Interview with Erick Nelson
Good News (1973 - 1975)Good News
After touring with Harold Brinkley, I went right back on the road with Danny Lee and the Children of Truth for three months as a bass player. There I learned what traveling is all about.
When I finally returned, Bill Batstone told me that he and Dave Diggs wanted to start a band with me. Billy was an old buddy of mine, but I was surprised that Diggs wanted to play drums. I thought of him entirely as a keyboard player (he played B3 organ in Rebirth) and jazz-band chart writer (he had his own album already), kind of a musical prodigy. It's kind of scary to be the keyboard player in a band where the drummer plays your instrument much better than you do. But who was I to argue? I wondered, though, if he could really play drums.
Turns out he could. We got together for a rehearsal, and had a bunch of songs done by the end of the day. Diggs had such a pop when he hit the snare, it just felt great. Bill already knew half the songs anyway, and we were ready to go out and play right away. Somehow, I had a few opportunities to play, and we would just drive over and set up and play. We called ourselves Good News (I think I came up with the name based on Beau MacDougall's song "Good News" that I liked). I started coming up with some Elton John-type rock 'n roll songs (ok, not as good, but that was the idea). This was the easiest gig I ever did.
One day I was doing a local Christian TV show, and a guy comes up to me. He was Eddie Espinoza, and he said "I've got a friend named Bob and he really wants to play in your group." He introduces me to this 16-year old kid, named Bob Carlisle, who pulls out an acoustic guitar and proceeds to audition for me right then and there. Right away, I know he's a great singer, and a good guitar player, too. I say "Yes, very nice", or something like that, and then "We'll pray about it"; he kept saying "Please, can I? Huh, Erick? Pl-eeeeeeeze?" So, I said I'd think it over.
I asked Billy about it. He came up with a good point. "Right now we have it perfect", he said. "No muss, no fuss. We just show up and play. But if we get a guitar player, we'll be a real band. We'll have more writers, more singers, more personality issues. Is it worth it?" We three talked about it and said, "Let's give it a try." I got Yvonne Lewis (back from the Danny Lee tours) to move down to Southern California from Manteca to be another singer. And we had a group.
Just before Yvonne moved down, Bob and I drove up to Manteca in my VW to work out some vocals where her. We had to drive for hours up I-5 - the longest straight stretch of road in the known universe. We were so bored that we made up a contest. We put our hands out the window to see who could catch a bug first. Whoever caught one would show it to the other and we'd laugh. Sometimes they were like little pellets and really stung. No pain no gain. Bob still remembers this, too.
It was harder to get by on the few concerts we had, now that we had more people, but we played various places; seems like we played Knott's Berry Farm and various Calvarys, and the infamous Maranatha Circuit, up and down California. Dave decided we should do an album, and a fire fighter named Gordy (maybe a brother-in-law or something) to invest $3,000 in an album. We went to Mama Jo's where Love Song had recorded, and did such a quick album you wouldn't believe it. Right in the middle Bob decided he wanted to quit the group, and he wound up only singing one song (Tear Down the Walls) and a couple of parts of songs (Good News, Picking up the Pieces backgrounds). Dave played guitar on some songs; Tony Dean on some others. Diggs did the string score. Sitting in the studio, listening to the string players play on my songs (the vocals weren't even on yet) gave me goose-bumps, literally. I couldn't sit still - I was so excited I was shaking.
The album was finished, and Mike MacIntosh decided that Maranatha wanted to put it out. We worked out a deal where they paid the investor back, did some artwork, and prepared to release it. Just then, Chuck Smith heard it and was uncomfortable with it - too rocky. Once again, I am in the middle of a rock 'n roll controversy, this time with my own pastor. It was his call to make, so I met with him and asked exactly what he objected to. He had listened to it some more, and all he wanted was to take out Tom Kubis' "Satanic Sax Solo" (that was our affectionate name for it), and replace one of the songs. We replaced the sax solo with guitars, he relented about the song, and we had ourselves an album.
