In the music section of Mardels, the large Christian bookstore where my mom would buy Bible-verse slap bracelets and fruit-scented pencil erasers for her Sunday school class, there was a conversion chart that helped you find the Christian equivalent of popular secular bands. Blink 182 = Relient K. Pearl Jam = Third Day. Backstreet Boys = DC Talk. U2 was ok. You could listen to U2. The guy behind the counter had a streak of purple in his hair. He must have been a teenager, not much older than me, but I believed he knew a lot about music, both Christian and secular. "Anything they have," I remember him saying, "We have something just as good." And then I remember him saying this: "Ever heard of Skillet?"
I'd been introduced to this cooler brand of Christian music a few years earlier by my friends from California, friends whose taste for cool things I had total faith in. When they came to visit, they would bring all kinds of new words and hair styles and inside jokes with them, all of which I would adopt quickly and awkwardly. My sister would look at me funny when I'd say something like "tight" instead of "cool," my hair spiked with borrowed gel, but she wouldn't say anything. A few days later my friends would go back to California and I would go back to the way I'd been before: a shy kid in Wrangler jeans who wasn't making very many friends in Texas and wasn't really trying to.
We'd left California a few years earlier. My dad worked for a telecom company that, like most telecom companies, doesn't exist anymore. They called him up. They said, "We need you in Texas." In April, we packed up a borrowed Plymouth Caravan and drove through all the nothing that's in-between Long Beach and Dallas. I remember it as a light brown place dotted with 7-Elevens. It took us five days to drive through it all, an unreasonably slow pace. We stopped at every roadside souvenir stand selling identical-looking Native American trinkets. My mom bought me a drum. That was a mistake. Around two or three in the afternoon we'd pull over at a Best Western and swim in the motel pool until our fingers pruned and our skin burned from the all the chlorine. Then we watched movies. I don’t think any of us were in a particular hurry to get to Texas, which I imagined as a hot, dusty place filled with cows. Which it is. I live here still.
Those first few years in Texas, my California friends would come out to visit once a year, or we would go out there. They would make fun of Texas because Texas is easy to make fun of, with our hats and everything, and I would mimic their new Californian affectations to varying degrees of failure. One year they brought big black folders with them, filled with Christian CDs, which made sense on account of all of us being so Christian about everything all the time. My family — and my friends' families — had all been active members of the Orange County Evangelical community, one of the most conservative places in the country. My dad answered phones during Billy Graham's "Hour of Decision" telecasts. People had a decision to make and they only had an hour to make up their minds. "Down?" Billy would say, pointing down. "Or up?" he would say, pointing up. The correct answer was: up.
Despite how Christian my family was — and we were about as Christian as it gets — the only Christian music I can remember hearing growing up was Amy Grant, Keith Green, and the songs we sang in Sunday School. The one about Father Abraham having all those sons. The other one about how to spell the word "Bible" correctly.
My dad had an expensive stereo system that took these chunky black plastic cartridges containing six CDs each. The cartridges were fragile and often jammed when they switched from one CD to the next. I don't know how these cartridges were supposed to be more convenient than just putting in one CD at a time, but I accepted their overly-complicated functionality the same way I accepted everything else in my life: without question. My dad's music collection was modest, but I felt a reverence for it, and I think he felt a certain amount of pride. He had most of the Beatles. The best of Boston, Styx, America, and Chicago. Boz Skaggs. Carly Simon. During the drum solo in Carly Simon's song "Anticipation," my dad would turn the volume of his stereo all the way up. That's how I learned that drum solos are really important. The sub-woofer would rattle the silverware in the kitchen drawers and from somewhere in the back of the house mom would yell, "Scott!"
