Transcendence is in the ear of the beholder. How else to explain the work of Olivier Messiaen, the 20th-century composer whose meditative organ pieces to Jesus can be described as the wind curling through a demon's root cellar? Which, for those of us who actually like bands such as Christian Death and Bauhaus, is pretty cool. This stuff is creepy and wonderful -- though to him, the compositions were probably gracious, postmodern answers to Handel's Messiah.
Yep, some Christian music is creepy, and not just Tammy Faye Bakker's Run to the Roar. The Danielson Famile mesh indie rock with some Pere Ubu thang and sing about the blood of Christ in bedrooms. And when was the last time you saw Jesus Christ Superstar?
So imagine the two great tastes that taste great together when you fuse Christian rock with outsider music, as if the Shaggs were born again. A thrift-store record geek flipped across just such an album recently and passed it onto the tiny web of other record geeks who dig this stuff. Berkeley label Companion Records put it out, and it's flipping people's lids. The group is the New Creation, and the record is Troubled. It was recorded in six hours in 1970, and the group comprises a mother-and-son combo on tambourine and guitar, and their friend Jan on drums.
And man, is she on the drums -- what made the Shaggs so great was the, shall we say, intuitive percussion work, and the New Creation is no different. Chris, the guitar player, had mastered only a few chords, and admittedly sings "a little bit on the leaden side" and "just a shade under the note," he says from his Vancouver home. The resulting record is echoey and dark, yet with an undercurrent of sincere optimism.
The melodies may remind you of the Byrds or the Cowsills, but none of those bands had Lorna Towers on the mic. Her voice is like Mary Poppins tucking you in with a lullaby, a crisp English accent with roundly articulated vowels as clean as plucked tulips. Lorna takes on those who would believe in evolution in "Dig! (The Origin of Man)." "Dig, dig, dig, Australopithecus," she sings, commenting on a "large assembly line of King Kongs" that Darwin has thrust on us. "Dig those gullible scientists, and a lot of good wholesome digging fun."
But Ms. Towers isn't some Christian Coalition knockoff: She's just a good solid believer who was raised in colonial India. After all, she was playing rock 'n' roll music at the height of the hippie movement, something she asserts was in no way Satanic. "Oh, heavens no," she says, also from her home in Vancouver. "Each decade has its thing. ... I have to quarrel with the Devil. To me he's a defeated foe. That's it, it's over."
Chris, her son, also admired the hippies, especially the Jesus People, a Haight- Ashbury sect of God-lovin' longhairs who spread the gospel through music and influenced the New Creation. "There were a lot of wonderful things that came out of the hippie movement," he says. "I liked the clothing, I liked the long hair, I liked the music. I think that the whole idea of Eastern thought came from the hippie movement, and I thought that was a good idea. But as for doing drugs, I never bothered with that. I never got much of the free love, either."
Well, when your mom is in the band, it kind of cuts into your groupie gropin'.
Only one hundred copies of Troubled were pressed. The response was terrible. Everyone hated it. The band even went on TV and got into a fight with a very unimpressed host. The New Creation fizzled out. Then, three decades later, a very smitten Will Louviere of Companion Records tracked down the drummer, Jan Tiessen, to discuss a rerelease. She thought it was a joke. It had to be a joke. That record sucked. "I just thought it was a prank call," she says. "It just couldn't be real."
"He kept saying how much he liked it," she continues. "It was bizarre ... I could see how rough it was. ... I couldn't see how anyone could get through it."
Ah, never underestimate the ears of an outsider music fan. Everything Jan found uncomfortable about the work Will, his partner Troy, and even outsider music mouthpiece Irwin Chusid found "brilliant."
"It's slightly provocative I suppose to call it 'brilliant,'" says Chusid, who admits that the word gets thrown around far too often to really have much meaning anymore. "But on the other hand, brilliance can be accidental. In this case, I think that brilliance that I'm referring to, which is not just a mental brilliance but a brightness, is inadvertent."
The real thing that excites fans of this genre is not the music's (lack of) technical skill, or the melodies, or even the words, though in this case, all those things are cool. It's the sincerity behind it, be it a dedicated naïveté or an unmolested sense of hope. When Will put it that way, the members of the New Creation began to get it. Jan compares the reactions to her band to her own first introduction to Patti Smith. "I liked her soul and vulnerability," she says. "The energy ... so earthy, it was almost pure dirt."
Lorna is just glad that the message is reaching more ears, even if it is so many years later. "It's a miracle, really," she says. "We put this thing out with no great big sort of self in it or anything, just that maybe we could reach people. And now we are."
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