This was just when KYMS was starting out. They had almost no songs to play. Tom Stipe (from Country Faith) had a show, and played songs from our album just about every other song. He loved us. It was a thrill hearing "Good News" for the first time on a car radio, just like it was a real song.
Eddie Espinoza substituted for Bob for awhile, but he had his own band. So Diggs became our guitar player, and he got John Hernandez to play drums (he later played with Oingo Boingo), then Kurt Lofland. Eventually, everybody in the band quit, except Bill. I thought it was dopey for just the two of us to be Good News, so I decided to go it alone. Hence, the beginning of my solo career.
Solo (1976 - 1978)
I had a few requests to play, and it was easy to just drive somewhere and do some songs. No rock 'n roll controversy anymore, either. On the other hand, I thought my upbeat songs sounded pretty lame without a band - but I had to do them or else play ten melancholy ballads in a row. I felt really naked, not only playing all by myself, but doing songs that were so personal to me. Absolutely nothing to hide behind. But I felt that the Lord wanted me to do this, so I took the opportunities that came my way.
In the early days, my assumption was that I should never prepare anything to say between songs - that I should let the Spirit lead. Unfortunately, this put me on the spot more than once, verbally floundering my way through the set. Also, once I had gotten to the point in a concert where I decided I was no good, and that they didn't like me, I got more and more withdrawn, started sweating, and wanted to run out the door. Therefore, since I was feeling the pressure, I became more and more solemn, and probably acted weirder and weirder, until they really did start to dislike me. That was the downward spiral I sometimes generated. I was really beginning to hate this stuff.
Then I went to a Maranatha retreat, and Danny Taylor spoke to us. He said that whenever we're going to go on stage, we should tell ourselves "Hey, these people love me; they're on my side; they want me to do well." And that if we believed it, we would feel accepted and would then communicate love back to them. I realized that the ball was in my court - I was the mood-setter. I simply had to assume that they wanted me to do well, that they liked me.
And then I remembered that Danny Lee and Harold Brinkley actually had things prepared beforehand to say, and that maybe if I thought it through, I could figure out what the Lord (at least in general) wanted me to really communicate.
And then I heard a guy named Bill Berry give the best sermon I ever heard at a little coffeehouse called The Fire Escape, one New Year's Eve. He talked about how Jesus must have looked. How his hands must have been strong, since he was a carpenter; how his face was filled with authority, and compassion; how the little children ran to him; how his Face was beaten for me. I thought, "I have a message. I'll just tell them what Jesus is like." And that's what I talked about at many concerts.
And last, I meet some people called the Wheelchair Gang. Jennie Stotler was one of them, I remember. They were disabled people, some pretty severely, who lived in an apartment community. They had actually gone to convalescent homes and rescued disabled people from a life of staring at the wall; in their community, these folks had a chance to do whatever they were able to do. The Wheelchair Gang started coming to Calvary concerts. I ignored the main crowd, and would look out at them. There I simply saw friends, and felt free to play for them. Sometimes in other settings I would pretend that they were there.
My Brother, David
I had a special affinity for them because of my brother David. Since about Jr. High, I had to watch his body slowly deteriorate from an undiagnosed condition. He died in 1979 at the age of 25. To tell about him would take a whole book. I'll only say that he did more with less than anybody I ever met. I felt like I was representing him when I played, and this helped me go on when things were difficult.
One day, David was watching Schuller's Hour of Power, and liked it. He decided to write in. Surprisingly, the secretary wrote back and arranged for a meeting with Dr. Schuller. When they met, Schuller asked him if he was bitter - David laughed and thought that was the dumbest question he'd ever heard. Schuller was impressed with him. After meeting several times, they actually became friends, and Dr. Schuller sort of became a friend of the family. He asked David to come on the show as a special guest, and asked me to come on also, to speak for David (he wasn't very intelligible anymore, although he was pretty witty) and to play Flow River Flow. They asked me back several times to play for the show, and for some church services. Schuller gave the eulogy at David's funeral, and I'm told he said better things about David than he had about Hubert Humphrey (he had presided over Humphrey's funeral a week or two before).
