Elegy for a pastor

Chuck Smith, pastor of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California and one of the leading figures in the Jesus Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, passed away today after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 86.

To try and explain the impact Chuck Smith had on contemporary American evangelical Christianity, a brief personal illustration. Back in the mid-1970s, in my neck of the woods (San Francisco Bay Area) the reverberations of the Jesus Movement were still being felt in youth culture. It was a heady time, teens and twentysomethings filled with intense love for Jesus and equally intense belief that His return to the earth would be soon and very soon. Wed sit on our bench, located perilously close to the jock bench, in our high school quadrangle with our guitars as we sang and strummed away on our little songs about a great big God. There were all the obligatory teenage angst moments, falling in and out of love at breakneck speed while occasionally musing about what we would do once we were set free from our high school protective cocoon. But we trusted Jesus would take care of that, and besides He would be coming back shortly so why get worked up over a future that would never come to pass?

Being San Francisco Bay Area people, naturally we loathed and looked down on all things Southern California in general and Los Angeles in particular. However, we cut Orange County, south of L.A., a lot of slack. No, not because of Disneyland. It was the home of something we greatly envied, although we were careful to label it anything but envy as of course envy was a sin. This was semantics, though. It was envy.

We envied Orange County for being the home of Chuck Smith.

Where we were, Christian concerts were far and few between. There would be the occasional appearance by Barry McGuire at Mario Murillos monthly Night of Miracles rally in Oakland, but other than that there was precious little. There was no radio to which we could listen; the local stations were all AM dollar a holler junk. But where Chuck Smith was, there were concerts every Saturday night playing our music. There was a radio station, an FM radio station, playing our music. There was a church where we knew wed all be welcome no matter our hair length or dress code. There was a place we knew that if we could only get there we would be blessed beyond words by being at the home base of everything we held dear in our unstoppable zeal. But, we couldnt get there despite whispered conversations about how if we split the gas and had all the boys stay in one hotel room and all the girls in another with no visitations save with the door wide open, maybe we could borrow someones parents van and one day make a pilgrimage to Santa Ana so we could experience in person this magical place from whence came the records on the Maranatha! Music label we eagerly devoured.

Time passed, as it does. Jesus had other plans and didnt come back before the 1980s set in, or any subsequent decade for that matter. Some of us walked away from the faith, disillusioned at the prospect of having to actually live out a normal life with a job and family and everything else that comes with these things. Some of us passed away. But some of us remained, our faith ofttimes battered, bruised and beaten down to the point of near abandonment. Yet we still believed, chuckling over our previous eschatological fixation and learning, as best we could, to be happy with what we had and learning to have faith in Christ alone, not in an image of Him being the ultimate get out of jail card.

This all said, the news of Chuck Smiths passing is not an occasion for nostalgic musing about when we were young, alive, on fire and had all the answers. It is a moment to note all that he accomplished: the artists for whom he provided a platform; the multitude of Calvary Chapels now dotting the globe. His name does not have the recognition factor of other post-WWII American Christianity leaders such as Billy Graham or any given TV evangelist. But today, wherever there is a folk/rock guitar being played and song being sung, and wherever there is a ministry saying come as you are because Jesus loves you and so do we, Chuck Smith is there. And we are all the better for it.

God bless you, Pastor Chuck, now at home in your Fathers arms.

“Incandescent” by Crumbacher still shines brightly

After twenty-five or so years of being mostly a fond memory, occasionally augmented by worn-out vinyl or cassette, Incandescent, the debut album by Christian synth-pop band Crumbächer, has been re-released this week.

Before getting into a review of the album itself, some background about the time when it first saw the light of day is in order. Originally released in 1985, unbeknownst to all involved at the time Incandescent was one of the, if not the absolute, final entries in a music catalog that proved vital in contemporary Christian music’s early days. It came from Broken Records, a division of Maranatha! Music that itself was owned and operated by Calvary Chapel in Santa Ana, California, a church that had been one of the primary focal points for the Jesus Movement of the early 1970s. The church also spawned a host of bands and solo artists that routinely played Saturday night concerts at Calvary Chapel plus shows at other like-minded nascent evangelical churches in the area. Nearly all of the artists were primarily if not totally devoted to evangelism, consistent with the church’s belief that Christ’s return was imminent and therefore maximum proselyting was needed so that as many people as possible would be saved prior to, as taught in the church’s theology, the Rapture (all living believers physically leaving the earth and being taken to heaven) and Great Tribulation (the coming and reign of the Antichrist) that would precede Jesus’ coming back to earth. Musically the main style was mellow, with touches of the folk-rock and country-rock being popularized at the time by fellow southern California-based mainstream acts such as the Eagles. This vibe lasted throughout the 1970s into the early 1980s.

