Let me set the scene for you. Lit by scattered, hanging Christmas lights, Café Du Nord is packed for "Stinky's Peepshow," the monthly club night that offers "Large 'n' Lovely" go-go dancers, a surly crowd of regulars, and a raucous, often tasteless lineup of bands. Bursting out of their tiny rubber suits, the go-go dancers writhe on platforms to the DJ's blaring garage rock as dudes and dudettes throw back beers, waiting for the first act of the night to go on. I step outside for a smoke.
Halfway through my cigarette (yes Mom, I know, I'll quit soon), this happens: A 6-foot-6-inch man wearing silvery sleeves meant to look like chain mail, a red and black tunic with a crest stitched in the middle, and a shiny metal torpedo of a helmet that covers his entire face bursts from the venue with determined speed. He walks out into the street, hoists a gigantic Conan the Barbarian sword into oncoming traffic, and bellows something like, "Prepare thyselves for the message of the Lord."
My interest piqued, I follow the knight inside, where he proceeds to take the stage alongside his cohorts: a guitarist, bassist, and drummer, all similarly dressed. Like knights. The frontman (we'll call him Lancelot) announces his band's name -- the Knights of the New Crusade -- then drives his sword into the sturdy wooden stage, where it sticks straight up. (Later, an audience member will reach out to touch this sword and accidentally cut herself; yes, it's sharp.)
"I don't care about democracy/ I just want a theocracy," Lancelot sings, as his band plays the kind of distorted boogie-woogie surf rock you'd expect to hear in a cheesy '70s movie about drag racing. In between songs he sermonizes to the crowd about Jesus, setting the mood for tunes like "'E' Is for Evil," featuring lyrics such as, "He tried to find love in a little pill/ He didn't know it was from the devil."
And the crowd loves it. People are having a good time, cheering and smiling and laughing. Because, we assume, this is all a big joke, right? There's absolutely no way that four guys dressed like knights performing songs about Christ in a quasi-strip club filled with double-D's and Schlitz-aholics can be serious. I decide to take a straw poll. I ask 15 people in the crowd whether they think these guys are being ironic. All 15 agree that they are.
"Burning Man is one giant rave," announces Lancelot earnestly from the stage, his co-musicians wearing solemn, expressionless faces. "What you need is true Christian fellowship." Everyone chuckles: This guy is good at this. Lancelot then raises a tambourine shaped like one of those Christian fishes; he starts a-shakin' it and shimmies into the next number, "Secret Sign," a song about said fish: "We're not outlawed anymore/ I bought a fish sign at the store/ And I'm proud to wear it on my car/ It tells the world that he/ Died on the cross for me/ And everybody else near and far."
These Knights are hilarious. They've got their act together. They're the perfect parody of that dang-blasted Christian right, the group we all love to hate, especially these days. Oh, and there's one more thing: Contrary to what I and everyone around me wants to think, the Knights of the New Crusade are totally, completely, straight-facedly serious. Believe it or not, they've come to save your soul.
For the last six months, the Knights of the New Crusade have been booking shows all around town, events like Thee Parkside's "Budget Rock Showcase," venues such as the Hemlock Tavern and Bottom of the Hill, where they have a gig tonight, Wednesday, Nov. 24. What most of us assume, which is what the co-owner of Café Du Nord tells me when I ask her, is that the band is putting on a show, lampooning Christian rock or something. This is not the case. After the group's Du Nord set I track down the Knights outside, intent on figuring out their true intentions, and as we talk it becomes increasingly, dumbfoundingly clear that these guys are legit, the real deal, determined to spread their message.
"Right now it's about 60 percent secular clubs like this and 40 percent in the Christian clubs, the coffeehouses and such," explains Mike Andrews, aka Lancelot. "We used to avoid places where they had alcohol, but we realized we had to go out among the people just as Jesus did. He was with the tax collectors, the Philistines, the prostitutes." The plus-size exotic dancers ....
