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The “Grape Prophet” Liner Notes

As part of our 2021 vinyl re-release of L.S. Underground’s The Grape Prophet, music journalist J. Edward Keyes penned extensive and insightful liner notes, delving into the history of Michael Knott’s musical journey with Lifesavors, L.S.U. and Blonde Vinyl, and the origins of The Grape Prophet album. We are now making these liner notes available for all to read.

I. Christian Twisters

The Grape Prophet was released in 1992, but its story really begins almost 10 years earlier, when Michael Gerard Knott joined the Southern California Christian punk group The Lifesavors. The Lifesavors were one of dozens of Christian punk and alternative rock bands springing up across Southern California, an outgrowth of early megachurches like Chuck Smith’s sprawling, multi-branch Calvary Chapel. The Lifesavors were shepherded by another of those churches, The Vineyard, which was headed up by the charismatic pastor John Wimber. A bearded, burly, barrel-chested former addict who was himself a musician, Wimber saw rock & roll as a way to bring a Christian message to the youth of Southern California. Wimber’s son Chris played bass in the Lifesavors, and the group’s hooky, toothy songs made them favorites of local teens while their lyrics—”Jesus! When all else fails/ Jesus! You’re the wind in my sails”—endeared them to parents and pastors. As Chuck Cummings, a drummer for the group Common Bond who would go on to play drums in a number of Knott-related projects, puts it, “I think the idea was, ‘OK, you guys are the new pastors. You guys are the ones who will speak to our kids. It’s music our kids like to listen to, but it’s Christian, so we feel safe about it. And the kids won’t listen to us, but they’re gonna listen to you. So at some point, you’ve gotta stop the concert, and you’ve gotta do a 15-minute sermon, and you’ve got to do an altar call at the end.” 

The deal wasn’t exactly a bad one for the young bands, many of whose members were barely out of high school themselves. The loose string of churches up and down the Southern California coast formed a kind of strange parallel to the club circuit—except that churches came with a built-in teenage audience starved for any kind of entertainment that would pass muster with their parents without being hopelessly lame. Because there were so few bands in the Christian scene playing edgy, punk-derived music, the barrier of entry was low. You could form a band one month, and the next be driving up and down the coast playing to packed churches and coffee houses. What’s more, unlike club gigs, these gigs paid. “It was a fascinating time, because in Southern California—literally for about six years, three or four times a week—you could find a great concert to go to,” remembers Derri Daugherty, whose band, The Choir, was another product of the Southern California Christian alt-rock scene. “Then, on the weekends, there would be two or three shows just on Friday and Saturday nights alone. Maranatha Music had set up something called the Ministry Resource Center, and what they would do is they would book different bands during the week to play during high school lunches outside in the quad—each band would play a different high school in Orange County. And then on Friday and Saturday night, there’d be like two or three concerts, and you’d try and get all these kids from these high schools to come see you play. They’d pay you 50 bucks to go play the high school during the week, and then you’d get money from the concert on the weekend.”

“Even after we started playing in regular bands, the reason we kept one foot in the Christian market was because you could make money,” says Brian Doidge. “The churches paid a lot more than a club did, and they gave you the money up front. To do that in the real world is much harder.” In the early ‘80s, a 15-year-old Doidge had been playing in a band called The Chosen Ones in his hometown of Yorba Linda. They placed an ad in search of a singer, and the ad was answered by Michael Knott. “He walked in, and I remember thinking, ‘Who is this guy? He thinks he’s Elvis,’ because he had this jet black hair in a pompadour,” Doidge told the webzine Down the Line in a 2009 interview. “But when he played with us, I knew he was good.” 

