Friday, July 17, 2009

Learning the Songs of Boanerges

"Any poet, if he is to survive beyond his 25th year, must alter; he must seek new literary influences; he will have different emotions to express." So says T. S. Eliot and I pretty much agree. For me it was my 27th and 28th year. Two things happened at about the same time: I married Jennifer and the music scene changed into something incomprehensible to me. This is not the place to deal with the blessings, challenges, etc. of marriage. I'll just simplify matters by saying that when Paul is offering advice about marriage in I Corinthians 7, and suggests that young men and women not marry, he is not against marriage; he is just stating a reality: if you marry, you will be taking on responsibilities that might conflict with your personal mission. True enough. I married the woman God had for me (I knew the moment I saw her, but that's another story). The fact is, when you marry, your world changes. It should change. My position of solitary troubadour and lonely artist changed. Jennifer filled an enormous hole in my heart. I wasn't just writing from a new place, I was having trouble relating to my own songs.

The second thing was the music scene. My greatest influence in the late seventies was a group of L.A. singer-songwriters, mostly on Asylum Records: Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, Warren Zevon, the Eagles, Lowell George and Little Feat. The lyrics resonated with my own experiences and feelings. Then came disco and punk. I could understand punk--back to the roots of rock'n'roll--but I couldn't participate. I wasn't 20 and I wasn't angry. Disco was mindless fun. Not where I was going. The closest thing I could find by 1980 was a cluster of country writers who were still writing and singing worthy songs. Rodney Crowell and Roseanne Cash were at the top of that list. Here I was, listening to country music.

Musically, I was lost. I really didn't see where Christian music was going or what its purpose was. By now, CCM (Contemporary Christian Music as "Jesus Music" came to be called) was a force in the music market. There were still good records coming out, but the glitz and polish seemed to be taking over. And by now the stated mission of many in the field was to provide a Christian alternative to popular music, "the kids" would have something "wholesome" to listen to instead of what was on secular radio. This "protect the kids" logic became what I call "bunker" mentality. Let's build a family life center with a gym so the kids won't be exposed to the heathens at the rec center. We'll pipe music that sounds like the radio hits but with antiseptic (often downright anesthetic) lyrics and keep 'em safe. Well, it is a dangerous world, but I could not see myself as a provider of background music to the basement scenes of "Night of the Living Dead."

So, I didn't do much except the occasional spot at Skylight, the Christian Brothers coffee house. Around 1988 and 1989, I played with my brother David and Michael Bynum as The Guise. [Note: Had a blast playing a reunion gig with them at Moonsong last month. The recording's not bad either.] That was fun and got me back into playing. Then came Permanent Wave.

Permanent Wave started as one of the bands at Seventies Night at Skylight. Late 1991, I think. We put it together to do some of our old '70s songs. That night Nori and I were both on guitar, Michael B played bass, Kenny Young played drums, and Diane Johnson on keyboards. It was such a success that we decided to practice and become a real band. Diane had to back out, but Debbie Handy took over keys and brought some of her songs. By the way, everyone in the band could sing. We were a band for the rest of the decade. We backed other artists at Skylight including Don & Faith Peters, Joanna Stockard, and Barry Goss. We played several times at the coffee house and even did some road trips. Probably the greatest time as that early band was playing behind Pearl and Larry Brick. That was a night to remember. After the gig, Larry Brick said we had the "Allman Brothers anointing." I took that as a good thing.

By this time I had found my musical purpose--worship. Hanging out at the Vineyard (which met at Skylight on Sundays but was not affiliated with Christian Brothers), I began to experience the Presence of God in worship. Often in was instrumental worship. Permanent Wave, besides being a performing band, was also a worship band, often an improvisational worship band. Back around '98 or '99, one of my students volunteered to do sound for a gig in a new coffeehouse opening in Attalla. It was a long, narrow building, but very cool. We set up the gear and Wes, the student, moved the faders, and we all had a fine time. Often songs would last ten to twenty minutes as they "took off" and we "flowed" (if you've ever experienced those two apostropheed terms, you know what I mean). As we were packing up, Wes, who had never heard us play before said, "You guys are like Widespread Panic Gets Saved." I said, "What?" He returned, "O.K. Grateful Dead Gets Saved." For the people in the coffee house, maybe we were background music. Back where we were, we were having church.

