from playing old 50s and 60s hits by then almost completely innocuous in the context of mainstream American culture. Yet even in this mirror-image world a rebellious identity can be easily hung in the back of the closet, never to be taken out and dusted off again. Singer and bandleader Steve quits the band his senior year in favor of a coed gospel quartet.
For some reason, though, the rebel self so easily shrugged off and on by his friends doesn't come and go as easily for Anderson. He takes the promise of rock rebellion seriously--as seriously as at one time he took the subtleties of belief in Jesus Christ. Jesus Sound Explosion takes its title from a 1972 Christian music festival and subsequent live album that tried to harness the energy and appeal of the counterculture for godly ends. Products of what was then known as the Jesus Movement, both festival and album were efforts to address the tension inherent in what Anderson describes as "being in the world but not of it." Time and again Anderson returns to this phrase as key to how he was taught to live as a Christian. It's a perspective that seems guaranteed to cause emotional whiplash.
But beyond that there's the simple yet agonizing question of which way his gut takes him. Between Jesus and the bard of Asbury Park, who is the more worldly, who the truly transcendent? Anderson's book isn't so much the story of one man's loss of faith, although he uses that language, as it is a conversion narrative. While once the author wanted nothing more than to be one of the happy crowd of Jesus freaks on the JSE album cover, grooving to the words of the Reverend Billy Graham, by the book's end, set in the late 90s, it's the music of John Coltrane and drummer Elvin Jones that opens a pathway out of depression for him.
Part of the problem is that the language of Jesus, at least the version the teenage Anderson is immersed in, is worldly to the point of prosaism, at times even laughably banal. A youth pastor admonishes his charges to "go ahead and laugh about it--God has a sense of humor too" and notes that "when God says jump, all we can ask is 'how high, Lord?'" A relationship with Jesus Christ is, a still-evangelical friend advises the adult Anderson, "a very simple thing." But by that point, in the mid-90s, Anderson isn't looking for a God that's simple or friendly. "If I'm ever going to have a relationship with God," he writes, "I want it to be the opposite: complex, mysterious, and confounding."
That's what music is for him: the energizing backbeats and polyrhythms of popular music are what induce a quasimystical state. Alone at the LA Forum in 1978, watching as hands lift Springsteen into the crowd, he has an epiphany. "That's the one time I saw arena-rock's best promise kept," he writes. "The shared loneliness of thousands became one giant cathartic communal loneliness. We hoisted it on our shoulders and celebrated it."
Paradoxically, it's in church that the seeds of Anderson's conversion are first sown, during the drum solo delivered as testimony by one of the members of his father's Saint Paul congregation. That's right, a testimony to Jesus in the form of a drum solo, given by a former lost soul brought into the fold through a position with the church's contemporary pop-rock choir and band, a kind of midwestern, Baptist Up With People. There's a strange kind of symmetry at work here: the power of rock rhythms saves one soul, according to the church's tenets, while it sets another's faith on a long, unraveling journey. The adult Anderson loves Al Green and takes his mom and dad, then the executive minister of the Minnesota Baptist Conference, to see a documentary about the reverend and soul singer. He's trying to bridge the gap between himself and his parents, but while he wants to convert them to his music (his words), they see his love of Green's music as a chance to bring their son back to Christ.
Jesus Sound Explosion is humorous and for an outsider revelatory in its descriptions of the sometimes tortured, sometimes almost seamless relations between the evangelical subculture and the broader American scene. Anderson's mother is embarrassed when her son first asks her about the Beatles: to her, the Fab Four are bad men who think they're better (not just more popular) than Jesus. Later his Baptist friend Pete reports shocking news about Satanist rockers: "Who the Eagles really were came as a shock to everyone at the meeting. They expected Black Sabbath...but the Eagles?" When Pete burns the first five Eagles albums in a backyard, the boys are disappointed that demons don't fly out of the smoke.
Nolan McCormack (a pseudonym) is a Harley-riding, mirror-shaded, charismatic evangelical minister whose jean jacket bears the legend "My God Isn't Dead--Sorry About Yours." The southern California surfer-dude friends of Anderson's later adolescence are dedicated to Camel, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and the joys of fellowship in Christ. Anderson loses his virginity at a Baptist youth camp and he loses his faith, for the most part, in church or similar environs. As the memoir progresses in time, the evangelical and larger cultures start to blend: Reagan is sympathetic and the Moral Majority looks like a force to be reckoned with. But Anderson is moving slowly and steadily in the opposite direction. Something in the music of Patti Smith and the Replacements, as much as his parents' relatively liberal attitudes and his brother's newly discovered left-wing social activist Christianity, pushes Anderson away from what he grew up with and what his friends still believe. He questions the contradictions he begins to find in Christianity as he's living it. Ultimately, he abandons the faith--although not the community of the faithful he's grown up with.
After all, is it even possible to be in the world but not of it? Anderson's Sunday school teacher lets slip that "it's good to be alive." He discerns that same message in the MOR of Elton John, the hard rock of Led Zep and Aerosmith, the postpunk of Husker Du and Soul Asylum, the jazz of Coltrane. Because of, not despite, his background, pop music was and is a secret revelation, an alternative gospel. His self-mocking tendency, his penchant for indulging in and then puncturing his own rhetorical flights of fancy, are probably part of what made him a misfit in the world of the faithful, but they're good qualities in a writer.
As an adult he's more openly able to bring his worlds together. His dad's old church is still a home of sorts, but not as much as the Electric Fetus. In the midst of a fractured and polarized culture, Anderson has worked hard in his own life to reconcile the tensions between rock and Jesus, as much as it's possible to do so. His book is a deeply moving testament of faith--but in music, family, and friends, not in Christ.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Patricia Savanick.