THE CHRISTIAN HUMPER A FICTIONAL ZINE
ISSUE No. 54 - Spring 2017

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THE CHRISTIAN HUMPER is a personal zine published erratically since 1991. Topics covered are vast, ranging from candy bar reviews to girl troubles, but usually focus primarily on Christian Rock. If you’re new to the zine, perhaps an explanation of the title is in order? The only thing less cool than being a Christian Rocker in the ‘90s was being a Christian Rock fan in the ‘90s. During my junior year of high school, awkwardly wedged between youth group on Wednesday nights and punk kids on the weekends, a good but mean (non-Christian) friend named Curtis assigned me a sticky nickname because I loved Jesus, but also liked to bone girls.


"EX-TOUR BUS DRIVER"

A super-old dude lives across the street in a cool atomic ranch he’s kept honest and true. The only modern edition I see is a tall dual-bay garage on the back of the lot which houses an old but pristine, classic, road-dog tour bus. It’s chrome everywhere, and shines like a motherfucker when he pulls it out a few times each year to fire the engine and let it idle as he hoses off the collected dust.

Until recently, I’d not met him — only waved a thousand times or so in passing. Shameful, really. I definitely had plans to bake cookies and introduce myself when I first moved in. Plans.

The man has deteriorated since I first arrived. At the time, he was still maintaining his own lawn with an antique riding mower and a loud, gas-powered trimmer he handled like a lasso. A real badass in blue jeans with no shirt in the Tennessee heat, old as hell, but strong. Leathery, sagging folds of flesh wrapped across his chest and arms, still packed with muscle. But now he moves slowly, and hunches when he walks. The crooked angle of his back is more severe with each season, his torso closer and closer to 90 degrees with his legs. A few summers ago, a young guy started coming by to cut the grass.

The old man still takes the garbage cans to the curb every week on his own, which doesn’t sound like such a task, but the yards out here are huge. He rolls those bulky containers, one at a time, down what must be an acre of driveway; two trips down and back, one for trash and one for recycling. It leaves him visibly winded. I watch sometimes, distanced behind my front window. A few days ago, we finally met face-to-face.

______
And, that long-overdue meeting is the very reason you’re holding a new issue of the zine! 

My god, it’s been so long since the last one. I missed the 25th Anniversary, so this one here marks 26 Years of Humpin’! I honestly hadn’t planned on making new issues at all, ever. A year or so ago, I started telling myself (and anyone who would listen) I’d put all the past issues together into a fat retrospective, a big-ass History of Christian Rock, personalized through my own little folded-paper time capsules.

But I’ve been going through those old issues, and I have to tell you: the writing is shit, the editing and design even worse. Along with crushing shame and regret, I’m also noticing tons of giant gaps. So many stories half-told, entire years missed, big moments and crucial tidbits unaccounted for. Now I feel an itch to fill those gaps in. 

Lately, surprisingly, I find myself aiming for something more ambitious than simply compiling the old stuff. Not an actual, factual history, really, because my memory is most definitely shot to shit. Ask any of my friends, my mind cannot be relied upon. I’ve also spent some time searching Christian Rock online, looking for inspiration, something to jog my brain, and I’m shocked to find so little out there. That weird pocket of time, so uncool maybe no one even thought to document it at all! Pre-digital camera, way before blogs and social media, this shit is like a secret history confined to fading verbal stories passed around.

There are one or two decently researched books out there covering the topic, and doing it just fine. I’ll leave the facts to the journalists. Not to mention, some of my true stories might get me sued, or at least strongly disliked by some close friends and acquaintances.

No, if I’m going to tell my whole story, it’ll have to be littered with half-truths, straight lies, and plenty of things remembered wrongly. I’m gonna put it all into a goddamn novel, something true but made up! This new issue of The Humper’s gonna be like warming up. Calisthenics. Cracking the knuckles. Idling the engine!
 

______

My friend Brad is aware of the secret tour bus, and the co-author of my neighbor’s imaginary history. During many long walks around the neighborhood, we’ve built up a nice mythology around a retired owner-operator driving Christian acts in the ‘80s, connecting dots on routings between churches, amusement parks, and backwoods festivals. According to me and Brad, this guy’s got insane stories to share with us about driving Micheal W. Smith in 1983. The young Nashville songwriter was the opening act for Amy Grant, who was already wildly successful on the Christian circuit and on the heels of that elusive mainstream crossover success.

