The first time I saw Skillet live, I got rear ended by a semi-truck.

My parents weren’t fond of the idea of me going to a concert, and my mom was hoping I would change my mind after the accident.

I, however, was the first to arrive in line the next day, and pushed my way to the front row center when the doors opened. Back then, Skillet wasn’t popular enough to have a gate between the stage and the audience. There were no security guards preventing stage dives. I wrapped my arms right around John’s microphone stand and staked out my spot.

That night, I let loose like I’d never done before. I waved my skillet around and didn’t have a single care for the first time in my life. I jammed so hard that at the end of the show, the previous drummer, Lori, walked straight up to me afterward and put one of her drumsticks in my hand. It was incredible.

I woke up the next morning unable to move, and ended up seeing a doctor and getting assigned to six weeks of physical therapy. Between the accident and the whiplash from headbanging, my neck needed a proper realignment.

But I would do it all again in a heartbeat.

In fact, minus the semi-truck, I’ve done it an additional nineteen times.

Anyone who knows me personally knows that Skillet is my band.

I still get texts from friends in high school and college who tell me they think of me whenever they hear Skillet. They’ve become such an integral part of my identity, I don’t think I would know who I was without them.

The best part?

I’m not the only one who feels that way.

Discovering Skillet

Like many people who fall in love with Skillet’s music, I used to suffer from suicidal thoughts. I struggled to find a purpose in my life, and I struggled to see how I brought any value to the world.

That all changed the day I bought a mixed CD called X 2004.

The X CDs were a chain of Christian rock hits, and I discovered them soon after I discovered rock music. I bought the CD for a song called “Rawkfist” by Thousand Foot Krutch, because I liked the song, but my sister had the CD it was on and we fought over who got to listen to it. To avoid any more pointless arguments, I bought X 2004 specifically for that song, so I could listen to it whenever I wanted.

What I got, however, was an introduction to the band that would change my life forever.

Sing-along with Skillet in Bakersfield, California

Gonna Be Your Savior

I won’t lie, I’d heard of Skillet before this CD. My sister was a fan of them during their original Invincible (2000) days.

My sister and I, however, did not get along growing up, and I refused to like anything she did. I listened to Invincible with her on multiple occasions in the car, and I swore to myself I would never like a band she liked.

Well, things changed quickly when I heard “Savior” for the first time.

Skillet in Reno, Nevada

The opening guitar riff kicked off the X 2004 CD, and I instantly noticed the difference in their sound from Invincible. I thought about skipping the song at first, because I rolled my eyes when I saw their name and labeled them as “my sister’s band.”

When the opening riff faded and the drums kicked in and launched an in-your-face rock song, I was hooked. By the time I had finished listening to “Savior” for the first time, I’d already set my CD player to repeat it (yes, this was before iPods).

Everything in my life stopped. I couldn’t explain what happened, but I needed that song. Somehow, it defined me. Somehow, I felt connected to it.

And somehow, it became the only song I listened to for six months straight.

Skillet’s Growing Influence

Skillet frontman John Cooper

My first picture with John, and arguably the realest smile in any photo of me.

People thought I was nuts. No one could talk to me without that song being in the background. I couldn’t have any conversation without asking if whoever I was talking to had heard it. If they hadn’t, they didn’t leave my presence until they had, whether they liked it or not. If they didn’t like it, they had two options: Pretend, or don’t be my friend.

When Christmas rolled around that year, I couldn’t not ask for any Skillet albums. By that point, they had five plus a worship album, but none of that mattered to me at the time. I needed the CD with Savior. My life would not be complete without it.

Elation unlike I’ve ever known filled me when I ripped off the wrapping paper that encased Collide (2003). Everything from the cover to the song list called to me. Everything within me connected, and I felt a completeness I had never known before.

You see, at the time, I didn’t understand that music could speak to you. I thought it was just something you learned, something catchy or fun to dance to or sing along with.

I didn’t know I could ever feel like music understood me.

It was that internal understanding that terrified me when I first heard their song, “Imperfection.”

How did they understand me so much? How was there a song that so clearly defined the way I felt about myself?

Hiding Behind My Denial

I cast the CD aside after I listened to it for the first time. It scared me how much it made me face myself. I couldn’t handle how it read my mind, defined my feelings so clearly. It made me feel perfect and imperfect at the same time, and it was a feeling I’d never experienced before.

But I couldn’t ignore it.

Something about it called me back to it. I still listened to “Savior” on repeat. For a solid seven-year period of my life, I physically could not bring myself to skip that song when it came on. It was my ultimate jam, the key to my life. No matter the mood I was in, that song gave me hope.

Skillet frontman John Cooper making crazy faces for a crazy fan.

I eventually weaseled my way back in to Collide. I knew I needed to face myself eventually. The thoughts that told me I was nothing couldn’t be the ones that defined my life.

