Son of a Preacher Man

Mark Curtis Anderson's '70s memoir looks at what happened when white evangelicals first embraced the devil's music

You sense an anticipation of this hegemony in Anderson's story. After his family moves from St. Paul to an affluent suburb of Los Angeles in the 1970s, his remaining high school days are a zealous whirl of Christianity and progressive rock: "No guys got invited to Jon's Jacuzzi gatherings if they didn't profess a love for both Jesus and the band Yes."

Upon hearing that Bob Dylan ("The Voice of a Generation") was "now speaking for the Jesus Generation," the teenage Anderson imagined a guitar-fueled, born-again utopia--one big Wreck. To illustrate these hopes, Anderson quotes a '60s folk hymn my father (Peter R. Scholtes) wrote as a priest, before his own disillusionment with his church, "They'll Know We Are Christians by Our Love."

Then the bottom fell out--or maybe it had fallen out earlier and Anderson just hadn't noticed. Skipping around chronologically, the author approaches his loss of faith from many angles at once, a method of juxtaposition and suspense that feels almost musical. He was "left behind" somewhere between a more secular girlfriend who ran away from home, a depressed family member he couldn't help, and a new album by Bruce Springsteen--always a point of division with his surfer friends. Like all great records, it brought buried feelings into focus:

God gave rock 'n' roll to you: House of Mercy drummer and memoirist Mark Curtis Anderson
Richard Fleischman
God gave rock 'n' roll to you: House of Mercy drummer and memoirist Mark Curtis Anderson

As I listened to Darkness on the Edge of Town, I couldn't call this darkness "sin," I couldn't call the people who lived in the darkness "sinners" or "degenerates," and I couldn't positively say that they needed Jesus. I hadn't yet lost my desire to proselytize, but I knew that I didn't have the words to save these people, and they didn't need anything that I had to offer.

Saying the Boss defeated the cross in Anderson's mind would hopelessly simplify a story that the author leaves messy and open. Better to say Jesus Sound Explosion presents a life lived through two prisms, each altering the colors of the other until the light from one direction simply gave out.

The book's defining episode barely even counts as a climax. The "short-lived dance revolt that took place at Bethel College in May 1983" is described with apparent sadness. The incident took place at a school where dancing was actually banned, during a live concert where students began forgetting the rule (at least until a dean rushed out to remind them). Anderson takes pride in his small part, playing drums in the band onstage. But the brevity of the rebellion leaves a chill (Footloose it was not--students did as they were told), and the author emphasizes its pathos. It's as if the whole thing were part of a past that he's trying to chew up and spit out.

Without declaring or even knowing it, Anderson has given us the real "clash of civilizations" up close. He's taken sides in the battle between those who would hide us from the world and those who would join it. And though he avoids politics in his book, you can imagine him seeing this struggle as more "Rock the Casbah" than "Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue"--a series of small cultural shifts within each country, each church, each family. At a time when fundamentalism of every stripe is resurgent, Jesus Sound Explosion is an important book, which is why I'm glad it has been published internationally by the University of Georgia Press. Maybe it will even be carried at Northwestern Books.

As for Anderson, his fight is a quiet one. He treats the Electric Fetus record store as his own secular sanctuary (having worked there on and off for years), bonds with his devout parents over Al Green, teaches writing at the University of Minnesota General College, and plays Louvin Brothers-style country at the House of Mercy, where a commitment to social justice mingles with an openness to ambiguity. "They're okay with people not knowing quite why they're there," he says.

On October 19 the church brings Violent Femmes singer Gordon Gano to perform there (and also at the Turf Club). Remember, this is a place where the house band once played an instrumental version of the Replacements' "Unsatisfied" during communion. Anderson laughs at the memory.

"We also played Neil Young's 'Motorcycle Mama,'" he says, laughing harder. Anderson doesn't have the answers, just the beat.

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