Nori married Barbie in 1993 and left the band shortly after that. Kim England joined. Now we another singer-songwriter-keyboardist. The dynamics changed immediately. I remember the first practice. I brought a new song and the band was all over it. We probably played it for 30 minutes, most of the time in instrumental improv. Improv is what this band did best. Kim and Debbie might start playing something, Michael would pick up a bass line and Kenny the rhythm. I might lay out for a while, or do fills, or--when the Spirit moved--soar into a solo. When it would get really hot, Michael and I would find ourselves playing off each other's lines with harmonies, echoes, or counterpoint. We practiced one weeknight every week whether we had a gig coming up or not. It was a time of experimental music and experimental worship. It was reason enough.

Around 1997 I started a morning service at the Vineyard. It was a small service, and at first I led the music worship portion by myself or with Jen. Later, I put together a worship band. It was exciting because most of the band was so young. I led with acoustic or electric guitar and voice. Liz played acoustic guitar and sang. Zach Abercrombie played bass. Tiffany Holliday played violin. Matt Lipscomb played my Hammond-clone Korg CX3. We didn't have a regular drummer, but Chad Bynum played more often than not. Sometimes Jen joined us with vocals. I got a chance to push Liz out front now and again and give Tiffany some room to play. Liz and Zach have gone on to be first-class worship leaders themselves. Liz and Tiffany would be playing again starting around 2000 in my favorite band--Even So.

These days I play on other worship leaders' teams or lead myself. Liz and I are backing Todd Bagley's alt-country-flavored worship for a 12-step recovery meeting. Last Sunday backing Bruce Cornutt was a great time with God. When I was young, the image of angels forever (and I mean forever) praising God sounded sort of, well, boring. But when God is there...all I can say is I can see how they could do that forever.

I've started singing some of the old songs again and I'm working on some new ones. I'm listening to a wide variety of music, everything from Radiohead to Lucinda Williams. Mostly, I've enjoyed watching both of my children in the process of surpassing me as musicians. But, after being chided by Joy (Pippin) Wells, self-proclaimed Extortioner of the Saints, I have had to admit that I ain't dead yet. There's that story about the guy who buried his talent. Didn't work out so well.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Climbing Dante's Ladder

This post is not about musical influences and experiences as much as it is about what experiences influenced the music.

C. S. Lewis entitled his autobiography Surprised by Joy. An early encounter with an inexplicable delight led him, ultimately, to the source of true joy--God. In my case it wasn't joy, it was love that was the great mystery and desire. It's difficult to explain why. I grew up in a household full of love, so it wasn't a sense of deficiency that drove me; it was a sense of wonder. I learned in elementary school that there was something magical in infatuation. Even as an adolescent, I found the emotional sensation more alluring than the physical. I'm not suggesting that the physical drive wasn't there--I was a boy, after all--just that the "in love" feeling had something transcendent, something spiritual, about it. I like the way Lewis said it in The Four Loves: “Sexual desire, without Eros, wants it, the thing in itself; Eros wants the Beloved.” So, I thought about love a lot. I had crushes. But I had no girlfriends. I had a few friends who were girls, but I had no girlfriends. I had what we called in those days an inferiority complex. I didn't think any girl I was interested in would be interested in the likes of me. I never dated in high school. But I thought about love a lot. I began to experience some real relationships (not many by most standards). Love seemed to offer both exhilaration and suffering, the stuff poems and songs are made of. I began to write poems and songs.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, it wasn't the direct love of God that I felt in that small prayer group that turned me to Him; it was the indirect love of God these people were showing each other. I began to see that all love comes from, and leads to, God. Yes, there are perversions of love just like there are perversions of every good thing. But love, like every good thing, comes from God. Again, Lewis: “Love ceases to be a demon only when he ceases to be a god.” Anything flowing from the Source that we put in the place of the Source, we make a god, and we pervert. Anything. It's a violation of the First Commandment. But God isn't just full of love, He is love (1 John 4:8). Seeking love, to know what it was, what it felt like, what it cost--these things were leading me to a deeper understanding of the nature of God and his intentions for human relationships. Looking around at our culture, I couldn't help but notice the absolute stupidity of a society that made sex and romance it's religion and left behind broken-hearted people who could not understand how some guy or girl could not make them whole. But I was finding love. I had friends and family I could trust. I had a few romantic relationships that I didn't have to feel ashamed of: you love, you lose, you hurt, but you didn't do anything wrong; you just weren't a match. We really were "brothers and sisters in Christ." Sometimes the boy-girl relationship would border on romantic. So? Sometimes it crossed the border. So? It was sweet and fun and, well, innocent. Not innocent as in naive. Innocent as in not guilty. Anyway, know of a better pool of potential mates? Beats dating.