Here's the kicker. Dr. Schuller put a chapter about David in a book about amazing people (including Joni Erikson). Not only that, on a recent TV show (almost twenty years after David's death), he was talking about the importance of having a good attitude - one of the key principles he's always preaching about. Of all the people in the world The Rev. Robert Schuller has ever met, he picked my brother as the best example of a person with a good attitude. What a tribute.
Concerts and an Album
Flow River Flow
Anyway, I traveled around and did whatever concerts were available. In England, I did a 2 hour radio show for Michael Hopwood. He sat next to me at the piano and would ask me to play a song - and then would stop me in mid-song and start asking questions. He was peppering me with statements like "How can a good God send people to Hell?" I prayed "Oh, God, I'm out of my depth here. Help me, help me, help me." You know, the Prayer of Desperation. Anyway, I gave him stock C.S. Lewis-type answers, and I saw his respect grow. He later said it was the best interview he'd ever done. Go figure.
Chuck Fromm was the new leader of MM by then, and asked me if I wanted to do a solo album. I said "Sure." I got an old friend, Lenny Roberts, to produce it ($10,000 budget total), and Lenny got his friend, David Foster - a top session keyboard player, now also a multiple-Grammy-winning producer - to arrange it. Once again, having to play with a keyboard player ten times better than I was. My worst two memories were that of one of my friends telling David Foster he was going to hell if he didn't repent, and finding out that the recording engineer and studio people were mocking me behind my back. Fortunately, after having a burger with Lenny and the engineer, and doing my first vocal (Soldiers of the Cross), the mocking subsided and I felt better.
I tried hard to think of ways to witness to these people. I wound up giving Foster a copy of my most recent apologetics paper, which he probably threw away. When the project was all over, I was talking to Lenny, and he said that one thing impressed him about my Christianity. "At last, I thought, we're getting somewhere. I wonder, was it the songs? The mood? How I handled myself under pressure? My intelligence? My dedication?" Sadly, none of the above. He had asked me to come to his girl-friend's birthday party, and I did. Knowing full well that I would probably be the only sober person there, but that I would go anyway, made him feel like I kind of cared. So, you never know what's going to be important and what's not.
Some time after that, I got a phone call from Gary West, who was working for Andrae. He wanted to know if I was free to fly out and do about four or five concerts with Andrae. He needed somebody to open for him at Oral Roberts University, and could use an opening artist at a couple of other concerts. So I flew out to meet them all.
Remember, this is totally out of my league. I'm not used to this kind of stuff. I get to the first concert, where I'm not really needed as an opening act. Turns out they let local groups start playing way before concert time, and have already had one or two opening acts - and now they're ready for the real thing. The announcer comes out. "Are you ready?" he shouts. Four thousand people shout back "Yeahhhh!" "Are you REALLY ready?" "YEAHHH!!!!" "Andrae CROUCH AND THE DISCIPLES ARE GOING TO COME OUT .... right after we hear from Erick Nelson ..." And four thousand people audibly groaned. And then went silent. I walked out to the piano, clunk, clunk, clunk, and pulled out the piano bench - squeak - and sat down. And knew they hated me. This was my lowest moment as a performer. Worse than having food thrown at me in a junior high cafeteria. Worse than playing outdoors in freezing weather. Worse than forgetting the words at a funeral. I prayed the Big Desperation Prayer, and I truly believe that for the next few days the Lord made me better than I was. He had pity on me.
I did one song, got some polite applause. I did Something Happened to You, and had them clap along, and they seemed to warm up to me. I did a very brief into and then Flow River Flow and then said good-bye; and you know what, as I walked off the stage, they kept clapping and clapping, and then stood up, and then I had to go out and do an encore. And this happened for every concert! Sadly, when I returned home, the Lord apparently withdrew this special blessing and I went back to normal receptions.
One thing that made my "solo" days more interesting and fun was getting to know other artists. I met a lot of people who were just starting out - some have established long-standing CCM careers, some have quietly kept on in the background, others have moved on to other things.
