Van Christian: The story never ends
Naked Prey founder was born on the Fourth of July & died on the Fifth
Van Christian, one of Tucson's most infamous rock and roll sons, died Tuesday, a day after his 62nd birthday. A founding member of the Serfers and Green on Red and the frontman of legendary desert rockers Naked Prey, his loss is being mourned on at least two continents and a lot of folks far more knowledgeable and eloquent than me will have a lot to say on the matter. But I'll say a few words in his honor all the same and hope that my eulogy does him justice.
Van was born on the Fourth of July and his son Dillon Christian swears that when he was a small child, his father had him convinced that the fireworks every year were there to celebrate Van's birthday.
"Just wait till you grow up, son, they'll have some on your birthday too!"
Dillon believed this for years before he realized his dad was putting him on.
But this July 4, every firework really was, somehow, for Van. At the tail end of a years' long struggle with congestive heart failure and the end of almost a week of home hospice, Van was holding on for one last Fourth. And when the day came, it was exactly what it needed to be. Like the man himself, the scene was a juxtaposition of beauty and holy chaos.
Fireworks were going off outside the front door, lighting up the sky at night and sounding like the end of the world.
Family members serenely recited Khalil Gibran at Van's bedside, while bourbon shots were downed in his honor.
Incredulous nurses were told exactly who it was they were caring for and shown old pictures and album covers and told stories of Van facing down rifle-welding communist bloc guards to perform Naked Prey"s "What Price For Freedom."
And there was music. Of course there was music. And ridiculous stories involving past birthday celebrations and fireworks related mayhem. And a birthday cherry pie, in lieu of a cake, was waiting on the kitchen counter like a latticed artwork of ruby and gold.
There was talk about whether the hospital bed could be carried outside to let Van drop some small fireworks off the balcony, though it turns out that's the sort of thing that home hospice folks more or less draw the line at.
And then there was Van's fiancee, Sarah Hamilton, standing at his bedside in a wedgewood blue gown and a hand-decorated hat whispering vows to the love of her life and promising him that he'd never be forgotten. That part was kind of goddamned beautiful.
Meanwhile, sitting quietly in the background was your favorite local music journalist, volunteer radio DJ, unexpected rock and roll widow, there in case the rock and roll widow-to-be needed a hand or a hug or a trip to the Circle K. Because this is Tucson, where talented people live and die and need each other around to get through the living and dying par.
The first time your trusty scribe became aware of Van Christian was on the radio. It was 1986 or so and my precocious preteen self had a standing Sunday night appointment with Jonathan L's Virgin Vinyl show, a couple hour weekly slice of the local rock radio airwaves that featured post-punk, hardcore and DIY bands galore, along with the best and latest of Tucson's rapidly growing homegrown punk and desert rock scenes.
Of all the local bands fit to be played on the FM dial (keeping in mind that bands like Bloodspasm, UPS and the like were mostly too profane to ever make it past FCC guidelines) the one that seemed most "dangerous" and full of fire, grit and an almost heavy metal-ish edge was Van's band Naked Prey, whose sophomore album "Under The Blue Marlin" came out that year.
There are a thousand and one stories about Van back in the day and a lot of end with him instigating shenanigans, causing wanting mayhem or evading criminal justice just in the nick of time. But there are an equal number of stories about Van digging some artist or musician out of the proverbial gutter, inspiring them to get up and hold their head high and play or write or sing or perform.
He was a larger than life kind of guy, but humble in all the ways that mattered most. He seemed to love being a bit of a legend but never wanted attention for attention's sake and was never swayed by dreams of fame or glory. Never intimidated even when given the chance to play with famous folks like Jonathan Richman or Hope Sandoval or the Replacements or even Johnny Thunders.
Van's reputation was that of an anti-rock star and iconoclast. When his band the Serfers left for Los Angeles to make a stab at Paisley Underground notoriety as Green On Red, Van was the one who cared more about music than fame. Pretty soon he was back in Tucson raising some hell and ditching his drum kit to front his own band, Naked Prey.
Van and Naked Prey were among the cadre of Tucson bands who were infamously "big in Europe," reaching fans from Germany to Italy to Eastern and laying the groundwork for more local bands to do the same. And in addition to the band Van drummed, played or sang in a slew of side projects, including The Band of Blackie Ranchette with Rainer and the Friends of Dean Martinez (originally known as Friends of Dean Martin until Dean Martin's legal team objected — not cool, Dino!) The former band was, of course, the group that eventually begat Calexico, so we can partially thank and/or blame Van for that.