So the mysticism and mystery of love drew me into grace. Grace drew me deeper into love. My music reflected that journey. I was no good at writing a "praise" song (as we called them then) unless it was about something I had experienced. I wrote the simple little chorus "Gather Together" because I had found it profoundly true that we need each other in the Body. I would not have survived without my brothers and sisters. I had tried before and failed, but plugged into an organic body, I could thrive. I wrote "How Could You Be So Good" right after Jen and I were engaged to be married. I was used to God the Mighty, God the Teacher of Life Lessons, Jesus Lover of My Soul, but meeting, getting to know, and falling in love with Jennifer was the fulfillment of years of hopes and desires. I met the Lord Who Loves the Lover.

Not everything I have written has been about love per se, but it's at the core of what I have written because it is at the core of me. For the first three decades of my life I was a discoverer, a sojourner of love. Since then I have been learning how to put love into everyday practice. That's a bit more prosaic, so there hasn't been much poetry or music about it. Except maybe the best song I ever wrote, "Moment of Wonder."

Once all my life was visions
And all my friends musicians
We would spend those fertile hours waxing wise
With the syncopated drumming
And the air conditioner humming
In the innocence and glory of the guise

We were the things we had to be
As refugees from reality
But purer hearts a man could never find
If I knew then what I know now
I know I'd have done it all anyhow
'Cause no one can hear the music like the blind

Wasn't that a moment of wonder
Weren't those the days that saw us free
How could we have ever come closer
To being the hungry artists we wanted to be

Now all our wives are women
And our skill is in our living
We've seen a certain change, a change of heart and mind
And as my dreams become reality
And reality more clear to me
I can see that only love can outlive time

I know there is temptation
In reliving a situation
Where you hold the past like you'd hold a dying friend
But living friends grow older
And only the living can shoulder
The things our dreams give rise to in the end

Isn't this a moment of wonder
Isn't love worth learning how to see
How could we have ever come closer
To being the contented lovers we wanted to be
Tobeing the contended lovers we needed to be

(Copyright 1983 H W Finlayson Jr)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Band Days

Definition of terms: To me, a band has a bass player and a drummer. Add one or more instruments, and you have a band. You can have a "group"--even a group with a name--without a rhythm section, but you can't have a real band.

For me, involvement in bands was gradual. As I have previously mentioned, I had been in a real band before I became a Christian, but we only practiced, never played. The duo that Don and I had grew as the coffeehouse grew. While Emory was around [check out for info on Emory] we had a group that consisted of Don and Jennie Rakestraw (married Feb 1974), Emory Boggs, Irene (nee Finlayson, now Elrod) playing bass (Emory found her a Wurlitzer 200 electric piano, but I don't remember her playing it with us), and myself on acoustic (later electric) guitar. We played our coffeehouse, the Albertville coffee house, churches in Birmingham and around here, a weekend revival somewhere in south Alabama with a preacher with the funniest "road" stories. We went to New Orleans for a youth meeting. I'll never forget that trip. They all have their own stories that I would love to tell someday. Not today.