At the same time, Knott was also being taken under the wing of Mark Krischak, who had invited him to play rhythm guitar in The Lifesavors, the group he was fronting at the time. Given the choice between a group of 15-year-old unknowns in Yorba Linda and a group that was routinely packing out church sanctuaries in Anaheim and Huntington Beach, Knott chose the latter. But he wasn’t content to remain a backing player, and growing tensions between he and Krischak soon caused the latter to quit the band. (On an interview tape called Seeds of Liberation, Krischak launches into a rambling tirade against Knott, concluding: “He’s just a geek, really.”) Even after Krischak’s departure, the group continued to draw large church crowds and Knott, by all accounts, was far from a geek. Instead, he radiated cool and charisma. “What a frontman,” recalls Steve Hindalong, drummer for The Choir. “You’d see that guy, and you just thought, ‘Well, there’s a rock star.’ Of all the people I’ve known in my life, he was the one who had the most rock star potential.” Cummings recalls seeing Knott pull stunts that tested the patience of otherwise game pastors. “Mike would wrap himself up in duct tape or pour a bag of flour over his head during shows,” Cummings recalls. “But he was so charismatic. I remember even before we were playing together, I’d go and see him play, and I’d say, ‘This guy is just nuts,’” Daugherty agrees. “It was just fascinating to watch the guy,” he says. “He was so commanding onstage. He really was the true, David Bowie-style rock star/artist. I mean, we all considered ourselves artists. But Mike would just do anything—he would go nuts and do stuff and say stuff on stage and not care about the consequences.” 

But Wimber’s pastor father—whose church was drawing in both former hippies as well as curious punk rockers—wanted the band to double down on evangelism. Like many large churches of that era, The Vineyard was a grassroots effort; it began in John Wimber’s house in the late ‘70s, and eventually grew to become a congregation of thousands of members. Wimber envisioned the Lifesavors as an extension of the church; they would tour the country saving souls, and the Vineyard would help the new converts start churches in their home cities. It was a plan that held little appeal for Knott, and he parted ways with the group just before the release of the group’s 1983 album Dream Life. But the Knott-less Lifesavors quickly disintegrated, and pastors—desperate for proven entertainment for their restless teens—pleaded with Knott to re-form the group. He did, with original member Kevin Annis on drums, and with Doidge—for whom Knott had himself auditioned just a few years earlier—on bass, changing the name to Lifesavers. The trio’s 1986 album A Kiss of Life marked a departure from the Lifesavors’ hyperactive punk roots, moving toward the kind of moody art-pop favored by bands like Echo & the Bunnymen and Love and Rockets. Lyrically, the group stuck to the party line that made them church favorites, to mixed results; “I Pray, You Pray” and “We Live for the Son” feel trite uncomplicated, the straightforward cover of The Byrds’ “Turn Turn Turn” feels unnecessary, and the lyrics to “Love Boy Love Girl” are extremely tough to take in 2021. But musically, songs like the great, slashing “Free Her” and the soaring “She’s on Fire” hinted at the young Knott’s gift for dark-hued hooks. That quality would come to the fore on the band’s next record, moving further away from new wave and into the kind of dark post-punk that characterized bands like Bauhaus and Lords of the New Church.

To signal the change in direction, the band rebranded as Lifesavers Underground—or, L.S.U.—and released the harrowing deathrock opus Shaded Pain, an album that is now correctly regarded as one of the best records ever released in the Christian market. At the time, the response was…different. “We couldn’t get a gig for three years after we released that!” Knott laughs. The fallout after Shaded Pain’s release has been well-documented; one oft-repeated (but never sourced) story has a bewildered music buyer at a Christian bookstore wondering how he was supposed to sell parents on a record that sounded like it was being played a gang of vampires, and included lyrics like, “Our time has come to kiss the cleaver.” “Everybody hated us after Shaded Pain,” Doidge remembers. “We were signed to Frontline Records, and they just went, ‘What the hell is this?’ And then the Christian bookstores banned it, and we couldn’t get any gigs, because a lot of churches had thought we’d gone off the deep end.”

II. Big Shot Record Man

Even while he was fronting the Lifesavers and L.S.U., Knott always had one hopeful foot in the general market. After Shaded Pain effectively ended the group’s career in the Christian market, Knott began pouring more of his energies into his general-market glam-punk band The Bomb Bay Babies, who would play regular gigs at L.A. clubs like The Whiskey A Go-Go and The Coconut Teaszer. Still, the fallout from Shaded Pain bothered him. It wasn’t just the excommunication from a community that had once celebrated his talents; it was the feeling that he had been subtly controlled and manipulated by people who just wanted to use his art for their own ends. “Part of the problem is that you have all of this support from the church, but you still feel like you’re at, like, level two, where the pastors and preachers are the really important ones,” recalls Daugherty. “You’re just there to get the kids there. But then you also have to tow the line. And after a few years when you start to figure out, ‘Wait, we don’t really want to be preachers, we just want to be in a band,’ they’re all, ‘Well, you’re banned from playing.’” 

The argument is a slippery one, to be sure—if young musicians just wanted to be in a band, they should cut ties with evangelical churches and purely pursue club gigs. At the same time, it’s not hard to understand how young people might feel betrayed when they were cast out and criticized by the same institutions that once lavished praise on them. “Mike’s an intuitive dude, and he caught on early that corporate Christianity was gonna be the doom of that culture,” says Chris Colbert, a member of the groups Breakfast With Amy and Fluffy, and producer-in-residence for Knott’s Blonde Vinyl label who fell into the church punk culture after his mother became a Christian in the late ‘70s. “That was kind of what the motivation for Blonde Vinyl was—it was punk rock toward [church culture], and from being damaged by that. And whereas I was like, ‘Forget this, I’m just gonna walk away from the whole thing,’ Mike took it personally. I think artistically, he felt an obligation to [the Christian scene], and he was trying to correct the wrongs. And I was just like, ‘Why?’ But you have to remember: there was a brief time in the ‘80s and ‘90s where there was a liberal side of Christian culture, and there was a hope that there could have been a liberal, compassionate, kinder Christianity—it was actually a possibility at one point. It just didn’t work out that way.” 

Colbert had run into Knott at shows in and around the Southern California church scene. Like Knott, the young engineer was also living parallel lives in two very different worlds. “I started working in a studio when I was 19 or 20, and I just kind of happened into meeting people in bands who were in the Christian rock scene,” he says. “At the same time, I was also doing sound for punk rock bands. So I’d go record a Christian rock band during the day, then I’d go do sound for Christian Death at night. I didn’t care—I was just hungry as an engineer for experience.” 

Knott had slowly begun to build a universe of connections around him that would shape the next few years of his life. While he and Doidge were in the studio recording Shaded Pain, they were frustrated by young Kevin Annis’s inability to nail a certain drum part. Fortunately, one of the scene’s best young drummers, Chuck Cummings, had dropped by the studio that day and was recruited by Shaded Pain producer Chris Brigandi to handle the part, which he nailed in one take. Knott and Cummings struck up a fast friendship. “I remember one day, me and a few other people were hanging out with Knott in his apartment in Trabuco Canyon,” Cummings says. “And he just starts talking about how he was going to start a label, and he was going to release a Lifesavers record and an L.S.U. record, and he was gonna do a record with his wife Windy, and he was gonna do a punk rock record. And I said ‘How, exactly, are you gonna do this?’ And he said, ‘You’re all gonna work with me on it.’” He already had the name: One of his mainstream projects that failed to catch fire, a great, theatrical goth group called Idle Lovell, had self-released an album in 1984 on a label Knott had impulsively decided to call “Blonde Vinyl.” He would revive that name for this new project. “Mike was such a charming guy,” recalls Colbert, “and one day he approached me, because I had a studio, and asked, ‘Hey, can you do 10 records in one month for $10,000?’” 

As absurd as it looks on paper, the onslaught of releases was the result of a calculated strategy. “He understood how Christian bookstores worked,” says Colbert. “The music departments were really small, and so the competition was for shelf space—the more shelf space you had, the bigger the presence you had. If he were to just do one release at a time, he would get about three inches of shelf space. But if he did ten releases at once? He could commandeer a chunk of the shelf, and that would get attention. And that was how he was going to get a toe in the door. His whole thing was finding bands and doing this big rush of, ‘How many records can we crank out in one month?’ just so that they all had the same release date. And as it turned out, it was a really, really good idea.” 

Knott was aided by the fact that the Christian alt-rock scene was in a state of transition; by the early ‘90s, pioneering bands like The Choir and The 77’s were gradually becoming elder statesmen, and there was a shortage of young bands to take their place. By declaring a monopoly on that segment of the market—and by doing it with an aesthetic style that radiated punk rock cool and authenticity—Knott was quickly able to establish Blonde Vinyl as the only name worth trusting in the small Christian scene. “The only requirement for a band to get signed to Blonde Vinyl is that they had to be musically off the grid,” Knott says. “Breakfast With Amy has go-go dancers at their live shows? Perfect! I’ll sign those guys! If there was a band out there—I didn’t care if it was techno, I didn’t care if it was punk—and they were musically off the grid, I was interested.”

