May 14, 2010

Laughing with Petra’s John Schlitt

(This blog, originally published in United Colors of Nagaland’ is the interaction and interview the writer had with John Schlitt, singer and front-man of seminal Christian rock group Petra. The CCRM star was in Dimapur, Nagaland the summer of 2008 for a show with Stone Java, a side project of Schlitt.)

If you have never heard of John (William) Schlitt (or, Petra) you are most probably a freaky sun-burnt, Bangladeshi illegal immigrant. I hope to high heavens that the Ao Students’ Conference or the Angami Students’ Union would capture you one fine sunny day and straight away pack you off to Godknowswhere.

For all you spike-haired three-chord Limp Bizzing late-comers, Petra is to Christian music what Metallica is to the metal world. And basically, John Schlitt has pretty much been at the front of the entire Christian music push – all the way to that snob-nosed Grammy.

Beyond My Belief

The first time I heard of “Beyond Belief” (Petra’s 1990 magnum opus) was as a tiny, round, dirty school kid, with my unhinged half-pants permanently hanging down 190 degree south, and pretty much obsessed with wiping my nose with a convenient swipe of my tongue. But the motivation just seemed too compelling when years later my brother Joe gifted me with Petra’s smash 1987 ‘This Means war’ album. So there on, my musical adventures during school and college would never be complete without a “Creed” or a “Beyond Belief” or just about any of the 30-40 of them Petra chart biggies. Come on I still boast of the biggest Petra music collection, and others as well, among my metal peers (Ahem! Ahem! Cough! Cough!). Anyhow, during my formative years in my mind Petra, Bloodgood and Stryper were the ultimate, who’d just down right snubbed those mainstream poppies and rockers to the Grammys.

Decades later, May 14, 2008, I’m with my Idol. Here’s this tall, pale, blond and handsome guy so full of music and Jesus, asking me what my name meant and go “Hey ‘Al’ sounds so Texan!” and laugh like he was your best beer buddy. Of course, nothing like having Louie Weaver or Bob Hartman in the living room if Petra was still around. The band disbanded in 2007. But hey who’s complaining, with nothing to complain.

Trust me, it took all of my hybrid Naga pedigree to pretend I wasn’t at all affected by my childhood idol right by me, alone, alive and chatting like two hoary, drunk school mates. Man, it was amazing – see? I told you journalism has all the right perks.

Idol Bantering with John

He was all blond, shoulder-length hair, pale and lots of cool. Nonetheless, our unique Dimapur heat dented his composure a bit, I observed. He was in this white Tee, a Bermuda and these really hi-fi Godzilla looking pair of runners decorating his feet. Well, enough rock starts are like this? I really tried not to faint at the whole vibe. He’s monumentally cool.

And John was gracious. And very, very humble. When I entered the living room he was like “Hi, I am John” and I was like “yeah, sure, John, I know you ever since I was born.” There was none of that hey-baby-I-am-million-selling-grammy-winning-and-Christian-music’s-biggest-superstar thing. We shared the laugh and he was incredulous “you mean you know me since you were born!?” And I was thinking like “Basically, and I messed up my pitch doing ‘Creed’ during a college concert years ago.”

One of my colleagues, Merina, informed him that I was one of his biggest fans and in all probability I’d straight away blank out in unbridled throes of star-struck stuff. John was like “Really?” And mind you, he was genuinely surprised. And I was like “Yeah, I am a huge fan, John. But I’m not gonna be star-struck by you because I have changed my musical tastes.” We shared a good bout of laughter. That guy’s amazing, mind you. There was no air about him, no sermon, no-save-the-world-save-the-forest thing and no superstar smorgasbord. He was an amazing guy, people. No wonder, someone said ‘a truly great man is the humblest of creatures.’ I want to be like him. And I shall be.

So whatabout Nagaland, dude?

So how do you like Nagaland? “Nagaland? This place is so cool and we are just having a ball, we are having a ball, it’s amazing!” he gushed. And as a natural curiosity so natural for us to query people from abroad, who visit us, I was tempted to ask John “have you gotten a taste of Akhuni, Anishi or Bastenga” or something in that nature. Of course, the poor guy would have been stumped for response even if he dare tasted one of our smelly dishes. Out of political correctness, he most probably would have replied ‘yes, they tested interesting’!’ if at all he’d tasted our tasty nose-killers. Thankfully, I could muster no courage for such questions over the said matter.

We talked about a lot of things, his faith, music, and the motivation behind his stint as a harbinger of Jesus Christ’s message and of course, his Petra days. “I don’t want to be considered Petra number 2” he confided, obviously disturbed at the regular confusion fans have between him and the legendary Christian rock band. “I’m not here to preach but to say, hey, it’s cool and Christ is cool!” Man, that guy’s sure is modest considering he and Petra are considered the undisputed pioneers, and one of the terribly few Christian rock bands to be accepted by mainstream, secular market. (The others are Stryper and Bloodgood). You see, my darling reader, John Schlitt’s the man who fronted a band with whom 4 Grammys, 10 Doves among other awards, and then induction into the Hard Rock Café and Gospel Hall of Fame were had. And trust me, I won’t mention the Gold and Platinum albums that went with the entire gamut.

Apart from his Petra feathers, John has under his illustrious belt two successful solo albums 1995’s Shake (with that unforgettable and cover bands’ favorite Inside of You and heady ‘Wake the Dead’), 1996’s Unfit for Swine (Which Naga band has not done ‘There is Someone’?) and his latest The Grafting is out. So be ready for another dose.

After our chat, it was time to go have some chow.
“Would you be there for the show (Dimapur concert), Al?” he queried. I responded, “Why OF COURSE, I’ll be there big time!” I love journalism.

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