In 1990, when the New Kids on the Block were so popular that Walmart carried sleeping bags with the band members’ faces emblazoned on them, I joined the masses and bought the band’s second album, Hangin’ Tough.
It felt good to be at one with the masses. Up to that point, I listened almost exclusively to Christian artists, and none of my sixth-grade classmates knew who they were. When I mentioned Petra, Christian rock’s best-selling act at the time, my peers reacted like I did upon first hearing the band’s name: “Who’s she?”
Talking about my favorite Christian artists was like publicly referring to imaginary friends only I could see or, in this case, hear. NKOTB was a band everyone could see, and its members sang songs everyone could hear.
I was a proud fan of NKOTB until I realized that, instead of uniting me with the masses, the boy-band’s music had united me with the lasses—and not in a way that helped me find a girlfriend.
I was one of only a few boys in my class who owned Hangin’ Tough. Apparently, NKOTB’s falsetto vocals failed to convince anyone that the members of the band were “tough.” Feeling like a social outcast, I leapt off of the New Kids’ bandwagon while it was still hurtling down the street toward Billboard oblivion.
I repented of my musical sins later that year when my friend Chuck introduced me to Christian heavy metal at church camp. He ushered me into the fracas of the metal fold that summer and, from that day forward, my blood was never low on iron.
At that same church camp, I also discovered a Christian pop record that had mass appeal like NKOTB’s Hangin’ Tough, but appealed to both sexes. It was Michael W. Smith’s Go West Young Man.
As a seventh grader, when I wasn’t testing the tensile strength of my eardrums with Christian speed metal—music by Deliverance, for example, whose slogan was “Faster for the Master”—I was listening to Go West Young Man seven or eight times a day.
Go West Young Man promised crossover appeal and delivered when “Smitty’s” “Place in This World” appeared in VH1’s rotation. When I mentioned the song to friends, they said things like, “I think I’ve heard that.”
Smitty’s music allowed me to connect with others in a way that other Christian artists never did. While I had a fellow headbanger for Jesus in my friend Chuck, we were the only two inhabitants of that particular uncharted musical desert isle. Go West Young Man offered connection with the mainland.
It was also one of my first head-over-heels musical loves. I could sing the entire album from memory, even reciting the rapid-fire rhymes of the album’s second song, “Love Crusade.” Two years later, I whistled for the first time while attempting to reproduce the melody of this song. Some years later, I was excited to discover that Nathan Wadley, the soloist from the album’s penultimate song, “Agnus Dei,” sang in the choir at the university I attended.
At age thirty-three, the album still fills me with joy despite feeling decidedly dated now. I’m not ashamed to admit that this young man has gone west long enough to circle the entire globe.
In 1990, I heard Go West Young Man everywhere I went: at church camp, in Sunday school, and blaring from friends’ cars. That record was the musical embodiment of Christian community for me. Inserting that cassette into my tape deck was like plugging into an ongoing celebration in which fellow believers were praising their creator and dancing in his divine discothèque with lithe limbs and limber hearts.
Since the album was only forty-two minutes and fifty-nine seconds long, I could listen to it thirty-three times in a day if I refrained from sleeping, and thereby experience constant connection with other listeners in something like a preview of eternal communion.
“Seed to Sow,” the first song on side B of the cassette, was one that took up residence in my brain like a foreign exchange student. One repeated refrain, sung by the Africa Children’s Choir, offered something like liturgy without the lethargy that so often accompanies communal reading or singing in church. Written in the Ugandan language of Luganda, the lyrics read:
Ki mu nki maa nyi,
bu li mun tu al in a en sii go.
Om ut ima gwo gu ku lung ‘aa mye.
Bu li mun tu al in a en sii go.
Whenever I sang along and found those unintelligible words in my mouth, I knew those words were equally unintelligible, but also equally jubilant, in the mouths of the one million others who bought Go West Young Man. Smitty put wondrous words in our mouths, and we could not help but sing along.
The particulars of popular Christian music from the pre-internet stone age are largely invisible to Google’s all-seeing eye, most likely due to a lack of dedicated Christian pop-culture historians. That being the case, I can only assume the Ugandan lyrics were a translation of the song’s English chorus, which reads:
One thing I know,
everybody’s got a seed to sow.
Let your heart of hearts take you down the road.
Everybody’s got a seed to sow.
I knew I belonged to the “everybody” Smitty was singing about in the chorus. I was no longer a loner—the musical equivalent of Jimmy Stewart in Harvey, talking about invisible bands only I could hear.
But I continued to love invisible bands, too. I have been both everybody and somebody in particular ever since.
The communal connection I experienced through Go West Young Man continued even when my pop albums were buried by the sludgy sounds of grunge in 1991. That year, I became a young man who could not help but go Pacific Northwest. I connected with a different community then, joining the church of the flannel-clad, angst-ridden teen.
But that’s a story for another day.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Chad Thomas Johnston
Chad Thomas Johnston is a slayer of word dragons who resides in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife Rebekah, their daughter Evangeline, and five felines. He has written for Image Journal’s Good Letters blog, In Touch magazine, The Baylor Lariat, and CollapseBoard.com.Johnston’s first book, the whimsical memoir Nightmarriage, was a finalist for a 2013 Shirley You Jest! Book Award in nonfiction writing.