Indeed, the first 10 releases on Blonde Vinyl were about as “off-the-grid” as you can get: they included the spritely bedroom techno of Dance House Children, a group consisting of brothers Ronnie and Jason Martin, who would go on to form Joy Electric and Starflyer 59 respectively; the weird funk/grunge hybrid of Black & White World; the psychedelic hardcore of Colbert’s band Fluffy and, of course, three projects from Knott: a new L.S.U. record called This is the Healing, which edged the group into a pagan folk sound; an alt-pop record by Knott’s wife Windy Lyre, which was largely produced and written by Knott; and Poplife, a punk record from a revived-yet-again Lifesavers, and the creation of which reflected the Blonde Vinyl ethos at the time. “Mike Knott and Mike Sauerbey and Steve Hindalong all showed up at my studio around 8:00pm and recorded the whole [Poplife] record in one night,” Colbert remembers. I think that’s the first time Hindalong had worked with him, and it’s the first time I’d worked with him, and we were both so confused. But it was also hilarious, because Mike was such a charming guy.” 

“We did it from midnight until four in the morning,” Hindalong remembers. “Mike was trying to do all of these records for his label as fast as possible, and he was making up the songs on the spot. We were just playing, and he’d be yelling out the changes. We’d get to the end of one and I’d say, ‘OK, I think I’ve got it, let’s try recording,’ and he’d go, ‘No, no, that’s it! That’s good enough!’ And then he’d go into the other room and write the next song. We did the whole album in four hours, and the next day he did the vocals, and that was that record.”

Knott secured distribution for Blonde Vinyl from a company called Spectra, and after persuading his father to invest in the label, they set up an office, which eventually grew big enough that they relocated to an industrial park in Santa Ana, next to the freeway. “It was in a giant beige building with 20 other offices,” Colbert remembers. “It reminded me of a La Quinta Inn. Come to think of it, it actually may have been across the street from a La Quinta Inn.” Knott’s manic release strategy paid off: in its first year, Blonde Vinyl brought in $1 million, and the label’s fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach gave it a freewheeling punk feel that was squarely at odds with the rest of Christian music’s spit-shined, starch-collar approach. “That first Fluffy record was just friends of mine I knew from punk rock bands who I brought into the studio to fulfill Mike’s goal of releasing 10 records in a month,” Colbert says. “And then it’d be like, ‘Hey, you guys wanna go open for The Crucified at this church?’ And we’d say, ‘Well, that should piss some people off. Let’s take a bunch of ‘shrooms and see what happens.’”

“Chris was a genius,” Knott says, “He was going to be the producer and the engineer, and I was going to find the bands, and we’d work together. Our idea was, ‘Make it cool, make it original, and make it at least semi-pro.” Cummings was recruited to handle publishing and various other odd jobs, and he remembers the feeling of excitement that came with being on the cusp of something like actual success. “When we moved into the larger office in Santa Ana, Mike had his own office, and we had a bigger area with cubicles, and people like Brian Healy would come by and talk about their records. It was such a neat time, because nobody had done anything like Blonde Vinyl before—it was really avant-garde and underground. We did that Breakfast with Amy record, we did the Fluffy record—we did all these cool records, Mike was just pumping them out. It definitely laid the groundwork for Tooth & Nail and all these other labels that came after.” 

The label’s attitude of punk recklessness coupled with their early financial success caused other labels in the industry to view them with a mix of suspicion and loathing. “Mike came in hot,” Colbert recalls. “I went with Mike to the first Gospel Music Association week in Nashville, and people were pissed! They were like ‘You guys aren’t real Christians.’ But that whole scene just felt so fraudulent to me. I remember we were at the convention center talking with a few people, and these two big, goomba-looking guys walk up and go, ‘Please clear the way for Carman!’ And I’m like, ‘What the—?’ And, sure enough, Carman walks up, claps his arms around our shoulders and goes, ‘Having a little songwriting session, boys?’ And in my head, I’m like, ‘God, you smell like a cheap whore.’”