By 1983, with new wave in full swing and MTV becoming an ever-growing music presence, the next generation of Calvary Chapel artists had begun exploring genres hitherto untouched, such as rockabilly and punk. As far as the church was concerned, this was tolerable as long as it kept the assorted bands and artists under control. This started falling apart as artists, chomping at the bit for both more artistic freedom and freedom from the restraints of evangelism first and foremost, began spreading their wings. In 1985 Calvary Chapel pulled the plug, dismantling its record labels and dismissing its artists save those devoted to anonymously creating its long-running series of wildly popular übersoft pop praise and worship albums. However, before this decision the church briefly tried its hand at promoting far edgier sounds than those with which it had grown comfortable. Thus, among other modern bands such as Undercover and Altar Boys, under its wings there was Crumbächer.

In musical terms Crumbächer was far more restrained than most of its label mates. The band’s leader, at the time its sole songwriter and always lead vocalist Steve Crumbacher was musically weaned on pop vocal ensembles such as ABBA and the Beach Boys. Filtering this through the less gritty side of early to mid-1980s synth rock, Crumbacher created arrangements of layered keyboards and vocal harmonies galore, all set to danceable rhythms. It was a mix far more akin to a-ha than Ultravox, but this was an afterthought. The songs and musical roots were what mattered the most. That it was placed into synth-pop arrangements stemmed not from any great affiliation with the genre itself, but rather because at the time it was the most effective means of reaching the band’s teen and tweener audience. And reach them it did.

Listening to it now, what is most striking about Incandescent is how, despite the decidedly 1980s style throughout, it holds up remarkably well. It helps that the band (in addition to Crumbacher on lead vocals and keyboards the lineup was Dawn Wisner-Johnson on keyboards, Jimmy Wisner on drums and Dan Hohulin on guitar, with all contributing backing vocals) was instrumentally and vocally proficient. That duly noted, the album’s main strength is that, regardless of how they were arranged to fit the band’s target genre and time period, the songs themselves are well constructed pop tunes. Hooks, melodies and rhythms all come together with graceful ease, creating tunes made for being sung along with as well as providing top-notch dancing material. With any kind of proper push, there would have been Top 40 hits from this album, most noticeably “Jamie,” even with its undisguised Christian lyrical bent.

Certainly there is an element of nostalgia here; after all, the album being discussed is twenty-eight years old. However, the enduring quality of Incandescent plus how it taps into a truth that has permeated pop music since time immemorial – kids like to dance – makes this far more than an exercise in remembering when. Want proof? More than a few fans from back in the day, who now have kids of their own, have mentioned on social media that their offspring can’t get enough of the album’s infectious melodies and beats. It might be a child of its era, but Incandescent has the power to shine brightly for generations to come.

The album is available on iTunes, Amazon and Frontline Records.

“Dig Here, Said the Angel” by Daniel Amos a music masterpiece

There’s good. There’s great. There’s brilliant. And then there’s instant timeless classic. “Dig Here, Said the Angel” by Daniel Amos is the latter, and then some.

The band’s first release since 2001’s “Mr. Buechner’s Dream,” “Dig Here, Said the Angel” finds Terry Scott Taylor and compatriots exploring a musical mix fusing various flavors of late ’60s psychedelia with the shimmering combination of power pop and Bakersfield country/latter-day Laurel Canyon Mafia country/rock fusion exemplified in earlier Daniel Amos releases such as “MotorCycle.” The emphasis is on the psychedelic, sometimes basking in musical sunshine such as ‘Jesus Wept’ and other times menacing such as on the title track. Throughout, Taylor and the band’s melodic sense reigns supreme, with nary a tuneless or throwaway track to be found.

Lyrically, the album pierces mind and soul with purposeful intelligence. Taylor has long been one of Christian rock’s premiere lyricists. This time through he has outdone himself, exploring grace’s enveloping nature, the nature of suffering and meditations on his own mortality among other topics. In ‘We’ll All Know Soon Enough’ he challenges non-believers not with Bible-blasting broadsides, but with a quiet reminder of mankind’s common fate. On the flip side, ‘Now That I’ve Died’ comes from the viewpoint of how entering heaven entails the ultimate self-improvement movement. The pure anthem ‘The Sun Shines on Everyone’ is a gentle yet forceful reminder that God’s love extends to everyone and He alone reserves judgment. These are but a few of the terrific songs from start to finish on this superb album.

