I’ve been a fan of Michael Knott’s work with his various Lifesavers Underground-related projects and incarnations for many years. I’m convinced that Shaded Pain is one of the greatest Christian albums of all time, and someday I’ll spend some time here on Opus making that case. But a close second to Shaded Pain is Cash In Chaos — World Tour. That album, driven by Knott’s financial ruin and inspired by his experiences living in Los Angeles’ seedier neighborhoods, is a bizarre piece of work. It’s dark and ominous, yet at times, rather funky (due to Erick Coomes’ bass-playing).
I’ve listened to the album’s third song, “Pound of Flesh”, countless times, and every time I listen to it, one thing comes to mind: Chicago circa 1994. More specifically, a Chicago winter retreat that saw my high school youth group reconnecting with our beloved youth pastor who had recently taken a new job in the Windy City. We were staying in dorms, and as was usually the case during such retreats, we pretty much ran all over the building. It was well past midnight (and no doubt well past curfew), and we were nowhere near our beds. Rather, we were sitting in some random room playing games, eating junk food, and listening to music.
Most of my youth group peers were into artists like Audio Adrenaline, Newsboys, and of course, DC Talk. (Free at Last had recently come out, and was an absolute juggernaut in youth group circles.) But there were a couple of us who listened to, shall we say, more unconventional fare. I had recently discovered “Christian alternative” artists like Mortal, The Violet Burning, The Prayer Chain, and of course, Michael Knott. And for whatever reason that night — perhaps everyone else was too busy playing Hearts — my friend Daniel gained control of the boombox and slipped in Cash in Chaos — World Tour.
Soon enough, the hazy, hallucinatory sounds of “Pound of Flesh” — e.g., Erick Coomes’ creeping bassline, Brian Doidge’s mirage-like guitar — began filling the room. I was now listening to Michael Knott sing about despair, depravity, and desperation on a youth group retreat. Youth group culture, however, was often about ignoring or suppressing such dark themes. The music’s laid-back haziness may have been appropriate for the late night setting, and yet, one doesn’t normally listen to songs like “Pound of Flesh” (with its mentions of topless worlds and liquor) when chilling with their youth group.
It was a short-lived moment — the playlist was soon switched back to the likes of “Jesus Is Just Alright” — but it still remains with me, nearly two decades later. To this day, I can’t listen to “Pound of Flesh” without being sent back in time and transformed, Quantum Leap style, into that gangly high school kid sitting in a darkened room in Chicago in the dead of winter. And yet, why that particular scene, that particular experience with a song that I’ve listened to so many times since?
There are many reasons why a particular song might remain with you over the years. Perhaps it reminds you of falling in love (or getting your heart broken), your wedding day, the birth of your child, or some other deeply emotional event. But what was so emotional or resonant about sitting in a dorm in the wee hours of the morning while watching others play some random game? What was so compelling about that moment in the early ‘90s that my memory always snaps back to it as soon as Erick Coomes’ bassline creeps out of the speakers?
I doubt I’ll ever figure it out. Perhaps the odd disparity between the song’s subject matter and the listening environment crystallized into one of those musical moments simply because it was so… off. Still, I suspect that when I listen to “Pound of Flesh” even in my fifties, sixties, and beyond, that memory will still surface, as poignant — and mystifying — as ever.