But Knott’s goal for Blonde Vinyl was about more than just aggravating the old guard or causing controversy for controversy’s sake. “I’d hear about Breakfast with Amy and their wild and crazy live shows, and I’d go see them every once in a while, and I was just like ‘What the heck?’” recalls Cummings. “But Mike loved it, because it was quirky and it was different. He knew that no label was ever gonna sign this band. So he was like, ‘That’s the label I wanna be. I wanna be the label that gives bands like this a voice.’”

On the eve of the release of the first batch of Blonde Vinyl records, Knott gathered all of the bands in the bar of a local hotel. “I said to them, ‘OK you guys, we’re putting your records out, so here you go: This is a release form. You’re all released from the label.’” The bands, many of whom had not had the experience with record labels that Knott had, were confused. They’d just gotten signed—now they were being dropped? Knott had to explain to them that he didn’t want to run the kind of label where bands were tied up in labyrinthine contracts from which they could never get free. He wanted them to have total control over their work. “I had to say to them, ‘If you ever want to do another record, you just let me know and we’ll do it.’ And all of them did another record with us.”

But as Knott was experiencing early success giving voice to artists who shared his independent spirit, the church where he spent much of his teen years performing, The Vineyard, was falling sway to a movement that would divide its congregation, shatter young lives, and produce one of the most harrowing records of Knott’s career.

III. The Grape Prophet Speaks

“My wife and I had still been going to The Vineyard church in Anaheim,” Knott remembers. “And one night, John Wimber comes out and says, ‘We have someone very special here tonight.’ And this guy comes out, this older dude, and a younger guy comes out with him. And the older dude starts saying all these things—’All the blues and lavender blossoms will be suckled unto their heirs….’ And when he was done, the younger guy says, ‘What he’s saying is that he had lunch with Jesus.’ And I looked at my wife and I said, ‘We are out of here.’”

The “older dude” in that story is Bob Jones—not to be confused with the Bob Jones who founded a college in Greenville, South Carolina. The “younger guy” is Mike Bickle, pastor of the Kansas City Fellowship where self-proclaimed prophets like Jones, John Paul Jackson, Paul Cain, and others were in residence. The group—colloquially dubbed The Kansas City Prophets—had been causing a stir in charismatic circles; according to a 1991 article in Christianity Today titled “Seers in the Heartland,” the KC Prophets believed that God was using them to speak directly to the church. In his meticulous, 132-page investigation into the movement, Pastor Ernest Gruen describes Jones as having spent years bouncing from church to church, interrupting services with long descriptions of dreams and visions he’d supposedly received. The Gruen report amusingly quotes the Pastor of Berean Baptist Church, one of Jones’s early haunts, describing how the congregation there, “grew weary of this continuous foretelling of earthquakes and tragedies,” and how Jones was instructed to “sit quietly and be still.” Offended, Jones left the church and continued making his way through various ministries in Kansas City, until he found a receptive audience in Bickle. Together, Bickle and Jones established a kind of prophetic “Who’s on First” routine—Jones would deliver a long, prosaic word salad peppered with religious buzzwords, and Bickle would deliver the meaning to the congregation. One transcript in the Gruen report has Jones saying, “But the Holiest of Holies, of which your children are called to enter into, can crash that threshold. It’s called the place of divine life,” which Bickle dutifully translates to mean, “There’s divine healings—that’s what we’re really bad at right now. And then there’s divine health; that’s where we live under the shadow of the Most High. And then there’s divine life.”