It is no exaggeration to say that “Dig Here, Said the Angel” is Daniel Amos’ greatest work. It is also no exaggeration to say that in the annals of Christian rock, only “Only Visiting This Planet” by Larry Norman is a more masterful work. It is that good.

The album will be released later this year and will be available on the band’s website.

Steve Scott’s “Emotional Tourist” is the thinking Christian’s art

It’s fitting on Christendom’s most solemn day – Good Friday – to remember how Christ’s passion and death were foretold in brutally beautiful poetry by the prophet Isaiah: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”

Using poetry and spoken language to convey both Christ’s message and the full spectrum of our relationship with Him, and each other, is something of a lost art these days, especially in contemporary Christian music where the overwhelming emphasis is on fundamental praise and worship. It’s not that there is anything wrong with praise and worship; they are vital elements of every believer’s life. However, there is more to life as a whole. Much, much more.

Enter Steve Scott.

Although a native Englishman, Scott is very much a part of the San Francisco Bay Area music scene via his involvement with local artists such as the late Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill and Mike Roe. Now based in Sacramento, Scott has carved out a niche for himself as someone far more concerned about artistic integrity and creativity than commercial acceptance. Like most true artists, he has found a small but devoted audience. With the release of Emotional Tourist: A Steve Scott Retrospective, a compilation of some of the best tracks from various albums he’s recorded during his career, this small number should grow quite a bit.

Scott’s music has shifted over the years from a more jangly guitar-based rock to reflective keyboard washes etched with haunting melody; always modern, always demanding attention. Lyrically, be it sung or spoken Scott’s focus is on world and humanity observations from a Christian perspective while going far beyond the stock evangelical action safety net. A brilliant example is “No Memory of You,” detailing Scott’s encounter with prostitutes in Java where in lieu of hitting them over the head with his Bible he shows them pictures of his infant daughter.

Emotional Tourist: A Steve Scott Retrospective is not background music for self-administered spiritual coddling sessions. It makes you listen. It makes you think. Scott’s words challenge faith not by calling it into question, but rather by questioning whether our faith, and our God, is too limited. If you’re looking for warm fuzzies, this record isn’t for you. But if you’re looking for the thinking person’s Christian rock by Christian rock’s thinking person, Emotional Tourist: A Steve Scott Retrospective perfectly fills the bill.

The record is available on Amazon and iTunes.

“Sticks and Stones” by the 77s hurts only those who don’t give it a listen

It seems odd that in today’s Christian music world so little is known of the genre’s roots. Regardless of age, the average pop or rock fan can easily rattle off any number of artists stretching through past decades who have influenced their current favorites, or are their favorites now despite a generation gap. Very few young Christian rock fans have any idea who the artists are that paved the way for their favorites to play rock’n’roll without numerous thunderous denouncements of this “evil” music form, leading impressionable youth astray, emanating from multiple pulpits across the land.

Thankfully, more than a few of the artists who made bands such as Switchfoot and Third Day a possibility are reissuing their seminal albums from the 1980s and 1990s, some getting out on the road to remind the fans both old and new about who started it all. One such band, the 77s led by San Jose native Mike Roe, have re-released Sticks and Stones, their almost accidental 1990 record heralded by many fans as their best work.

Sticks and Stones originally came about as something of a swan song, a collection of unreleased tracks and demos of songs that originally appeared on the band’s eponymously titled record on the Island label which was released in 1987 (the band had previously released two albums on the independent Exit Records label). At the time of its release the band was in tatters, with original members Jan Eric and Mark Tootle having left. After briefly considering calling it quits altogether, Roe and Aaron Smith decided to soldier on, recruiting David Leonhardt and Mark Harmon. However, they needed something new on store shelves for airplay and to support as they resumed touring. Enter Sticks and Stones.