That group evolved into Christian Brothers Band by 1976 (see David's 5/29/08 blog at Still no drums, so not really a band in my book. Then I met Nori Kelley and around 1977 we started working on the band Precious Little. We had heard each other's material and were adequately impressed to try to form a band. Mostly, we liked each other and enjoyed each other's company as well as the music. Although we played several times as an acoustic duo, we never got to play as a band. We did record some things on a Teac four-track with Fred Ryan (R.I.P.) and a bass player named Bobby something. The tapes sounded good. Later, in 1978, Larry Sanford (drums) and Barry Goss (guitar/bass), both formerly of Psalm, joined us for a summer of rigorous, disciplined practice (Nori's influence), but in the end, no gigs. This band was being developed while Barry and I were on the road doing sound for Terry Talbot and others. The touring experience was a terrific tutorial with lessons I have never forgotten. Travel light, as economically as possible, get the most sound from the fewest people and least gear, and remember what you're doing and why you're doing it.

Although Nori and I shared admiration for many of the same artists, he also opened my ears to a lot of new influences. One in particular was Robbie Robertson and The Band. Of course, I had heard their radio hits and liked them, but Nori helped me see the potential in that vibe--the personal application I could acquire. Soon I would have the perfect opportunity to use it.

In 1978 Don and Faith Peters (with Joe Pfau on drums and Rick Reed on bass) came and played at our new, improved coffee house on Seventh Street. I loved their songs, harmonies, rhythm, and funky-country-rock. But the whole time I was sitting there thinking "They need an electric guitar." Then, "They need me." I don't mean that arrogantly. I just mean that I could hear the parts. I approached them and Don said that would be great if I didn't mind practicing in Birmingham. Didn't mind at all.

At the first practice, I carried a notebook and wrote down all the words and chords. That week I ran over the chords and worked out what I could remember. Next practice I was on top of it. Everything just fit. We started playing quite a bit. At first, I struggled with serious stage fright, something that didn't bother me in a "group," but somehow terrified me in a "band." Slowly, I got over it. We got a chance to record an album. I think I did some of my most tasteful playing with that band, and it doesn't bother me at all to listen to that stuff now. In fact, as is so often the case, the pre-overdub version was better than the release version (my opinion). Nori sat in with slide guitar and became a member of the band. Somewhere in there Jim Pollard had joined as well. With two drummers and two lead guitarists, the band took on a heavier dynamic, but could play the earlier things just as well.

Playing with Don and Faith was just plain fun. Why did it end? Well, by September 1979 I had married Jen, Rick had decided to accept work in a band doing beach ministry in Virginia Beach, VA, and, well, it was that point where you commit heavily to the band or you pull up stakes. Everybody was suddenly on different courses. There was no conflict; it was just time. But I will always very fondly remember those days. And it was great to see Don and Faith down from Memphis for The Guise reunion and to reconnect via Facebook.

Gear note: 1976 Fender "hardtail" (non-vibrato) Strat and Music Man 210-65 amp. Acoustic for three decades: Sunburst 1976 Martin D-28.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Toward a Christian Aesthetic

For any artist--I use the term in the broadest sense--there are influences, even obsessions, with a virtual mentor bordering on idolatry. I was no different. I could name them: Pete Townshend as a writer and guitarist, Eric Clapton, especially Bluesbreakers, Derek and the Dominos, and his 461 band days, Jackson Browne as a writer, David Lindley as a player of infinite taste and nuance. T. S. Eliot as a poet. Evelyn Waugh as a fiction writer. In the early days, when I sang a Neil Young song, I vocalized like Neil Young, same for George Harrison. Gradually, I began to develop my own "voice"--not just vocally, but my own style. Musically, I was absorbing aesthetics that were part of a pretty hedonistic culture and that bothered me. Jesus Music had posed the question (via Larry Norman): "Why should the devil have all the good music?" Why indeed.

