For my birthday last month my friend and patron Norman took me to see Gungor.
The experience was surreal.
The show itself was—in the words of Mike the Science Guy—consciously “weird” (although I think what he meant was “post-modern”). Before the show I was chatting it up with the gentleman behind the bar, and when he discovered that I wasn’t especially familiar with the band, he informed me that he’d listened to the sound-check.
“Sounded like a lot of synthesizers and modulation,” he said, shrugging. “You got to respect it.”
I think he meant, “It’s good if you like hipster with a nonaggressive liberal Christian bent.”
I enjoyed the music.
Then: Science Mike. He introduced us to Last Days in the Desert starring Ewan McGregor as Jesus, wrapping up his forty-day stint in the desert. In a contemporary psychological twist McGregor also plays the satan that plagues Jesus in the wilderness (I’m not sure biblical Jesus is supposed to be a fair-skinned Englishman anymore, but at least the devil is also white). Science Mike sold it pretty good.
The show itself was a concoction of existential philosophy, natural science, mystical spirituality, inclusive hope, and electricity. The music is harder to describe. Gungor doesn’t seem to be confined to a particular genre or style. I’m not a music critic, but I’m pretty sure I heard a broad stylistic sampling, including rock-house blues (Let the Waters), worship ballads (Beautiful Things), melancholy introspection (Vapor), and the crunched-up modded stuff with a frequently throttled bass (Album: Soul). I spent most of the evening close to the stage, directly in front of the speaker stack.
The surreality of the evening wasn’t just in the nature of the show.
Gungor played that night at Social Hall SF in downtown San Francisco, on Sutter Street, where a magical parking spot awaited us beside the forming line.
Directly across the street from Social Hall SF is 1227 Sutter Street.
Today, 1227 Sutter Street is a mosque, but twenty-five years ago it housed the church into which I was born—the Apostolic Faith Church: evangelical, fundamentalist, Pentecostal.
Today I’m not fundamentalist, nor Pentecostal, nor even Protestant. I’ve gone a different way.
But I still have dreams (literally) about the old San Francisco church—the old Bay Bridge, the neon JESUS sign, the urine-drenched alley, the gated back door, the orangish carpet and the Sunday School rooms, the creepy utility closet with the dusty central heater, the prayer room, the kitchen and the soda machine, the storage closet with the fire pole dropping down into the sewers, the twisty staircase leading to the pastor’s study and the library in the attic, the upstairs nursery overlooking the sanctuary, the vent looking down into the women’s changing room, the pillared sanctuary, the pews under which I would crawl and play, the leather platform chairs where my father often sat, the music room, the wide staircase leading down to the back door.
In my dreamscapes these rooms and hallways frequently bleed into other churches—the Woodlake church, the Portland church, the Tehachapi church, the Campgrounds. But Sutter Street runs through them all.
Today that church is gone. Years ago the congregation built themselves a better building in a nearby suburb across the bay. Someone convinced the city to declare the neon JESUS sign a local historical landmark, so the building’s new occupants painted it green and covered it in golden Arabic script. The sign itself is still there—it just doesn’t scream JESUS anymore.
Before we got in line for Gungor we crossed the street and peeked through the front door of our old haunt. In my memories, the entry foyer is vast, and Joe the surly white-haired usher guards the entrance. Now the entryway is small and cramped. Things have changed since I was five. Instead of surly Joe is an imam (I think), inspecting the strangers inspecting his mosque. We smiled and left to celebrate another year of adulthood.
And now some Gungor: