Riff Raff: A Punk’s Progress
Pop music and God have never gotten along very well — think of all the religious leaders who’ve pilloried Elvis, the Beatles, and Madonna over the years, not to mention all the critics who crucified Bob Dylan for being so gauche as to become a Christian and then proceeding to sing about it. But however bad pop’s had it, punk rock and God have gotten along even worse. Barring a coterie of punks who became obsessed with Hare Krishnas in the ’80s, the closest punk’s gotten to an explicit spirituality has been the so-called “emo” genre. When it’s been done right — as on the ur-Fugazi Rites of Spring record — it has married a powerful noise with an unrelenting lyrical search for a higher truth. Mostly, though, it’s been done wrong — the Promise Ring and such writing songs about being so, so sad.
In a way, Justin Marler’s story exemplifies the confused, rocky — and yet enduring — relationship between rock and religion. In 1991, an 18-year-old Marler moved from Chico to the Bay Area, where he hooked up with a couple of underground punk acts, playing guitar and singing backup for the groups Sleep and Paxston Quiggley. To look at Marler now, there’s nothing particularly punk-ish about him: He sits a tad stiffly, speaks genially, and just below the sleeve of his T-shirt a tattoo of a cross circles his right biceps. “I got this before I was Orthodox,” he explains. “It just happens to be an actual Russian Orthodox cross. I got it when I was living in this house with people who were … pretty crazy. I was sort of worried for my life. So I got it as protection.”
During what he calls a period of serious depression, Marler quit his punk band, sold his guitar, and wound up meeting a group of young monks who were living in a Northern California monastery. It was there that Marler started a path toward what he describes as “the most amazing seven years of my life.” Leaving the punk scene for a monastery didn’t strike him as particularly odd. “There are so many parallels that it was a real natural transition,” he says. “Though it seems awkward to an outsider’s eyes, it was really natural. There are a lot of similarities between the punk lifestyle and the monk lifestyle. Poverty, sleeping on floors, not caring about what you look like, externally being a misfit in society because you look different. And this is my own opinion, but I think there’s a lot of searching happening in punk rockers in their lifestyle and their music. And it’s the same thing with monks: We’re searching and probing into life.”
With the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood — part of a Russian Orthodox group which was somewhat controversially separated from the mainstream church (see “Awkward Christian Solders” on sfweekly.com for details) — Marler had actually found a like-minded group of people his age who had come out of the punk scene, and it was with the Brotherhood that Marler begrudgingly took part in his 15 minutes of fame. Under Marler’s direction, the assorted monks and nuns put together a fanzine, Death to the World, which ran stories of gutter punk life along with stories about religious ascetics and martyrs. “There were a lot of monks and nuns who were coming out of the punk rock scene into the monastery at that time,” he says. “They were saying, ‘Why don’t we do something to help the kids on the streets? Is there anything we can do without pushing religion?’ — to help and give hope and so on.”
Death to the World got around, and so did Marler. As a de facto spokesperson for the “punks to monks” he traveled the country as a speaker and dropped off copies of the zine. With another monk (“Who was a really good surfer,” Marler says), he wrote a book, Youth of the Apocalypse and the Last True Rebellion, a lengthy broadside against what the book described as perils of “nihilism” in pop culture, and, of course, a discussion of the possibility of salvation. He also recorded a tape of acoustic songs, Lamentation, which was distributed through a few religious bookstores.
Word spread, which made a monastic life difficult for the man who renamed himself Monk John Marler. The far-right proselytizers at Focus on the Family were getting in touch, as were reporters from the Utne Reader, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, who played up the punks-to-monks angle. “It was sort of a torture, actually,” he says. “All I really wanted to do more than anything was just sit in the woods of the monastery and focus and not travel, not publish anything. I just wanted to sit there.”
About a year and a half ago, Marler left the monastery, for reasons he declines to get into. He works in the East Bay as an illustrator for a publishing company these days, and jumped back into music almost immediately. With three other musicians — ex-Sleep drummer Chris Hakius, guitarist Patrick Huerta, and bassist Jake Daley — he’s formed the Sabians, named after the North African region from which one of the Three Wise Men supposedly hailed. However, Marler emphasizes that “we are not a Christian rock band. We don’t push Christianity. There’s nothing in our songs directly related to it. But we do have a spiritual orientation.” What he’s come up with is actually closer to the emo ethos than what most emo labels are proffering these days: a dynamic and unpretentious approach to contemplative rock music that’s more about emotional proselytizing than speaking from any sort of pulpit.
The band’s in the process of mailing demos and plans to play out within the next month or so. And even if he’s removed now from a cloistered life, Marler is unquestionably and proudly transformed by his monastic experience. “It’s a war,” he says of the monk’s life. “You’re taking upon yourself … a war. Which means struggle, difficulty, challenge, suffering. And a taste of reward. It was an amazing experience. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the whole world.”