The Good Booking, Part 3

Joe Christmas & the Holiday Hotbox.

The first shows I booked were with Christian Rock bands in the early ‘90s, and so I’m complicit in the least cool American youth movement of all time.

For the past two decades, I’ve booked proper shows, outside the confines of religion. Most have been in dirty clubs, some in ornate theaters and fancy ballrooms, and even some — beyond my wildest early ambitions — in big-ass outdoor amphitheaters and basketball arenas.

It’s all very organized now, professional and practiced; guarantees and ticket fees, advertising designs and on-sale times, mileage limits for the bus drivers, deposits for the business managers, days off in the routing for promo, catering costs for the local crew, afterparty passes for friends, family, and lovers. It’s a whole thing. A job. A career.

But those first bookings were simple, noble attempts to get kids in Central Indiana to consider a select few Christian bands who could maybe, almost, possibly play toe-to-toe with normal, awesome, secular ones. It was a duty, my own quiet evangelism.

For the first show, my youth group was the audience I had in mind. By the second, more bravely, I aimed for my high school and other schools nearby; non-Christian kids. By the third booking, I sought to convert the budding heathens in my college town.

More honestly, in the first case I was trying to meet the pretty bass player in the band. In the second, I wanted to show the local punks that a Christian act could kick up controversy. And by the third, I badly wanted to hang out with Christian stoners. Here’s the third story, check out the first two installments here.

Joe Christmas at 602 S. Mitchell, Bloomington Indiana, 1996

“Pssst. Hey. Adam.” 

Algebra II, sophomore year of high school, 1990. Chuck, the drummer for a cool local band, sat a few rows behind me. I turned around.

He whispered: “Dude, are you straight edge?” He’d spotted the fat Xs drawn with black marker on the backs of my hands, the secret sign. I nodded sheepishly. He smiled and gave me a double thumbs up, his hands crossed out, too.

I wasn’t straight edge, I was Christian, but as I got older that kept getting less and less cool. I was looking for some camouflage, and I recognized the overlap with my evangelical moral code and the rules of that hardcore music movement. The Venn diagram intersected with no drugs, no drinking, and no promiscuous sex. Neither myself nor the straight edge kids followed that last one — I personally ended up with the unfortunate nickname The Christian Humper — but the holier-than-thou position on drugs and alcohol was handy. Mixed in with the straight edge punks, I could stand in opposition to the wasted jocks and burnout metalheads without even mentioning Jesus.

There were minor persecutions, like the Bible promised me there would be. The Humper nickname was a wimpy cross to bear, and there were heated but piddly debates and frustrations with the most stridently anti-religious kids, but for the most part I flew under the radar with my spiritual stripes. I kept one foot in youth group on Wednesday nights, but planted the other firmly at the Knights of Columbus, the VFW hall, and various other community centers catching proper punk and hardcore shows on the weekends. I didn’t stick with the Xs for long, but that little cheat helped me slide into the gray area between Christian dorkdom and underground cool. 

Several years later, on a state-school campus an hour-and-a-half away from church and family, I leaned on music more and more frequently, my certainty with religion fading. I’d met a medley of interesting people in the scene: zine makers and lefty activists, flamboyant queer kids and stinky crust punks with patches on everything, pill poppers and acid droppers, free spirits and fuck-ups, losers and the lost, and countless weirdos in-between. I even befriended a fucking hippie who was in his seventh year of undergrad. With tolerance stitched into its fabric, the spirit of punk was becoming my new guide, pushing the Holy Spirit aside.

Likewise, my straight edge friends were losing faith in their own silly creed, and a few of them were talking about trying to smoke some weed. During winter break of our junior year, several of us sat on an overstuffed sectional couch in the finished basement of a girl whose parents seemed the least likely to call the cops if we were caught. Nervous and giddy, we waited while my tie-dyed kind guy rolled a joint of his super-dry ditch weed. He licked and sealed it, and we crammed ourselves into the utility closet next to the water heater and fired it up. 

Around this time in Seattle, Tooth & Nail Records was capitalizing on Recommended If You Like culture to shocking success. Just as the Christian bands the label signed resembled their secular counterparts, Tooth & Nail modeled itself on independent stalwarts like Sub Pop, Touch and Go, and 4AD.

Their staff was populated with punks and freaks without experience or degrees. They hired producers known for secular records rather than those recording primarily with Christian acts. Album art embraced ultra-modern aesthetics. Tooth & Nail advertisements showed up in mainstream magazines like Spin and Alternative Press marketing not just records, but the label itself, selling stickers, T-shirts, and hats affixed with their ubiquitous logo. More and more of their artists were touring outside the youth group scene, cross-pollinating. Now and again, MTV played a video from a Tooth & Nail band, a stunning victory for Christian Rockers everywhere. The line between Christian and not was getting blurry. The label was all too happy to sit in that haze, which made it possible for a band of Southern stoners to end up signed to Tooth & Nail.