I once flew to Oklahoma to do a small outdoor concert. There were two young women who sang before I did, Kelly Bagley and Rhenda Edwards. The were so good that I was kind of embarrassed to play after them - actually, I would have rather have heard some more of their songs. Kelly got married and became Kelly Willard. She was a really sensitive person, somewhat shy. Where I often wrote songs to express my sadder emotions, Kelly wrote songs to cheer herself up - really great songs.
Rhenda was a great singer. I used to tell Rhenda she sounded like the young Michael Jackson, but she really sounded a lot like Crystal Lewis does now. As far as I know, she never got into a singing career - but she's one of the people I'd like to have record my songs. Kelly and Rhenda were just two of the "Oklahoma contingent", a group of musicians from Oklahoma who became part of Maranatha or moved to Southern California: Jonathan Brown (who co-produced the Misfit); Harlan Rogers, Hadley Hockensmith, and Bill Maxwell (who played with Andrae, and then started Koinonia).
In Las Vegas, a band opened for me that was a really unusual one. They were not very rocky, but they were really well rehearsed. I remember they put a bunch of Shure VocalMasters together for their PA, and the one song that blew me away was "On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand" (the lead singer pronounced it "... solid r-r-rockeye stand). They were the Benny Hester Band. Benny was a great guy. I told the folks at Maranatha about him, because he was thinking about moving to Southern California, and they said "yeah, yeah." But Jimmy Kempner learned about Benny on his own and helped him get set up.
In New Jersey, a band opened for me that just shocked me. They came out and just Rocked. Then they did a song with four- or five-part vocals, and I said to myself, "These guys can both play and sing?" They had like four lead vocalists. They'd do impressive a capella stuff in the middle of a rock song. When they finished, they got an encore; and I think they got a second encore. I was afraid that I'd never be able to get on. Then I was afraid that I would be able to get on. I was going to sound like a "horsey and a ducky" after these guys. When I finally did start playing, I think I tried to just bring it down and make it simple. After the concert we went out to eat; these guys were all traveling in something like an old bread truck; they were hurting for concerts, having a tough time financially, and acting kind of hungry. When I went back to Maranatha, I told everybody about them, and they said "yeah, yeah." I'm glad (no pun intended) they finally made it. Their song "Be Ye Glad" is absolutely one of my favorite songs of all time.
Karen came over to MM after being part of Campus Crusade for a long time. She brought with her a work ethic and good attitude that was probably unparalleled. Bill Batstone and I once flew out to join her for part of a tour (our part was 2-3 weeks or so, the whole tour was three months). For one concert we drove in her camper to Atlanta through tornado warnings. I was sure her little camper was going to tip over and we'd all be killed. When we got to the church, only about four people showed up - you'd have to be nuts to go out in this weather! Karen had such a great attitude; she didn't see it was a big deal to risk your life for four people - all in a day's work. We called her Lead-foot Lafferty because of her driving enthusiasm.
One time at a Maranatha meeting, Romaine was "exhorting" us (Christian terminology for "yelling at us") - he said that nobody was doing the job. I really wanted to yell out, "Oh yeah, how about Karen Lafferty!", but I didn't dare. I just hid behind the guy's head in front of me. Now, of course, I wish I had said it.
These days, I've heard from Karen a couple of times via email, and she's still ministering, still traveling, quietly in the background - doing the job.
I knew I would love Bob Bennett when I first heard You're Always Welcome Here at a MM retreat. We became good friends. I still keep up with him, and am really proud of his ministry. See my writeup about him at Bob Bennett.
These guys were my main role models for ministry in the early days. I got to know each of the guys individually and have great memories of them. See my writeup about them at Love Song.
This was the most rock 'n roll of the Maranatha groups. I still keep up with Bill Hoppe and Jim Abdo. They're doing a reunion recording, which is great. See my writeup about them by clicking on "Memories" at their web site Aslan.
Boy, talk about knowing somebody when they're down and out. Roby was a janitor at Melodyland. A mutual friend, Ken Eichler, had Roby play a song for Michele and me one time. It was Earthen Vessels. I think Roby never recorded it, but it's my favorite of his songs. Michele and I had Roby come with us to some concerts and open for us (for free of course). As soon as people heard him, they wanted him back. He went on to great success in CCM.