I learned every song on Collide. Then I went out and bought every other CD Skillet has ever touched and learned all of those songs, too. When I became more familiar with their music, I learned the most pivotal lesson in Skillet fandom:

There’s a reason the fans are so die hard.

It’s because somehow, someway, frontman John Cooper always knows exactly how to speak to people in need. It’s not angry music that encourages hopelessness. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s music that sounds angry, but when the outer layers of it are peeled back, it demands the listener to hold on to hope. It begs us to seek salvation and to recognize our problems are only temporary.

Becoming a Panhead

Die-hard fans sometimes have a hard time sharing their feelings. Well, sharing them without fearing a restraining order, that is. People tend to judge, and sometimes it’s hard to find the words to praise the thing you’re a fan of without coming off a little weird.

Believe me, I’ve learned.

Panheads (those who are known to jam hard to Skillet) are no exception. Everyone thinks they’re the biggest Skillet fan, but no two fans are exactly the same. You go to a show and there’s children, teenagers, adults, even grandparents that all fight to be in the front row.

Being a panhead has opened me up to an entire world of people who felt the way I did. I never knew other people could feel so insecure, so full of doubt about themselves. The reason I go to so many shows is because being surrounded by people who get how I feel about the band makes me feel more alive. We’re a group of fans that love our band.

During my time as a panhead, I’ve seen Skillet grow into their international fan base, and I feel proud. Proud to watch them follow their dreams and encourage their listeners to do the same. Proud to watch the difference being made each time they release something new.

Happy Birthday from frontman of Skillet, John Cooper

A Life Changed Forever

With that, in an effort to not sound crazy, I must say this:

Skillet has influenced every decision in my life since I fell in love with their music.

I’d always wanted to write a book. After Comatose (2006) launched, “Looking for Angels” became the song that pushed me into believing I could make a difference with my words, so I wrote a book.

I’d always wanted to write a song. After Awake (2009) launched and their former guitarist, Ben Kasica, announced that his studio was booking artists for the summer, I went out on a whim and pitched a song idea I had to him. I then recorded it for my 20th birthday.

I’d always wanted to travel the world. After Rise (2013) launched and I saw the way the world reacted to it, I pushed myself to drop everything and disappear for a year as I traveled New Zealand.

When I returned from New Zealand, I was graced with their most epic creation yet, Unleashed (2016).

As I’ve watched the fandom grow, I’ve felt myself becoming more proud to call myself one. Like all fans, their songs give us faith. They bring us hope, and teach us that we can be any kind of voice we want to be in this world. There is such a thing as positive anger, and it is how we manage that that changes the lives of those around us.

Without them, I wouldn’t be on this trip around the 50 states. Without them, I would never have written the book I’m on a journey to release.

Skillet in Petaluma, California

The Live Experiences That Last a Lifetime

At the time of this writing, the video from our vlog included in this article is my 19th Skillet concert.

I think.

It might be my 20th, but truthfully, I’ve lost count a few times.

The first time was the semi truck. The second was the time they sang me happy birthday (scroll three minutes in to the video below :).)

I also received a personally-handed drumstick from Jen after that.

The fourth was the first time I got to spend the whole show backstage. The sixth through the ninth was when we followed them to every show they played in California for the Awake and Alive tour. The thirteenth was the first time I saw the pyro they added to the set. I could go on and on.

But, ironically enough, it was the last three shows that have been the most important to me.

In January 2014, I went to Lowell, Massachusetts to research the town my book starts in. Having already been working on the book for seven years, I was scared that I would go there and have to scrap the whole thing.

The day before I left, I saw Skillet live.

The day after I got back, I saw them again.

I still coin that week as “the perfect week.” A trip to the city of the book that took over my life, bookended with two concerts that filled me with life and hope.

Then there was the most recent one. The one that so perfectly fit into the beginning of our itinerary around all 50 states.

Although it was the first time I’d seen them in over three years, they still remembered me.

The first thing Jen said was, “We’ve not seen you in a while, where have you been?”

Well, Jen, I’ve been chasing my dreams. I’ve been living my life and pushing myself to be the best I can be, and I have you and the rest of Skillet to thank for it.

The first Skillet show I went to had 250 people in the audience. The last was a sold-out headlining tour. I’ve watched them go from staying only in the US to traveling around the world. I’ve seen nobody listen to their music, and I’ve seen the way it can touch the people that do.

So, thank you, Skillet. Thank you John Cooper, especially, for believing in your own dream and creating what you’ve created today. I know I’m not the only one your music touches. I see it in the people who go to your shows, hear it in the stories from the people themselves. You’re the best band in the world, and I’ll fight anybody who disagrees with me.

And so will the rest of the Panheads.