By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
When janitor James Hampton died in 1964, he might have slipped unnoticed into history—except someone decided to take a look inside his garage. There, unknown to anyone, Hampton had spent the previous 14 years constructing a titanic work of Christian tribute, a 177-piece wall-to-wall sculpture-cum-tableaux made of the refuse he'd scavenged from trash bins during his day job. Somehow, Hampton had tapped into that reservoir of obsessive solitary purpose that nourishes only the most wildly talented artists and madmen (consider the Voynich manuscript, the 13th-century text that baffles yet the technicians at AT&T labs), filling notebook after notebook with the as-yet-indecipherable coded story of his construction of what he called the Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation's Millennium General Assembly. Art critic Robert Hughes noted that it "may well be the finest work of visionary religious art produced by an American." But then again, Robert Hughes had never heard Blissed.
The American character has a capacity for accommodating contrast that transcends cheerful infamy—P.T. Barnum grew up in the same town at the same time as Laurens P. Hickok, the lost father of American rational idealism—and nowhere are these contrasts more cheerfully pitted against each other than in the regrettably underexplored arena of self-declared Christian rock & roll. And nowhere with Christian rock & roll does one find a more anthropologically engaging specimen than Blissed, featuring drummer Robert Sweet of Stryper, a band unfortunately remembered as "hair metal" (certainly, 1 Corinthians frowns upon "effeminate" male conduct, an edict superficially troublesome to the glammy longhairs then and now in Stryper et al., but consider, too, the antediluvian totemic significance of long hair, from the Old Testament's Samson to the yeti scalp held by the Khumjung Monastery in Tibet).
Instead, however, Blissed picks up where Stryper left off to tackle a peculiarly new-millennium politics of parousia (a Greek term related to the second coming) through works of art dealing with not a literal apocalypse but—instead—an apocalypse of coincidence, a tribute to the a designer of the universe as grandiose, complex and ultimately unknowable as anything James Hampton assembled in his garage—indeed, as much immersed in celestial mystery as, say, the books of Esdras expunged from the Holy Bible by Andreas Bodenstein, or the intricate geometry at Rennes-le-Chateau, or even the Newark (Wyrick) Decalogue. Of course, interpreted through theories of analogia entis (popularly associated with Thomas Aquinas), we can at least attempt to delve the undelvable—to analyze the uncompromisingly intimidating works of Blissed.
Stryper drummer Robert Sweet has certainly weathered his fair share of acrimony from other Christians. In 1986, he told Hit Parader that Stryper was "about the most unreligious Christian band you could imagine," later clarifying the sentiment in another interview as "a rock band who were Christians" rather than a "religious band." Naturally, certain sectors of the Church responded with opprobirum ("Stryper demolished any convictions left in Christian music!" warned one Alabama ministry). But Stryper—and now Blissed—were always engaged in a more sophisticated reading of Christian works. Consider the possibility that instead of crude, casual blasphemy or plastic piety, Blissed trucks largely in a visionary interpretation of lost Christian texts, creating art that enlightens, inspires and intrigues initiates and analysts alike.
For instance: "Shake it up/Break it up/I can never get enough/Of waking up the dead," obviously a reference to the "first returners" (elucidated in detail through Zerubabel in Esdras 1), those original Christians who herald imminent parousia. Or Stryper's fondness for the "777" numerological signifier: not just code for God (as opposed to "666"), but also linked to Tycho Brahe's Astronomiae Instauratae as the number of fixed stars—fixed rock stars?—in the sky. Even the name: Stryper is derived from a passage in Isaiah; at press time, we'd found no direct derivative in the Greek Septuagint for Blissed, although the books of Judith, Esdras and Baruch all proffer ample and appropriate instances of joyful—blissful—noise. Indeed, even Robert Sweet's favorite Stryper song, "Soldiers Under Command" (perhaps the inspiration for the Soldiers of God comic series, featuring a hero not unlike Mr. Sweet himself), with lyrical reflections both in the Third Prophecy of Fatima ("We saw an Angel with a flaming sword in his left hand; flashing, it gave out flames that looked as though they would set the world on fire") and the first apocalypse of James—the apocryphal James, not James Hampton (though in musicology, there really are no coincidences, and—as Blissed would certainly tell you—behind the end-times obfuscation, the actual literal definition of apocalypse is "revelation"). Blissed offers a theological labyrinth as dense and calculated as anything assembled during pre-Gnostic times; indeed, perhaps only Mr. Hampton (or his counterparts at Florida's Coral Castle or the Salton Sea's Salvation Mountain) might be able to navigate it.Blissed performs with Dizmas and Identity Crisis at Chain Reaction, 1652 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, (714) 635-6067. Sun., 7:30 p.m. $10. All ages.