Tom Wales strolls into Mark's Texas Hots with the enthusiastic gait of a big kid. He carries a Gibson SG in a beat-up case in one hand, and an even more beat-up Bible in the other. The two seem to balance him out.
Sporting wraparound shades and dressed in black, standard-issue rocker gear accented with hot-rod flames, he slides the guitar under the table, slides himself into the booth, and slaps the Bible down with a thump. It's bound in duct tape and full of underlined passages. The pages are worn and thin like the pages of an old phonebook.
"This is the rocker's Bible right here, bro," he says. "I've had this since 1984. As you can see, there's a lot of wear and tear. It says, 'Thy word have I had in my heart that I might not sin against thee.' This is it, man. This is what it's all about."
He orders up a Sky Burger sans fries. He's recently lost 36 pounds.
"Low carbs, dude," he says, patting his belly.
But the irony in ordering a Sky Burger is not lost on him. You see: Tom Wales is a Christian rock artist.
Now before you acknowledge the alarm bells in your head and run screaming in the other direction, just remember: It's still rock 'n' roll. You don't necessarily have to embrace the rock of ages to dig the rock. Wales won't beat you over the head.
"I'm not ashamed of Jesus," he says, "But I don't want 'em to leave so freaked out that they didn't get to enjoy the tunes and have a good rock show." The fact that Wales' music doesn't celebrate any of rock's hedonistic penchants is of no consequence to the weight of his music. It comes exclusively from Christian-rock roots, but Wales' music is powerful and compelling.
And he's proud to be a Jesus freak.
With his trio, Wales Road, Wales has put out three albums --- Sudden Impact, Rock 'n' Roll Dizzy Man, and his newest, Blur --- of riff-loaded heavy rock, power ballads, pop-esque ditties, and even a little blues. They all have a direct Christian message.
The road started quite a ways back for this 37-year-old rocker.
"I invited Jesus into my heart as my Lord and savior when I was eight years old," he says. "I realized I didn't want to go to hell when I died." Wales refers to this early period in his faith as "fire insurance."
"I've learned now I follow God because I love him, not just because I'm afraid of hell."
Wales graduated with a degree in biblical studies from Elim Bible Institute in Lima, New York, in 1987. He needed somewhere to put the sheepskin to work.
"Most people that graduate from Bible college go on to be pastors," he explains. "I'm not called to be a pastor. I'm a musicianary. All of us have different callings. And this is my calling, to live here in Rochester and play my gigs, make my records, do my shows, share my faith through my tunes."
Religious work already ran in the blood. Wales' father worked as a dairy farmer in his hometown of Millertown, Pennsylvania; his mother was an ordained minister.
"My mother is a holy roller. I, however, am a holy rocker," Wales says.
"I grew up on 'safe' Christian music," he says. "It was just '60s Jesus music we had albums of lying around the house." Wales dug the message, but the music left him cold. "I was like, 'Ick!'"
Then one night: sonic salvation.
"There was this [radio] show called 'Resurrection Power' in Elmira, New York," he says. "And they played, like, massive Christian rock. I mean, metal, punk, new wave... it was awesome. Every Sunday night I'd get this show. That's when I got turned on to Christian rock."
In 1984, just before entering college, Wales wrote his first song. He formed his first band, Redeemed Leather, a short time later.
Though he's not completely opposed to it, Wales has never listened to secular rock and claims it has no bearing on his sound. Wales Road cranks out hooks reminiscent of Led Zeppelin, Grand Funk Railroad, or even AC-DC. And whenever he adopts an ominous nasally snarl, you'd swear it was Alice Cooper. This is classic rock done by a cat who doesn't listen to the stuff.
"That's what's wild," he says. "Matt Guarnere and those guys in the studio were telling me, 'Dude, that's like a Kiss riff,' or 'That sounds like AC-DC.' I didn't grow up on any of that stuff."
"I don't believe it's necessarily a sin to listen to secular music," he says, "but it's the whole principle of garbage in, garbage out. If I'm trying to love Jesus, follow God, stay pure... cranking Def Leppard into my headphones is not going to help me in my walk."
Wales' group plays church youth groups, churches, and coffee houses as if playing Madison Square Garden. It's a heavy rock band laying it down in a church sanctuary.
Wales cops the rock God pose. Wales windmills. Wales shreds. He commandeers the mic like a holy rollin' preacher in the pulpit. Applause is always acknowledged with a simple "praise God" instead of the "thank you, Rochester" you'd expect. The kids sing along, run up and down the aisles, and groove on his message.
Wales masterfully runs the length of the neck with slick arpeggios and tight hammer-ons. He's a solid guitar player who throws all the rock 'n' roll into the riffs. The lyrics are another story. A lot of the underlined passages in his tattered Bible have led to songs. And Wales wears his heart on his sleeve.
"I like to write about my own struggles, my own fears, my own temptation, my own trials," he says. "I think because that helps break down the wall sometimes."
These struggles can also include being a Jesus freak living and working in secular society.
"What am I gonna do?" he asks. "I can't make a living off Wales Road CDs with the $10 check I get once a month [from website sales]. I work in the secular avenue of employment to pay my bills." Wales works nights as a tech at the in-patient psychiatric unit at Strong Memorial Hospital. He takes his Bible to work but not his guitar. His co-workers know where he stands, but they don't all understand.
"I had a nurse say to me one day, 'You're religiously pre-occupied. You're obsessive with your Christianity,'" he says. "And I said, 'You know what? That's a compliment, because I don't think I love the Lord enough.' It's funny, because to them they think, 'Well, that's your crutch.' And it's like, 'Well, everybody's got a crutch. Jesus is not only my crutch, he's my wheelchair, my mattress, my anchor. He's my all.'"
Wales is not allowed to proselytize at work. He was almost fired from a previous job for giving a patient one of his tapes because it contained Christian lyrics.
"I was told it was inappropriate," he says.
You'd wonder if these restrictions get to him.
"For me, to be a good Christian at my job is to show up on time, do my work, don't laugh at the dirty jokes," Wales says. "My co-workers know I'm saved. They call me the Jesus freak --- I want to be a Jesus freak." Wales takes it all good-naturedly, in the spirit it is given. "My boss is very supportive. She gives me time off for gigs."
It's Wales' rock-musician attitude that may actually save Christian rock from all the clichés and cheese. He won't, however, stray from its message.
"Unfortunately, you see, once the Christian artists hit mainstream they start to compromise their message," he says. "They water it down. And all I can say is, "There but for the grace of God go I.'"
Wales also dispels rock music's evil image. Maybe it's not the devil's music after all.
"God our heavenly father is the creator of all things," Wales says. "He created music. Satan --- the devil --- is a created being. He didn't create anything. Satan has taken a tool --- rock music, something that God made --- and turned it around and is using it to promote his agenda. What I'm doing is stealing it back. I'm taking those blues riffs, I'm taking that rock 'n' roll and I'm putting Christian lyrics to it and I'm telling the world that Jesus loves them."
So Wales rocks this mortal coil with his eyes on the heavenly prize: a rock 'n' roll heaven of sorts.
"I think when I get to heaven, by the grace of God," he says, "somebody's gonna come running up to me and go, 'I got saved because I bought one of your records and I heard about Jesus,' or 'I heard you at a show,' or whatever. And I'll be like, 'Awesome. Praise God.'"