There comes a stage when you have to strike out on your own and come to your own conclusions. In 1973, Susan, the girl I was dating, and I decided to forego secular music. Susan had a great stereo her older brother had put together. It was a pleasure listening to music in her living room, and that's what we would often do--just sit there and listen to music. After listening to the Allman Brothers "Live at the Fillmore East," we both felt sort of depressed, or more accurately, oppressed. So, we decided to give it up for a while. I was playing every weekend and there was good Christian music available both live and on record. For several months we held out, and I'm here to say it was a good thing. There was a purging of sorts. It was like a fast. I can't really explain it, but it brought things into sharper focus. I wish I could be more specific, but I can't. The results played out over the coming years and was not a momentary epiphany. I began to explore the Why of the music I would write and sing.

For some reason our musical fast came to an end. I remember listening to "Dark Side of the Moon" and "Quadrophenia" at Susan's. I began to notice that secular music could somehow be "anointed" (a term that I didn't use at the time). And "solid," Biblical Christian music could be, well, lame. I had to know why.

I don't intend to answer the theological/philosophical question to everybody's satisfaction here. At the time, I only had to do it to my own satisfaction. One thing I noticed about songs of mine that seemed inspired, or anointed, or bore fruit--whatever: They were often songs about people and real events that somehow touched me. One of my earliest songs, "Gordy," was about a guy I didn't know, but whose death touched me because it touched someone I cared about. It was about a mysterios, intangible bond of love that seemed uniquely Christian. But the song was not a Christian song per se. A song I wrote a couple of years later, "Rhonda's Song," was about a friend who confessed that she felt ugly because she had acne. She had looked beautiful to me and I never noticed the acne until she brought it up. I wrote the song for her and sent it to her (on 8-track!) but never intended to sing it in a Christian setting. One Saturday night at the coffeehouse I felt that I should sing it. After a brief argument with God, I gave in and sang it. You have to understand. Singing a non-"spiritual" song there was like getting up in a traditional church for a solo and starting out "Jeremiah was a bullfrog..." But I sang it. Afterward, two young ladies came to talk to me about how God spoke to them through that song and told them that they were beautiful.

Reading T. S. Eliot's essay "Religion and Literature," which happened to be in a lit textbook I was using for a course at the time, reading C. S. Lewis's statement that we don't need more Christian writers (i.e., propogandists) but more Christians who are writers (artists), and my own experience that, generally, my most effective songs were not on a specifically Christian theme, led me to my own aesthetic. Whatever I wrote or sang, it had to be real. I could not do a "cover" version of any song, still can't. At first, I thought it was because I was undisciplined and lazy, not willing to go to the trouble. I found that I wouldn't go to the trouble because it wasn't worth the trouble. On the other hand, I would steal any good idea I could find and bury it in my kit bag. I ran across a quote that helped me reconile this theft. T. S. Eliot: "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal." Yes! And thus my motto: "Copy nothing; steal anything." There's a difference between the 1983 TV remake of "Casablanca" starring David Soul(why? why? why?) and James Joyce or the Coen Brothers "stealing" the plot and/or characters of Homer's "The Odyssey." Eric Clapton stole every good lick from every good bluesman that anybody went to the trouble to record. But the way he strung those lines together made them his own.

So, I guess the best way to describe my aesthetic is that I will try to absorb anything that seems good without trying to test its Christian utility, just its beauty or sublimity. If my heart and mind are in the right place, and I am sensitive to the Spirit, then what comes out may seem spiritual or not, but it will be real. My job, really, is not to make holy things, but to make art. And the holy thing is not a holy thing because it resembles other holy things; it is a holy thing because God has sanctified it--set it aside from the mundane for his divine purpose. He can do that with whatever He chooses.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Jesus Music

I mentioned Don Rakestraw in an earlier post. He and my sister Jennie were getting serious about each other, so he was around a lot. He and I had learned a bunch of Neil Young and CSN&Y tunes. "Harvest" and the first CSN album especially. I was also listening to a lot of George Harrison. I loved the 3-LP "All Things Must Pass." We learned some of those tunes. Now that he and I were both real sold-out believers, we started looking for a way to put this interest to some kind of spiritual use. We started with a medley of "Heart of Gold" and "Wayfaring Stranger" that we did in church. Don played guitar and sang harmony while I played harmonica and sang lead. It all went over really well. Later we did Harrison's "Hear Me Lord" and "Here Comes the Sun."

