“I grew up in an alternate dimension where Nirvana didn’t exist”

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Everett True (The Legend) outside Rough Trade Records

By Chad Thomas Johnston

[I really like the premise of this article – it’s very unusual within the context of Collapse Board – which is why I asked Chad if I could reprint it. The original title is An Open Letter to Everett True: 5 Songs from the Boy Who Listened to “Nerdvana” – Ed]

Dear Everett,

I grew up in an alternate dimension where Nirvana didn’t exist.

(That’s the introductory hook that’s supposed to make you want to read this, of course, since you are arguably the universe’s foremost authority on Kurt Cobain and co.)

Now for something less striking (although I will return to this alternate dimension blather in a minute): I want to thank you for writing Nirvana: The Biography. I read it while my own child was incubating In Utero inside my wife, and your book likewise incubated in my mind for a spell after I read it.

Your book was a gift to me in so many ways. Upon reading it, I found myself wondering what I could possibly give you in return. In the age of social media, after all, readers can actually express their gratitude to authors when they are inclined to do so in the form of a bloated open letter such as this one. You see, Everett, peasants wonder what to give kings, who have everything. After reading your book I found myself likewise wondering what I could possibly give music journalism’s reigning authority (you) since you have probably heard everything.

Like the little drummer boy, I bring my gift to you: Pah-rum-pah-pum-pum …

It does indeed involve drumming, although I am not offering you free drum lessons. You would fare better if The Shaggs’ drummer taught you, I promise.

Back to that alternate dimension blather.

When you were celebrating the Sub Pop scene in print in Melody Maker, I was celebrating an even more obscure scene in my bedroom with my air guitar. Had you been present to report on the proceedings, you might have referred to it as the “sub-Sub Pop” scene, had you been inclined to refer to it at all.

While you were covering Nirvana, I was listening to music Beavis and Butt-head might have referred to as “Nerdvana”. That is to say I was listening to Christian alternative rock (I am not even kidding, Everett), and my peers were kind enough to tolerate my rabid obsession with a number of bands who are even more obscure now that they were when I was foaming at the mouth about them in the ’90s.

I know, I know. Jesus said Christians would be hated, and boy was He right when it came to His followers who spread His message with a Flying V.

It may be that in a poll, Christian rock ranks only slightly above Zamfir the pan flutist in coolness. Even the people who loathed Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music are likely to lunge for that wrecking-ball-of-a-record in a heartbeat if given the option to listen to it instead of, well, Stryper. But I am not writing about Stryper.


I might be wearing a yellow and black catsuit as I write this, however.

(I am.)

I am writing to share music with you, Everett. I want to write about the bands that filled the Buzz Bin of my imagination in the 90s. These bands were an alternative to the alternative music Nirvana was playing, as meta as that sounds.

I will admit, I knew about Nirvana (I loved them), but as the son of a minister I could hardly listen to them. I was actually one of those well-behaved minister’s kids who ate his musical vegetables at his parents’ prompting. I licked the plate clean, and eagerly.

So it was as if Nirvana did not exist in my world. My world was soundtracked by alternative music to be sure, but it was populated by an alternate cast of characters. The genre would be immediately recognizable to any outsider, but the faces would be unfamiliar.

I championed these bands in my youth, distanced myself from them in young adulthood, and then rediscovered them after a hiatus from listening to them. Somewhere in between, I bought all of Nirvana’s albums and let my obsession with them come to full fruition. This is where you come in, Mr. True.

I want to tell you about a few of these bands, and here is how I want to frame this experience for you: You must first jettison from your mind any preconceived notions you might have about “Christian music” and be open to listening to these songs as stand-alone artifacts from a sub-culture that should be taken on its own terms. Yes, Beavis and Butt-head would have been inclined to deconstruct this music with a series of burps and farts sounding something like Morse code. That is, it is easy to ridicule Christian music. But it may be far more interesting to listen to it for the sake of listening to something you have never heard before. I would urge you to discover these songs as you might discover arrowheads in the soil in your own backyard. Consider them cultural artifacts.

If nothing else, consider these songs curiosities to behold. You may dismiss them outright, or you may find them to be interesting enough on their own merit. Either way, this letter and these songs constitute a thank you. My gratitude may be the grating kind, but I hope you will at least appreciate the spirit in which the gift is given.