I especially felt an affinity for Bob because he had a great sense of humor, and at the same time was the only person who could string together as many depressing songs as I could. Selah played with Bob at an outdoor concert one time, and after four or five sad songs, a guy yelled out "Hey, Lighten up!" Bob was thinking about doing an album, and talked to me about producing it. But, fortunately for him, he wound up doing Joy By Surprise with Buddy King, and it was better than anything I could have done for him. He had some great songs.
Now here's an obscure one. There was a band in Arkansas, named Sounds of Joy (or something like that), and I met them when touring with Danny Lee. They had a really good lead singer named Russ - nice guy, real leader type. Anyway, they made an album, produced, I think, by Jonathan Brown; and what do you know, they did my song He Lives. Russ didn't have all the words right, but it sounded good. We had a mutual friend, Ken Eichler (also Roby Duke's friend), and I ran into Russ a few times when I played out in Arkansas, and was pleased when he joined the Imperials, and later went off on his own to a great CCM career.
The first time I saw Oden was in his backyard at a Bible study. Selah went all together as a group. The ground outside had all been covered with oriental rugs, there were big speakers (he says he got them from the Grateful Dead), and Oden and somebody else played rock 'n roll songs like Come for the Children on acoustic guitars. There were some guys there called the "garbage eaters" - free spirits, you might say. I knew Oden all through the Maranatha years. He was a great guy. I even went on tour once with Mustard Seed Faith as a replacement bass player for Wade Link. On back to back days we played in a school cafeteria one day - while they were eating - and then the next for 12,000 people at a Leighton Ford Crusade.
Oden had a definite mystical streak about him, but had grown up as the son of Benson Fong ("Honorable Number One Son" of the Charlie Chan movies) and had gone to Hollywood High with the kids of movie stars and other rich people, which goes a long way toward explaining his unusual mixture.
For awhile I saw him all the time, because I lived across the way from his girlfriend (now wife) Rose. He took me on a retreat once out in the desert that I still remember fondly. I've been in touch with him via email, and am glad to know he's still doing street evangelism as a pastor of his own church in Huntington Beach.
You'd think Greg was just a big copycat, since he looked like Lonnie Frisbee, and started out by listening to Chuck Smith's study and re-giving it at his own Bible Study. But this would just be superficial - Greg was in a category by himself. It's hard to describe exactly why I liked him so much as a speaker - I think it's that he was quick to spot jive and pretension, and could talk about Jesus in a way that just made sense.
On the other hand, he was one of the biggest goofballs (I hesitate to use this word; I mean it in a good way) and practical jokers I ever met. I loved it. One time, we went out for pizza, and he ran into an old acquaintance from high school. Greg started witnessing to him. I got up to get another Dr. Pepper, and Greg poured some salt on my pizza as a joke. The guy looked at him and said, "Haven't changed a bit, have you Greg." Greg felt so bad he took my salted pizza and replaced it with his own. I didn't know anything about it until he mentioned it in a sermon weeks later.
For some reason, Greg decided to spend the night one night in our apartment. Bugs was on the road, so Greg got Bugs' top bunk. He slept in a sleeping bag. In the middle of the night, he rolled right out of bed and landed with a huge crash, bringing down a lamp on the way. I was on the lower bunk, and was sure he was dead or something. He had landed mostly on his butt and just had the wind knocked out of him, but it was truly scary. He said "Don't make me go back up there!" so I took the top bunk. I made sure to tuck myself in well and not to use a sleeping bag.
I didn't see Greg all that much when he moved to Riverside, but he had me come out and play a lot. He really liked music and liked to sing along. One night he showed me the new sanctuary they had rented or bought, and I played improvised gospel songs while he jumped around and sang like Aretha Franklin. Looking back, that was one of the happier moments of my life, we had such a blast.
