In the spring of 2007, I was asked as an alumnus of Geneva College (a small Reformed Presbyterian liberal arts college 30 minutes northwest of Pittsburgh, PA) to attend a few planning sessions for that semester’s annual music event. Knowing Geneva’s conservative stance on nearly every theological or cultural issue, from the prohibition of instruments in their church services to the ban on all dancing (save square dancing) on campus, the challenge was selecting an artist who would be edgy enough to attract the interest of the students while being safe enough not to draw the ire of the school’s administration. Half-jokingly, I suggested that David Bazan might be an interesting choice for this concert, and I had ample evidence to believe that “interesting” was far too innocent a word for what that invitation could yield. A few months later, when Bazan was officially added to the evening’s bill, I was afraid that my misguided attempt at humor could derail the entire night’s entertainment.
Two years earlier, I had attended Calvin College’s “Festival of Faith and Music,” a semi-annual conference where Christian musicians, artists, and authors congregate for a sophisticated discussion of the role faith and art should play in American society. Bazan was scheduled to perform, along with independent Christian artists Sufjan Stevens, Danielson, Half-handed Cloud and others. The booking of Bazan demonstrated his considerable pull within evangelical circles. If Calvin wanted to use the festival to inspire debate and discussion that would last far beyond the moment the last song ended, they couldn’t have made a better choice.
Taking the stage alone with an acoustic guitar, having recently dissolved Pedro the Lion, the band he had started ten years earlier in Seattle after graduating from a tiny Pentecostal liberal arts college, Bazan wasted no time in making his presence known. Opening with “Redneck Nation,” a song excoriating those who found catharsis in exacting revenge for 9/11 on Arabs through the Iraq War, Bazan set the tone for a performance that only grew in intensity. Before he was done, he would perform a cover of Randy Newman’s “Political Science” (a pointedly caustic satire of America’s cultural arrogance and warlike tendencies) and change lyrics to a previous Pedro the Lion song to mock Mel Gibson, the man who had become an icon in evangelical circles because of the still-fresh The Passion of the Christ. The response was polite but quiet, with tension building in the auditorium until Bazan punctured it himself, with an impromptu tirade about Blockbuster Video censoring sexual material in their movie rentals. Encouraging the crowd to boycott Blockbuster and rent their sexually-charged films elsewhere, Bazan punctuated his argument by attempting to rally support for his cause by stating that, together, we could “bring those fuckers to their knees.”
Though the Calvin crowd was open-minded enough to consider criticism of the Iraq War, the abuses of capitalism, and even the commercialization of mass Christian culture, this was too much. A gasp went throughout the auditorium. Mothers led their children out, covering their ears. Students looked at each other with disbelief, and older attendees squirmed in their seats. Hours later, at a bar where the event’s musicians and organizers congregated, I was briefly introduced to a very inebriated Bazan, stumbling around and giving heartfelt goodbyes to people that he didn’t know. That might be normal behavior for typical rock and roll hedonists, but for a headliner at a Christian music festival, his behavior was a bit of an outlier.
Drawn to the dark
Though it’s doubtful that Calvin College was hoping for such a display, they shouldn’t have been surprised. Bazan’s trajectory had been winding its way toward such a conclusion for some time. His career started out innocently enough, with a 1996 EP, released on Christian punk label Tooth and Nail, that established this son of a church music director as a force to be reckoned with in the then-burgeoning Christian alternative rock movement. Far from the celebratory and often cloying praise and worship music that was popular within mainline Christianity, Bazan’s music eased the ache of every confused and conflicted teen that came to watch Pedro the Lion perform at church youth groups. Full of youthful angst and righteous anger, Bazan was drawn to (some would say fixated on) the dark realities of faith — the fact of sin, the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of believers, and the difficulty of living a life dedicated to faith. For his efforts, he was praised as a prophet and condemned as a heretic, building a growing audience among twenty-something Christians and receiving hate mail from those who accused him of being demon-possessed.
Upfront with his struggles and shortcomings, Bazan was concerned but solidly in the Christian camp, a reformer whose every act was seemingly aimed at bringing the church back to what he believed were its core tenets of love, forgiveness, and truth. Steering clear of personal narrative, his songs were character sketches of fallen protagonists — murderers, addicts, adulterers — who inevitably cut a straighter path to honest human frailty than those who were held up as virtuous but whose belief was rooted in social pressure, political expediency and opportunism. By the end of the decade, Pedro the Lion was attracting a mainstream audience and receiving rave reviews in the secular press, and Bazan was emerging as an artist who could join the tradition of Johnny Cash and U2 in his ability to frame his art within a larger worldview.
But just as Bazan’s ascent started gaining serious momentum, cracks in his faith began to appear. He attended the 1998 World Trade Organization rallies in Seattle, and grew more critical of the ways the Christian right and the Republican Party interacted to create policies that he didn’t believe reflected Christian virtues. He began exploring the work of liberal social critics and slowly became politically radicalized, eventually seeing the church’s role in American society as perpetuating corrupt power structures that had little interest in addressing the poverty, injustice and inequality that exists beyond the church sanctuary. He even began to question the foundational pillars of his Christian faith, wondering if his long-held assumptions regarding the central truth of biblical inerrancy and inspiration, the fall of mankind and Christ’s divinity were as misplaced as his former faith in the American political system.
That disenchantment colored 2002’s Control, a concept album exploring a man’s adulterous affair, with Bazan attacking corporate America while describing his protagonist’s sexual dalliances in explicit detail, at one point describing his orgasm to the second coming of Christ. Condemnation from some in the Christian community was swift, reforming his audience into those Christians who granted him the creative liberty to use occasionally coarse language to make a larger point — and mainstream listeners who admired his bravery in antagonizing his Christian audience. By 2003, he was so troubled by his feelings of disbelief that he began drinking heavily in an effort to distract himself from the threat to his identity that these ideas represented. Eventually, he refused to perform before achieving a certain level of inebriation. While drinking vodka out of a milk jug during his performance, he was kicked off the main stage of the famously dry Cornerstone Music Festival (an annual congregation of some 50,000 Christian music fans at a farm outside of Chicago.) By 2005, Bazan decided to retire the Pedro the Lion name and go solo. Aside from six new songs on an EP and a series of low profile tours, it would be four years until he fully resurfaced.