Music

'Pulphead': A Sharp-Eyed, Uniquely Humane Tour of America’s Cultural Landscape

John Jeremiah Sullivan
Image not from Pulphead

An exhilarating tour of America’s popular, unpopular, and at times completely forgotten culture. Sullivan shows us—with a laidback, erudite Southern charm that’s all his own—how we really (no, really) live now.


Pulphead

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Price: $16.00
Author: John Jeremiah Sullivan
Length: 384 pages
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2011-10
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Excerpted from Chapter 1: Upon This Rock, from Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Published October 2011. Copyright © 2011 by the author and reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

It is wrong to boast, but in the beginning, my plan was perfect. I was assigned to cover the Cross-Over Festival in Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, three days of the top Christian bands and their backers at some isolated Midwestern fairground. I’d stand at the edge of the crowd and take notes on the scene, chat up the occasional audience member (“What’s harder— homeschooling or regular schooling?”), then flash my pass to get backstage, where I’d rap with the artists themselves. The singer could feed me his bit about how all music glorifies Him, when it’s performed with a loving spirit, and I’d jot down every tenth word, inwardly smiling. Later that night I might sneak some hooch in my rental car and invite myself to lie with a prayer group by their fire, for the fellowship of it. Fly home, stir in statistics. Paycheck.

But as my breakfast-time mantra says, I am a professional. And they don’t give out awards for that sort of toe-tap foolishness. I wanted to know what these people are, who claim to love this music, who drive hundreds of miles, traversing states, to hear it live. Then it came, my epiphany: I would go with them. Or rather, they would come with me. I would rent a van, a plush one, and we would travel there together, I and three or four hard-core buffs, all the way from the East Coast to the implausibly named Lake of the Ozarks. We’d talk through the night, they’d proselytize at me, and I’d keep my little tape machine working all the while. Somehow I knew we’d grow to like and pity one another. What a story that would make—for future generations.

The only remaining question was: How to recruit the willing? But it was hardly even a question, because everyone knows that damaged types who are down for whatever’s clever gather in “chat rooms” every night. And among the Jesusy, there’s plenty who are super f’d up. He preferred it that way, evidently.

So I published my invitation, anonymously, at youth on the rock.com, and on two Internet forums devoted to the good-looking Christian pop-punk band Relient K, which had been booked to appear at Cross-Over. I pictured that guy or girl out there who’d been dreaming in an attic room of seeing, with his or her own eyes, the men of Relient K perform their song “Gibberish” from Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right... But Three Do. How could he or she get there, though? G as prices won’t drop, and Relient K never plays north Florida. Please, Lord, make it happen. Suddenly, here my posting came, like a great light. We could help each other. “I’m looking for a few serious fans of Christian rock to ride to the festival with me,” I wrote. “Male/female doesn’t matter, though you shouldn’t be older than, say, 28, since I’m looking at this primarily as a youth phenomenon.”

They seem like harmless words. Turns out, though, I had upon this rock failed to grasp how “youth” the phenomenon is. Most of the people hanging out in these chat rooms were teens, and I don’t mean nineteen, either, I mean fourteen. Some of them, I was about to learn, were mere tweens. I had just traipsed out onto the World Wide Web and asked a bunch of twelve-year-old Christians if they wanted to come for a ride in my van.

It wasn’t long before the children rounded on me. “Nice job cutting off your email address,” wrote “mathgeek29,” in a tone that seemed not at all Christlike. “I doubt if anybody would give a full set of contact information to some complete stranger on the Internet... Aren’t there any Christian teens in Manhattan who would be willing to do this?”

A few of the youths were indeed credulous. “Riathamus” said, “i am 14 and live in indiana plus my parents might not let me considering it is a stranger over the Internet. but that would really be awsome.” A girl by the name of “LilLoser” even tried to be a friend:

I doubt my parents would allow their baby girl to go with some guy they don’t and I don’t know except through email, especially for the amount of time you’re asking and like driving around everywhere with ya... I’m not saying you’re a creepy petifile, lol, but i just don’t think you’ll get too many people interested... cuz like i said, it spells out “creepy”... but hey—good luck to you in your questy missiony thing. lol.