It was early 1972 and our area was hit by several waves of revival. The Asbury Revival of 1970 coming down from Kentucky, the Jesus Movement from the West Coast, the Charismatic Movement from everywhichaway, and a local revival at First Presbyterian Church here in Gadsden that spilled over into a prolonged Campus Crusade influence. Our group was more influenced by the Asbury and Jesus Movement than the others, but there was a lot of cross-pollenization.

Anyway, about that time, Don and I "invented" Jesus Music. We thought we should adapt or write songs in our style of music to the service of God rather than mammon (or self). We took a set of songs to a battle of the bands at Gadsden State Junior College only to be surprised (and delighted) to find another group of long-haired Jesus Freak acoustic musicians at the hall. They were from Albertville and they had a coffeehouse. We checked it out loved it. We had a couple of guys with us who got all excited and rented a building in Gadsden. So now we had a coffeehouse, too. The guys from Albertville would come down and play at our place and we'd play up there. Steve Richey and Rick Trussell became good friends of ours. (I still see Rick fairly often. He hangs out with us at the Vineyard from time to time.)

So, with a coffeehouse, we had a regular gig at a time and place where, spiritually, a lot was going on. Our duo was expanding into a band while we were expanding our repertoire by writing our own songs. The stuff I wrote musically reflected what I was listening to from Neil Young to The Who to the Allman Brothers.

Then we started hearing what was already out there--the "real" Jesus Music. Paul Clark, Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, Malcolm & Alwyn, Love Song, then Second Chapter of Acts, Keith Green, Randy Matthews, Terry and John Michael Talbot. The list grew with Honeytree, comedian Mike Warnke, Phil Keaggy, and more and more and more. We started seeing guys from our own part of the country--Pat Terry, Don Francisco--releasing albums and touring. In order to make this music available, we started selling the records in our coffeehouse. We never had any coffee in our coffeehouse, but we always had a lot of great music.

At the same time, we were becoming aware of a plethora (si, jefe, a plethora) of local talent. Some of the best songwriters and musicians ANYWHERE. The talent was amazing. It really was as though God just poured something out nationwide and it was everywhere. I loved going to concerts and hearing the big name guys do their stuff, but I would just as soon sit in a small room and hear Barry Goss, Arnie Sanford, Dan Noojin, Nori Kelley or Don & Jennie Rakestraw do theirs. It was that good.

The coffeehouse (Free House) became an organization (Christian Brothers) that sponsored concerts and festivals. Our first series of concerts was the 1976 No Jive, Jesus Is Alive summer series. We had two or three all-day outdoor concerts at the ampitheater downtown featuring the best of local talent, and there was a lot of great local talent. Psalm, Dan & Chip, the Waddels, the Christian Brothers Band (the band that evolved from Don's & my duo--only now I was playing electric). Wendell Miller and friends in Birmingham began to sponsor concerts there and, following our 1977 Falls Festival, we were touring with Terry Talbot and doing sound for just about all the Contemporary Christian concerts in Bham, Atlanta, to Chattanooga areas, and some well beyond that. We had a chance to work with a lot of these Jesus Music heroes. I toured with Terry Talbot for about a year. We did sound for everybody on the above list (paragraph 5) except Norman and Stonehill.

