Spiritual Warfare

Just now, I watched a youtube video linked from a front-page Reddit post entitled “Monster Energy drinks are the work of Satan.”  I expected it to be a video explaining the perils of diets comprised of synthetic preservatives and sugars, for instance, but the video actually featured an apparently midwestern white lady explaining the semiotics of the Monster energy drink branding and its mockery and disparagement of the Christian God.

I hopped down into the comments to feel the satisfaction of knowing I’m on the same side as the Internet’s peanut galleries, and I almost immediately came across a comment that sent triggers up my spine:

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Although I grew up in a reasonably churchy household–and although our church was both protestant and even included “Evangelical” in its title(!), I was only rarely exposed to fire and brimstone in my own churchgoing experience.  Indeed, the only memories I really have of hearing threats of hell and damnation from people in my church as a child were typically other kids trying to scare each other or adults trying to enforce discipline.  Apart from those sorts of incidents, the most off-putting teaching I can really remember learning from my own church was that dogs don’t go to heaven because they don’t have souls.  Frankly, I think the pastor was talking out of turn by being so presumptuous, but maybe he learned soul-detection in seminary and is just not at liberty to disclose practices and methods.  But I digress.

What I’m getting at here is that, while I grew up in a house where church and Sunday School attendance were both compulsory on a weekly basis, the point of church seemed to be about being part of a community rather than top-down moral authority.  In fact, I reflect on the church of my childhood as not even having a particularly in-group focus:  there was no special process for receiving communion for visitors, and I recall pretty much every event having some focus on expanding and developing the community.  Obviously, this agenda isn’t all smiles and rainbows, as it’s precisely what fuels missionary work, but it’s important to thoroughly contextualize my own religious upbringing; when I was a boy, prior to the death of my father, I sincerely wanted to be a good Christian.  I can remember reading Proverbs in bed one Saturday night, yearning to be more insightful and/or righteous and/or decent and/or whatever else I was supposed to derive from solemnly poring over so-called ancient wisdom.  I did this, not to escape any pain or to find salvation so much as because I’d been raised to admire and respect my elders, who appeared to understand life and who showed up weekly to …sing about it and drink coffee, I guess.

All this brings us to 1992.

And actually, I bet that Saturday night I spent reading Proverbs was also 1992…  Maybe that was around the time that I had discovered I really liked NWA.  My Muslim friend had made me a tape of I-forget-what, but Side B of this tape contained about half of Niggaz4Life, which quickly became a favorite lawn-mowing cassette of mine.  And if I can guess about my mental state at the time, I probably felt conflicted about liking such vulgar music (don’t matter just don’t bite it) while also feeling a commitment to Jesus, his teachings, and the general level of decorum and respectability I saw in the church community–these were people putting on their Sunday best and getting together to pay homage to their creator and to sing and laugh and dote on their associates’ babies; it was a million miles–no, a hundred miles and runnin’–away from the world NWA described.

NWA, of course, wasn’t the first rap group I’d heard or liked.  I think maybe I started getting steered towards rap in summer camp between 3rd and 4th grade, when I first heard Milli Vanilli.  Sigh.  My first “real” rap tape, though, came around Christmastime in 1989; my dad took my brother and me to the music/bookstore, and I picked up a calligraphy book and Young MC’s “Stone Cold Rhymin'” album.  It was great.  Then, in the spring of fourth grade, I was elated to pick up a copy of MC Hammer’s “Please Hammer Don’t Hurt Em.”  These two tapes quickly became my long-distance running soundtracks, as I trained to set the record for most laps completed annually in my local elementary school’s once-every-other-week running program.  Oh shit, I’m getting way off-course.

So Summer 1992.  Here we are:  it’s the summer before I start junior high, which entails all kinds of social changes both in school and in church.  First of all, the junior high has “socials,” which are school dances outside of school hours.  Secondly, many church youth groups begin the process of “confirmation” around the same age (and, at my childhood church at least, also had after-hours dances).  In preparation for all this, I would be going away for a week to a Lutheran camp with the rest of my church youth group.  In addition to this, because I had a good friend who was Episcopalian and who spoke highly of his own church camp, I would first be going away for a week with his church youth group.  For me, this was (I think) the first week away from home since 1989, when I spent a week at Spanish camp, and I was pretty excited about it.

