The Earth Is Hard, but the Treasure Fine

For a variety of reasons—beyond and in my control—I don’t have the time to devote the space to this topic that it deserves, but I should say something, anyway.

You probably can’t tell it from my mediocre editing and mixing of the podcast bumper music, but I was going to be an audio engineer and record producer. Not that I took any classes or attended a college that offered them—or even tried to get an internship at a recording studio. But I listened to a lot of music (more in terms of time than I do now, but less in terms of variety), and more significant, I read a lot of liner notes. In the days before All Music and Wikipedia did it for you, I kept a series of Microsoft Word documents listing what each person did for every record. I loved music and spent hours imagining that I, too, would be allowed to create it.

My dream wasn’t really to be a touring musician—that lifestyle stopped appealing to me once I learned what it was really like, and I’ve never really cared for the live rock concert, with its masses of sweaty humanity. Rather, I dreamed of owning and operating a recording studio, where I would create—secondhand—some of the greatest albums of my time.

I listened almost exclusively to Christian rock from ages fourteen to eighteen. My parents didn’t have a rule, as I’ve learned so many evangelical parents do—in fact, I suspect my dad was really confused by this decision, though he did his best to learn to appreciate the music I liked it. I realized even at fourteen that most of what got shot down the Christian-music pipeline was garbage—in fact, my willingness to draw very clear lines in the sand and scream when anyone spoke over them was one factor that led to my estrangement from my youth group a few years down the line—so I had to look hard and cling harder to the bands I liked. My process of discovery is a matter for another essay; I’m going somewhere much more specific here.

I learned quickly that an overwhelming majority of quality Christian rock music came out of two studios. There was Neverland Studios, in Nashville—in which case the record was usually produced and engineered by Steve Hindalong, the drummer for the venerable Christian dream-pop group The Choir. And then there was The Green Room in Huntington Beach, California, owned and operated by a guy who called himself Gene Eugene and whom I knew because he was the lead singer of Adam Again (hands down the funkiest rock band Christian music ever had) and one of the four guys responsible for country-rock “supergroup” the Lost Dogs, along with Derri Daughtery (like Hindalong, a member of The Choir), Mike Roe (The 77’s), and Terry Taylor (Daniel Amos and The Swirling Eddies).

I had no doubt these were the four most talented musicians in the world; and mostly I still hold something close to that opinion, though I have cooled on The Choir as time has gone on. Taylor was always my favorite, but Gene seemed like he was the one who was really in charge, the man behind the curtain.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that I preferred the “Gene Eugene sound” to the one coming out of Neverland. (I can’t be the only person ever to have gotten into arguments about this.) Gene’s records were smooth and rich; every detail of every instrument always sounded crystalline, and when Terry Taylor produced the records—he and Gene often worked together—the right elements were always in the exact right place. Hindalong always seemed to record live to me, a technique I don’t particularly care for, as I’ve always been more interested in the illusion of an actual band. Call Hindalong “alternative” and Gene “rock,” if you want—they both crossed that line more than once—but I had my preference.

As I got into the journalism side of the music industry, I began meeting people who had actually visited The Green Room, which, I learned, was nothing more than a residential ranch-style house in a suburb of L.A. Gene lived and worked there. I was sixteen, I think, when I learned this, and it blew my mind. My future was clearly set out before me, and I began walking around my parents’ neighborhood, scoping out houses which I could gut and turn into recording studios.

Then, on March 20, 2000, I came home from school and opened my email folder to find a series of emails from the 77s and Daniel Amos listserves. The subject header was “The Death of Gene Eugene.” Gene, it turned, had died overnight of an aneurysm—his business partner, Anna Cardenas, had found him the next morning, still in his engineering chair in The Green Room. The Green Room was triple booked, we had learned just a few days earlier, when Gene sent an email to his own listserve to counter complaints that Adam Again hadn’t released an album in five years. He didn’t have time to record for himself; he didn’t have time to read or watch TV or use his season Dodgers tickets.

Gene Eugene, it seems, worked himself to death for Christian music, which mostly never knew him and gave him nothing like the tributes it gave to Rich Mullins after his death. There were no Dove Awards, no special issue of CCM Magazine—there was just an email from Mike Roe (“What Can You Say?” said the title, “The Impossible Happens,” a reference to Gene’s best song, “River on Fire”) and a rather lackluster Adam Again tribute at Cornerstone that year.

That was ten years ago tomorrow. Tooth & Nail Records found a new in-house engineer (Aaron Sprinkle of Poor Old Lu, who is far too glossy for my taste), and the Lost Dogs soldiered on without him, though I haven’t liked their records as much without Gene’s plaintive vocals on them. I don’t have much to add, I guess, because I can no longer access the part of myself that connected so strongly to this music and to this lifestyle I imagined for a man who engineered himself right into an aneurysm at 39. I can only provide the following links to his music and some songs about him. Highly recommended.

The video for “River on Fire,” put together after Gene’s death.
Another posthumous video tribute, with the last song Gene ever sang on a record.
“Stone,” from Adam Again’s last album.
Lost Dogs cover Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will.” Gene has the fourth part.
Adam Again at their funkiest.
Finally, Adam Again’s “Dig,” from which I took the title of this post.

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