Of course we were influenced by all this great music. I'll have to say that my greatest influence from Jesus Music was not all that musical. What I got was freedom. We could musically express ourselves in our own "language" and it was legit. I also saw that Christian albums did not have to be poorly produced and that the musicianship could be second to none. I lost of a lot of the cultural inferiority complex I had experienced as a young believer wondering if it was okay to play a distorted electric guitar or (gasp!) slide guitar or do a blues tune. There was some guy, Larry Something, who was preaching nationwide about flatted sevenths and backbeats being of the devil and encouraging bonfires of secular LPs. I remembered filling out my Moody Blues collection from a group of albums that were supposed to hit the fire. I asked, so it was okay. But there was still so much to learn about aesthetics and Christianity.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A funny thing happened on the way to biology class...

This post isn't primarily focused on music, but, trust me, it is definitely in the context of "influences."

I was practicing and hanging out with the band I mentioned last time while I was at Gadsden State Junior College. I was rebelling against God. God had pretty much messed up the first serious romance of my young life. I won't relay the story here, but the succession of events makes it clear. (Some of you may doubt that now without hearing the story. You need to look into that tendency; it's philosophically dishonest.) I was raised to be a good boy, but I rebelled and tried to break the rules and be a bad boy. I drank some but only once got outrageously drunk, so smashed that I spent four or five hours unconcious in my back yard, where my friends (not the band-mates) had let me off. I tried to come in very nonchalantly and make for my room thinking it was around midnight. Mom and Dad were waiting up. Busted. Grounded. But the other stuff--sex and drugs--never happened. Not because I didn't try. I can't tell the stories here, but I can tell you enough to say that, especially with sex, the opportunity was there more than once and each time there would be an interruption: a policeman with a flashlight, that kind of thing. Every time I would get mad and say to myself, "Damn! My parents are praying for me again." It was the only explanation. It was beyond coincidence.

So I was mad at God. You may ask how I knew there was a God. Well, with that kind of intrusion in my life, often with advance warning, I could just as well have rationally questioned the existence of President Nixon. I might have discounted the Vietnam draft with as much intellectual integrity as most agnostics I run into these days discount the "knowability" of God.

"I don't believe in the draft. I have plans. I am the captain of my soul. I am the master of my fate."

"And the number for November 17 is 98."

"There is no draft. Nanny nanny boo boo! I'mmm not listeninggg!"

Yeah, I was mad at God, but I had a problem. Biology. It was some kind of "programmed study" class where you go to a kiosk and listen to a lesson on cassette tape while filling in a workbook. There were also a couple of labs a week that were conducted by a real live teacher. It was a pass/fail class. You do the work, you get a C. You do extra, you get an A or B. There were tests. That determined the pass/fail part. I had goofed off and not kept up with the program. Monday was test day and Jerry Winters (the drummer) and I crammed at the student center. As we were walking to the science building to take the test, I ran into Beth Lane, who went to a prayer group my sisters and some others were in. She stopped and invited me to the meeting. I didn't avoid her in the first place because she was really pretty. But an invitation to a prayer meeting? I told her I'd see if I was free, thinking to myself that I had lots of things to do that night like listen to albums, watch a rerun of Mannix, I don't know, just about anything but go to a prayer meeting. Then it hit me. Walking toward the science building I offered a bargain to God: If you'll get me through this test, I'll go to the prayer meeting. What did I have to lose? I felt safe enough, because the only things I knew about the test material was what I had crammed in the 15 minutes Jerry and I had in the student center.

The test was like this: First you had to pass an oral portion where all students sat in a group and were randomly asked questions. You had to get two out of three right to qualify for the written test. Mrs. Bowen, the instructor, asked me the two things I DID know from cramming. I didn't even have to take a third question. Lucky, I thought. Then the written portion. Twenty multiple-choice questions as I recall. I sat there in the tiered lecture room staring stupidly at the questions. I did peek at a girl's test I could see and swiped a couple of answers. Turns out she failed the test. I hurriedly circled the As, Bs, Cs, Ds randomly and walked to the front of the room where Mrs. Bowen was grading the papers on the spot. She put her answer key next to my paper and ran down from top to bottom. Then she said, "Excellent, Mr. Finlayson. Perfect score!"

The door was right behind her and I walked out into the hall, and, as I remember it, leaned against the wall because my knees were weak. One thing was sure: I was going to prayer meeting on Monday.

