For many, the invasion of the Seattle grunge monster in the early 1990s was a welcome revolution. Up until then, in the rock music world, hair reigned supreme. Bands like Warrant, Winger, Firehouse, and Skid Row ruled the airwaves. It was an era typified by indulgence, big hair, tight spandex pants, and, unfortunately, lost of inane lyrics. It is such a lightning rod, with lovers of the movement still bemoaning the unveiling of Nirvana and haters wishing that it could be expunged from annals of pop music history.
I’ve been a bit hesitant to write this post and upload this week’s Gateway Record. Yes, there has been a fear that if I write about (and basically promote) anything from the hair metal craze, my credibility might be lost with some. I guess, when it comes down to it, I’m willing to take that risk. That’s because, as with many other lightning rod issues, there is a middle road that is both accessible and, for me, preferable. You see, not all hair metal bands were self-indulgent, no-talent losers. There were those, to be sure. All you would have to do is quote some lyrics from that time to prove that case. At the same time, there were some incredibly talented musicians in some of those bands. And, some of the bands aimed to create something more significant than the hormone-driven garbage that much of that music was about.
One such example is the album featured as this week’s Gateway Record on Tomme Suab. When Extreme hit it big with More Than Words in 1991, I didn’t really know much about them. My buddy Wayne, who was SO into all of those bands, had already liked them for some time. But, I was in the middle of my CCM Pharisee phase and was really unaware, for the most part, of what was popular. Although I was hesitant to admit it, when I would hear that song while riding around with Wayne, I really liked it, as well as Hole Hearted.
Now, at that time, no one would have mistaken Extreme for a religious rock band. After all, the two songs mentioned above were on an album dubiously entitled Pornograffiti, an album that featured such sophomoric songs as Lil’ Jack Horny and Decadence Dance. Still, there seemed to be something different about those guys as compared to other hair bands. There was a depth, both lyrically and musically, that started peeking through on that album.
And then 1993 came along. As mentioned in my previous post about Derek Webb, in 1993 I began to break away from my self-inflicted bondage to CCM (Contemporary Christian Music). During the summer of 1993, Wayne introduced me to Extreme’s next album, III Sides to Every Story. Almost immediately, I was drawn to the album. Wayne didn’t like it that much… it was too “soft” for him. But, I was hearing glimpses of that depth mentioned above, and I wanted more of it.
Later that summer, I left for a nine-month internship in southern India. I didn’t even really prepare for the trip. I wasn’t ready physically, mentally, spiritually, or emotionally, and the trip was hard… really hard. For the entirety of my time there, I suffered from deep culture shock and homesickness. I was miserable most of the time and I closed myself off from the culture and the people around me.
By that time, I had already begun to connect with music on an emotional level. It had become a comfort for me and I was in constant need of comfort during that time in India. While there, I purchased a few cassettes, most notably this week’s Gateway Record. I seemed to listen to it non-stop, especially on the many long bus rides I endured traveling around south India. It became a great source of comfort as well as a small way to connect with the culture I’d left behind in the U.S.
But, it was also more than that. For me, it was great to finally be able to really dive into the album and it’s unexpected musical and lyrical depth. The depravity and immaturity that had been so rampant in the hair metal era and even in much of Extreme’s previous work, was missing in this album. They had moved on from such meaningless stuff and had meandered into the stuff that life is really made of. They touched on the folly of war, the abysmal political climate of the times, insanity of racism, the nature and difficulty of romantic relationships, and the existence of God.
The first half of III Sides to Every Story goes to great lengths to describe the ills and difficulties of life in the early 90s. Everything seems to be going to hell. Politicians are all out for themselves. Wars are raging. Relationships seem to be getting harder and harder. Folks’ worth and character are still being defined by their ethnicity. Things were bad. And then, as you listen to the album, you move from all of this incredible discontent to questions, especially one question: God, where are you in the middle of all of this?
This question is communicated through songs like Our Father, which describes the ever-increasing distance between a child and the father that child desperately needs. That theme continues with Stop the World and the sorrowful, sober God Isn’t Dead?
Ah, look at all the lonely people,
Losing faith, in a world full of despair,
No one who cares,
I see the pain in everybody’s faces
Asking why, the God up in the sky
Didn’t say goodbye
Please tell me God didn’t die
Please tell me God isn’t dead…
On the U.S. cassette version, the album also contained a song called Don’t Leave Me Alone, which came after God Isn’t Dead? This is where the band makes a major transition from the broad, sweeping, non-relational spiritual struggles into a deeply personal, introspective searching.
Don’t leave me alone
Don’t leave me on my own
I’m on my knees
Forgive me please
Just don’t leave me alone
How long will my song be wrong?
It’s as if the protagonist knows that all of the discontent he is experiencing due to the cultural climate around him somehow relates to his own inward discontent about his own life. Yes, war sucks. Yes, racism sucks. Yes, politicians often suck. But, what about the inner wars over right and wrong? What about his own racist tendencies and general contempt toward others? What about his own lack of forthrightness and desire to serve self? He sees the problems in his own soul, and doesn’t want them to alienate him from God.
The final three songs are part of one major movement (the Wikipedia write-up on this album describes it as an “opus”). Rise and Shine is a conflicted declaration of both hope and futility. It freely borrows themes from Ecclesiastes, one of the more depressing books in the Bible. It’s like the protagonist is reaching for some kind of truth that will tell him everything will be okay, and yet he also finds truth that tells him that his efforts are futile. This conflict leads to the driving Am I Ever Gonna Change? For years, this was my favorite song on the album, because I could all too easily relate to the plight of the protagonist. I was over my head in addiction at the time and part of me wanted desperately to be free. So, I could hear and relate to the desperation and longing in the song.
Am I ever gonna change
Will I always stay the same
If I say one thing,
Then I do the other
It’s the same old song
That goes on forever
Am I ever gonna change
I’m the only one to blame
When I think I’m right,
I wind up wrong
It’s a futile fight
Gone on too long
Oh my, could I relate to these sentiments! But, beyond that personal resonance, I also hear a guy who is at the end of his rope. He realizes that much of what he hates in the world lives in his own heart. He is desperate for change.
And then we come to the album’s finale, Who Cares? It is the climax of the “opus” both musically and lyrically. As the song progresses, you can hear melodic elements of Rise and Shine and Am I Ever Gonna Change? Lyrically, the protagonist, at the end of his rope, has come to a point of total abandonment. The world is a mess. Who cares? I am a mess. Who cares? And then, in that moment of clarity, he realizes there is only one hope for him.
Here I am,
A naked man
Nothing to hide
With empty hands
I am the one
Who lost his way,
Your Prodigal Son
All is lost. I am lost. All I can do is abandon myself to You, God. All I can do is choose to put myself in Your hands and trust You. You are the only One who can set this straight. You are the only One who can save me from myself. For me, there is no greater truth in life than the reality that I, in my utter brokenness and lostness, can abandon myself to a God who sees me, loves me, and pursues me. That kind of trust is ultimately where the protagonist lands (in my humble opinion) in III Sides to Every Story.
So, yeah, Extreme was a hair metal band. And, yeah, they had their moments of perversion. And yet, they, through their own searching and struggling, have aided me in my own searching and struggling. They have helped me see that at the end of desperation, there is hope. And, they have reminded me where that hope can be found.
As mentioned above, this album is featured as this week’s Gateway Record. Take a few moments and listen to it here.