It was a typical late-summer Iowa evening in 1991. Which is to say I could almost breathe a bit of oxygen amid the drenching humidity as I walked into a hole-in-the-wall club dubbed The Runway (so-named because it sat next to the Des Moines airport) to see the innovative Texas rock trio King's X.
The band was at its commercial peak—though nobody knew it at the time—touring to support the breakthrough album Faith, Hope, Love.
Pre-show buzz rippled through the crowd ... for a long time. Three hours after the scheduled start, King's X finally took the stage. Was it worth the wait? Certainly. If Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon and Black Sabbath had ever gotten together to jam, they might have sounded something like King's X.
But there was more that drew me to the show that night than just the band's unique sound. I also exulted in lyrics drenched in Christian imagery. "I believe He is alive/Listen to me very closely," frontman/bassist Doug Pinnick sang. "There is more heaven than hell." Theological sentiments could be heard on the oddly titled "Moanjam" as well: "I sing this song because of You/You're the story/ ... You're the glory/It's You."
These lyrics, and similar, decidedly Christian moments on the band's first two releases (1988's Out of the Silent Planet and 1989's Gretchen Goes to Nebraska) had earned the eclectic trio a firm following among Christian fans—even if the members of the band themselves never actively courted the "Contemporary Christian Music" label.
Fast-forward 17 years to last month's release of XV. Some things remain the same. King's X's funk-meets-metal-meets-Liverpool sound is still intact. Doug Pinnick is still accompanied by guitarist Ty Tabor and drummer Jerry Gaskill. And lyrics are still peppered with a variety of spiritual observations. But something significant has changed.
In 1998, Pinnick told the Christian magazine re:generation Quarterly that he was gay. Christian bookstores responded by yanking the band's music. More than a few fans began finding new interests. And Pinnick distanced himself from the Christian faith.
To Be the Dogman
Evidence pointing to the path Pinnick would take began to turn up several years and albums before the singer "came out." As music reviewer Randy Harward noted, "[His] disclosure was almost unnecessary, as even a cursory glance at Pinnick's lyrics reveals a conflicted, alienated man."
Whereas Faith, Hope, Love earnestly esteems the virtues of faith, fidelity and friendship, by 1994 the sonic stories the band told had taken on a darker emotional hue. On Dogman, the title track reads, "Let me take my thoughts away/To think about another day/Remembering the times I pray/To help me deal with me/To be the dogman." In retrospect, songs such as "Fool You," "Don't Care" and "Pretend" seem to cryptically confess what would later be made public. On the latter song, for example, we hear a man struggling to reconcile warring elements in his heart: "I wonder how did I get it wrong/It doesn't matter now/I pretend."
"I've always been one to talk about the truth as I see it, no matter what it is," Pinnick told Harward. "I felt like, 'If I'm going to preach about being honest, I need to be honest, too. I didn't realize that I wasn't. I mean, it's been a very, very hard battle for me, being gay, because I'm homophobic. I was raised that way, so I hated myself. But when it started to get to me psychologically, I just had to come out of my closet and say, 'This is who I am. Love me or leave me."
No Problem With God
When it comes to Pinnick's spiritual convictions these days, he's confusingly difficult to pin down. At times he seems to describe himself as someone on the fringe of the Christian fold. Other times, he talks about embracing a kind of generic higher power. And in some interviews, he talks about the freedom he's found in categorically rejecting the faith of his childhood.
One thing has been consistent: Pinnick's antipathy for Christians themselves. Still talking with Harward, he said, "Me and God got no f---in' problem. I ain't got no problem with God, whatever, or whoever, it is. My problem is all these people that put His name on their work."
He continued: "Religion, to me, is just a terrible disservice to mankind. Everybody feels they've interpreted the Bible correctly, and their way is right. ... [But] the greatest thing that happened to me was, when I stopped believing in God, I stopped believing in the devil. When I stopped believing in the devil, all my fear went away. I'm not afraid to die. I'm not afraid to walk down the street. I'm not looking over my shoulder thinking the devil's going to get me or 'God is watching me, so I'd better not do that' when there's nothing wrong with what I've done. We used to preach [that] when you come to Christ, you're free, and you have peace and you have happiness. Well, for me, I got all that stuff when I stopped believing in God."
Enter the band's latest, fifteenth release. Perhaps no song on XV illustrates the complexity of Pinnick's inner war than the first one, "Pray." Profane reactions to people of faith notwithstanding, Pinnick invites Christians, Jews and Muslims to intercede on his behalf: "If you think that Jesus has saved you/ ... If you think that God has spoke to you, then/Don't forget to pray for me."
Later, on "Stuck," Pinnick describes himself as someone paralyzed between belief and unbelief. "So I've prayed, is there anybody there?" he sings. The answer? "Hard to say."
Whereas some musicians who have embraced homosexuality celebrate and glorify the sexual choices they've made, there's little of that to be seen either in Pinnick's conversations or his lyrics. Years after his announcement, in an interview with The Advocate, he said, "I have no idea what my place in the gay community is. I'm still figuring that out. I've put one foot in, I think. What door do I go through? So my life hasn't changed all that much. I've never had a lover."
The closest anything on XV gets to sexuality is this question: "Would you like to spend a night in my new rocket ship?"
A King's Wrath
My first draft of this article ended with a cascade of thoughts about what it looks like for Christian fans and friends of King's X to respond to Pinnick's perspective with truth, love and compassion. But Pinnick has wanted none of that. So I'll end instead with his words, as reported by The Advocate in 2002:
"I just decided that I wanted nothing to do with it anymore. Even though a lot of Christians I knew would take the position that they loved me and were praying for me, they would say how they didn't 'agree' with my sexual orientation. It's always, 'We don't agree.' Oh yeah? Well, f--- you. My Christian friends wanted me to still believe in God, but I said, 'If your God is true, then He understands what's happening with me.'"
Has anything changed in the four years since that interview? Again, I'll let Pinnick answer, this time via lyrics from XV: "They challenge me to come on/Down to the ground and/Let the Spirit move me/Society-sanctioned brainwashing tries to wrap its arms around me ... I hope that love can survive from/God wars and system beliefs/Crawling down that narrow road/Blinded by the light/Separate, eliminate/This cancer of mankind."