The meeting was at somebody's house in North Gadsden. The meeting moved around. There were eight or ten people there; half of them I didn't know. It's hard to describe what happened. I felt love there. Not that I could distinguish the love of God. I couldn't. But as these people would earnestly pray for each other, I sensed a profound love that was clearly not human in origin. It was a love for each other, but not the kind I was used to. By contrast, my best friend (as I found out later) had hit on every girl I had ever dated (not that many). I found myself almost involuntarily confessing sin. It felt safe and I felt loved and accepted. This group was to be my spiritual umbilical cord for the next two or three years. I went home that night, kneeled by my bed, and asked God to forgive me for being so rebellious among other things. I didn't have a particularly emotional experience, but I felt a profound sense of relief, and, over time, I noticed a gradually changing perspective on my life, the people around me, and my place in the universe.

This had an effect on my music. Was it still OK to play the blues? Or even electric guitar for that matter? What about those "secular" songs? Did I need to play some kind of religious music? Did I have to get a haircut? Answers to these and more...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Going Eclectic

The first time I ever played in a band was in 1971. The band was Randy Sitz, lead guitar and vocals; myself, rhythm gutar and vocals; Jerry "Snake" Winters,drums; and Jim Bagley, bass. In the photo is Randy, Perry Teague (who was planning on playing keyboards with the band, but that never materialized), me, Jerry, and Jim. Randy was by far the most accomplished musician, with Snake in second place. I was a total novice. We played a hodge-podge of songs--whatever one of us happened to know and could introduce to the rest. I remember playing "Eighteen" by Alice Cooper, partly because it was easy, but mostly because the opening riff sounded so good doubled by the two guitars. We did "Mississippi Queen," "Won't Get Fooled Again." Lots of practice, but never played a gig. Still, it was fun hangin' with those guys, and it was a blast making music with a band, whether we had an audience or not.

Somewhere in here my musical influences became more random. I got way into the Allman Brothers and deeper into real roots blues (with those $1 LPs). Saw the ABB in Birmingham in the summer of '71 while Duane was still alive. I only wish I had been a little more musically mature to better enjoy such a rare treat. I got into Clapton. I liked Cream okay, but it was Derek and the Dominos that grabbed me. Layla is still one of my top ten favorite albums. The LP was better than the remastered CD. Listening to the LP you could hear a band member holler "Whoo!" when somebody else hit some inspired lick. The best one was (obviously) Clapton exclaiming when Duane Allman went into a delirium-inducing slide part on "Have You Ever Loved a Woman." Maybe it was "Key to the Highway." Anyway, I wore the grooves out. Also turned me into a Strat player. But that was later when I could afford to spend any kind or real money on a guitar.

On the other hand, I was pulled by the folk-rock scene. Neil Young, CSN, CSN&Y especially. What songwriting! What singing! By this time Don Rakestraw was dating my sister Jennie, and he would bring his guitar and play and sing "Rocky Raccoon" and the entire "Alice's Restaurant" complete with "eight-by-ten color glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining how each one was to be used as evidence against us." Don and I started playing together. We learned every song on Neil Young's "Harvest" LP and most of "Crosby, Stills, and Nash" and "Deja Vu." At first, he would play guitar and sing harmony while I played harmonica and sang lead. Later on I played guitar, too.

My guitars: My first guitar was a 1963 Fender Esquire (a one-pickup Tele) that I bought at Laverty Music for $15. The neck had a broken screw in it and showed a botched job of trying to drill it out. I bought it and walked out with the two pieces. I got the screw out, the neck on, and located a pickguard. I put a Gibson humbucker in the neck position. There was a hole in the pickguard, so I decided to fill it with something useful. David has it now. My first acoustic was an old sunburst Gibson J-45 ($75?). Then I bought a used Yamaha FG-180 ($37.50) that was one of the sweetest sounding guitars I've ever played. Dan Noojin has that one to this day.

Soon, though, everything was going to change. Especially me.