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.

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