What is most surprising to new listeners is not only how cohesive the album is despite its grab bag origins, but how well the music has held up over twenty-two years. The 77s from their beginnings have been an eclectic group, mixing blues and power pop into a unique blend that has barely aged a day. Songs such as “This Is the Way Love Is” and “Perfect Blues” bristle with snarling energy, while “Don’t, This Way” and the original demo of “The Lust, the Flesh, the Eyes & the Pride of Life” remain achingly beautiful in both lyrics and melody. The album has been remastered, with numerous excellent live tracks added to its original fourteen songs.

Regrettably, it’s doubtful much from this once again available classic will find its way onto Christian radio station’s playlists. Their loss, and also that of their audience’s. Sticks and Stones by the 77s is a true masterpiece, one deserving maximum exposure. One listen and you’ll know why.

The album is available for purchase as a download and CD from the band’s website.

Kerosene Halo shines a gentle light

Mike Roe and Derri Daugherty, individually known as the leaders of legendary Christian alternative rock bands the 77s and the Choir who together form half of Americana roots rock band the Lost Dogs, have released a eponymous record together under the moniker Kerosene Halo. It’s well worth a listen.

Musically, Kerosene Halo is firmly rooted in the Lost Dogs’ acoustic side, if anything more gentle and folk-oriented. The music and vocals are dreamy and introspective without slipping into mush, with songs carefully chosen to maintain the mood including two by Roe and Daugherty’s Lost Dogs compatriot Terry Taylor. Long time fans of Christian rock will be heartened by an affectionate cover of Larry Norman’s “The Outlaw,” while the musically aware will note an effective rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.”

Kerosene Halo doesn’t yield its treasures all at once. It requires several listens, each unveiling a new layer in the music’s deceptive simplicity. The record hearkens back to traditional country, music of straightforward grace and beauty minus slick embellishment.

In short, Kerosene Halo is a terrific record. Listen to it and find some peace.

The record is available on CD from the band’s website, and as a download from the band’s website as well as iTunes and Amazon.

Getting It Going

Before I trot off to the office, a quick update on what’s happening:

I was humbled and honored to meet Beth Jahnsen and Dawn Wisner-Johnson this past Monday evening on a very rainy night in Colton. Now more than ever I am determined to get the book done.

Now comes the hard part: setting up and doing the interviews, then the transcribing, then the follow-up interviews, then more transcribing, then putting it all together in written form. But that’s okay. This workload is one I joyfully embrace.

Now if I could just shake this cold! Oh well. It’ll be gone in a few days and I’ll stop sounding like Flippy The Frog after gargling with drain cleaner (cough, sniff, honk, ah-choo).

Losing Sleep (But It’s Okay)

I’ve been spending more than a few nights lately in seemingly endless sleeplessness, trying to sort out different events and thoughts. I imagine most everyone has such nights, when the brain kicks into overdrive while the body is failing to convince it that taking five and catching some Z’s would be the best course of action. When you start making a habit of it, though, it can be a cause of concern … not to mention functionality loss the next morning.

Two thoughts are occupying the majority of my staring behind closed eyelids. One is trying to work out how to deal with the hurt directly caused by those who once said they were the closest of friends, but whose recent actions have shown them to be anything but. I’d like to forgive and forget and move on, but as I’ve mentioned before forgiveness is always a struggle with me, be it of others or myself. Definitely a weakness; something to attack full force.

The other thought is on a more positive note. Next week, I’ll be meeting with a couple of people who I’ve never met in person, yet with whom I have exchanged e-mails. There is a common bond between us, one of faith, and from that another common bond: a desire to call home those who once embraced the faith, but now although not having abandoned it have grown indifferent. There is also a desire to bring forth evidence of how work done in days gone by, back during heady days of youthful exuberance, bore fruit then and bears fruit now even if those who did the work aren’t always, or often if ever, aware of how their efforts touched the lives of others.

I’m not into melodramatic statements, but it is no exaggeration to say if what I’m envisioning — a book detailing the lives and faith of these workers, the Christian pop and rock musicians of the ‘80s — comes into being, it will be the most important writing I’ve ever done. The potential to help them tell their stories and sound their call of how despite the personal and professional, and even spiritual, garbage hurled at them during their time in the spotlight they kept or at least returned to the faith is a humbling honor. These people were my heroes then; even more so now. Their story deserves to be told … no, that’s not strong enough. It demands to be told.

I’ll be using this space to keep everyone posted as to the project’s progress, fill in the details, and such. Any and all prayers will be more than appreciated. This is an opportunity to do something that truly matters, and it is only through our Lord’s grace that I will be able to do my part in this.

For this, I don’t mind losing sleep.