Thursday, April 29, 2010

Coming of Age as a Jehovah's Witness and College Radio Lover: An Interview with Tony DuShane

Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk 
When I heard word that former college radio DJ Tony DuShane had released a coming-of-age novel, Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk, about growing up in the Jehovah's Witness religion, I was very interested to hear more about his personal story. The novel is based on his own experiences growing up in the religion and in places it touches upon the conflict that he must have felt between being part of a very restrictive religion and his burgeoning interest in music, radio and indie culture.

In his interview with me, Tony touches upon the similarities between his own upbringing and that of the novel's protagonist and goes into detail about radio has helped to save his soul. These days he continues to DJ at Pirate Cat Radio in San Francisco, doing his long-running show "Drinks with Tony," in which he interviews writers, artists, and musicians.

Spinning Indie: How closely does your novel "Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk" model your own youth?

Tony DuShane: I was that Jehovah's Witness kid, knocking on your door with my elder dad from four years old forward. I thought God was going to kill me at Armageddon because I masturbated or I watched an R-rated movie. I was deep in the belief system and very earnest, just as Gabe is in the novel. Into my 20s I thought God would expose this darkness inside me when he killed anyone who wasn't a JW at Armageddon and I would be the reproach of my family who would watch me die and not feel sorrow since I turned out to be a wicked man. Looking back, my darkness resembled a cup of whole milk, and the novel is a tribute to how I felt in that repressive environment.

Gabe is his own guy. I put him through some similar situations I was in, but I wish there was more of him in me at the time.

He was a fun character to work with and develop. It took many rewrites to balance his naivety with his strong belief system and ultimately give himself larger and larger dares to challenge the right and wrong in his world. The last rewrites were the hardest because I really fell in love with him, he was no longer a doppelganger of myself and I wanted to pull him out of the situations happening around him. That's when the writing break through really happened, when he spoke for himself and made decisions and I had to just watch and cry and laugh and slap him, yet give him a hug.

Gabe did get help from his step-uncle, Jeff and his cousin, Karen. The help wasn't always beneficial, some of it was purely silly, but it was a perspective he really needed to push him forward that I never had when I was growing up.

Spinning Indie: For someone clearly so into music, it must have been challenging for you to grow up as a Jehovah's Witness since so many music-related things forbidden by the religion (school dances, band posters & T-shirts) are enmeshed with teen culture and identity. Was that a source of conflict for you?

Tony: Personally, even though I hid my music from my parents, I had an odd sense of entitlement about it. There was honesty in it. My parents were so strict, I wished them dead often and when Suicidal Tendencies came out with "I Saw Your Mommy and Your Mommy's Dead", that was sweet bliss for under three minutes. Listening to punk was like a three minute orgasm. It was like I could leave my body and my family and religion for power chords and screaming. My parents found some of my punk rock contraband and made me throw it away. That was more dread, more guilt and more frustration. If it wasn't for music and literature I probably would've killed myself. Suicide runs in my family and I've had a few very dark periods where it was a real possibility.

Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk tows the line between dark comedy and tragedy, and then I start talking about it for interviews and I seem so tragic. I'm funny in real life. Tragically.

Spinning Indie: The title character, Gabe, seems to catch glimpses of the non-Jehovah's Witness world through his interactions with music, mixtapes, and the radio. Can you tell me how your youth was shaped by music and radio?

Tony: I found MaximumRocknRoll on KPFA one night after bible study. I think I was 14. Then, I found college radio and I thought I had made this huge discovery. KFJC was the strongest signal where I lived in
Millbrae, and KZSU came in as well.

I would tape songs off of the radio, then make mix tapes for Jehovah's Witness girls who I thought were cute and wouldn’t tell on me. I'd even talk in between songs, telling my romantic focus of the moment that I loved them "and this next song is about my love for you."Hopefully most of those made it into the trash, but it's kind of cool to think there's still a tape out there, that some girl held onto. If I listened to it, I'd probably have six therapy sessions dealing with listening to my 16 year old self profess his love via cassette.

Oh, and KZSU has those finals weeks shows where the DJs play album sides so they can study while DJing. I used to tape those religiously.

Spinning Indie: There's a scene in the book where one of Gabe's friends (who is grounded) asks him for a transistor radio. This seemed like a telling moment to me and a reminder about how isolated teenagers can feel when they feel cut off from friends and their culture. When you were a teen, what was your connection to radio?

Tony: Connected to my headphones every single night. The JW always told us not to listen to music at night since Satanic music can come in and we wouldn't be able to change the dial. Sometimes I would wake up to a
song that "sounded" demonized, and I'd quickly turn off the radio and pray. I was a spiritual schizophrenic.

Vintage Photo of KFJC DJs Mona Lott and Tony DuShane
Photo courtesy Tony DuShane

Spinning Indie: Tell me a bit about how (and when) you first got involved with college radio.

Tony: I was still a Jehovah's Witness and 19 years old. Within a year my uncle killed himself, my sister attempted suicide, my dad had a nervous breakdown and lost his job and I put my hands on my girlfriend's boobs and fingered her. Since the last part was a sin, I confessed to the elders so I could get my paradise handstamp again and not be killed at Armageddon. I told them about the girl and five of them agreed that God took his spirit away from our family and all the calamities were because I had sinned. Then they were telling me not to go to therapy and trying to disfellowship my dad because he must have a secret sin since he had a nervous breakdown.