At the tail end of a walk, Brad and I find ourselves coming up on the old man doing his trash cans. We make a hasty decision to quicken our pace and reach him before he turned back up the drive.

James Callum still has a few wisps of thin white hair which fly wild in the wind. Liver spots are faded maps over his head, lips, and neck. His eyes are cloudy. He’s missing at least ten-and-a-half teeth, just a partial row on the lower-left side of his mouth still in line. The entire lower-right side is just loose, pink gums, and he’s held on to a few stray, dingy whites scattered around up top. But I’ll tell you, his smile is warm and his vibe is friendly as we walk up and say hello.

He’s got on a green flight jacket, military-style, with a name tag sewn on the chest and an embroidered patch on the sleeve that looks to be Air Force. I’m in a pretty cool Levi's jacket from the outlet mall with a Mountain Goats patch on the sleeve, enamel milk and cookies pins on the collar. Brad’s wearing an R.E.M. t-shirt, for fuck’s sake. The differences here make our imagined common ground feel suddenly not so common, frankly, and half of me wishes we hadn’t stopped to talk at all.

______
But, I mean, let’s not let the truth get in the way of a good story, yeah?

He’s got on a green flight jacket, almost cool-kid style, and sewn on the arm I spot a frayed, embroidered patch, I shit you not, which reads REZ in blood-red stitching. Short for Resurrection Band, REZ is definitive early Christian Rock from the Jesus People USA movement. I look at Brad and can tell he’s seen it and nearly shit himself, too.

______

James’s voice is shaky. It’s the same with his hand, which he extends to Brad and then to me, and asks how long I’ve lived across the street. “Been over there a year or two, haven’t ya?”

“Actually, five years.”

“Heh. That’s time for you, right?” he says. “Well, I seen ya come and go so many times, I figure one day we’d meet.”

James built his house in ’62, when the road leading through here was still made of dirt. I ask if he recalls my place being built. “I think I do. Probably early ’64. Builders were in the neighborhood by then. Road was paved, houses goin’ up quick.” 

He tells us half his property used to belong to the Nashville Electric Service. “Had a substation sitting on it. They shut it down, late ‘70s, and auctioned the parcel off.” James points toward the house next door. “That used to be William living over there. We bid each other up at city auction for the lot,” he says. “William wanted to put in a goddam swimming pool, but I needed to build that garage.”

Brad and I exchange glances, our eyebrows jumping up on our foreheads. This is our entry point.

“Right! Right!” Brad says. “You know, we’ve noticed that old tour bus you’ve got parked in there. We’ve wondered about the story behind it.”

James crooks his head to the side, purses his lips, narrows his eyes. “Eh,” he says, tentatively looking over his shoulder to the garage. “Well, it’s a mobile home.” 

You can almost hear a drooping sound effect, or maybe those sad horns after a loss on The Price is Right blasting through the neighborhood. Story ruined, myth debunked! Disappointment drips off our shoulders, and I’m sure James feels it, too.

“Hm,” he grunts. “Long retired, I’m afraid. You want to see it?”

We accept the invitation, swallowing the let-down as best we can.

James nods, then turns and starts a slow shuffle up the driveway toward the garage. He fiddles with a lock for what seems like days, then finally hoists the door by laboriously pulling a rope on a loop. Brad and I stand back, watching the slow reveal as the door creeps up with each lurch of that cord. First the jet-black rubber of the tires, the sexy curves of a fender, perfectly round headlights in duplicate on both sides of the enormous machine’s face, giant windows with long wipers resting on the glass. 

“Wow. It’s beautiful,” I say.

“She is, isn’t she?” Slightly sad vibe, but also proud. “Been years since I’ve had her on the road. Thought about selling her many times. Can’t bring myself to do it. Years ago, I thought maybe we’d take one more trip. Never made it as far west as we’d like. The wife’s not doing so good anymore.”

______
Or, maybe:

“Right! Right!” Brad says. “You know, we’ve noticed that old tour bus you’ve got parked in there. We’ve wondered about the story behind it.”

“Oh, yes. The Steed,” he says, dragging the nickname out like it’s spelled with seven e’s. “Long retired, I’m afraid. You want to see it?”

Duh. We accept the invitation, thrilled.