When my friend and I finally got unloaded at his camp, I was feeling enthusiastic but also felt a little stressed at first, since I didn’t know all of the prayers and songs that his people knew by heart; I remember reading from the song book while most everyone else expressively sang along to these songs they already knew.  Still, the camp experience was fun, and I would even go so far as to say it seemed a little more adult than my own church youth group and camp experiences.  For instance, they watched Jaws as a group, whereas at my church camps, pop culture seemed to be eschewed.  Also, I remember our camp counselor at my friend’s camp leading us to a girls’ cabin for us to serenade them, though he rejected “You’ve lost that loving feeling” in favor of something more benign and circumstance-appropriate.  Maybe this is just a bias of my perspective, but my feeling at the time and in recollection was that my friend’s church camp treated us early adolescents more as adults or at least beings of flesh and desire.  I found this conflicting at the time, because I simultaneously felt his church culture seemed to involve many more formalities than the one to which I was accustomed.

Once again, I’m just trying to establish context, because where his church’s camp diverged from my own religious experience, that shit got real fast.

A few nights into my experience at his camp, I first heard the term, “Spiritual warfare.”  The preacher who was running the camp, who dubbed himself, “Father Dog”–and who generally seemed like a fun guy, explained that at every moment of every day, God and Satan were fighting for our souls.  I remember feeling terrified by this (and also curious about how I might witness or experience this condition).  Father Dog had a right-hand man called Tim, if I recall correctly, and Tim was the life of the party–a very fun guy who would wear silly hats and sing in silly voices and generally loosen up the campers, making people feel comfortable away from home.  Mostly.  There was a Muslim kid at the camp who had come with a friend, and I remember Tim giving him the third degree, wondering aloud why he’d even come to the camp given that he was a nonbeliever.  I remember wondering if I’d attract similar treatment for being Lutheran rather than Episcopalian, but (SURPRISE!) it never became an issue.

The camp continued to be fun for the rest of the week, but I remember a sense of momentum leading towards something.  On one of the later days of camp, we played a massive game of capture the flag on the sprawling camp grounds, which was great, but I remember finding it odd that some of the camp counselors had donned army face paint in order to blend in with the dark.  On another afternoon (maybe the same afternoon?), we had a massive shaving cream fight called “Bedlam,” a term I had to look up upon returning from camp.  The shaving cream and/or water balloon fight seems like a staple of church youth group activities, but I remember a greater sense of ritual than I’d ever experienced before.  Again, it felt like we were moving somewhere–towards something.

It must’ve been on the last night of camp that we were finally taken on the night hike.  They led us into the woods after dusk, and if I recall correctly, we were in groups holding on to ropes so that we could be led without seeing (poetry).  Early into our hike, one of the camp counselors who had been wearing army face paint during our game of capture the flag jumped out of a tree to startle us.  We continued forward into the woods.

During the last few days at camp, different people had been talking about rumors of “Pierre,” who ….did something with a chainsaw or something.  I forget the story, but I remember that gossip about “Pierre” had just emerged out of nowhere and suddenly had the talk of the campers, who were very interested in the details of his story and whether or not his ghost still lived in a cabin in the woods at the camp.

We continued hiking into the woods, and as we came upon a rotten, flimsy cabin in the woods, Tim and Father Dog were there.  Tim first told us the story of old Pierre and whatever he did with the chainsaw or axe or whatever and whatever happened with his ghost.  The story may or may not have ended with him or someone else making scary noises; I don’t recall.

Then it was Father Dog’s turn.

Father Dog proceeded to tell us the story of how he got his moniker.  You see, Father Dog had been traveling with his family when he was a young boy, when they encountered a bad storm while in an airplane.  If I recall correctly, it was a snow storm of some kind, and he wound up being tossed from the plane when a door opened mid-flight.  He fell to the ground, survived, and was cared for by a pack of wolves until authorities were able to find him several/many days later.