And even though the heyday of desert rock was a couple of decades past, Van was never one of those guys who took breaks from playing over the years, either drumming or playing in dozens of bands across the decades including, somewhat recently, Sundowners and Band of Angels with Greyhound Soul's Joe Peña. Always one to promote other talented folks, Van also hosted other musicians in an ongoing residency at the Dusty Monk Pub at Old Town Artisans in Tucson up until not long before the COVID lockdown.
Van's solo work was where he shone the most, however.
His brilliant solo effort "Party of One" evokes echoes of Neil Young by way of Lou Reed by way of Springsteen by the way of the Stones and Iggy and T. Rex and Gram Parsons. Etcetera. Local DJ Kidd Squid once called it the greatest album since "Exile On Main Street." This was a rock and roller who knew his musical forebears and carried their lessons with him, always.
And Van kept writing and playing and collaborating with other bands and musicians up until almost the end, with what he promised would be some of his best material yet to be released.
Which brings me back to the radio. Where Van Christian heard yours truly for the very first time.
A few years back, I used to run a David Bowie-themed radio show on local LPFM station Downtown Radio and it turns out that Van and his fiancee Sarah Hamilton were the show's biggest fans.
According to Sarah, Van used to good-naturedly complain that he both loved and was annoyed by my show because I got all my history right but I was missing what it was like to actually be there, as a teenage kid, hearing Bowie and Iggy and T. Rex for the first time.
Van, on the other hand, was there.
Along with childhood friends like Dan Stuart and Billy Sedlmayr and the friends of theirs who joined them in begging their parents to let them see concerts at the TCC and the UA ballroom forming the early glam and rock and primitive punk bands that became the embryo from which grew early Tucson punk and post-punk and desert rock.
Even post-punk pioneers are human, though. Their bodies give out, their hearts get weak, even when their souls are fiery and loud.
And the thing about rock and roll caretakers is that the only people who truly understand them are other rock and roll caretakers.
Because, while these fierce, talented, stubborn brilliant souls do not go gently as a rule. And while they struggle to overcome what ails them, those of us who love them spend all the fight we have inside us battling medical restrictions and bureaucracies and financial stress and feeding, bathing, loving and comforting the people who once wrote us songs and made us beam with pride from the front row of the audience.
And so, while Sarah moved mountains for Van and summoned an inner strength beyond what any human being should have to find in themselves, she called on me for comfort. Because she knew that I had walked that road too.
The day after my own fiancee Mario's memorial, I visited Van in a skilled nursing facility and talked about music and his upcoming release. I told him about Mario's last days and how he spent them listening to albums he loved and making peace with his life and his legacy. And I told Van that we'd make sure his last recording was finished and heard far and wide.
And though it was unspoken between us, he knew and I knew that the odds are he wouldn't be around to see that happen.
Days later Van was back in the hospital, beginning to fade into the haze where he could just easily see friends like Rainer from beyond the proverbial veil as his friends and loved ones on this plane of existence.
After his release to home hospice, Van struggled against being stuck in bed, hoping to escape but too unstable on his feet to stand. He needed two strong men to hold him in place and basically raged against the dying of the light.
And then, on the Fourth of July, Van had his last birthday party. And in the wee hours of July 5th, with Sarah at his side, his heartbeat stopped and that loud, gravelly voice was uncharacteristically quiet.
According to Dillon Christian, Van would want the following added to his obituary: Van never conformed to someone else's normal, no matter how hard it got or what transpired. He was himself through and through. And he was exactly who he wanted to be.
Van Christian was born on the Fourth of July and he wrote his anthem, "What Price For Freedom" in honor of the dark side of Independence Day. The suffering and sacrifice and fight and human cost of the freedoms and privileges we all take for granted. It's a message that resonates more than ever in this moment in history.
So as we all rise up to speak truth against hate and resist forces threatening to set the clock back 50 years or so, think of Van and tell the powers that be to go straight to hell with that power trip. That's what he'd want you to do.
Well, that, plus play an instrument or do whatever art you do. Or toss fireworks out the window and set things on fire. Please for the love of God don't do that last part. At least not on my watch.
Van also wanted a Viking funeral. Not sure how Sarah and Dillon are going to pull that off, but where there's a will, there's a way.
These goddamn rock and roll casualties with their Viking funerals and dreams of getting eaten by sharks are going to raise all our insurance premiums sky high, so the rest of you had better get your health checked. The caretakers are getting tired and the DJs are running out of memorial playlists and the obituary writers are posting these things a little bit too often and we don't want to keep saying of these kinds of goodbyes.
Meanwhile Sarah is still here. She loved that man with all her heart and she took care of him when the rest of us couldn't. Let's take care of her too.
Be good to each other and cause some holy chaos. For Van.
Your friendly neighborhood music scribe.