John Wimber, who himself believed in the idea of prophetic visions and the possibility of modern-day miracles, embraced the prophets. In May of 1990, Wimber inducted the Kansas City Fellowship into his network of Vineyard churches, and publicly called for every Vineyard pastor to be “ministered to” by the Kansas City prophets. And while Knott had always rebelled against church culture, the ascent of the Prophets to Vineyard leadership was something different; this was more than ruffling feathers by tying yourself up in duct tape onstage at a church’s punk show. This was, in his view, heresy—an abuse of power and trust. Though he’d been attending the Vineyard since he was a teenager, with the arrival of the Kansas City Prophets, Knott and his wife refused to return.  “All of our friends stayed at the Vineyard,” he says, “we didn’t have one friend for a whole year, because we said ‘This is wrong.’ There were thousands of people foaming at the mouth over these prophets.” In the ‘80s, when Wimber tried to turn the Lifesavors into a troupe of roaming punk rock missionaries, Knott quit the group; but the call of packed concerts and healthy church paychecks drew him back. Now, five years later, he had his own record label; he had a big enough budget to book time at Derri Daugherty’s 24-track studio; and he had a modest but devoted audience that had discovered Shaded Pain years after its release and saw themselves in its lyrics of hurt and alienation. So with his childhood pastor falling under the sway of hucksters from the Midwest, and his friends abandoning him for failing to do the same, Knott did the one thing he knew how to do better than anything else. “I saw Tommy when I was 12, and it changed my life forever,” Knott says. “And so my whole life, I was like ‘I want to write a rock opera someday.’” And so in 1991, he finally did.

The Grape Prophet is an allegory for what happened at the Vineyard church in the late ‘80s. Its symbolism is deliberately writ large: Ellis—or, “L.S.”—is a picker in the orange groves (orange, as in Orange County). One day, before Ellis arrives at work, a mysterious group of men turns up at the orange groves and lures all of the other orange pickers away, persuading them instead to go and pick grapes with them at—you guessed it—the vineyard. Ellis’s boss, Colonel Peckesen, freaks out. If the other orange pickers don’t come back, all of his crops will spoil. So he dispatches Ellis to the vineyard to try to bring them back.

What happens next is essentially a horror film in audio form. Shaded Pain was musically dark, but it was dark in a familiar way—the way The Cure and Echo & the Bunnymen were dark. The Grape Prophet is something else. There’s a kind of demonic unrest lurking beneath the songs, a sense of queasiness that conjures the same unease as the last shot of The Blair Witch Project or the “visions of hell” scene from Event Horizon. The liquid guitar tones and bleary psychedelia on songs like “Ellis In the Orchard” and “She Said” aren’t too far removed from, say, Ritual de lo Habitual. But what Knott does to his own voice, coupled with the words that he sings, and the way the songs are structured, give the album a creepiness that endures decades later. The fact that its conclusion is deliberately open-ended makes its impact that much more unsettling. 

Knott may have had a clear idea of what he was doing with The Grape Prophet, but he didn’t convey that vision to any of the other musicians. “I didn’t even know what the damn thing was about until somebody who went to that church actually explained to me what happened,” says Doidge. Hindalong, who famously plays Jones in “The Grape Prophet Speaks” was similarly in the dark. “I was hanging out in the studio one day, and Mike handed me a piece of paper and said, ‘Here, Steve, read this part.’ And that’s how I became the voice of The Grape Prophet. But I had no idea what I was reading, or what it was for.” Essentially, Knott did what he had always done: gathered a group of trusted players, brought them all into the studio, and gave them directions. “There was never really an L.S.U. band,” Doidge says. “Mike was my friend and we’d grown up together. So when he asked me to play, I would play. But everyone always assumed L.S.U. was a serious, main-band focus for me—it really wasn’t. I was just a phone call, hired-guy type of thing. With The Grape Prophet, he just called me up one day and said, ‘Come into the studio, I’m doing a record, and I want you to play some guitar on it.’ So I came in, and he said, ‘Here’s the songs, do what you want.’ I think I only spent a day on it.” 

Knott’s studio sessions always had an element of chaos, but the work on The Grape Prophet was even more frantic than usual, as he was recording his first solo album, Screaming Brittle Siren, at essentially the same time, with many of the same players. “Mike is an impatient guy,” Doidge laughs. “Everything always had to be done so fast.” But just like his plan to flood the market with new releases for Blonde Vinyl, what seemed absurd on the surface was actually the result of a dense network of ideas—the reason it appeared chaotic is because Knott was the only one who knew what those ideas were. “He was a pro,” says Colbert. “And he was an excellent communicator when it came to telling the players what he wanted, while also making it confusing enough so they would inadvertently go weird. He was really good at taking people out of their comfort zones. He would hire Steve Hindalong or Chuck Cummings, these rock-solid drummers, and then he’d throw them these awkward musical scenarios they’d have to deal with. He’d make them work really fast in order to pull them out of themselves. It was actually a really inspiring and educational way to work.”

