Bad Religion

With a violent faith in the power of song, Mike Gunther confronts his own demons

There's a famous story of two cousins who rose to fame on different stages. Jimmy thundered and wept about salvation, while Jerry Lee roared about the raptures of lust. Neither man appeared to realize that they were both singing about the same thing.

You can hear Swaggart and Lewis grappling with each other as mutated apparitions in the dark musings, confessions, and parables of Mike Gunther. His debut album, Every Dream That's Dropped and Died (Heart of a Champion) brings sinners and saints together in the church of the cabaret. It's a roadhouse cathedral in which Kurt Weill and Tom Waits are right at home: The piano tinklings swirl around them, lit up by images of switchblades, murder, and gin swigged from spent shotgun shells. Jerry Lee's comfy, too, listening to Gunther's fractured tales of passions run amok, while cousin Jimmy hides in a corner, jerking in rhythm with the sharply vocalized names of Old Testament characters. A prostitute who looks just like his sainted mommy makes his naughty parts tingle.

It's not hard to picture that exact scene unfolding every time Gunther performs. At a recent Turf Club show, he stands onstage looking like a young Vincent Price in a cheap undertaker's suit while bandmate Dave Meier plucks out an undertow of bass on an upright. Suzanne Scholten lifts thick, rusted chains only to slam them down on a 50-gallon DX Oil drum, propelling the murder-blues, tent-revival number "Have Mercy." Heads in the audience turn from conversations toward the stage as Gunther's opening snarl erupts into a shouted preacher's revelation that he's "got a bad religion and a .45/The shell of my soul, all covered in flies/It's in the base of my brain, in the dark of my eyes." When Gunther adds invocations in Latin of the body of Christ, coupled with shreds of electric blues guitar, he forms what could be the soundtrack to a B-movie noir film directed by Salvador Dali.

For some, the next step beyond the Dali-Christ blues would be the rock 'n' roll kitsch of artists like the Cramps, Mojo Nixon, or Demolition Doll Rods. Gunther could wear a pope's helmet and bare his ass if he wanted to ensure bookings. But that would mean leaving his extravagant interior world behind. At the 7th St. Entry, Gunther stands quietly backstage, watching shock-rock bluesman Bob Log sing about boobs while dressed in a blue-sequined jumpsuit and a motorcycle helmet with a microphone melted into it. Asked whether he'd consider similar antics as a means of securing gigs, the pale Minnesota native goes even paler. He'd give up his career before adding a flaming skull or sparkly mascara to his performances. "I don't think of what I'm doing as a put-on or a shtick," Gunther notes softly. "I can do things onstage that I always wanted to do [offstage]. It's cathartic."

Listening to Every Dream That's Dropped and Died can be the same sort of cleansing experience: As Gunther looks toward infinity, delivering a fragmented report of when he's seen (as he does in lovelorn ballads like "Eight Bridges on the Allegheny" and country-tinged folk songs like "Hard Hearted"), the album lets you live through his fears and hopes without having to face the existentialist abyss yourself. As he sings in the bare-boned incantation "Redemption #4," Every Dream is an "autopsy memory, a photographic response to all that we have come to hold dear, just, and true."

Gunther doesn't invoke the names of Christ, Abraham, and Sarah in his music for ironic effect or to summon the cliché rock dualism of good and evil: He's trying to stake out a cultural common ground between him and his audience, a place from which everyone can observe the madness of modern life. Some of that madness--the everyday violence and alcohol abuse that litters his music--was imparted to Gunther by a group of homeless Vietnam vets whom he met while attending the University of Minnesota a few years ago. Rather than hanging with his fellow history students, he chose to sit around the campfires near the empty semi-truck trailers that Whiskey John, Ron, Rocky, Carone, and Carone's dog, Dancer, occupied in Dinkytown.

"I heard a lot of stories from 'em and watched 'em use a lot of really powerful drugs," he remembers. Whiskey John would admonish the young student to stay away from the substances he gathered by raiding dumpsters behind clinics in south Minneapolis. "Don't watch me, Michael!" Gunther booms in the hobo's voice as he recalls seeing him shoot up. "I don't want you to know how to do this."

His voice changes again as he recounts a story of how Ron, claiming to be an angel who had rejected heaven, once tried to heal Gunther's lazy eye. "He put his hands all over my face and he was shaking," Gunther recounts. "Heal!" he shouts in Ron's intonation.

You can hear that same voice in Gunther's music sometimes. It's as if the old cherub were right there, laying hands on him once again.

 
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