My dad spent 18 years as an elder and putting his whole soul into helping others in the religion. To watch these people turn on him, I was at a complete loss. And, crazier, I still believed in the JWs, I just decided to leave and pursue my radio dreams.  Ultimately the JW elders caught up with me and offered to help me and I accepted. Again, because I thought I was dead at Armageddon if I stayed away. They made me stop the radio station, so I quit my show, but doubts sprouted up again after observing really bad shit happen to other people in the congregations. I went back to KFJC and did fill-ins without telling anyone and tried to play both sides.

Spinning Indie: How has radio changed your life?

Tony: It's an addiction. I have to DJ. There's a difference when DJing at clubs and bars. When you're DJing to FM airwaves, you're DJing into space. There's no feeling like it. It's like inviting people over and playing records and talking about the records. Except your friends are in range of a transmitter. There could be five. There could be 5,000.

I remember the thing new DJs always do, they always beg for phone calls. Giving out the phone number every five minutes, wanting to play requests, wanting validation of people actually listening. It's embarrassing to listen to, but we've all been there. Now, I never give out the phone number and actually pull the plug on the phone during my radio shows. I do a lot more interviews now and set up since my shows focus on literature, I don't need someone calling in to request The Dwarves.

DJing at Pirate Cat Radio in San Francisco
l to r: Tony DuShane, Johnny Crash, and Bryan Kehoe
Photo courtesy Tony DuShane

Spinning Indie: Are you still doing a show at Pirate Cat Radio? (since when?) How is that experience of DJing at a pirate station similar or different to working in college radio?

Tony: I got back into radio by doing a podcast back in 2000 for Filmjunkie. It was interviews with actors and filmmakers. Then Filmjunkie became a film festival for a few years, so I switched my focus to literature and interviewing writers. Which turned into Drinks with Tony in 2002 since I tended to tape interviews at bars. I joined Pirate Cat in 2004 I believe. So, Drinks with Tony was a podcast as I was focusing on my writing and I got in touch with Monkey who runs Pirate Cat and let him know he could play my interviews if he wanted and he said, "Just do a fucking show already." I’ve taken some time off  recently from the station as we were doing final rewrites and getting the publicity wheels rolling for the novel.

As with college radio, pirate radio goes in waves of staff disputes, this fucking sucks, can't I just do my show, to everyone's happy and there's a dysfunctional family love. Pirate radio seems to be more of a dictatorship than a decently run college station, where people can speak up, there are actually program directors and it seems to run a bit better. Then there's the whole FCC paranoia, which is very real, but Monkey was the first person I have seen who has changed they way pirate radio deals with the FCC...he's nothing less of a genius and I know his love for radio and his contribution will turn into something much bigger in the future.

Jehovah's Witness Literature Adjacent to a Gaming Magazine
At a Place of Business in San Francisco, April 2010
Photo by Jennifer Waits

Spinning Indie: What's your connection to the Jehovah's Witnesses today? Are people upset about the book?

Tony: I'm inactive. That means I left and didn't do anything to get disfellowshipped for. They drill you with questions, but I played the mental illness card and they backed off.

That said, a few JWs who wanted to be cool and go see bands with me or get free tickets to films and drink my liquor and eat my food at my house for the past 10 years of my being inactive, they would hang out with me and really pretended to be my friend. When word of the novel came out, when my JW wife cheated on me, they blamed me and my novel. Pure hatred was spewed at me from so-called friends. It hurt like hell. The book was written, so I was in deal and technical edits mode, but I've had nothing but ignorant hatred from people who don't even know that the book comes from a place of love, understanding and truth.

Spinning Indie: Are you willing to share what caused you to leave the religion and if radio (KFJC?) had anything to do with that?

Tony: Radio and literature saved my soul, but they had nothing to do with my leaving the religion. I started seeing how the elders would make people feel like shit from the stage at the Kingdom Hall. I'd been reading literature and psychology books for some years. I was trying to just fade out so my family would still talk to me, so my "friends" would still talk to me. One day, I said, enough. There's something very wrong with elders acting so arrogant, then expecting such pureness from the flock of devotees. When the elders or the leaders at the Watchtower did something wrong, very wrong affecting many people, the answer was, "we're imperfect, God is giving us new light." When someone touches a girl's nipple, you can lose your family. I realized the whole religion was arrogant.

Which is why I wrote a novel and not a memoir. The memoir would have told the story. There would have been a preachiness to it. I despise preaching, I was involved enough with it growing up. The story had to be compelling and throw the reader into the world of Jehovah's Witnesses. To understand that there is good and bad. To understand that some people need religion. To understand that even the people who exploit religion sometimes feel they're doing it for the right reasons.

Beyond religion, as humans, we all justify our actions one way or another. The novel had to dig into the humanity aspect of why people make decisions that others see as odd.

Writing is about getting to the core of the human condition. Comedy is about the same thing. A poop joke is actually an observation of something we all hopefully do at least once a day.

Spinning Indie: Coincidentally, while I was reading the book, Jehovah's Witnesses were making the rounds of my neighborhood. What do you do when they come to your door?

Tony: I live in San Francisco and I've only been approached by Spanish speaking JWs when I lived in the Mission, and they'd just ask if I spoke Spanish, and now I live in a neighborhood where it's hard for anyone to get past the security gate. Oh, short answer, I don't know, hasn't happened, mostly because I live in the inner city and they have a hard time preaching in these neighborhoods.

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