James grins and nods, then turns and starts the slow shuffle up the driveway toward the garage. He fiddles with a lock for what seems like days, then finally hoists the door by laboriously pulling a rope on a loop. Brad and I stand back, watching the slow reveal as the door creeps up with each lurch of that cord. First the jet-black rubber of the tires, the sexy curves of a fender, perfectly round headlights in duplicate on both sides of the enormous machine’s face, giant windows with long wipers resting on the glass. 

“Wow. It’s beautiful,” I say.

“She is, isn’t she?” Slightly sad vibe, but also proud. “Been years since I’ve had her on the road. Thought about selling her many times. Can’t bring myself to do it. Used to think I’d get one more tour in, but musta been late in the ‘90s, all the acts were workin’ with the big guys then. There’s a lot up north of here, hundreds of these all owned by one guy. Lower rates. Little army of young drivers. Modern, I guess.”


______

James swings open the door to the bus, and waves us up the steps. The driver’s seat is like an American throne, and a smaller but equally plush jump seat has been custom-built right next to it, obviously for James’s wife to ride along closely. He climbs up behind us.

“Here she is,” he says. “Served us well. Go on back.”

Inside, a bulb-like screen of a tube TV is nestled into a panel behind the cockpit and faces two couches, a serviceable table, and a well-equipped kitchenette which makes up the front half of the bus. A set of four bunks and some storage run along the sides down the middle, and a comfy master suite fills the back.

“Wow. James, it’s incredible,” Brad says, disappointment mostly gone now, softened by the knick-knacks decorating the interior. An old map with twenty or thirty scattered pins stuck in is mounted next to a framed display of collectable spoons hanging on the walnut wood paneling. There are postcards, received or unsent, tacked up on a corkboard, and shot glasses from Atlantic City. It’s frozen in time, and we look at James and see he’s under the spell, too.

“Where’d you guys go, James?” I ask. “Any favorite sites?”

“Oh, quite a few,” he says. He rubs his hand slowly over his dome, pulling the little tufts of hair down over his forehead again and again, like he could coax the memories out that way. 

“You boys mind if we sit a minute?” he asks, already in a slow-motion descent onto one of the couches. We hang for an hour or so, asking questions and getting some great stories about the Dunes in Northern Indiana, the glory days of Miami tourism, rodeos in Texas, a few Presidential libraries, weddings, funerals, and more.

When we get up to leave, James heads back down the steps at a snail’s pace. Waiting behind him, I notice a faded Polaroid sitting on the dash, a younger James and his wife on a beach somewhere. His t-shirt has a print of the Tennessee flag, his lady is stunning with big hair and a dark tan. I give Brad an elbow, and point it out.

“What’s your wife’s name, James?” Brad asks.

“Ethel,” he says, coming down the last step. “I call her Ethey.” He looks toward the house, stares a few seconds. “She’d sure love to meet you boys, and she’d have some stories I’ve forgot, no doubt.” 

“What was the last place you visited together?” Brad asks.

He thinks for a moment. “Minnesota State Fair,” he answers somberly. “Long time ago.”

______

Ok, well shit. Pretty good little story. Better than ours, really. Or maybe not better. Different.

James swings open the door to the bus, and waves us up the steps. The driver’s seat is like an American throne, and a smaller but equally plush jump seat has been custom-built right next to it, probably for a tour manager to ride along closely. He climbs up behind us.

“Here she is,” he says. “Served us well. Go on back.”

Inside, a bulb-like screen of a tube TV is nestled into a panel behind the cockpit and faces two couches, a serviceable table, and a well-equipped kitchenette which makes up the front half of the bus. A set of eight bunks are stacked along the sides down the middle, and a comfy lounge fills the back.

“Wow. James, it’s incredible,” Brad says, so pleased to be getting a glimpse inside, both of us gawking at the knick-knacks decorating the interior. An old map with a thousand scattered pins stuck in is mounted next to a few framed gold records hanging on the walnut wood paneling. There are postcards, received or unsent, tacked up on a corkboard, and shot glasses from Vegas. It’s frozen in time, and we look at James and see he’s under the spell, too.

“Who’d you drive for, James?” I ask. “Anyone we’d know?”

“Oh, quite a few,” he says. He rubs his hand slowly over his dome, pulling the little tufts of hair down over his forehead again and again, like he could coax the memories out that way. 

“You boys mind if we sit a minute?” he asks, already in a slow-motion descent onto one of the couches. We hang for an hour or so, asking questions and getting stories about an all-female traveling choir touring through the midwest guesting at various churches, a stint driving Patti Smith, a tour he picked up with with Stryper, which he shrugs off promising us it was boring, which is a giant bummer. Toward the end of his career, he was driving a group of guys “doing Christian rap, if you could even believe it,” which you have to assume was DC Talk.

“Who was your favorite to drive?” 

Without hesitation, he says: “Oh, that’s easy. My favorite was always my first act. Nashville guy you might know. Mike Smith? Saw him not long ago, actually. He comes by now and again to check up on me. Still after it with the touring, as I understand it.”

Can you see Brad and me right now? Can you sorta see what our faces are doing thinking of him actually here in the hood? “Sorry, James, do you mean Michael W. Smith?”

He smiles wide. “We called him Mike. Started with him in ’83. He was the opening act for Amy Grant, who had the big hits, you know? But he was an up-and-comer.”

"My older sisters loved him," I say. “I have very clear memories of watching the two of them rollerskating around the patio in our backyard, making up little routines to his songs."

"Sisters, yeah?” James laughs. “Well, that makes perfect sense to me. You know, that one lived it better than some of those others playing the church circuit. Saw his bare ass one night!” he says and then covers his mouth like he’s said something maybe he shouldn’t.

Now, Michael W. Smith records were canon for youth groups everywhere. Long drives in rented vans to remote church retreats were reliably soundtracked with his greatest hits, the pretty and pure girls singing along with big smiles, flirty but safe. I hold close to a late-summer night memory, reclined in the very back bench of one of those vans. It was pitch black in the night with most of the kids asleep, Micheal W. Smith playing quietly through the speakers singing about Friends or Rain or whatever, my hand inside Beth Bronson's sweatshirt, her fleshy tits sticky from the heat; sensitive, twitching and squirming, but not stopping me. 

The guilt around that shit was a weight to carry, no doubt, but many years later I recall watching an interview with “Mike” on CNN promoting his new book which revealed all sorts of ungodly behavior. Drugs and girls and all of it, early in his career, when he was writing some of his most beloved songs. Guilt diminished!

“Sounds like you’ve held back the best stories, James!”

He laughs and hesitates, but it’s not long before he’s filling us in on what he calls a “brief period” in the early days. Mike was still in that transition to Upstanding Christian Pop Star, and they’d end up with girls on the bus after the gigs, the stink of weed wafting from under the back lounge’s door. It was well beyond anything Brad and I could have made up during those neighborhood walks, and wholly satisfying.

When we get up to leave, James heads back down the steps at a snail’s pace. But just before stepping out, he stops and turns back. “Ah. You know what? Lemme me play somethin’ for you.” He pulls himself back up the steps, plops down into the driver’s seat, turns the key one notch, and the dash lights up. He presses in a button on the stereo. “Gotta rewind it.”

When James hits play and the hissing tape starts, it takes just a second to recognize that voice. Micheal W. Smith is loudly (drunkenly?) singing the chorus of the fan-favorite song “Friends” over and over. You can hear a giggling female in the background. If you don’t know the song, the lyrics go like this:

And friends are friends forever, if the Lord's the Lord of them
And a friend will not say never, ‘cause the welcome will not end
Though it's hard to let you go, in the Father's hands we know
That a lifetime's not too long, to live as friends

But here, on this unbe-fucking-lievable relic, the words — originally written by Mike’s wife! — are replaced with the following simple, but potent changes:

And a fan's a fan forever, if the Lord's the Lord of them
And a fan will buy a ticket, when I'm through this town again
Though I want to keep it clean, we all know that Mike’s got needs
And The Steed’s back lounge door locks, to hide the weed

Obviously at this point, we’re literally giving this old man high-fives, going straight bananas, cackling like little kids!

“Thought you boys might like that. He made that tape early on the first run after a show one night using a handheld recorder. Mike and the band and crew couldn’t get enough of the damn thing. For a while there, it was our little ritual leaving the venues. I’d pop this in and we’d roll out between the white lines to the next one.”


______

Walking back down the long driveway after saying goodbye, Brad says confidently: “That's a tour bus. I don't care if he calls it a mobile home. Same thing."

 

 

Story by Adam Voith
Illustration by Jesse LeDoux at LEDOUXVILLE
Design & printing by Ryan Nole at THE RISO DIVISION