Thursday, May 3, 2012

I HAVE FORGIVEN STRYPER: Revisiting Soldiers Under Command and rebellious christian youth

  Jesus!! What an awful name for a band. 

  By His Stripes We Are Healed. Yeah, right. So you choose a name that sounds like the neighbors dachshund ? Heeerrrree Stryper!! 'Hey, George! You seen our dog, Stryper?' Or, worse, could be misread as 'Strypper' (pronounced 'stripper' for all you dimwits).

Yes, I know. Picking on Stryper is a bit like tripping blind people. It's too easy, and more than a bit unsatisfying. But I've earned the right. Scott McMain, the misguided soul, played this album for me in 1985 and somehow took advantage of my childhood innocence by convinced me they were actually cool. I don't know whats more sad. The fact I bought into it all, the flowing feminine locks, the satin strech-pants, or the staggeringly disturbing truth, that for about 36 months, Stryper likely posessed the talent to create some truly amazing music.

You have to give them credit. They had to know going in the entire world was going to fall down from laughing so hard when they heard lyrics like 'He's the rock that makes me roll!'

Stryper have always been a trade off, as you rarely get the honest rock. It's always a give and take.
Yes, we can rock when we want to, but you have to endure lyrics like 'JEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUSSSSS, makes me wanna singgggggg! YEAHH!!' You want to rock out, you want to cut loose and bang your head against the stage like you never did before. But then you hear the lyrics and fall down on the floor. Crying. Usually from laughing so hard. It's an enormous challenge to work the Almighty into metal. Kind of like mixing baby formula with sand. You get the great musicianship, and make no mistake, regardless of how you feel towards their spiritual beliefs, all four members of Stryper, are AMAZING musicians. It's not even up for discussion. But those yellow and black outfits. The interviews where one member had the audacity to say 'We prayed for a limo and God sent us a limo'. What the hell was that supposed to be about ?

Stryper played Ann Arbor Pioneer High School's auditorium on April 3rd, 1986. On March 4th, 1987, in the heart of the mindless madness that gripped our country after 'Honestly' was released as a single, they played Devos Hall in Grand Rapids. March 28th, 1987 they played Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor. And, the real heart breaker, Pine Knob, August 23rd, 1987, the end of summer. I begged, yes I use the word 'beg', my parents to let me attend each of these shows. And each time the answer was a resounding 'no'.

In 1988, I was a year older and the answer, of course, was still 'no'. No, I could not drive to the L.C. Walker arena in Muskegon. And finally, the worst of them all. A sell out show at the Palace of Auburn Hills, December 3rd, 1988, that actually made ABC news. Throw in one more sold-out show, December 6th, at the Saginaw Civic Center and you have six Stryper concerts in two years that I was strictly forbidden to attend. Looking back at what a hellion I turned out to be, in spite of rigid moral upbringing, it was probably a smart move on mom and dads part. After all, I might have run away and joined the heavenly metal circus.

I was raised Baptist and when you're brought up in that backward strictness, you identify with what speaks to you. Stryper had the Jackson guitars, they had earrings, they played 'heavy metal' music, and more importantly, they had a cause. Converting we nasty sinners to a higher plane of moral and spiritual existence.

Soldiers Under Command really doesn't get the proper credit for being a very bold and risky, though calculated undertaking. Certainly it wasn't even close to being the first 'christian metal' album released, but it may have been the best in terms of commercial appeal to that point. The went big, they bold, and they went for broke. How else do you explain the inclusion of the 'Battle Hymn of the Republican a heavy metal album? And their results paid off with a gold album, the gospel industry's best selling for that time.  Stryper had cleverly written their lyrics for the softer tracks to embrace, what we in our little circle of youth group dufuses would refer to as, 'God or girlfriend'. Thus mainstream appeal was always within reach, while at the same time, so was The Cross.

It was nasty enough to annoy our holier-than-thou parents, but they tolerated it.

Lets be honest, the most successful 'spiritual' music, if often that where the artist lets the listener lead the song where they want it to go:
“We are the soldiers under gods command, we hold his two-edged sword within our hands.”
Man, you aren't kidding Michael. It really is a two-edged sword.

'First Love' my introduction to sensitive sad bastard music ballads, who's only purpose at our age was to charm naive girlfriends into going one step further and removing their bra.

“And were fighting ohhhhhhhh the sin! And the good book, it sez we'll winnnwinnn!!'” Hee. Hee. Hee.

