Metastasizes Like Teen Spirit
Issue #51, October 2000
We had just moved across country, and it was our first weekend in our new home, the old lumber and industrial town of Bay City, Michigan. As we were moving in, we had seen a few signs around town for an event called "Relay for Life" and that afternoon we were distracted from our settling in by the sounds of cheering and musical acts wafting over from the riverside park a few blocks away. Some of the folkie acts performing throughout the hot, balmy August Saturday sounded like they were singing about life and faith. We guessed that the event was a churchfolks' rally against women's abortion rights.
After supper we took our first walk along the Saginaw River. We knew the speedboats buzzing along in the golden sunset weren't the only craft that used the waterway, for we had heard the low, loud steam horns of cargo ships booming at night as they approached the city's drawbridges on their way to and from Lake Huron. But that evening there were so many campers and tents set up at the park event that we couldn't help but wander over to see what was going on as we followed the landscaped riverwalk. And though some of the music sounded pretty whitebread, more piety than punkitude, it seemed like something worth investigating. I guess I hoped there might be an appearance by devout mid-Michigan notable Mark Farner, who three decades ago fronted the immensely well-marketed Grand Funk Railroad.
To our surprise, the purpose of the densely-crowded gathering was not to fight Beelzebub but to fight cancer. In Bay City the presence of heavy industry is palpable and broadly in evidence. So we wondered whether the giant anti-cancer rally was an indication that the town, or perhaps the entire tri-city area (Midland, Bay City and Saginaw) that abuts Saginaw Bay, is a particularly lush garden of cancer clusters.
I called the chapter of the American Cancer Society and asked if the 24-hour exuberant Relay for Life reflected an overabundance of cancer in this town. A staffer assured me the annual event's size wasn't based on cancer incidence but on strong community ownership of it, an event upon which volunteers work all year long. She pointed out that rural Lenawee County generates $650, 000 at their Relay despite small population and cancer incidence. Comparisons can be made at an online chart of Cancer Incidence Trends for Michigan Residents 1985-97 at the website for the Michigan Department of Community Health. The chart shows an age-adjusted average rate of new cases in the state at about 41 a year per 10,000 population in the years 1995 to 1997, the same rate for Berry-growing Berrien County in 1997, Bay County's age-adjusted new cases rate for 1997 was 43, while Lenawee's is just under 40. Detroit fills most of Wayne County and the 1997 rate there was 44.7, while sandy Grand Traverse on Lake Michigan had a rate of 54.1 new cases that year. The statewide age-adjusted rate was about 50 for men and 35 for women.
Upon moving to Michigan from clean-living California -- where we had lived next door to the Superfund site that Netscape's corporate headquarters now sits atop -- I immediately noticed the proliferation of obese, smoking adults in the streets and stores around here. Many women are rotund and the men sport old-fashioned workingmen's cigars like Swisher Sweets and King Edwards clamped in their bearded jaws while grocery shopping, stocking their carts with fatty foods like kielbasa sausage, mild Pinconning cheese, and sweet, golden Vernors' ginger ale. In addition to being associated with lifestyle choices, cancer is also associated with unsafe working and living conditions. Eighteen miles away, Midland, Michigan is Dow Chemical's company town. A freight train on its way to or from Midland rumbles past our front window two or three times a day, often laden with chemical cars, sounding its whistle as it approaches the numerous barrier-less grade crossings at busy streets. I started wondering about this penetrating chemical presence when some vile organic substance bubbled up from a clogged pipe in our basement floor the day after we moved in.
At the "Relay for Life" the curving sidewalks through the park were lined with hundreds of paper cups shielding votive candles. Each cup had a small paper sign attached to it that listed the name and date of death of a cancer victim -- often adults who had died decades before -- or cancer survivor, as well as memorial messages or optimistic sentiments. As we approached the makeshift ground-level stage, a singer with the husky voice of Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder sang a quasi-rap with a chorus about "How you felt when you found out/That I was a Jesus Freak". Jesus Freak? Haven't heard that phrase used since the early 1970s. At that time a Jesus Freak was usually a gentle longhair irritating in his dogmatism but relatively benign. This was before the Reaganite Jerry Falwell and televangelist Pat Robertson made the media-savvy communion of angry evangelism and sociopolitical conservatism the dominant form of Protestant Christianity in public discourse.
The band looked young, twenty or under. As they wound up their set, they launched into the unmistakable opening riff of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and instantly the college-age and younger members of the audience perked up. Yet the words being sung to Nirvana's tune were not the taunts of depressed grunge rockers, but instead the lyrics to the 18th-century Protestant hymn "Amazing Grace." While the guitars raged and pounded, the familiar refrain that defined grunge in the public mind, "Load up on guns, bring your friends/It's fun to lose and to pretend" became "A-mazing grace how sweet the sound/that saved a wretch like me". The juxtaposition was surprising, and I wonder what moment of prayerful garage jamming led them to discover that the hymn's lyrics so snugly fit the tune. As the band roared on, the grass filled with fresh faced young people pogoing in cheerful, gangly fun as if at a church teen party. At song's end (that was their finale, and a good one) the band was introduced: "Freeslave! From Bay City and Saginaw. Let's hear it for Freeslave!" Free/Slave? The dialectic downright staggers. Caught up in the excitement, I wanted to lustily cheer "Give us Barabbas!" But instead we pulled out of the crowd and made our way home through the darkening light.
Even more recently, another riverside Bay City park hosted a tour of no fewer than five Christian rock bands. This tour was being underwritten by the Zondervan Foundation, a conservative religious publishing institution that was founded by Dutch settlers in Michigan. At that concert, I reflected that the last time I had been in a church in Michigan with adolescent rock and roll playing, all three teenage bands (including mine) wrapped up with the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog." Hmmm...have times changed all that much?
I left the Relay for Life wishing I knew more about the curious Freeslave. My Web search that evening--doesn't every garage band have a Web page?--bore no results. Are they perhaps trying to be, in a clunky teenage way, political in a Protestant version of Liberation Theology? Is this a young band that knowingly quotes historically from traditions of leftist politics informed by Christianity? An academic at the nearby state university campus recently told me that many radicals in the area first became activists in religiously-motivated opposition to the Vietnam War. Might Freeslave be their kids? I wish I knew where this rousing band stands in terms of this history.
Cancer, Christianity, Cobain. What a combination. Doesn't it roll off the tongue nicely? But beware, mellifluity can signal dangerous platforms. Adolf Hitler's program for women promoted "kinder, kirche und küche" (children, church and kitchen). Dwight Eisenhower vowed in 1952 his Presidency would fight "Communism, corruption and [in] Korea". One hundred and twenty years ago, American Catholics were accused of fomenting "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion." Yet rather than fomenting rebellion, this band with the politically edgy name of Freeslave instead seemed sorely in need of it. I give them credit for playing a nonprofit benefit, a time-honored tradition that around here goes back to 1971 when Grand Funk played a benefit for the antiwar Flint Freedom Reader. But I sincerely hope Freeslave's activism can become as suffused with analysis as it is with their agape. Their righteous, burning faith could impel them into tackling the political and economic conditions from which cancer epidemics spring head-on like a Dr. King (hell, even a Dr. Koop). But as they sing the body Christian, I fear these young creatives are instead only self-medicating. And each cell of misplaced, apolitical faith only metastasizes like Teen Spirit.
Mike Mosher is not the only member of the Bad Subjects Collective fated to ponder Grand Funk Railroad's politics and spirituality. Thanks to Megan Shaw Prelinger for editorial suggestions incorporated into this piece.