We were allowed to listen to my dad’s music even though much of it contained obvious sexual themes (what exactly were you anticipating, Carly?), veiled and not-so-veiled drug references ("I get high!”), and all the general worldliness you would expect of some of the greatest music ever made. It was a different story, though, when it came to the music my sister and I were discovering on our own via the radio function on our Walkmans. We weren't allowed to listen to Smashmouth's "All Star,” for example, since my dad felt it promoted a lazy, anything-goes lifestyle and endorsed a fairly loosey-goosey approach to panhandling. I was made to return the first CD I ever bought — Nine Days' The Madding Crowd — because the single, "Absolutely (Story of a Girl)," had "the s-word" in it. Christina Aguilera’s "Genie in a Bottle" nearly got us banned from listening to the radio altogether. So when my friends from California showed up with their binders full of California-approved Christian music, it must have been as much a relief for my parents as it was a revelation for me.
Laying on our stomachs on my bedroom floor, my friends took me through their music binders page by page, carefully removing and then replacing the CDs. The bands had names like Audio Adrenaline, The OC Supertones, The Newsboys, Switchfoot, all of which sounded like real bands to me and not just someone's name, like Amy Grant or a Keith Green. My friends had stuffed the liner notes behind the disks so I saw what some of these bands looked like too. They looked great, like they all lived in California, which I think they did. Their hair was spiked up and their shirts had big words on them. “Hurly.” “Quicksilver.” The same words my friends had on their shirts.
Ethan was the good looking one. Kyle was the funny one. I don't know which one I was. Kyle would joke that girls were just using Ethan to get to him. I would wonder which girls. I would think about how Ethan and Kyle knew girls. Girls, I would think. I got the feeling that things were happening in California first and then slowly making their way to the right, through Arizona, and then on toward Texas. It could take years for something that had happened in California to happen in Texas. And then another few months after that to happen in Arkansas. I suspected that this delay not only applied to trivial things like slang and hair styles but also to more important things. Like girls, for example. And music. Every time Ethan and Kyle came to visit I felt a little more behind.
After getting to Texas, my parents had shopped around for a new church for months, hoping to find a place where my brothers and sister and I could make some friends. I remember a time in my life filled with strange, smiling adults leaning down and saying “Hi!” into my face. I would stand awkwardly in the corner of one Sunday school class and then, the next week, I would stand awkwardly in the corner of another. I would sing the songs. The one about Father Abraham. The one about how to spell "Bible."
We had a lot of churches to choose from since Dallas turned out to be such a churchy place, one of the churchiest in the country. We'd left the Evangelical pressure cooker of Orange County for the Evangelical sprawl of the Bible Belt, where everyone and everything is Christian. Nobody puts a fish on their bumper here. That would be redundant.
After a few months, my parents chose a church that was big and brown, built on a large plot of land behind Target, and topped with a steeple so tall you could see the cross from the highway. You could see a lot of crosses from the highway. A decade later my wife and I would move into an apartment nearby and from the rooftop we could see crosses sticking up for miles in every direction. I'll have lost my faith by then, or will be well on my way. I'll lose it slowly, for no real reason. In the evenings I'll go up to the roof alone to smoke and listen to music. I'll like being alone. I'll know that about myself by then.
Our local Christian radio station was 94.9 KLTY. "Safe and fun for the whole family," the DJ would remind us before every commercial break in his calm, is-there-anything-I-can-pray-for-you-about? voice. After the whole Genie in a Bottle "You gotta rub me the right way" fiasco, my mom decided we would only listen to Christian radio in the car. KLTY played the kind of jangly, mid-tempo Christian pop I'd grown to despise. People like Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman, Rebecca St. James. People who played acoustic instruments and wanted us to know they had middle names. People who belonged on the silver-side of the WOW disk, a yearly compilations of Christian pop songs: the exact Christian equivalent to NOW That’s What I Call Music!
It was while listening to KLTY, however, that we first started hearing ads for something called "Celebrate Freedom," a free Christian concert being held that summer at Southfork Ranch, where the TV show Dallas had been filmed in the 80s.
"That sounds fun!" my mom said, looking over at me in the passenger seat, eyes beaming.