Years, later, I'm still rolling my eyes. How does Michael Sweet still sing these songs with a straight face. It's like Sunday School for meat heads. I'm almost embarrassed to admit I attached so much meaning to this record, for so many years.

I was trying to think of a sensitive way to write about this landmark album that held a significant meaning for me at a highly influential time in my life. But looking back, there is absolutely no way to justify the obsessive devotion that I exalted up Soldiers Under Command. I must have been out of my mind. Or 15. Or both.

The long hair teased up to look as effeminate as possible. The hideous yellow and black outfits, that resembled something the Killer B's would wear to Wrestlemania 256. Michael Sweet on stage in Tokyo shouting in most sensitive sing-song voice 'Stry-puh.Rawks.For. JEE-ZUSSS!!”

'Christian Metal' is a morbidly ridiculous sub genre of heavy metal. Devoting entire albums to obsessive spiritual beliefs, whether they be christian, pagan, or charlatan simply isn't art. It's propaganda. You're furthering the cause.

You may find this hard to believe, but I was once impossibly lame.

I spent my Monday Nights rollerskating furiously at the “Christian Rock POWER HOUR!' in Utica, Michigan. What made these endeavor more complicated was my complete inability to know HOW to roller skate.  Laugh all you want, but that's what happens when your parents are Baptist do-gooder fanatics, Hell-bent on preventing you from having any ability to relate to the real world. Your only friends are fellow youth group nuts, all reaching out for some kind of natural rebellion. Also, the fact I know what a roller skate is, in this age of the MP3, qualifies me for VIP entry to The Dirty Old Bastard Retirement Village. Anyway, the roller-DJ got his hands on a vinyl copy of Soldiers and when he fired that disc up, you should have seen the look on the faces of these shut-ins and wenises. They'd all wave their hands in the air, get moving at top speed, and you'd have thought Joshua himself was leading a roller skate charge around Jericho.
And that's where Stryper were marketing geniuses. They knew a captive audience, i.e. 'church kids', 'youth group kids', 'Monday-nighters', whatever category or label you throw on the christian youth of that decade, would happily tune into the lyrics saccharine enough to earn space in every Dickson and Family Christian bookstore, but with a sound heavy enough to land on the shelves of Blockbuster Music and Harmony House.

Nostalgia is a powerful compulsion.

And that's what drew me to Rock of Ages in Garden City for an autograph session with the band. Now, fans, being a platinum-selling, #1 most requested video on MTV, Grammy nominated musician means several things. First, everywhere you go, where fans recognize you, they will address you by your first name. Almost no one said, Mr. Sweet, Mr. Fox, Mr. Gaines. It's TIM!, OZ! ROBERT!, MICHAEL!! To their credit, despite being an hour late, the band signed at least one item for every single person who had been waiting in line, they chatted (albeit, briefly) with every fan, and allowed pictures to be taken. Though they refused to pose or shake hands (colds).

And that's what drew me to Harpos on
My in depth discuss of the deterioration of the once great ghetto fabulous Harpos is a altogether different story, but with all the venues available in Detroit, I have to question why Stryper would choose to play the one venue that's surrounded by some of the most 'economically challenged' neighborhoods in the motor city. Neighborhoods, several anonymous Harpos employees explained politely, where nearby residents enjoyed driving by the entrance and taking random shots at whoever was unfortunate enough to be on security duty standing out front.
But that's where the show was.

And it was good. It really was. For the 80-90 people in the room. Some fathers, mothers and surprisingly, a lot of teenagers. And it was good for me. They rolled through the hits and shrewdly avoided too many tracks from their latest tepid effort, 'The Covering', to recapture past glory. They played with an energy and enthusiasm of nineteen year old garage rock, Jack White fanatics.

So to summarize this nostalgic-laden tripe, it comes down to this:

I forgive Stryper. I forgive them for not taking a few classes in business management. For being a bit short with their shrinking legion of manner less and obsessive fans. For making a 'career' on solid music soaked in religious double-entendres. For 'praying for a limo' which allowed the creation of a ridiculous YouTube video featuring Anthrax's Scott Ian.

I forgive you guys.

And, I'm proud of you.

Dominic Hendryx

Oz. Listen, I can sympathize with your aggravation. Not too many of us have married a reformed prostitute, and the flack for that must be overwhelming. But, come on man. You snapped at fans in Rock of Ages, you snapped at people while getting on the tour bus . .. and backstage. That was just lame. 

But I forgive you. ;-)