There was a band in Texas I met, and one of the members, Darrell Harris, eventually went on to start StarSong Records. One time I was to play with them, but I had a bad case of laryngitis. I could barely whisper, had to cancel a concert the day before. I had had this before, just blowing out my voice trying sing with a cold. There was no way I could sing - I thought maybe I'd croak a song, say a few words, and then slink off. Bubba Chambers, before the concert said, "Hey, brother, let's pray for your voice." I thought, "yeah, sure, I've been down that road before ...", and he laid hands on me and prayed. No change. I went out to play, and as soon as I started the first song (I think it was Charity by Kenn Gulliksen), I could sing clear as a bell. Complete change, night and day - instantaneous healing. After the song, I was so excited, I started saying something like "I can sing! I can sing!", and I'm sure their response was "Yeah, that's what we expected." This was a definite miracle.
These are just the people that immediately come to mind as (possibly) interesting to people familiar with CCM. There are a whole lot of other people who really enriched me life. But I have to stop somewhere.
With Michele Pillar (1979 - 1981)
I really wanted to be in a band again. I had talked with John Hernandez (drummer) and Dave Coy (bass player) about starting one, and they played with me as a backup band a few times. We were going to add Dave Storrs on guitar and maybe get a singer.
During the earlier days in Good News, I had gone to a college "rock oratorio" written by my cousin Alf Clausen. John Hernandez, the Good News drummer, as in it. There I saw Michele Zarges (now Michele Pillar) stand in front of a podium and sing "He's Asleep." If you closed your eyes, she was Karen Carpenter. I was really, really impressed. She was one of the best singers I had ever heard. She would be a perfect singer for our band. So I asked her about it.
Unfortunately, the three band members all backed out for one reason or another, and I was left with only a backup singer. I told Michele how ridiculous it would be to just be a duet. The corniest thing I ever heard of. Somehow, we sat down at the piano in my apartment, and she asked me to sing something. I started singing something, and she started harmonizing. Not only that, she started singing with me in unison. It was really weird. She could shadow my voice, all my random inflections, everything. We blended almost 100%, all on her part. It was uncanny. I told her, "Maybe we could start out as a duo and then add people as we go." I asked Jonathan Brown if he wanted to be a third vocalist, but he declined.
My concerts had by now all become "Christian Concerts." In the older days, we just played in regular places like colleges and did our music. Now, CCM had become a genre, and I found I wasn't playing in front of non-Christians at all. I was preaching to the converted. What I really wanted to do was to play like a regular band. I was set to go on a month tour of England (70 concerts in 37 days). I told Michele, "I'm not sure if you're serious about this. Tell you what, if you can line up a bunch of secular college coffee-house concerts, billed not as a Christian group but as a regular group, we'll give it a shot." We I returned, she had a whole bunch of things lined up, so we did them.
At first, I just took her along to my concerts. I'd play a few songs, and then when I thought people were starting to get tired of me, I brought Michele up for some songs - she'd sing a couple by herself, then we'd do some duet stuff. It worked great. I felt much more confident during these concerts, because in a pinch I knew that Michele was good, and I could just play behind her. We had great success at the college concerts, too.
The Misfit (1979)The Misfit
Once again, Maranatha asked me if I wanted to do an album (I was very lucky that way). Michele and I said "yes", but I had a "concept-album" idea. I wanted to tell the story of a "misfit", and how he meets the Lord, and a few things he goes through after his conversion. We wanted it to be a "secular" album with our Christian message. My idea of crossover was to sing about our "life situation", which everybody could identify with, and then briefly but clearly present Jesus as the answer. That's what we did in college concerts, and it seemed to work.
So, they put it on their new sub-label, A&S Records, which was supposed to be targeted at the secular market. Jonathan Brown and I co-produced it. The quality turned out well, 95% due to his professional abilities. The only problem I had with Jonathan was that he tended to make things polished and smooth. Michele's style had already moved us away from rock 'n roll, which was fine. But Jonathan was taking out the last vestiges of edge we had. I wanted a rougher sound. To be accurate, if we had wound up with the sound I wanted, the record would have sounded really amateurish, especially because I didn't know what I was doing from a producer standpoint. But somehow the clash between our goals worked out into a compromise that pretty much satisfied everybody. I got to have Dave Storrs play on Take Me to the Light, and Denny and Tim Correll sing background vocals on several songs; Jonathan polished as he went.