The sound of The Grape Prophet is in part defined by a signature Michael Knott flourish: the dense layering of multiple passes of his voice, each singing not only at a different register, but in a different style, and a different timbre, making for an Exorcist-like effect. Two minutes into “Wino of the Red is Stained,” all of the instruments drop out and it’s just Knott’s voice—stretched and distended as if he’s wailing at the top of his lungs while walking through a wind tunnel—repeating the title phrase over and over. On the woozy “English Interpreter of English,” he lays down a track that’s just him delivering the song’s lyrics in a shivery whisper, which acts as a kind of ghost to the lead vocal melody. If you listen closely to the songs, you can hear the deliberate imprecision—one vocal track ending before another, giving the whole record an odd, out-of-focus quality. “He has all those vocal parts in his head beforehand,” Colbert says. “He may not have the lyrics done, but he already knew what that arrangement was. And so we’d be recording them, and I remember thinking, ’Well, this just is stupid.’ But then by the time we got to the fifth or sixth track of vocal countermelodies, I’d realize, ‘Actually, this is kind of genius.’” Nowhere is Knott’s vision for unconventional production techniques more icily effective than on the harrowing, “A Group of Prophets Predicts the Pickers’ Future Without Them.” The song is a waking nightmare—The Gun Club rehearsing in the Twin Peaks Black Lodge. The whole thing is run backwards, making Knott’s voice feel inhumanly elongated and rendering Cummings’ rhythms alien and occultish. “I remember being in the studio,” Cummings says, “And he goes, ‘I want you to play the rhythm this way,’ and he counted it out for me. And I said, ‘Mike, that’s not gonna work,’ but just to humor him, I did it. Then he got into the booth and ran the tape backwards, and it was perfect. I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ But that’s the genius of Mike Knott.” The song’s sickening sound mirrors its subject matter. “Big hooker on Sunset Boulevard/ nice porno queen in a leotard,” Knott howls, “I’m a king from Kansas City/ I love holy women that are pretty/ you could have been on a video/ you could have been in my strip show.” 

“That really happened,” Knott said. “The prophet, the guy who was interpreting him, and all these other dudes—all dudes, by the way—told all of my wife’s girlfriends that that’s what would happen to them if they didn’t follow the prophets: that they’d be Sunset Boulevard hookers. These girls are 20 years old at the time. Who would say that to someone?” The song is made creepier by the fact that Knott—portraying the character of the prophets—sings with an exaggerated leer in his voice.

In fact, the lurid spectre of sexual abuse hangs all over the record. The album art—a woman’s parted lips pressed against a grape—suggests oral sex; on “The Fold,” Caryn Colbert portrays a woman who seems hypnotized by the prophets—Knott describes her as, “Just singing and staring,” before she beckons, “Come into the fold”—an intentional, X-Rated double-entendre. The chorus of “Ellis Speaks With the Prophets” is, “Step in the fire, jump in the cream/ I’m reading an aura from the risen core of the syphilis scene.” And the final track with vocals, “She Said,” appears to depict one of the orange pickers submitting sexually to the grape prophets: “‘Take my body, it’s ready to be crushed/ slip me in between your toes/ take my mind, I’m ready to be drunk/ slide me in under your tongue.’” In real life, Wimber publicly disavowed the Kansas City prophets and worked to make restitution to all who were harmed by them. The characters on The Grape Prophet get no such reprieve. The final song, which arrives just after “She Said,” is the instrumental “Back to the Orchard.” It’s unclear whether Ellis is returning to the groves alone, or with the rest of the pickers behind him. All we have to hold on to is the last verse of the previous song: “Take my arms, I’m ready to be born/ go on with things, I’m a seed.”

