Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Chapter 1

"stryper has had several concert cancellations...but we'll be in San Jose on New Years Eve to set the record straight....and dont forget, 'to Hell with the Devil'...
-Phone message from Stryper's concert hotline

December 31, 1986. New Years Eve.

San Jose California about fifty miles south of San Francisco is gray and overcast. The weather is cold, damp, 41 Degrees. A wisp of misty rain is falling.

The lighted marquee above the beige-shaded, tile roofed Spanish-stucco Civic Auditorium on busy Market Street announces: "Stryper, Alcatrazz, 9 PM"

Strypers west coast tour has already been cut short with cancellations in two California cities, Redding and Sacramento. I was told poor ticket sales in Sacramento had caused that concert to be scrubbed, and Ive driven over two hours from California's capital city to see religious rocks most controversial band in concert.

Two hours before the show, a small cluster of youngsters has gathered outside the auditoriums entrance. An hour later, a line is stretching from the main doors down the sidewalk, and around the Market Street side of the building.

Beer cans and cigarretts are passed among some standing in line. The scent of marijuana wafts through the air. An empty six pacl pf California Cooler (a white whine/citrus drink) litters the sidewalk. Several liquor bottles have been dumped among the evergreens and shrubbery around the structure.

Only some ten people or so are admitted into the auditorium where they are physically searched. "No cameras, no tape recorders, no drugs, no weapons" shouts a burly man at the door wearing a red Stryper T-shirt proclaiming "To Hell With the Devil" in black and yellow letters on the front. A card pinned to his shirt says "Stryper
Staff"

Several long haired young men behind me are cursing over the line's slowness in the misty rain. Ticket scalpers call out "Get your tickets"

A long white lomousine pulls up and disgorges people after an extended wait - two men and a woman, all dressed in black. A few cars drop off teens not yet of driving age.

Instead of New Years Eve, it somehow seems like a belated Halloween with the dizzying array of offbeat clothes worn by most of the concert-goers. Many are dressed in punk or new-wave attire -spiked or colored hair, oversized shirts, black leather knuckle gloves, spiked armbands, boots. A number of girls wear short bright colored skirts, and heavy black eye makeup.

One thin young man dressed in black jeans, a black T-shirt and vest, black eye shadow, and sporting a cross earring, is forced to remove a set of metal chains and handcuffs wrapped around his waist. Several others are confronted at the door over their arm or wristbands of leather and metal.

Another boy, apparently in his late teens, is wearing thigh-high white leather boots witrh platform soles to match his spiked silver-blond hair. He is refused temporary admission until he romves spiked wristbands.

Inside the auditoriums front corridor against a wall called the "Freedom Shrine", a brisk business in Stryper souvenirs - photos, buttons, posters, bumper stickers, and T-shirts - is under way on either side of the twin doors leading to the main floor.

One of the oddest sights of the evening comes when a Catholic priest dons a red Stryper T-shirt announcing "to Hell With the Devil" and pulls the garment over his clerical collar and shirt then rolls up the sleeves revealing a tattooed cross on his left upper arm.

When asked about his actions, the priest identifies himself as a pastor of a Bay area Catholic church who has brought two teenage boys from his youth group to the concert. "I dont own a TV set" he says " but I have a radio and I prefer rock and roll"

The two teens dont buy a shirt but many of the T-shirt purchasers are like the Catholic priest. They put on the shirt immediately Its like a badge of identity.

Most of the crowd clearly are still in their teen years, although there seems to be a good number over twenty and beyond. Many are outfitted in skimpy black form fitting spandex or leather clothes, spiked or shoulder-length hair and garish colors.

Yet, they stand alongside a sprinkling of curiosity-seeking kids you'd expect to sit beside in church - short hair, modest dress and smiles.

By 8:30 p.m. the balcony has begun to fill with the noisy crowd. The area around the stage grows with several hundred of the early arrivals - many are smoking, talking and milling around.

Recorded heavy metal rock music starts about 8:45 pm over the auditoriums sound system the sound bounceingg off the stucco walls and echoing throughout the building.