The luck that she wished me I sought in vain. The Christians stopped chatting with me and started chatting among themselves, warning one another about me. Finally one poster on the official Relient K site hissed at the others to stay away from my scheme, as I was in all likelihood “a 40 year old kidnapper.” Soon I logged on and found that the moderators of the site had removed my post and its lengthening thread of accusations altogether, offering no explanation. Doubtless at that moment they were faxing alerts to a network of moms. I recoiled in dread. I called my lawyer, in Boston, who told me to “stop using computers” (his plural).

In the end, the experience inspired in me a distaste for the whole Cross-Over Festival as a subject, and I resolved to refuse the assignment. I withdrew.

The problem with a flash mag like the Gentlemen’s Quarterly is that there’s always some overachieving assistant editor, sometimes called Greg, whom the world hasn’t beaten down yet, and who, when you phone him, out of courtesy, just to let him know that “the Cross-Over thing fell through” and that you’ll be in touch when you “figure out what to do next,” hops on that mystical boon the Internet and finds out that the festival you were planning to attend was in fact not “the biggest one in the country,” as you’d alleged. The biggest one in the country—indeed, in Christendom—is the Creation Festival, inaugurated in 1979, a veritable Godstock. And it happens not in Missouri but in ruralmost Pennsylvania, in a green valley, on a farm called Agape. This festival did not end a month ago; it starts the day after tomorrow. Already they are assembling, many tens of thousands strong. Good luck to you in your questy missiony thing.

I had one demand: that I not be made to camp. I’d have some sort of vehicle with a mattress in it, one of these pop-ups, maybe. “Right,” said Greg. “Here’s the deal. I’ve called around. There are no vans left within a hundred miles of Philly. We got you an RV, though. It’s a twenty-nine-footer.” Once I reached the place, we agreed (or he led me to think upon this rock he agreed), I would certainly be able to downgrade to something more manageable.

The reason twenty-nine feet is such a common length for RVs, I presume, is that once a vehicle gets much longer, you need a special permit to drive it. That would mean forms and fees, possibly even background checks. But show up at any RV joint with your thigh stumps lashed to a skateboard, crazily waving your hooks-for-hands, screaming you want that twenty-nine-footer out back for a trip to you ain’t sayin’ where, and all they want to know is: Credit or debit, tiny sir?

Two days later, I stood in a parking lot, suitcase at my feet. Debbie came toward me. Her face was as sweet as a birthday cake beneath spray-hardened bangs. She raised a powerful arm and pointed, before either of us spoke. She pointed at a vehicle that looked like something the ancient Egyptians might have left behind in the desert.

“Oh, hi, there,” I said. “Listen, all I need is, like, a camper van or whatever. It’s just me, and I’m going five hundred miles...”

She considered me. “Where ya headed?”

“To this thing called Creation. It’s, like, a Christian-rock festival.”

“You and everybody!” she said. “The people who got our vans are going to that same thing. There’s a bunch o’ ya.”

Her husband and coworker, Jack, emerged—tattooed, squat, gray-mulleted, spouting open contempt for MapQuest. He’d be giving me real directions. “But first let’s check ’er out.”

We toured the outskirts of my soon-to-be mausoleum. It took time. E very single thing Jack said, somehow, was the only thing I’d need to remember. White water, gray water, black water (drinking, showering, le devoir). Here’s your this, never ever that. Grumbling about “weekend warriors.” I couldn’t listen, because listening would mean accepting it as real, though his casual mention of the vast blind spot in the passenger-side mirror squeaked through, as did his description of the “extra two feet on each side”—the bulge of my living quarters—which I wouldn’t be able to see but would want to “be conscious of” out there. Debbie followed us with a video camera, for insurance purposes. I saw my loved ones gathered in a mahogany-paneled room to watch this footage; them being forced to hear me say, “What if I never use the toilet—do I still have to switch on the water?”

Jack pulled down the step and climbed aboard. It was really happening. The interior smelled of spoiled vacations and amateur porn shoots wrapped in motel shower curtains and left in the sun. I was physically halted at the threshold for a moment. Jesus had never been in this RV.

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