This was the first album I did that had a decent budget, and I was pretty happy with how it all came out. I got better support, I'm sure, than I deserved. John Wickham's guitar solo on Stand is still one of my favorites. Michele sang Love Hurts, in my opinion, better than anything else she's ever done - I still get comments from people. He's Asleep was an unusual song, and Alf agreed to do the orchestration as a favor. Keith and Hadley were ideal players.
All in all, The Misfit got lots and lots of airplay on Southern California CCM radio. CCM Magazine named it one of the best 10 albums of 1979. It got no secular promotion or air play. Oh well.
Michele and I got a booking agent (Linda Holmes), toured, and actually charged for our services for the first time.
I had become a Christian without the benefit of any argumentation, presentation, or anything formal at all. Some friends just told me I could know Jesus; I had had an experience which confirmed their witness; and so I said a big Yes. I met at least one person, Father Harriot, who demonstrably had what I wanted, a personal relationship with Jesus. That was good enough for me.
In college, I started reading C.S. Lewis: Miracles, Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, The Problem of Pain, and collections of essays (such as in Christian Reflections). He actually made sense. My largely mystical approach to Christianity was becoming complemented with thought. The most influential Lewis books, though, were his "science fiction trilogy." I remember a light-bulb experience occurred when I saw that this Jesus stuff was True in the real, everyday sense, not in some spiritual, wishful sense. Faith was not make-believe, after all.
When I had joined Selah, sometimes people would come up and talk to us after concerts. I remember discussing with someone the question, "How do you know your experience is an experience of the same Jesus who walked the earth?" And, "How can you be sure this works for everybody?"
I didn't want to give the typical answer "You just have to have faith", because the proper response to that is "Why faith in this and not in something else?" The typical Calvary response was "Believe first, and then you'll receive", which makes some sense, but seems to require a Kirkegaard-like unfounded "leap" of faith. All I could say was, "Whoever I'm having a relationship with, he answers to the name Jesus, and acts like the Biblical Jesus, has the same values, etc." If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, etc.
I figured the New Testament was a bunch of (true) stories written down by later believers at some point, plus Paul's letters, etc. I figured if Jesus was real, what are the chances that he'd let the only direct testimony about himself be faulty? And so, I assumed it was inspired in some undefined sense.
Jay Truax came back from a tour and gave or loaned me a small paperback book called History and Christianity by a guy named John Warwick Montgomery. (This was about 1974 or so) It was the transcript of a debate Montgomery had done at a college in Canada. He took a purely evidential approach to the New Testament. The more he said, the more sense he made. He made a terrific case for the reliability of the New Testament, and then concluded with his version of the Lord, Lunatic, Liar "trilemma" (used in the early days of Christianity as "God Man or Bad Man.") Fascinated, I read many of the books in the bibliography, especially F.F. Bruce's The New Testament Documents, Are They Reliable. I was hooked.
I started to take notes on what I had learned. I used to like to write papers, and wrote a paper trying to explain why I thought Christianity was true. The first section was about philosophical issues, the second was an evidential defense of Christianity. I tried to distill it to a simple blackboard presentation, and practiced on anybody who would listen. Victims included: Good News (of course), Phil Kristianson (he called one of the early Roman writers "Pliny the Yes-Man"), a Bible Study at Chuck's house, Jesse Dixon's group, Aslan (on the road), and Bob Bennett.
I desperately wanted somebody to help me improve my understanding of all this. I found an actual section at the library of a local Christian college which was called "Apologetics." I was in heaven. But I never could get anyone knowledgeable to discuss this stuff with me. One day, I asked Bill Cetnar (who was speaking at Calvary) about this problem, and he said, "Go and talk to Bob and Gretchen Passantino." He introduced me to them and they invited me over to their house to talk. I gave them a copy of my paper, and they said they'd critique it for me. A few days later, I went over to their house, and we just talked and talked. Bob P is one of the few people who can actually talk faster than I can. They were wonderful. Not only that, they gave me a reading list of about twenty books. I went out and read them all. We became good buddies, and I tried to help out at CARIS (the organization they were part of) whenever I could.