IV. Cash in Chaos

The Grape Prophet should have signalled the start of a new era for Blonde Vinyl. Coupled with Knott’s equally brilliant Screaming Brittle Siren, as well as great-leap-forward records from Black & White World, Fluffy, and Breakfast With Amy, it seemed the label was poised to double their revenue in their second year. But then something puzzling started happening. Month after month, Blonde Vinyl would receive an increasing number of returns from Christian bookstores—boxes of cassettes that their distributor, Spectra, claimed didn’t sell. The returns began eating into the label’s profits, to the point that Knott felt genuinely confused. Eventually, his confusion gave way to suspicion. He took a batch of the supposed returns—35 cassettes of his wife’s record—and sent them over to the plant that manufactured product for the label. Within a few days, he received a troubling phone call. “The person who was manufacturing our cassettes in L.A. calls me up and says, ‘Mike, you’re not gonna believe this—these tapes are duped. The leader tape is all wrong. We’ve never used this kind of leader tape.’” Knott began piecing together what was happening. Spectra, who distributed the label, had their own manufacturing plants in Nashville. They were taking Blonde Vinyl product, duplicating it in-house, selling them, pocketing the profits, and then shipping box loads back to Knott as “returns.” Knott decided to call their bluff. He placed a call to Spectra, under the guise of being unhappy with his manufacturing plant in L.A. and looking for other options. “I was in Nashville at the time doing a promotion for the label,” he says, “So I said, ‘Hey, this is Mike from Blonde Vinyl, I’m in town on business. Would you mind if I come down and take a tour of the cassette plant?’ And the guy gets real quiet and says, ‘Oh, uh, it’s closed today.’” So I’m sitting in my hotel room, and I start doing the addition on how much these guys are bringing in, if they’re doing this with all 35 of their labels. I decided to wait until I got back to California, and I called and asked to speak to the head of Spectra. I said, ‘Hey, I can’t figure out what’s going on but the FBI has been in touch with me and they’re about to bust some company and they won’t tell me what’s up.’ And he said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, something about someone in the Christian market illegally duplicating cassettes?’ And he goes, ‘Oh, wow, that’s terrible.’ And then guess what? The next day, Spectra files for bankruptcy.” The abrupt shutdown sent Knott into a tailspin. “They ended up owing me over $375,000,” he says. “I have to tell you, I thought about suicide. And I couldn’t tell anyone. I couldn’t tell my dad, who had invested money in the company. I didn’t want to tell my wife. So I went and got a sales job. During the day, I’d work to try to save Blonde Vinyl. Then I’d put on a tie and go sell Wyland paintings at Laguna Beach. Because I couldn’t tell anybody how bad it had gotten.”

“Blonde Vinyl would have been what Tooth & Nail was, if it wasn’t for the fact that the distributor was bootlegging product,” says Colbert. “And I’ve always secretly thought that a lot of other labels who also went through that distributor were encouraging this behavior, because they wanted to take us out.”  Knott briefly tried to reincarnate Blonde Vinyl as Siren Records, releasing just two titles: the underrated L.S.U. album Cash in Chaos and the simultaneously brilliant and stupefying Dance House Children record Rainbow Rider: Beautiful Dazzling Music. The years that followed The Grape Prophet were dotted with career-bests for Knott: The pensive, autobiographical Rocket & a Bomb, the wild, rubbery acoustic album Strip Cycle. In 1996, his group The Aunt Bettys signed a million-dollar deal with Elektra, but addiction and in-fighting killed the band before it ever really began. “You know that part of the Bible where it says, ‘I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb?’” Knott says. “I think when God was forming me in my mother’s womb, he said to me, ‘Hey Mike. What would you like to be when you get to Earth?’ And I think I must have said, ‘I want to be a really good musician who’s broke all the time.’” The Grape Prophet may not have rescued Knott’s fortunes. But for those of us who heard it in 1992, it instilled in us the idea that you shouldn’t run from darkness, but that you should defiantly stare it down, and that it could—it should—have a place in your art. It taught us that thought-provoking art doesn’t have to self-censor—that you can sell a record with the lyric, “Nice porno queen in a leotard” a few racks over from Sandi Patti and Wayne Watson. For sheltered, impressionable teenagers accustomed to treating their youth pastors as God’s own emissaries, it made us aware that they, too, can be manipulative and duplicitous, operating according to their own agenda. And ultimately, it showed us that sometimes being true to yourself means freeing yourself from the very people who nurtured you when you were younger and more naive. To paraphrase a shopworn quote about The Velvet Underground: Only a few thousand people ever heard The Grape Prophet. But every single one of them grew up to be a badass.

J. Edward Keyes, April 2021