"Do you know the names of any of those groups playing?" I asked a pudgy girl who looked about sixteen standing alone.

"Yeah" she answered, almost disinterested. "They've played Aerosmith and Van Halen so far"

"How do you like it?"

"Okay I guess"

"How about Stryper? Do you know anything about their message?"

"Not really" she said with a shrug of her shoulders.

"Do you like their music"

"Yeah"

"Why?

"I dont like the devil so I guess I like Stryper" she answered

'"Well you must be a Christian then? I smiled

"No"

Six San Jose policemen, clad in crisp blue uniforms trimmed in white and gold and long black nightsticks, patrol the auditorium's circular corridors. One of the cops - a tall muscular man with a thick mustache - talkes freely with me, identifying himself as a Christian.

"Is this the only place in San Jose for rock concerts?" I asked.

"Theyve had them elsewhere but there were problems with larger crowds at the Civic Center" he explained "so theyll only permit this place to be used. It greatly restricts the turnout but it also limits the problems."

"What do you think about a rock group like Stryper that sings religious lyrics?"

His brow furrowed. "The sound and the message seem totally incompatible" he replied thoughtfully.

"Do you have any teenagers" I questioned.

"Yes - four girls"

"Would you let them come to a concert like this?"

"No" he said firmly, " and if they tried, Id go as far as to lock them in their bedrooms."

at 9 o'clock, Alcatrazz, a five-man rock group from the San Fransico Bay area hits the stage and rocks through 45 minutes of loud, ear-assaulting songs. The groups lead singer , a man with short hair wearing a sport jacket and slacks, stands out in sharp contrast to his band - most of which are wearing shoulder-length hair and surly looks.

None of the group's songs ever touch on a gospel theme or message. Their second number is fairly typical - a 1986 version of Eric Burdon and the Animals' hit from 1964 - Its My Life.. and Ill do what I want.

The songs lyrics seem to characterize what most everybody associated with this concer has in mind.

Two men in their mid-twenties who identify themselves as being involved in a street ministry just getting started in San Jose tell me they see Stryper speaking to a part of the culture the church is not reaching.

"The concert has been promoted entirely over rock stations in the area and has been handled by Bill Graham, the secular rock producer" reported the younger of the two men, dressed in black leather and wearing two earrings in his left ear.

"Id say the kids are about 80 percent from the world and about 20 percent Christian" he continued. What'll happen to these kids tonight" I probed?

"Oh theyll hear the Gospel - no question about that. Thats the whole object...and we have tracts to give out. We'll be witnessing."

"Well thats what Ive come to hear" I said. "But Im also interested in why they have a group like Alcatrazz on the show"

"Thats just to bring in more kids not connected to the church in any way... and I think it worked" the short, hyperactive man offered"

Walking downstairs waiting for Alcatrazz to finish its performance, I encounter four clean-cut teenage boys and a girl sitting on some steps to the balcony. They indentify themselves as members of a church whose pastor is a prominent evangelical leader.

My question was obvious: "Why are you hear?"

"I heard Stryper a couple years ago in L.A." one boy answered. "They really impressed me then with their show and then going out into the audience to talk with people. I wanted to see what they are doing now."

"Ive never seen them before" another teen told me. "Thats why I came."

"Do you think they are really reaching anybody for the Lord" I asked.

"We're not to judge" said a teenage boy with strong brown eyes. "That wouldnt be our place"

"Im not talking about judging them" I explain. "Im talking about discerning the difference between the holy and the unholy. What about Jesus' words about false individuals coming in His name? What about the Bible's warning on conforming to the worlds standards?"

"Some of that is so confusing" one of the boys says, a little bewildered. "Everybody has his point of view and sounds so right"

The crowd which appears to have reached between 1,500 anbd 2000 (nobocy can give me a closer estimate), seems bored with the Alcatrazz group in spite of their loud, frantic sound and dancing antics on stage. Everybody has clearly come to see Stryper.

Finally, Alcatrazz has finished its depressing efforts and stagehands move at breakneck speed to clear away the equipment. A large sign proclaiming "To Hell with the Devil" in bright yellow and black letters dominates the backdrop.

