In an ongoing series, Dw. Dunphy takes an occasional look back at Christian contemporary music (CCM) of the past and makes the case for a new audience to rediscover the best of it as great, lost pop music.
Next year marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Adam Again‘s Gene Eugene. Born Gene Andrusco, he found fame at an early age as a child actor, most memorably as the young Darren Stevens on the TV series Bewitched. Later in life he was able to combine full-blooded funk, rock chops, a love of classic R&B from the likes of Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye, and the lyrics of Leonard Cohen and make it all stick in his version of CCM, probably the most unique and underrated in all of that subgenre’s history.
The band’s second album, Ten Songs by Adam Again (1988), was a bullhorn to staid and button-down listeners that this probably wasn’t their dad’s idea of Christian rock. If the cover of Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” wasn’t an indicator, the groove of “Tree House” and the sheer mournful weight of the closing “The Tenth Song” certainly was. Homeboys (1990) went even farther in describing through song some of the city’s dark side as the title cut detailed memories of a relatively happy childhood, even in the worst of landscapes. Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” gets a respectful but certainly not pedestrian run-through. The funk of “The Fine Line” tends to deceive. Listen to the lyrics about a man trapped inside his drug addiction and you get a vastly different impression than the fat party groove might impart.
It would, however, be the band’s last two albums Dig (1992) and Perfecta (1995) that would mark Adam Again as some of the bravest music makers ever, in any spiritual or philosophical frame. As drummer Jon Knox, guitarist Greg Lawless and bassist Paul Valadez drove home some of the most vital, exciting, sometimes explosive music of the day, it was the story between Eugene and backup singer, and wife, “Riki” Michelle Bunch that informed the subjects of many of the tunes. It happened to be about the beginning of the end, the dissolution of their marriage. Sure, it wasn’t quite as explicit on Dig as songs about faith beyond doubt, as well as faith in doubt, fill the majority. The sing-song pop style of “Worldwide” asks the question of why bad things happen to people good, bad, and indifferent yet does so with such playful energy that you might miss the point if you don’t pay attention. The point: pay attention. The centerpiece of the album, however, is a song any writer would be envious to have in their credit: “River on Fire.” The voice of the song likens a love relationship in decay to the environmental disaster that is the Cuyahoga River of Cleveland, Ohio, a water body once so polluted that the water burned with it’s flammable soup of intermingled toxics. The song is beautiful, sad, powerful even to the end, but what we didn’t know was this was, in part, about Gene and Michelle.
It is the songwriter’s trade to write about relationships, sometimes with a thread of fact, but just as often through flights of complete fiction. Therefore, it was easy to say a song is a song is a song. No need to add interpretations. That was more difficult with Perfecta, specifically with songs like “Stone” (“And try to forget the day when I chased you away / Will you be coming home tonight?”) and the angry lash-out of “Harsh” (“And so be a dear and leave me alone / Don’t come by or tie up my phone / If there’s somewhere that you need to be / Don’t make it here with me”). A sort of resolution comes with the closing “Don’t Cry”: “If you could go, you would, I know / If I could stay, hey lo, it’s time to go / It’s time to say goodbye, don’t cry.” The difficult seat in the room obviously goes to Michelle who, as the back-up singer, hasn’t the opportunity to interject her side of the story into the works. It is to Eugene’s credit that even when he has the bully pulpit, even when he works the put-down song, there’s still that knowledge that both parties were right and wrong, and sometimes these things happen, to Christians and secularists alike.
And this is what makes these two albums so brave. By not glossing over the reality with God Veneer and empty platitudes, the entire band lets you into their confidence, as if to say, “We’re all mature here. You know we are believers and this particular event doesn’t really get a lot of warm handshakes in our belief, but it would be a greater sin to those beliefs and to artistic integrity, to not tell it like it is.” They do, and in doing so give these recordings something even their secular counterparts have difficulty with doing — rock music for grownups telling the truth.
There is a coda to it all. Gene and Michelle remained close, even after their separation, right up to those last days of Gene’s life. Though the marriage ceased, the friendship did not, and that comes through on Eugene’s “Waiting for You to Come Around,” which appeared on the Lost Dogs’ Green Room Serenade Part One (1996). We don’t have the band, and we don’t have the man, but we still have the music, so thank God for that.
As you would expect, there are very personal experiences involved with Adam Again that the band members might not be interested in dwelling on, yet in the same spirit of truth and openheartedness, Michelle Bunch-Palmer and Paul Valadez did, in fact, speak with me about their times with the group.
Popdose: Adam Again was one of the first truly funky bands in CCM. Before that, a couple bands may have had a wah-wah pedal, but not the attitude. Was everyone in the band conscious of the distinction or was it a case of, “This is how we sound” and so forth?