Even as I type this out, twenty-two years later, I can’t quite bring myself to call the story fake.  After all, within 13 months of hearing that story, I was in a plane crash, myself, and I freed myself from the wreckage to go find help; strange and unexpected things do happen, no doubt about it.  However, as I recall the totality of that camp experience — as I recall hearing this shit about spiritual warfare, it’s hard for me to accept this story on its face, simply because it appears to have been part of a regime for scaring people into faith (irony alert).  From the easygoing check-in through the late night ghost / survival stories, the camp experience seems to have fit a narrative of escalation–specifically an escalation of intensity and anxiety.  Much like the woman fearing the devil in Monster energy drink tries to do, these camp clerics seemed to manipulate us juvenile campers with their conviction and interpretations.

And so, after decades of contemplation, the best sense I’ve been able to make of anything is that when people roll up and start telling you how it is in your soul and how invisible symbols mean something sinister and this sort of thing–when people try to diminish your spirit with their wide-eyed warnings and judgments… *That* is spiritual warfare.

Reinterpreting Axl Rose

Shortly after the death of my father, my remaining family returned home to Texas (dad died on vacation). I remember sitting at a card table in my bedroom writing in a notebook I had been using as a sketch pad during our travels. When I got it back, it had dirt and dried blood on it; some of our personal belongings were not returned on account of having been too bloodied, but this notebook made it back to me.

Now, back home, I was using this journal for writing rather than drawing. Nobody had counseled me to do anything in particular, but I unilaterally decided that perhaps it would be helpful to express my thoughts and feelings. I had cried at the time of the accident and when I first got confirmation that my dad was DOA, but I couldn’t seem to cry after that. I knew I was deeply troubled by what had happened and that I was really going to miss my dear father, but I’m a pretty intellectual person and wanted to find some sort of understanding or something. I don’t know. Still, today, 20+ years later, I still don’t know.

In any case, I took out my notebook one night to write about all the things I hated. I remember very clearly writing out line after line of “I hate that dad’s gone” and ….actually, I don’t know what else I hated on that list. In my memory it was basically that central reality and then a litany of its side effects. Honestly, my dad died in the summer, and I hadn’t had to accept any of the social consequences at the time.

It was a hot summer night, but my mother was still unable to walk at the time so the a/c upstairs was providing a comfortable 65F. Around the time I began page 2 of I-hates, my cousin appeared in my doorway. Following my dad’s death, several of each of their siblings had come to Texas to help take care of my mom and my brother and me–which, of course, was a very considerate thing for them to do. My cousin asked what I was doing, and I don’t remember answering. Or maybe I said “Nothing” or something like that. I mean, I was thirteen and she was eleven; it’s not like I was going to say, “I’m trying to reconcile my emotional pain and anxiety in light of my entire life and belief system being proven false overnight.” She laughed and disappeared into another part of the house.

That was twenty-one years ago–just about two years after “Use Your Illusion” came out, if you want to measure this in GnR terms (since I mentioned Axl in the title and all). I remember this interaction with my cousin–well, “interaction” may be too strong; I remember feeling just like nothing mattered, nothing was good. I remember writing out the list of things that made me feel rotten and almost feeling satisfaction in the act of being able to compile such a list.

In looking back on my personal emotional development, that night stands out to me because it was one of my earliest memories of what I will call righteous unreachability. Before my dad died, for me to be despondent or to feel like I unfairly bore existential and emotional weight would have inappropriate or even bratty. Suddenly, though, I had a pass! Sure, it was a pass I didn’t really want because it was like getting a bonus of solitude as a prize for feeling loss, but I found that I didn’t need to interact with anybody else anymore; I could take my discman everywhere.