We'd been in Texas a little more than five years by that point, and I think she was getting a little worried about me. I was becoming an increasingly mopey kid who spent most of his time reading in his room and the rest of his time not making friends. I think both of my parents felt a little guilty about dragging all of us across the country, but had been relieved to see my brothers and sister adapt to it fairly quickly, making friends, playing on soccer teams, getting crushes on people, having fun occasionally. I, on the other hand, wasn't having fun, wasn’t making friends, wasn't adapting. I'd resisted Texas out of some misplaced fidelity to California and had now felt out of place in both. After five years, the frequency of Ethan and Kyle's visits had slowed down, as had my visits to California. I'd started to suspect that Ethan and Kyle were moving on with their lives and that I wasn't part of them anymore. When I'd called Ethan on his birthday, I heard his mom shout to him in the back room, "Some kid named Mike?" and Ethan shout back, "Which Mike?" I hung up the phone before he could pick up. He star 69'd me though.
"Mike?" he said.
"Oh hey, Ethan," I said. "What's up, man?"
"Did you just call me?"
"Uh...yah. Uh...Happy birthday, man!"
For my thirteenth birthday, my parents secretly flew Ethan and Kyle out to Texas. They jumped out of my closet. They stayed for ten days, sleeping in sleeping bags on my bedroom floor, spreading their products out on my bathroom counter. Gel. Pomade. Axe body spray. “It has pheromones,” I remember Kyle telling me with a magical look in his eyes. It was the last time we’d hang out together like that, the last time time aside from weddings (my own) and funerals (Ethan's dad's). The last time I’d see them for that long, as those particular people. As kids, I think I mean.
It was brutally hot that summer, like it is every summer. It was summer-as-usual in Texas. The plants were all sweaty. Outside, the world smelled like hot vegetables. Ethan and Kyle let their tongues hang out of their mouths. I made fun of their low tolerance for heat. I wanted them to think that I'd developed some sort of heat resistant super power. "This?" I said. "This is nothing," even as sweat dripped down my forehead and into my eyes.
On one of Ethan and Kyle’s last days in Texas, we took them to Celebrate Freedom festival at Southfork Ranch, the concert my mom and I had heard about on KLTY. "With surprise secret guest!" the KLTY DJ now teased. On the drive to Southfork, Ethan and Kyle and I wondered about who the secret guest might be, hoping for Audio Adrenaline, agreeing we would settle for Jars of Clay.
Kyle stared out the window counting cows.
"Cow," he said when he saw one.
"Cow," he said when he saw another.
A few miles from Southfork, we hit stand-still traffic on a two-lane country road, not far from where my parents live today. "There's no way this is the line for the thing," my dad said, looking over at my mom in a way that said, This better not be the line for the thing.
It was the line for the thing. A thing that Christians were flocking to from hundreds of miles around — what would be, in the end, the largest Christian concert in history. Or at least that's how I'll remember it. The Christian equivalent to Woodstock. Right here in Texas, not far from my house. We inched toward it. Then, when we got to it, Ethan and Kyle and I inched toward the stage. By the time Third Day went on — the much-hyped “secret guest” with whom we could not possibly have been more disappointed — we were in the front row, close enough to be shoved back by a sweaty security guard with a lanyard. "Back," he said. "Back." We stepped back. Or at least we tried to. I looked behind me at a hundred thousand people and couldn't see where the crowd ended. I’d never seen so many people in one place. I felt a panic rising in me, the way I'd sometimes felt in the ocean when I'd let myself drift too far from shore. It would happen so quickly. Suddenly you're just way out there. Before I could start panicking, though — really, truly, good and panicking — the Third Day guitar player hit the opening feedback harmonic of their song "Consuming Fire," and the drummer started pounding out the beat, right into our chests, and Kyle grabbed our arms and let out a high-pitched squeal in his fake-enthusiastic way, which I knew stood for real enthusiasm, because even though they were Third Day and Third Day kind of sucked, they were standing like twenty feet away from us, and they were playing loud as hell.