Story Behind the Story 02
In high school my little brother and I played a lot of live music with school friends, which is against the Jehovah's Witness (JW) rules in many ways. We were also loosely friends with ~20 local Witness musicians. Although within a couple of years most of them left the religion. For us the common ground among most of our friends was music and creativity. We bought our neighbors land and house when he died. It became a free, all-hours, practice space and eventually a recording studio for many local musicians, mostly high school friends. We called it The Crib after MTV Cribs which was popular at the time. It’s mostly a joke because this place was a humble little house in the forest of the Northwoods. Music defined our teenage years and early twenties while we navigated two worlds. I never experienced a conflict with music and religion. Meanwhile Witness teenagers were having their music collections thrown away by their parents which I never understood. My dad confessed he was pressured to do something about our music but was keeping the pressure off of us. He cared more about us gaining immortality with him than some petty squabble or disagreement about some MP3s we downloaded or CDs we bought. He joined the religion in his thirties and had introduced us to his hard rock record collection from when he was a teenager. He couldn’t really keep that while destroying ours.
I had finished all high school course requirements as a Junior but went for one more year for friends and our amazing art department. It was an incredible year for art and music for me. A few of us musicians played a couple times per week and had a pretty vast collection of live songs we could play. We were invited to play a house party for prom. I'm the only Witness I ever met who went to prom. A girl I barely knew asked me to go with her. My bassist friend and I did a double date at a cute little place in forest that served dinner and pie. I didn't like dancing so we bailed on most of the festivities to get ready to play the after party. It was in this log mansion one of our friends' families owned in the Northwoods complete with alcohol and some drugs. We played for about one and a half hours for about thirty friends. It was a great highlight of our high school live band social life.
Road Trip to Tijuana
Since higher education is off limits in this religion I had to make other plans. Just before most of my friends went off to college I went traveling on a five weeks trip with two hometown skateboarding friends to check out the west coast. We did a road trip from Wisconsin to: Glacier National Park, Montana, Vancouver, B.C., Seattle, Washington, Portland, Oregon and Los Angeles, California. We even dipped into Tijuana. We drank in Canada and Mexico at 19, not that alcohol was new for any of us but just for the novelty of it. Those two guys were amazing friends. We did a lot together in high school and I cherish those memories. You could say that this trip was the first moment that I had a break from the relentless boredom of the religion. A Lutheran, a Pentecostal and a Jehovah's Witness walk into a bar in Tijuana...
We stayed with a friend of a friend in Pasadena. He let us use his surfboard, took us hiking in Angeles National Forest and also invited us to attend his church. The social pressure of it being rude and also boring to sit alone in his apartment plus my curiosity for new experiences made me think, ‘Yes, let’s see what this is like.’ So we went on that Sunday. I was surprised by how much more interesting it was and how much more comfortable it was to be there with those people in a church than what I had spent my whole life experiencing at JW meetings. That impacted me. There he gave me a thick brochure/magazine that was about my religion. That came out of left field for me. I read it cover to cover. My stomach sank as I read detailed logic and reasoning from scripture that dissected core Jehovah’s Witness doctrine. It was the first time I’d ever seen anything like that. I used to say to my JW friends who I played music with or skateboarded with that, "There are a thousand obvious reasons to leave this religion. It’s the few reasons to stay that keep us here." For me then those were: the international community they call “spiritual paradise”, the altruism of the leadership, deep biblical knowledge, fulfilled prophesy, and selfishly, the idea of a near future global paradise where everyone lives forever. This literature chipped away at the first three. When we drove back to The Great Lakes I had them drop me off with a friend in Madison who used to be a Witness. She and I had been pretty close for a couple of years.
Living with Emmy
I stayed with her and her three roommates for about a month or so and got a job at a bagel shop as a baker. I skateboarded around the city to visit hometown band friends or to see live music. It was amazing to just feel free and live with some girls and have a kind of normal life in a fun city. Madison is just a cool town in general but at 19 it was like a breath of fresh air. One of the girls and I got into the habit of watching tv series and movies together on the couch, often late into the night. We became close watching Dawsons Creek of all shows, haha. She later wrote me a note about how much she liked me and my reaction was of a virgin inexperienced church boy with cult programming. I called an old JW friend who lived close and I moved in with him. Sorry Sarah, lol.
Auxiliary Pioneering for cheap rent
I stayed with that guy for a month or so. I didn't have my car in Madison so when a ride came up that was headed home with a high school buddy I took the opportunity to visit home. I confessed to my father my thoughts on where I was at with this religion and that I didn't agree with how the congregation was run fundamentally. Mostly my issues were cultural and with hierarchy. He sat me down and gave me his easy going, JW lite perspective on how the religion isn't that important, only your personal connection with Jehovah. If any drama develops that's simply imperfect people so it should be ignored so you can stay on the path to immortality. My issues were ignored. He told me to pray about it and read more of their magazines. I ended up crying in front of him as he guilted me into auxiliary pioneering in exchange for cheap rent at our music studio next door… $150/month. It's insane to think that this kid who doesn't really believe what this religion teaches is considering spending 50 hours per month knocking on doors to sell this faith as its spokesperson. I had very different plans for my future. I took my car back to Madison to continue living with my old Witness friend and think about this proposition.
After a couple of more months of living with him I mentioned maybe going to a meeting so we went to his congregation together. This was probably the worst decision of my early twenties. Funny enough this was the moment I learned that he also hadn’t been going to meetings for like a year. No one there had ever met him. At that one and only meeting we met a really cool guy. He invited us out for food. It turned out that he also loved punk rock and music in general as much as I did and his girl friends' sisters were gorgeous and interesting and also into live music. I had this instant crush on one of them. She took me to some college house parties with live bands. I was hooked... We're all still friends to this day. Suddenly there were cool witnesses who listened to amazing bands, read interesting books, talked about art, cared about physics and science and mysteries of the universe etc. I had a complete mental shift and decided to take my dad up on his offer. I put my issues on the shelf.
Strangely instead of staying in Madison I moved back to my home town and simple thinking world of Northern Wisconsin three hours away. Part of that decision was that my two brothers were also living there and I’m grateful that we got to have a kind of post youth relationship. We spent a lot of time together then and I got to be there for my two little sisters for a couple more of their formative years. I also had a couple musician friends who didn’t go immediately to college so we played a lot of music while I lived at the studio.
I visited these new Witness friends most weekends or stayed with my crush in Madison for a week or two at a time. Through these new Madison Witness friends I learned of two large witness music scenes in Chicago and Minneapolis. There was even a website from Minneapolis dedicated to Jehovah's Witness bands, music festivals and short films called NuclearGopher.com. I started to meet some of those artists at Witness parties in Madison. That was an interesting winter even though I was back in my boring home town, Antigo, WI.
A cool silver lining to moving back to Antigo was that one of the guys most dedicated to music from high school came back for the summer after his freshmen year so pretty quickly we formed a band called, The Clones!. We wrote and recorded an album called Advanced Copy. We played local parties and then started branching out to play shows at Madison bars in the college area and booking shows with other bands. I was pioneering (door to door preaching 50 hours/month), in a serious band, and traveling constantly to meet up with cool witnesses. Being 20 was pretty great although complicated.
The Minneapolis and Madison Witnesses would head to Chicago for some concerts where we met a bunch of Chicago artists in the scene. People were dating, getting married, bands were forming, albums were coming out, people were driving or flying in for live music parties in all three cities. It simply was a vibrant scene. That's where most of my social attention was directed. I was sort of on the periphery though because I was some small time rural musician in what they called a "Worldly band." The Madison crew knew me well but the Chicago and Minneapolis groups didn't really know how to interact with me because I didn't really fit into the cultural norms. Most of them were born into this faith and only had Witness friends their whole lives. I was sort of living with one foot in both worlds. Some called me part of “The Fringies” because a couple witness friends and I not only comfortable with non-witnesses but very close friends with them. And we were open about our disbelief in some doctrines.
That same year the religious leaders (the elder body) of my hometown congregation were all essentially fired/demoted and moved to a new congregation about an hour drive away. A new more compliant group of elders were suddenly appointed who had to drive over 30 miles to lead three times per week. They saw things quite differently and put a lot of pressure on me to comply with their wishes which was part of the reason I quit playing with The Clones! .
After I left The Clones! the two key members moved to Madison where they met a really talented guitarist and drummer and formed The Motorz . They have an extensive discography of essentially straight up rock music. They put out five albums and are well known in Madison. I was never the right guy for that band so I was happy for them. That songwriter produced my original songs into an album. We recorded and mixed it in one weekend at The Crib. We’d been playing there for about four years at this point. I formed a witness band around those songs called A.D.D. Chronicles even though most of the songs were about my experiences dating girls in high school. It was all fun. We navigated that space and were mostly left alone by the congregation members because it kept the band, in a way, under their control.
Forming my own band within the bounds of the religion had all kinds of complications. We couldn't really play bars anymore which cuts out about 90% of venues. There were always chaperones at the parties we did play and when the other singer/guitarist was disfellowshipped we had to kick him out of the band by default. The same thing happened to our bassist later on and that kind of bond being broken so quickly just doesn't work for the cohesion of a band. I got frustrated and also a job came up in Minneapolis so I just went for it and that basically ended all things music for me in Wisconsin. What was great though was I was already connected with a bunch of artists at the heart of Nuclear Gopher in Minneapolis. I lived with some of the artists over the three years. I played with a guy from SP3 for bit but never quite properly got into any bands. Instead I went to and finished camera school and then started to explore international travel.