Underground reunion stirs up Lansing music history
It was Aug. 27, 2000. People were throwing things out of the second-floor window of Christ Lutheran Church — big things. A pool table crashed to the parking lot. A neighbor called the police.
When they arrived, the pastor told them everything was all right. The cops walked off, scratching their heads. Drop Night was born.
There is nothing in Lansing music history quite like The Underground, a Christian punk concert series that ran from 1996 to 2003 at Christ Lutheran Church at 122 S. Pennsylvania in Lansing.
The origin of Drop Night was just one of many dark tales of The Underground shared at a happy reunion of church members and musicians Nov. 25.
Beards, babies in strollers, studded leather jackets and warm hugs heated up the Blue Owl coffee shop in REO Town. Later that night, four of the most stalwart bands from the series reunited and played one last concert in the church basement.
Alex Delavan, a church member, gathered almost all of the raw, lowtech concert flyers from the series into a book, “Scene and Unseen: Flier Art of the Lansing Underground,” unveiled at the reunion.
“Dude, how did you put this together without bawling your head off?” a man said to Delavan.
Scrawled in ink and run off on copy machines, the fliers are a wild soup of flaming skulls, letters dripping with blood and crudely massacred snippets of clip art, including a punk, spike-headed Charlie Brown.
Delavan recalled seeing the fliers lovingly plastered all over the office of Richard Mittwede, youth pastor at Christ Lutheran and founder of The Underground, back in the day.
Mittwede flew in from Austin, Texas, to be at the reunion. He answered every greeting with a nervous quip, but was obviously moved by the sight of so many old friends. He had an advance copy of Delavan’s book, but he said he couldn’t bring himself to look at it until he was back in Lansing.
“I’d have started crying,” he said. Delavan counted off the Underground’s final statistics: 388 performances, 197 bands, 113 flyers.
“I didn’t realize that many bands played,” Mittwede cracked. “There should have been less. Some of them shouldn’t have played.”
Delavan said The Underground, with its 175-seat capacity and Styrofoam blocks in the windows, will never go down in the history books alongside legendary clubs like the Roxy, CBGB’s, Gilman Street, Stone Pony or the Fillmore.
“But this was ours,” Delavan said.
David Thiele, a pastor at Christ Lutheran from 1988 to 2007, said The Underground was a place where kids who loved punk, death metal and grindcore “could come and listen to a different story coming out of those songs.”
“That message was going to be Christian, in the beginning, but it morphed into some thing broader,” Thiele said.
The names of the bands in the early concerts reflect the religious origins of the series: Bones of Adam, Fearless Souls, Jesus Flying Rocketship. Later, the concerts took in a broader swath of local and national bands.
Many were evangelistic shredders who earned credibility in the Christian death metal scene. Some of them barked and growled uplifting messages in deathcore style; others painted vivid soundscapes of sinners being fried and Satan being slaughtered.
“Mortification was a huge deal,” Mittwede said, referring to an Australian death metal band that sold hundreds of thousands of CDs. “I still can’t believe we got them, but they were on tour. I emailed them and had a date to fill.”
Mittwede said he modeled the concerts after punk shows in Grand Rapids, Detroit and Flint.
“There was no place for young people in the hard music scene, no under-21 shows,” Mittwede said. “But we were a church group. We wanted them to know about Jesus, that the church cared about them and there was a place for them.”
He admitted that the idea of punk rock in the church freaked a few people out.
“There was some friction at first,” Mittwede said. “I don’t think people understood. When people came and met me and met some of the kids, they at least said ‘OK” and some were very supportive.”
“It’s just incredible,” musician Randy Ladiski of Elsie said, surveying the crammed coffee shop. Ladiski was in two bands that played the Underground, Bestiary and Pyrrhic Victory. “A lot of these people, I haven’t seen in 15 years. It’s super emotional. A big part of my formative years was going to the Underground.”
Delavan coaxed Mittwede into reminiscing a bit more about Drop Night. When headline band Anguish Unsaid didn’t show up for the Aug. 27, 2000 gig, Mittwede got on the mic. “I don’t think they’re coming,” he announced. “Do you guys want to throw a pool table off the second floor?” Mittwede said he was planning to throw the pool table out anyway.
“It’s time to address the elephant in the room,” Delavan said to Mittwede. “What happened to your ponytail?” “The funny thing is, I still have it,” Mittwede quipped.
“I just forgot to bring it.”