Touched by eternity: Van Christian's music brought the thunder & heat lightning
Falling James of Leaving Trains on the death of the Naked Prey frontman
Some bands just sound so great when you're driving, and one of my favorite driving bands has always been Naked Prey, led by singer-guitarist Van Christian, who died overnight Monday.
Songs like "Flesh on the Wall" and "40 Miles From Nowhere" are perfect anti-radio soundtracks whether you're in an uptight city or under a vast, unspeakable sky out in the desert and hills surrounding the group's Tucson hometown. While other Arizona bands like Meat Puppets and Green on Red also evoked the changing desert landscape, Naked Prey brought the thunder and heat lightning in much heavier doses.
Van Christian and Naked Prey simply rocked harder than the other bands in the Paisley Underground and most alt-rock bands of the '80s and '90s, for that matter. Even ballads like "The Story Never Ends" were heavier and fuller than other bands' most energetic tunes.
Van's gruff, raw vocals and unsentimental lyrics might seem simple, but they also have a way of sticking in your head for years afterward. While everyone else in the retro-'60s scene was mimicking Neil Young, Bob Dylan and the Byrds, Naked Prey were playing power chords and turning up their amps and scaring away the meek and timid. Van's anthem "What Price for Freedom" was like an angry answer song to the decades of indifference following "We Shall Overcome."
And when Naked Prey covered songs by other folks, they really did, as the cliché often goes, make them their own. They took the Stooges' seemingly untouchable "Dirt," for instance — one of the Stooges' few slow songs — and sped it up, turning Iggy's sodden, sullen entreaty into a head-banging chorus with a catchy new hook on par with the best of the Beasts of Bourbon and AC/DC.
But it's Naked Prey's remake of songwriter Jimmy Webb's Glen Campbell hit "Wichita Lineman" that's really moving and unexpectedly sublime.
Instead of turning the old song into a Killdozer joke or layering it with tons of manufactured irony and hipness as Urge Overkill did in their version, Van Christian intones the lyrics in a chillingly funereal, coolly restrained robotic-outsider monotone, a somber contrast to David K. Seger's gigantic hard-rock guitar that fills the song's big, looming, lonely spaces like surging, momentous mesas. Filled with shadows and light and dynamic shifts in volume and mood, Naked Prey's transformation of the song is achingly beautiful and poignant and feels touched by eternity.
So, those are some of the facts. There are so many others, such as Naked Prey drummer Tommy Larkins going on to accompany Jonathan Richman, and Van Christian being a part of the Friends of Dean Martinez. Some of Van's friends and colleagues and peers have achieved a lot more success, but who cares about that now?
I'll be hearing Van's doomy, gloomy, sardonic, wise asides in my head for the rest of my life, and I am grateful for that.
I'm also lucky that I got to see Naked Prey in concert, from here to Rome, where they routinely stole the show from more famous headliners. And as much as I've enjoyed so many good and brilliant musicians from Arizona — Green on Red, Alice Cooper, Sun City Girls, Jodie Foster's Army, the Consumers, Linda Ronstadt — Naked Prey remain my favorite band from the area and the one I wish I could see again the very most.
I'm tired of facts. I'm tired of my favorite singers going away. I want to hear Van Christian growl his way through "Silver Train" and "Hour Glass" again.
Falling James is a Los Angeles journalist, poet and singer/guitarist for the band Leaving Trains.