Joe Christmas were strict Pavement devotees, lo-fi and fuzzy with an Athens, Georgia drawl. Their songs were sad and nostalgic, and almost always about girls. They were the first band I encountered on a Christian label who showed no trace of religion anywhere in their music or artwork. The word was they might not be Christians at all — maybe just the bass player — and they definitely smoked tons of weed. 

I emailed Joe Christmas and invited them to come play at 602 S. Mitchell, the coolest basement in Bloomington, Indiana. The place was home to a rotating cast of college punks who happily took on the burden of hosting house shows. There were countless addresses around campus well known for raging keg parties, but 602 was onto a different college vibe, and for a few years served as the ribcage for our little town’s punk rock heart.

This time I did all the work of putting on the show myself. When the name of the venue is simply a street address, all the risk is removed. House shows don’t have room rent or staff expenses, and bands playing basements didn’t ask for guarantees. I booked a local act to open who would bring the PA from their practice space. I designed a flyer using the art building’s computer lab, and a friend working overnight hours at Kinko’s hooked me up with free copies. I plastered them around campus to spread the word.

I planned to meet up with Joe Christmas before the show so we could hang out, get some food, and hopefully get stupidly stoned, as I assumed they played their gigs baked. Instead, I met them outside 602 as they pulled in several hours late, and helped unload their gear. The inside of their van smelled skunky, the dudes’ eyes were red and droopy, and they were wholly unconcerned with their tardiness.

Joe Christmas were true blue slackers with bad luck on top. They overslept that morning, they explained, and blew not one but two tires on their way from Athens to Indiana. They had to wait on the roadside for a second spare, eventually bartering with a Samaritan who pulled over, trading a few T-shirts and CDs for the tire in his trunk. 

The opener was already halfway through their set when we hauled the amps, drums, and guitar cases down the narrow steps to the basement. There were a decent number of folks down there for the local band, but by the time Joe Christmas set up their stuff — which took forever — and started to play, only a handful remained. The others went upstairs, drinking in the kitchen or hanging around the yard smoking, disinterested in the unknown almost-Christian band. They missed a good show, but I couldn’t really enjoy it either.

I charged three bucks at the door, and handed the band $36 at the end of the night. You can do the math on attendance; it was bleak. Joe Christmas got every penny, the local act selflessly surrendering their take. I apologized for the dismal turnout, but the singer shrugged and said they were used to playing for nobody. Joe Christmas was stuck in a trick bag: too close to religion to be cool, and on trial with most Christians for inhaling. 

After the gig, the band spread sleeping bags out across the gnarly stained carpet and lumpy hide-a-bed couch mattress in the tiny living room of my apartment. They flipped through my records, and I was proud when they pulled out several to spin: Built to Spill, Pixies, and Archers of Loaf. I’d come a long way.

Finally, the singer broached the subject: “Hey Adam, would you mind too much if we smoked a marijuana cigarette?” He dragged out each slow syllable of those last two words with an innocuous smile and eyebrows high as he held up a giant dogleg of a joint.

It was the moment I’d waited for, but the way he asked put me on my heels. He was clearly prepared for potential shock and judgement, and I felt stuck on the outside of an inside joke. I imagined the band rolling into each new town, laughing and guessing at the conviction level of whatever Christian Rocker they’d be paired with for the night.

“Yeah man, please. Be my guest.” In my mind only, not out loud, I added: You know, I’ve actually been smoking pot for a few months myself

Indeed, I was now rolling misshapen joints on my own daily. That holiday hotbox in the utility closet was every bit the clichéd awakening you want from early drug dabbling. I went all-in on weed, found my own local dealer, adopted it like new dogma. 

But I was a rookie, and Joe Christmas were professional stoners. I mostly smoked alone, was unsure about group etiquette, suddenly afraid of what I might do or say, and insecurity over my performance as a promoter hung in the air. 

I bowed out, left the band to it, and retreated to the bedroom with my own little Ziploc bag. I puffed away as a solo act, coughing into my elbow, blowing the smoke out an open window, listening to the band giggling in the other room. 

From the distance of decades, these shows still induce a little red-faced shame. They were alienating and awkward for me, and I’m sure for the bands the same. Each was unsuccessful in its own way, but the gigs were necessary corners turned in the baffling Christian Rock maze. We were bumping around in there together, looking for our escape.

Adam Voith is a booking agent at WME in Nashville, where he represents a small roster of world-class badasses. Long ago, before the business of music took center stage, Adam ran the mid-brow micro-press TNI Books which released work from writers and artists like Camden Joy, Damien Jurado, and David Shields, along with two of Adam’s own books. Adam has recently returned to his love for writing and published pieces in The Sewanee Review, Hobart, and an issue of the fictional zine “The Christian Humper”. Adam is working on a novel which lives in the Christian Rock world of the 1990s. You can find more on his website: