The past is gone but something might be found to take its place

For a change of pace, here’s a post about something other than Donald Trump. Let’s talk about Sketch Erickson.

Longtime readers here may remember some of my stories about Sketch. He was a regular on the white-evangelical/fundamentalist speaking circuit back in the 1970s and ’80s, who spoke to parents and to “young people” about the evils of rock music.

Sketch was only one of several such speakers who regularly visited my Christian school for annual assemblies and chapel services. Some of the others included guys like “Bobby D.” — who won points with us for being more accepting of “Christian rock” even while making us wince at his efforts to be down with the lingo of us youth. (He demonstrated both of those attributes by performing a Christianized filk of Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” called “Get Saved.” Sample lyrics: “If you don’t want to burn, you better make a U-turn and get saved.” It was indescribably corny, but he also nailed the guitar riff.) Bobby D. was also affiliated with Focus on the Family, so when he gave us permission to listen to Amy Grant and Keith Green and Petra, that counted for something.

Sketch Erickson did not approve of Amy Grant. Sketch Erickson did not approve of much of anything. The modern popular music that kids these days were listening to was, in his opinion, decadent and demonic — and it all could be traced back to the influence of one man: Elvis. Aron. Presley.

Flickr photo of Elvis postage stamp by John Flannery.
Flickr photo of Elvis postage stamp by John Flannery.

That was the refrain in Sketch’s standard presentation — a dazzlingly weird slide show with audio accompaniment. After highlighting every alleged instance of sexual depravity or Satan worship, the next slide would always go back to the same photo of the King — young, black-clad and beautiful in his early Ed Sullivan-era incarnation. And Sketch would again remind us that all of these nefarious evils were the end-product of man’s first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste brought death into the world, and all our woe. Or, in short, it was the handiwork of Elvis. Aron. Presley.

In his defense, a small fraction of Sketch’s presentation was not completely bonkers. Some of the songs and artists he criticized for glorifying sex and drugs really were intent on glorifying sex and drugs, and one could make a reasonable argument that some such songs might not be appropriate for listeners of all ages. Unfortunately, that point was lost in Sketch’s show because: A) He allowed for no distinction between songs glorifying sex and drugs and songs that merely acknowledged their existence; and B) He was far more interested in occult interpretations of occult meanings, imagined Satanic messages, backwards-masking, and a slew of outrageous urban legends that seemed hilariously improbably even to his audiences of sheltered, unworldly fundie kids.

Some of that was entertaining. Sketch’s long, tortured reinterpretation of “Hotel California” was, like the song itself, effectively spooky. And who doesn’t like a good backwards-version of “Stairway to Heaven”? (Even though, as good little evangelical subculture kids, we objected to that one. That song’s about Galadriel, and Galadriel was on our already too-short permitted reading list.)

But the main focus of Sketch’s musical folklore — and the whole point of his Elvis. Aron. Presley. shtick — wasn’t about fear of Satan. It was about fear of black people. That’s how, for Sketch and the whole “rock music is evil” cottage industry, rock music became “the devil’s music.” It became the devil’s music because they weren’t allowed to talk about “race music” anymore. In retrospect, I think that’s part of what made Sketch’s presentation so weirdly compelling — it was a high-wire act without a net, watching to see if this man could speak for a full hour without explicitly stating the racism roiling just under the surface.

Or sometimes just right there at the surface — as when he inevitably rehearsed the urban legend about the white missionary kid in Africa upsetting the newly converted natives by playing the “demon-summoning drums” (rock and roll) on his magic white cassette player. There really isn’t any non-racist way of pretending that story is true.

Basically, Sketch’s whole argument rested on a euphemistically white-supremacist mirror image of the cultural appropriation critique of Elvis. Rather than arguing that Elvis’ appreciation for and appropriation of black music and black culture constituted a kind of cultural exploitation or theft, Sketch argued that it was contaminating and corrupting white music and white culture.

Sketch wouldn’t have said “white,” of course. He’d have said “Christian.” But what he meant was “white.”

And but so I was reminded of ol’ Sketch this weekend when I watched that viral video going around of the angry white evangelical mom breaking down in tears as she recited the lyrics to rapper Vince Staples’ “Norf Norf.” (Staples’ response to this was admirably restrained and charitable.)

What seemed most bothersome to this good Christian woman was this line from the song, which as she notes, is “the main chorus“: “I ain’t never ran from nothin’ but the police.” Watching her tearfully recite that line while bewailing that “this is what our youth is being subjected to,” all I could think of was the Gin Blossoms.

At least I’m 90 percent sure it’s the Gin Blossoms. Could be the Goo Goo Dolls. …

You remember the Gin Blossoms? Had a bunch of big hits back in the 1990s, back when this mom says pop music was all innocence and light. “Til’ I Hear It From You” and “Found Out About You” and “Follow You Down.” And possibly also “Slide” and “Iris.”

Oh, and this little ditty:

Catchy tune. And right there, in the main chorus, he sings: “We could drive around this town, and let the cops chase us around.” And this in a song that takes its name from one of the seven deadly sins.

Somehow nice white Christian moms managed to hear “Hey Jealousy” played and replayed all over the radio back in the day without any of them breaking down in tears over this celebration of running from the police. Somehow, the Gin Blossoms were never seen as a threat that “our youth is being subjected to” in the way that Vince Staples is.

Sketch Erickson managed to walk his tight-rope, euphemizing his way through his presentation about the evil, contaminating dangers of “race-music” without ever quite explicitly stating the explicit notion of white supremacy undergirding all of that. That was a generation ago. Today’s white evangelical culture has gotten better at the euphemizing, the coded language, the communication the same implicit, unstated-but-always-present idea of a white culture and a white America that has to be defended from rap music and the pelvic-gyrations of Elvis. Aron. Presley.

We like to imagine the closer-to-the-surface racism of guys like Sketch Erickson is something that’s fading away with members of his generation. But it’s still there, still just below the surface like the tears this mom struggles to hold back.

Dammit. Turns out this post was about Donald Trump after all.

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