In case you are wondering who I am, I am a 33-year-old resident of Lawrence, KS who works a day job, but spends his free time as a husband and father who also happens to write. My literary agent is based in Seattle, of all places, although I have no other connections with the grunge capital of the world. In the book my agent is currently shopping to major publishing houses – a memoir titled The Stained-Glass Kaleidoscope: Essays at Play in the Churchyard of the Mind – I write about how I was obsessed with Nirvana during my teenage years, but could not listen to the band’s songs in good conscience. I mean, there was a baby penis on the cover of Nevermind. (I honestly was not horrified by this, but others were.) As I write in the book, “Penises have never flown too well in Christian circles”. It’s true. To this day, I still have yet to see a flying penis at church, and I doubt I ever will.

Without further ado, here are a few songs from the alternate dimension I inhabited in the 90s.

(continues overleaf)

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21 Responses to “I grew up in an alternate dimension where Nirvana didn’t exist”

  1. Jason Morehead April 4, 2012 at 12:22 am

    This article was a true nostalgia trip for me — thanks for posting it. From the sound of things, I grew up in Christian circles similar to Johnston’s, and had a similar experience with regards to Nirvana (and many other secular bands). Many of the Christian bands he listed were — and still are — favorites of mine. Listening to Starflyer 59 and Scaterd Few were revelatory experiences for me, and their records still hold up after all of these years.

    A few other “Chrindie” bands from that era worth checking out:

    – Writ On Water (4AD-ish post-punk group that is still active)
    – Passafist (An industrial pop band that had more in common with Prince and Talking Heads than, say, Nine Inch Nails)
    – Joy Electric (Super-catchy synthpop of the finest, bloopiest kind)
    – Havalina (Bluegrass, jazz, zydeco, blues, lounge, and a whole lot more)
    – Luxury (Epic Smiths-inspired pop)
    – Velour100 (Atmospheric pop in a similar vein to His Name Is Alive and Cocteau Twins)

  2. Ian Makay April 4, 2012 at 12:31 am

    Great piece, Chad!

    As someone who has appreciated multiple genres of music, well beyond the typical playlist of my contemporaries, blogs like yours add an awesome perspective and dimension to the musical styles you incorporate into your writing. Music doesn’t exist and isn’t created in a vacuum. Understanding and extolling the differences, the innovators, as well as the links among what may seem, at first blush, unrelated artists is part of the richness your writing and your mixes make apparent.

    Thanks for connecting the dots in all the ways that make sense to me!


  3. Nancy Berk April 4, 2012 at 1:02 am

    Chad’s unique analysis is a web page turner. Thanks Chad and Everett!

  4. Dan Billion April 4, 2012 at 1:02 am

    That Starflyer59 video looked like David Lynch directing an episode of ‘PeeWee’s Playhouse.’

    And Chad – you’re not alone. I used to have to hide my Nirvana behind my DC Talk and Petra cassettes.

  5. DJG April 4, 2012 at 1:08 am

    Great article! Chad T. Johnston should be a featured writer on this site!

  6. Mark April 4, 2012 at 1:12 am

    Wow — memory lane! The author may not realize that he isn’t the only one who grew up completely unaware of Nirvana and grunge. I never heard Teen Spirit until probably 1997 when I was in college! I too grew up listening mostly to Christian music (rock/pop/gospel/acapella/younameit) and remember some fabulous genuine music tucked in there amidst the sea of average stuff. And then freshman year of college in ’95 I heard my roommate’s CD of Superunknown, and boy was I hooked. Thanks for the memories!

  7. Tim Herndon April 4, 2012 at 1:26 am

    If there was EVER an alternate dimension where Nirvana didn’t exist, it would have to have been in the warped, certainly deviant, simultaneously introverted and extroverted mind of the former-slave-to-evangelical-child-rearing cum emancipated-pop-culture-glutton cum evil-genius-with-unlimited-potential-for-widespread-societal-destruction cum [for now] author/singer/songwriter/master-doodler/one-man-freakshow, Chad Thomas Johnston.

  8. Merritt April 4, 2012 at 2:56 am

    Ah, another well-written post by Chad Thomas Johnson. I didn’t become a Christian until 2001 so I had an all out Nirvana phase in college…and, of course, had no idea that there were such bands in the Christian music world. Thanks for opening my eyes (and kinda freaking me out a little)!

  9. Shawn Smucker April 4, 2012 at 5:23 am

    I recognize this alternate dimension.

  10. Joseph Kyle April 4, 2012 at 10:41 am

    – Velour100 (Atmospheric pop in a similar vein to His Name Is Alive and Cocteau Twins)

    was an interesting side project of His Name is Alive’s drummer (not a christian group) with connections to Pedro the Lion, Damien Jurado, and was Rosie Thomas’s first recordings, as well as that of Tess Wiley of Sixpence None the Richer, well before that group was that established. All of their records have, as stated, a mellow, delicate sadness about them; the album looked like a galaxie 500 record, sounded like Stereolab and Heidi Berry. “Songs from the Rainwater EP” will melt your heart, plain and simple. Their final record with Rosie Thomas helps to show that she was already a force to be reckoned wtih.

  11. Elizabeth April 4, 2012 at 11:15 am

    Good stuff, Chad. Your writing is insightful and entertaining.

  12. Chad Thomas Johnston April 4, 2012 at 11:43 am

    Joseph, I remember when Velour100’s debut came out on Tooth & Nail. My sister Alyssa had it. I think my musical tastebuds were still relatively inexperienced, as I did not “get” what they were doing. It was too murky, too hazy, etc. Now I own 5 or 6 His Name is Alive records. 4AD is gold. I have This Mortal Coil’s “It’ll End in Tears” on vinyl hanging on the wall across the room from me now. Love that kind of stuff. Good thoughts, man!

  13. Liza April 4, 2012 at 9:10 pm

    Chad’s writing sucks me in every time – great job!


  14. Jennifer April 4, 2012 at 9:48 pm

    So glad I read this. It amazes me that here I thought I had this very normal Pastor’s Kid upbringing, but we listened to whatever the heck we wanted. My parents, in fact, were sort of opposed to “Christian music,” per se and whatever that means. They seemed to, without saying anything, look down their east-coast liberally educated noses at it, and so did I. I LOVE hymns, but I kind of throw up in my mouth when I listen to “Christian” radio.

    Also, I did not listen to Nirvana, but it seems perhaps that I might need to give it a spin.

    What a fantastic premise. Thanks for posting this.

  15. Chad Thomas Johnston April 5, 2012 at 12:59 am

    Liza, what you really mean is “Chad’s writing sucks every time.” 😉 Ha!

  16. Clint Bland April 5, 2012 at 9:19 am

    I was a little late to the game for Nirvana, having been born in 83. I remember very clearly seeing Bowie on SNL in his metal days and being amazed by him even though that represented a real nadir in his creativity. I started listening to the thin white duke, and to this day it boggles the mind that Nirvana’s cover of “Man Who Sold the World” was considered more definite than Bowie’s passive aggressive, creaking, creepy original. I remember vaguely an anecdote about the Sex Pistols. Johnny Rotten, or one of them, said something along the lines of: “none of us could sing very well, and none of us could play guitar very well and that’s how we found our sound.” The same always struck me as true of Nirvana. I never really got how you could be revolutionary by not giving a shit. But the seminal band of my teenage years was The Wallflowers, so what do I know? I once went to a Jars of Clay concert with a girl in an attempt to get laid. It didn’t work.

  17. AT April 5, 2012 at 4:28 pm

    Wow,what a blast from the past…what about Roadside Monument…

  18. Chad Thomas Johnston April 5, 2012 at 8:48 pm

    I never checked out Roadside Monument. I probably should have. I was certainly a huge Tooth and Nail fan, and wore one of the label’s long-sleeve tees all the time. It’s never too late though, I suppose! 🙂

  19. Joey April 6, 2012 at 11:16 am

    Roadside Monument is by far the best out of this bunch and the only one I return to regularly.

  20. rachel April 8, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    great article written by a great writer!!!

  21. Addie Zierman April 10, 2012 at 7:14 am

    The world of Christian music really was a oddity all of its own. I appreciate the funny and true way this author wrote about it. How out of touch we all felt, how separated from the larger musical culture, us young church teens.

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