For the next few years, I openly disbelieved the religion I had been raised in but continued participating in the youth group and attending church in order to avoid being grounded by my mother. I would take my discman and my CDs. Since my dad and sound judgment had departed, I was able to sign up for BMG music service and was able to continue developing and refining my musical tastes. I had collected all the spare change I could find and bought Radiohead “Pablo Honey” used for $8.90 at CD Exchange only a few months after it’s release. When our plane crashed, I had Anthrax’s “The Sound of White Noise” album in my discman.

Moments before having a reason to scowl.

Moments before having a reason to scowl.

With my dad dead, I had no more de facto role model, and I was not happy about it. Nevermind the practical aspects of no longer having a breadwinner in a household where I’d basically only ever known comfort and stability, I was in Junior High! Back at school, I had kids being fucking pricks to me; I recall an incident in particular where a kid said I was jealous because his parents could afford to buy him Air Jordan shoes and that my parents could not. He added, “Sorry, I mean parent.” This is the only memory I have of attacking someone physically, though honestly I didn’t attack fast enough–the whole thing caught me off-guard; took me a minute to figure out he had insulted the death of my father.

I found myself and my refuge forever deeper into music. When I would find myself participating in some compulsory social event: church youth group trips or cross country meets, I would spend hours and hours sitting by myself with headphones on, feeling sorry for myself and sad about my self-imposed alienation. With an avid interest in music and, correspondingly, song lyrics, I found myriad examples of emotionally damaged characters who felt and sought isolation, plenty of role models–ersatz role models–who “dedicated themselves to their art” in order to find peace of mind in life.

And then, a few months later, one of my favorite musicians at the time, Kurt Cobain, killed himself. Only this year, 20 years later, did I finally listen to Nirvana again; when Kurt died, I stopped liking Nirvana.

Fast forward a few years, and I had put together a little collection of reclusive and anti-establishment role models: Frank Zappa, Jello Biafra, Roger Waters / Syd Barrett, and Miles Davis had all impacted me both musically and with their personal stories and beliefs.

I remember being alone in Chicago during my senior year of high school, visiting a university I was thinking of attending there. It took a scandal and a fiasco for me to get to Chicago, and I had very little money. I walked around semi-aimlessly to pass the time and eventually wound up at a bookstore, where I bought a copy of Miles Davis’s autobiography, which I read over my next few days in Chicago. Reading about such a talented person winding up isolated and alienated helped me in two ways: it helped me use my own sense of alienation as proof of my own special plight and it helped me justify a certain ambivalence about having a “good” life, figuring that every silver lining comes with a grey cloud.

Years have gone by–about twenty, like I mentioned. I still haven’t become the influential musician I once aspired to be; shoot, I am not even a Howard Hughes-type of broken industrialist [and plane crash survivor] (which was definitely second or third place to being a disillusioned ex-rocker). However, I believe I’ve more or less fulfilled the recluse component, in part through my own deliberate effort and in part for reasons that appear to be beyond my [direct] control.

And here’s where we finally get to Axl Rose.

For a few weeks, I have been listening to Guns N Roses. I have decided that the second half of Sweet Child O’Mine is fucking awesome and possibly one of the best series of transitions in all of rock music. I have further decided that I have a reason for a bucket list now: I want to sing “Night Train” like Axl Rose circa 1988 – 1992, which will require me to continue to repair my back and neck, as I feel my vertebrae (the ones that cause me pain) move when I engage the muscles that get me up towards that Axl Rose high-pitched growl.

It’s been funny listening to Guns N Roses after all these years; I have a few tracks of theirs that will end up on my “Fun to Sing”-type playlists, but I don’t typically listen to them or prefer their particular cock rock aesthetic. In fact, by the time I heard Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Nine Inch Nails in 1991 and 1992, I was pretty over 80s rock. Plus, my high school used “Welcome to the Jungle” as the theme song for the football team so I associate that track with morons and could go the rest of my life without ever hearing it and not miss it.

As I listen to them and really get to know the albums as albums, I had to ask, “What ever happened to Axl Rose, anyway?” And of course this has been fairly well documented online. Honestly, my memory of him from my younger days, back when he was famous for a reason, was that he was an arrogant rich asshole rock star who probably beat up his girlfriends. I didn’t have to update that memory much, content-wise, but now that I’m older and more appreciative of the complexities associated with being a human, I still wanted to know more, despite thinking he’d probably not be a guy I’d want my daughter dating.

