Music Falls Silent in a Magical Green Room

By William Lobdell

LA Times March 25, 2000



Fans nationwide are shocked by the death of 38-year-old Gene Eugene, the man who set a new tone for Christian music.

In the Green Room this week, the talk was all about Gene Eugene. His gifts as a critically acclaimed singer, songwriter, musician and producer. The role he played in shaping more than 300 records over his career.
The alternative rock band, Adam Again, he started in the early 1980s that brought Christian music out of the Dark Ages. And his funky recording studio--the beloved Green Room itself, on the first floor of his Huntington Beach home--which served as the breeding ground and flophouse for hundreds of bands, Christian and secular, famous and struggling.

So when Eugene, 38, died unexpectedly Monday, mourning musicians and friends from across the country immediately hopped on planes and flew into town. They headed straight for the Green Room, where old friends talked long into the night about the remarkable life of Gene Andrusco, known to everyone as Gene Eugene.
"He was way too young and way too vital for this to happen," said John Thompson, founder of True Tunes, a magazine that coversthe progressive Christian music scene. "Pulling him out of the equation is a huge loss for Christian music. If you were to combine Phil Spector, John Lennon and Booker T. [Jones] and make them into one guy, it's about that devastating."

Early Monday morning, friends found Eugene dead on the floor of his studio. An Orange County Sheriff-Coroner's official said the cause of death hasn't been determined, and it could take as long as three months before all the test results come back. But friends say Eugene hadn't been feeling well in recent weeks and complained of headaches the day before his death.

His death shocked his fans, who turned to the Tooth and Nail Records Web site (www.toothandnail.com), which put up a moving tribute, to share their grief. The volume of more than 400 e-mails--70 pages' worth--froze the memorial bulletin board.
"He was musically so talented that it was never truly recognized," as in cases of musicians who excel at just one thing, said Brandon Ebel, president of Seattle-based Tooth and Nail. On some albums Eugene would do vocals and instrumentals and mix the tracks as well.

He began in show business early, working as a child actor on such TV shows as "Bewitched" and "Wait Till Your Father Gets Home." But he carved out his niche in show business by upgrading Christian rock music in the early 1980s through his band, Adam Again.
"Christian music in the early days was in the minor leagues," said Tim Taber of Prayer Chain, a band Eugene produced. "The thought was: 'It's just a Christian record, that's good enough.' But Gene said, 'I want to make a record that's good enough for MTV, for KROQ.' And he did it, working with budgets that are a fraction of what the big bands had."

So with his own group and then others--bands like Starflyer 59, Plankeye and Swirling Eddies--Eugene produced records that finally measured up to their secular counterparts and helped propel record companies like Tooth and Nail.
"He wasn't one of the inventors of alternative Christian music, but he was a perfecter," Thompson said. "He took a lump of coal and shined it up quite a bit. By the '90s, he was absolutely dominant."

The center of Eugene's world--and arguably the center of the Christian rock world--was the Green Room, his studio and home in Huntington Beach.
"The place is just legendary," said friend Lori Lenz. "Bands would come into town and just want to hang out there. It became its own little society."
The open-door policy created an atmosphere where musicians would play on each other's albums or simply crash for the night.
"You never knew who was going to pop up," Taber said. "Big-name musicians [would] walk in and give their two cents' worth. The studio wasn't spectacular, but there was magic there. The whole Orange County music scene plugs into the place."

So much as that Eugene rarely ventured outside the Green Room, unless of course it was baseball season and the Dodgers were playing. Rumor has it that Eugene would secure cash advances from recording contracts just to buy a single season ticket.
"He'd sacrificed food and water to buy season tickets each year," Thompson said.
Though Eugene spent his career giving legitimacy to Christian music, friends say his faith was private.
"He was a Christian, but he wasn't evangelical," Ebel said. "People saw Christ in him through his kindness and generosity and his servanthood."

But he wasn't a saint.
"I spent months of my life hating the guy," said Mike Roe with a laugh. Roe was a good friend who played with Eugene in the all-star band Lost Dogs, a Christian version of the Traveling Wilburys. "He was a flake with a capital F. Any adjectives I use to describe Gene would fall short of the truth. I can't imagine this guy gone--he's just a three-ring circus. He balanced everything out with his extreme generosity."
That's what people remembered about Eugene: a musical genius with a generous spirit.
"He was a friend to everybody," Taber said. "The kind of guy everyone wanted to be around. He had a quality that drew people in."

Michele Palmer and Eugene were divorced in 1994, but the two always remained close. "He really valued his friends. I mean he really valued them," Palmer said. The couple had no children and he did not remarry. "He's caring, sweet, funny and had a very twisted sense of humor. Most of all, he was just an incredible talent. He's my favorite songwriter. He's brilliant that way."

While Eugene's studio was filled with talk about his life, the music--for this week, at least--had died.
"The Green Room's been incredibly quiet," Lenz said. "It's really strange to be in the studio and have no sound."

Funeral services for Gene Eugene will be at 9 a.m. today at Echoes of Faith Church, 11255 Central Ave., Ontario.

William Lobdell, the Editor of Times Community News, Looks at Faith as a Regular Contributor to the Religion Page of The Times' Orange County Edition.