The stage is now clothed in jet blackness. The house lights have also dimmed.

At 10:18 pm the eerie strands of Strypers instrumental song "Abyss" begins rising through the sound system imitation a trip into Dantes Inferno evoking visions of the netherworld.

Immediately the crowd of several hundred standing in front of the stage erupts, chanting in unison: "Stryper, Stryper Stryper."

In the balcony and throughout the main floor, cigarette lighters are lit and held high as some symbol of welcome while others are waving their right arms back and forth.

The ethereal sounds of Abyss - punctuated by the sound effects of moans, groans and yelps - dominates the auditorium for what seems like an endless amount of time. Excitement builds...interest peaks...the air seems charged.

Then gradually at first, then gaining speed, lights begin flashing on stage - first red, then blue, then yellow. Now - faster and faster and faster they flash.

Suddenly...CRASH...BAM...BOOM!!!

The stage ignites in a crescendo of lights, sights, and sounds. All four members of Stryper - Robert and Michael Sweet, Oz Fox, and Tim Gaines - are in place and roaring into the deafening sounds of their first song, "To Hell With the Devil"

The crowd pressing against the stage, is screaming its approval; many are dancing. Hands clap' bodies boogie to the beat. Lights flash..red-blue-yellow. Spotlights blaze.

The thre up-front musicians - Gaines, Fox, and Michael Sweet - are gesturing at the audience shaking their heads of shoulder-length hair, dancing and strutting across the stage.

Drummer Robert Sweet, long blonde hair flying, flails away on drums inside a setting which looks something like a childs swing set which has been painted yellow and black.

The stage is dominated by the drum set and two runways leading to platforms on either side fo the drummers setting. Of course everything is painted yellow and black as are the guitars, the drums, and the bands spandex-and-leather outfits.

The sound level is deafening almost beyond belief. The bone-crunching ear shattering, guitar dominated music is exploding throughout the auditorium by the way of twenty speakers - ten each located on either side of the stage.

In the balcony, the words of the songs are indestinguishable. One of the street preachers has taken a seat nearby and I ask, "Can you understand any of these lyrics.

"Not really" he smiles "but you get used to it".

My policeman friend walks past on patrol. "Can you hear what the group is singing?" I asked.

"Nope"

From upstairs I have noticed four of Strypers road crew standing between the stage and the first row of people pressing forward trying to reach the band. Occasionally an overzealous fan is pushed back from the stage.

After some twenty minutes i the balcony, I decide to get a closer view by going to the first floor. I want to see everything up closer - particularly one long-haired young man who has stripped off his leather vest and is dancing alone to the bands beat in the center of the floor.

Standing on the first floor gives an entirely differenc picture of the concert than in the balcony - yet most of the crowd is upstairs - maybe for safetys sake.

Fifty feet away from the stage itself, the floor is vibration to the bands throbbing rhythm as Michael Sweet sings "rocking because you died for me". In fact the beat seems to pulsate almost unbelievably at this range - my chest seems to literally be heaving from the sound . The sound is numbing.

After playing and dancing through three or four songs, lead singer Michael Sweet says to the crowd: "I see this is a rock and roll crowd tonight"

The crowd, especially those pressed against the front of the stage, shouts approval and soon the group is blasting its way through another series of songs.

Steve Rabey's book, "The Heart OF Rock and Roll" did not sell Stryper short in describing the groups musical abilities -

"...These guys cook. We're not talking just simmer or medium warm here, but boiling smoldering power-driven rock"

Energetic and any related adjective in the book would describe Strypers on-stage performance: vigorous, active, forceful, strenuous, dynamic, animated, tireless.

Many in the crowd seem to know the Stryper songs - singing the chorus of a number with the group or shouting back a slogan. Arms continue to be raised in unison and the index finger held up. A few dance, but most stay glued to the stage.

Between one song, Michael tells the crowd, "We've found you dont need drugs or booze. We've got something better - Jesus" The moment is brief and the band is quickly back into another song.

At 10:47 p.m., the lead singer announces: "We've got a gift for you". All four musicians throw out yellow and black striped New Testements which land among the several hundred standing around the stage area.