It actually may’ve started with an rdio critic’s review that sent me off to the wikipedia mines… I read about how after the Use Your Illusion tour in the early/mid-90s, the band was coming apart and Axl had basically assumed the name to use on his own going forward. I remember being hearing that so-called Guns n Roses doing “Hair of the Dog” on Z-Rock and being like “WTF?” Anyway, I watched some videos, saw some interviews, read some rolling stone articles, and I sang along. Boy did I sing along. I LOVE singing along–and I’ve got a ways to go until I can do a decent Axl Rose.

Eventually I wound up deciding to give “Chinese Democracy” a shot; I had heard the title track a few years ago and never wanted to hear more–it seemed like it would only ruin the memory of the original GnR for me, even though the original GnR was not something I held sacred in anyway–it’s not like Dead Kennedys, where I wouldn’t go see them, both out of respect for Jello Biafra and also because I don’t enjoy watching washed up rockers trying to recapture a time and place. With “Chinese Democracy,” I just didn’t care enough to even listen back a few years ago. After weeks of listening to Guns N Roses, though–and really expanding my GnfnR horizons and appreciation, I went for it.

I found myself liking the album OK the second time I listened, during which time I also noticed the album’s Critic’s Review on Rdio. The critic described the circumstances for the construction of the album: a full roster of talent and a multi-million dollar budget, spanning more than a decade of production. The critic compared Axl Rose to Charles Foster Kane from Orson Welle’s still-brilliant “Citizen Kane.” This is the story of the recluse who retreated into isolation to construct a perfect mini-world that he could control entirely in order to right the wrongs of the external world. This is the story that has touched me since I was a boy who had just lost his father–the story of a man who takes care of himself but can’t quite put his finger on the thing that’s missing and so he suffers vainly in vain.

I sincerely feel for Axl Rose, both the real-life one and the one who exists in my mind’s interpretation mechanism and resonates with something inside my memory and experience and understanding mechanisms. In the Rdio Critic’s Review, the reviewer mentioned that Axl had been quoted as saying something along the lines of, “It’s just an album,” and he used that as a way to understand “Chinese Democracy”–that you if you’re looking for a mind-blowing, life-changing album, you will find yourself disappointed. Alternatively, if you approach it as “just an album,” it’s not bad. As I listen to it for the fourth time, while writing this, I concur; it’s not really “Appetite for Destruction” Guns n Roses, but it’s not completely dissimilar from parts of the Use Your Illusions. Once upon a time, Axl Rose was a hugely successful rock n roll singer, and then, years later, he’s setting expectations. Is it because he actually finally released the album?

It’s almost as if the symbol of the recluse has been ruined for me, in a way; sure, Axl finally put out the album, and it’s not musically terrible. However, it’s not evolved either. It sounds like Axl is still upset about the same shit as before, though I suppose he’s probably found some new reasons to believe what he believes. I don’t want to just be a critic and hate on the guy who’s already down and feeling persecuted, but I also don’t want to live a life devoid of sense of progress and reconciliation and satisfaction. In recent weeks–before starting to listen to Guns n Roses a bunch, even–I had been considering the possibility that maybe something permanently broke in me when my dad died, that maybe my disposition, as a curmudgeonly sort of person, is determined and that maybe I should just embrace hating everything, maybe I can make another list–an updated for adulthood edition. But as I reflect on Charlie Kane and Citizen Axl, I once again find myself feeling like I just gotta find some stories to believe other than the sad stories I already believe. On one hand, I recoil whenever I think this, maybe because I just don’t want to believe that I don’t have some core self that is insusceptible to reprogramming. And, anyway, Axl is right–it is just an album, right? That almost sounds like reprogramming, but if you can reprogram yourself to believe it’s just an album, maybe you can reprogram yourself to believe you can make another album with staying power that can blow minds and change lives?

Next up: What’s the point of blowing minds and changing lives?