In addition to Andrews, the band consists of John Fischer on guitar, "Scoop" on bass, and Lumpy Stabley on drums. The musicians met in Fresno, where they went to high school together. Seeking a larger audience, they eventually moved to Emeryville, where they've been making music ever since. Their debut CD, My God Is Alive! Sorry About Yours!, was released in April; on the inside of the CD is a picture of the band members in their signature outfits preparing to behead a bound and kneeling Satan.
I tell Andrews that the informal poll I conducted indicated that most everyone thought the Knights were being ironic. This fact bounces off him like a raindrop.
"Well, I think that's a statement of the times," he says. "People don't think that you can make a serious statement about anything anymore. ... People get that impression because we wear the goofy outfits and also people think that you can't be Christian and have fun. See, that's the thing: [We're] obviously having a good time, doing something silly, but it's with a serious purpose. There are all sorts of ways to give witness. You don't have to give witness by preaching nothing but hellfire the whole time, although we do some of that, too."
"I agree with Mike," adds Stabley. "We just present our message. Hopefully people take it in the way that we intend, hopefully it sinks in somehow. I mean, they may laugh about it when they're amongst their friends and want to look cool, but hopefully something sinks in when they have a dark moment by themselves."
"'In that dark night of the soul,' as St. John of the Cross said," concludes Andrews.
Now, I know what you're thinking, because I'm thinking it, too: These guys are just well-rehearsed, and they're pulling one over on me. Perhaps. But this interview lasts 20 minutes, and during that time the band members are able to name and quote a number of their favorite Bible verses, tell me about playing the Door in Dallas two weeks ago -- possibly the nation's most popular Christian rock club -- and basically just sell me on the idea that they're authentic. If in reality they're a new Negativland side project or GWAR-type prank, well, I guess they fooled me.
What's most odd about the Knights, though, is that San Francisco audiences embrace them exactly because they're such a good parody, when they're anything but. My fellow hipsters, witness the effects of a long-term relationship with irony: Two groups -- the band, and we Converse-wearing, Onion-reading, Conan O'Brien-educated music types -- are having a conversation in which both sides are listening and responding to each other, yet unbeknownst to either, there is no communication taking place. Fascinating.
In a recent issue of the long-running MaximumRocknRoll, some dipshit writer took the piss out of the Knights for dressing silly and playing Christian rock. He didn't suspect, and therefore did not revel in the notion, that theirs could be an ironic statement, but then, he's a writer for MaximumRocknRoll. Based on his assumption that the Knights were sincere, he dissed them for playing Christian rock, which is what I imagine some people might do when they read this article and discover that this whole time they've actually been laughing at the band, not with it. So let me say this: Just because the Knights are Christian doesn't mean they're bad.
Once again, I know what you're thinking: Right now our freedoms in this country are being eroded by terrified Christian groups that finally have the allies in Washington they've been waiting for; we have no love for such groups or their acolytes. Well, to my surprise, Andrews tells me that he voted for Kerry. So I ask him what, as a devout Christian, his thoughts are about our current political landscape, the one in which lawmakers and their supporters are invoking so-called "moral" (i.e., Christian) values in their efforts to eliminate gay marriage, abortion, other countries ....
His response gives me hope:
"Well, there are people who will tell you that they're [invoking] Christian values, just as the Pharisees said that they were speaking of biblical values. It's not for me to judge them, but I think that there are a lot of false prophets in the world today. I don't know that the Antichrist himself is in the world today, nor the Whore of Babylon, yet, but there are a lot of people who could be contenders. There are a lot of false prophets, there are a lot of Pharisees. There are a lot of people who are more concerned with the mote in someone else's eye than the plank in their own. I think that if somebody is really living a Christian life, they're not going to be telling other people what to do. ... For someone to set themselves up as a judge of other people's morals and behaviors, to me -- and I could be wrong, this is my interpretation -- but it seems to me to be distinctly unbiblical."