Perhaps some 50 New Testements in all are tossed out, and people dive for the tiny books wherever they are thrown. The effort of throwing New Testements is standard for all Stryper concerts.

Yet, the 50 New Testements given away seem a far cry from the 500 TIME magazine suggested or ever Robert Sweet's comments to HIT PARADER magazine January 1987 issue, "We spend about $1000 a night on Bibles..."

At 11 p.m., Michael Sweet sings a ballad, but the songs tempo quickens considerable before it ins in a clashing finish. He tells the crowd: "If it wasnt for you (pointing to the people), we wouldnt be here, and if it wasnt for Jesus Christ, none of this would be possible...and Ive mad a New Years resolution to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ all over the world.

A few applaud. Several cheer. But most of those around the stage mumble in seeming disagreement at his words.

"Lets rock and roll" he shouts, and quickly the band is back into another body-pounding, ear-jamming song.

Michaels brief statement is as close as the group ever gets in presenting anything resembling the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Throughout the concert guitarist Oz Fox has danced up and down the yellow and black runway to the platform beside the drum set. Bassist Tim Gaines, a thin young man with a lone mane of blonde hair, has shaken his head continously during the concert. My neck aches from just watching.

At one point, Michael Sweet dances over to the left side of the stage and plays an imaginary guitar across the genital area of his body while strutting and swinging his hips to the music beat.

THe group briefly leaves the stage after one of its crowd-rousing numbers only to be called back for an expected encore.

Robert Sweet is pouring a bottle of liquid over his head as he walks back to his drum set. In one fluid movement he pulls off his yellow and black shirt with the numbers 777 on the back and hurls it toward the crowd.

The groups last song is also the title of an earlier album, SOLDIERS UNDER COMMAND. As they finish, Michal Sweet shouts, "Jesus Christ rocks," and the group leaves the stage.

At 11:30 p.m., eight enormous bags of ballons hanging from the auditorium ceiling begin falling and popping before hitting the floor. The cross behind the Stryper stage setting blazes.

A young woman representing a TV station in San Francisco introduces herself to me. She's spent the afternoon interviewing the group and plans a profile soon for a program. When she hears this book is being written with Jimmy Swaggart, her lips seem to curl.

"These guys seem to really have a message," she says in Strypers defense, "and they're sure not making any money at it"

"Well, somebody is at $18.50 a ticket," I answered.

A spotlight technician is removing earplugs from his ears. "Im a professional... I do this for a living," he explains. "If I dont wear earplugs, Ill have a terrible headache tomorrow. Its happened before..thats wwhy I wear them."

My eardrums seem to vibrate. It willbe a full twenty-four hours before I feel as if Im not talking inside a barrel.

People leave the auditorium like hundres of ants fleeing a disrupted antbed. I never see the two street ministers again - nor did I ever see them passing out tracts in the concert. Outside, the misty rain falls. The limo waits for its passengers. Perents pick up their offspring.

A homeless man and woman who had been sitting ona park bench behind the auditorium are now gone. The strains of the song, "He Is Worthy to be Praised" come from a meeting room at the Holiday Inn where I've parked. Its a New Years Eve metting of the Christian Businessmen of Silicon Valley.

"Such a contrast," I think to myself as my wife and I stop to hear the worshipful, harmonious praise offered to God.

As we drive past the auditorium, a handful of teens - mostly girls - are standing in the alleyway around the bus and transport truck which apparently hauls Stryper, its equipment, and its crew. The faithful are waiting for a glimpse.

"What have I witnessed", I pondered.

No question about it, I have just seen a sight-and-sound "show" by four talented young men. But far worse, I have also watched as hundreds of young people - maybe even a thousand or more - in desperate need of a Saviour walked out without any opportunity to receive Him, the Source of all life.

Instead of hearing a clear-cut, straightforward presentation of teh Gospel, these young people have been treated to a shallow substitute - a musical Jesus who rocks and rolls. What a shame. It is an unbiblical, pitiful portrait of the humble Galilean, the sovereign Son of the Living God.

My heart aches over such misguided, unfit efforts in the name of the Lord.

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