Paul Valadez: I don’t believe this “attitude” was intentional, I think it was just a product of the talent and experience that we as individuals grew into with AA that produced this sound. I don’t think anyone was conscious of it; we were all just trying to do our best. We were trying to be good as a band.
Michelle Bunch-Palmer: I think we were all aware of the style and distinction of the band but it wasn’t done to be deliberately different. It was a pure and honest mixture of background, taste and preference.
Popdose: How was Adam Again initially received?
PV: It was fantastic. We were received with so much enthusiasm. It was really exciting, and pretty humbling.
MBP: Very well I think. People seem to connect with the music.
Popdose: Darker aspects, lyrically and subject-wise started introducing themselves strongly on the second album, Ten Songs, as well as having the cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine” on there. Over the years, Adam Again never shied away from playing songs that the average CCM audience wouldn’t expect — “Inner City Blues,” on Homeboys, for instance. How was that received by the audience?
PV: I don’t know. I’ve always seen each release as a complete work and not songs individually.
MBP: It’s hard for me to remember if we got much flack for the “darker” — I like to say “more honest” — lyrics. Just like the style of the music, I think people really connected with the lyrics because it was real life stuff. Paul may remember other reactions.
Popdose: What are some of your best memories of the band during those days in-between In a New World of Time and Homeboys? Would you comment on low points?
PV: Meeting our fans face to face wherever we played is one of my favorite memories. There are also the trips we took to Europe, as well as a couple concerts back home. Dig is probably my favorite AA album but the lyrics were getting personal and, maybe with coloration of hindsight, I can read an awful lot into them now. Perfecta, obviously, is much harder in that aspect.
MBP: Our time together as a band was always fun. Between the first two records everything was new and road trips were a blast. The guys were all so funny and quirky — a good mix of characters. Very few low points that I can recall. My biggest gripe at the time was that we didn’t gig enough. I was always eager to get on the road but that is something we didn’t do much of.
Popdose: Michelle, I would imagine there’s a lot out there on those songs that other couples had the luxury of keeping quiet. What was your process at that time and, consequently, how were you able to get in there and just do it?
MBP: My thoughts on Dig, honestly? Lovely, hurtful, heartbreaking, at times humiliating. At the same time, my favorite music that we did. I don’t remember my “process.” I was trying to survive. How did I do it? Denial.
Popdose: Paul, was it difficult to be in your position at that time and, as an aside, there were tracks on Perfecta you didn’t contribute to. What was going on for you during this time?
PV: Gene would try to schedule our recording in the Green Room (Gene’s recording studio) on weekends as opposed to weekdays, because we all had regular jobs. During the recording of Perfecta, a weekend would give us enough time to lay down drums and scratch tracks for about two or three songs. Gene called me and asked if I’d be able to record midweek, but I wasn’t able to do it that week. So Tony (Cardenas) sat in, and did a fantastic job. I just love what he did with “All You Lucky People.” By the way, that same song also holds my favorite guitar solo Greg has ever recorded.
Popdose: How are the remaining surviving members doing, how are both your lives today and what has everyone been up to since the end of the band?
PV: Well, I’ve emailed Michele a few times. She now has a couple of the cutest kids you’ve ever seen. I think it’s been about 2 1/2 years since I talked to Greg. He’s working and real active in his church with his wife Kim. They are living in Eugene, Oregon. I haven’t heard from Jon, or Dan (Michaels, from the Choir and a frequent contributor to Adam Again.)
MBP: I can only answer for myself at the time and that is great and truly blessed. I am coming upon my 13th anniversary with the love of my life and we’ve two beautiful kids who run me absolutely ragged. We now live in San Diego and life is good. We are grateful.
Popdose: Can we expect new music for you both, separately or otherwise?
PV: I have quite a few songs I’ve written, Maybe some day I’ll get in studio but right now, it’s not possible.
Popdose: For music fans who actually had a chance to know Adam Again, Gene is still missed. AA held a unique space in music, and not just CCM, that hasn’t ever been filled. How do you feel about what the band was, and meant?
MBP: I’m grateful for it all. What we go through shapes and forms us, makes us better people. It’s all very humbling and oh, so very necessary.
PV: Well, it was such an honor and a privilege to have known and been able to work with Gene. We were very close friends and I miss him very much. I feel that way with all of the members. I learned so much from Gene and Greg, and I feel totally honored to have been a part of AA.
Popdose: Will we ever get bona fide reissues of the CDs?
PV: I don’t know. (Both Paul and Michelle are caught in a common situation where their band’s music is owned by labels that no longer exist, so technically they have as much insight into this process as anyone else. —Dw.)
Popdose: Well, thank you both for your time!
PV: My pleasure.
MBP: Peace to you and all your readers.