My dream was to someday know enough to ask Montgomery himself to fill in the remaining gaps. I considered him the number one apologist in the world. I had heard his debates with Madelyn Murray O'Haire (he caught O'Haire in a lie within the first minute of the debate) and Thomas Altizer (a Death of God theologian), and had read more of his books. Somehow,I discovered that he had actually moved to California and was teaching at Melodyland School of the Bible - virtually down the street from me. I just showed up at one of his apologetics classes. I literally shook with excitement as I listened to him. He looked kind of like Roddy McDowell, and had a precise way of speaking - great clarity. Not a guy to fool around with, either. He already seemed feisty - and had a great sense of humor.
After that class, I went up and said "Who do I have to kill to study with you?" He replied something like, "I can assure you, homicide is not necessary." I asked, "If I write a paper for you, will you critique it for me?" He said, "Sure."
To make a long story short, I spent the next year writing an entirely new draft of my apologetics paper. The paper was basically a long (180 pages, single spaced) outline of my thoughts. I had gone to some of his classes, and had come to know him somewhat (Bob and Gretchen knew him better, because of their work with Walter Martin). I gave him the paper and he met with me. He said it was great, and said in a concerned voice, "You could make a real contribution in the field. Why are you fooling around with this music stuff?" I replied, "I dunno."
Later, Michele and I did a concert at Calvary where he happened to be speaking. After our music was over, he sheepishly apologized to me for the remark, and said that perhaps both approaches could be combined somehow. I did just that. We would give out copies of Montgomery's book, Mere Christianity, and F.F. Bruce's book at concerts. I started doing apologetics talks after concerts, and got offers from various colleges to do presentations there. I was official. Later, I even talk a "Critical Thinking" class for him at Simon Greenleaf Law School.
I started to wonder where I should go from there.
My mental approach to my music was pretty simple, some might say remarkably moronic. I wrote whatever songs came to mind - they happened to be mostly about some aspect of Jesus, because that's what was on my heart when I was writing. People called me up and asked me to play. So I did.
Chuck Fromm at Maranatha Music had a great philosophical interest in the concept of "music ministry", and was always prompting us to define our calling. Most of the time I resisted the pressure to think about what I did - I just did what came naturally, unreflectively.
On the other hand, when I did think about it, I came to it from the angle that what I really wanted to do was "regular music." Lenny Roberts, when we did Flow River Flow, said he could sign me to a label if I would do only secular music. I said I'd maybe sign if I could do my own songs, Christian or secular, however they turned out. He said "No way." So I wanted to do my own (mostly Christian-oriented) songs in a secular arena. That was crossover to me.
In the early Love Song days, that's pretty much what they did. But then our music got a title "Jesus Music", and became its own genre. Then it became "Contemporary Christian Music." I could never get out of that stereotype, and to be fair I didn't often try real hard. It was, after all, Christian radio that played my songs, Christian churches or organizations that asked me to play. Face it, I was doing Christian music. That's why I tried to do secular college concerts, no matter how small, with Michele. And so, I guess my attitude was an illogical combination of "non-career" and "my music in a secular venue."
Michele was more clear-headed about this than I was. She just wanted to be more productive with the opportunities we already had. She wanted to develop a career in CCM. There was nothing wrong with that, but I thought of it as "playing in every Assembly of God church in the country", and viewed that way, it didn't appeal to me. I thought of her as becoming ambitious; she thought of me as holding us back.
I should say right now that I don't think my approach was the only right one. Maybe not even the best one. I think there are several legitimate kinds of music, and each person should just do whatever he's called to do. Simple as that.
Right at this time, I started going to graduate school (Claremont Graduate School, Philosophy) to see if I could prepare myself to, as Montgomery said, "make a real contribution in the field." I wanted to just play an occasional concert here and there as I concentrated on this new thing. So, eventually, we went our separate ways - she to a career in CCM, me to God-knows-what.
I continued to play as asked, and decided I'd find out for sure if I should "go secular" with "my message." I talked to Linda Hill, who booked a lot of bigger groups. I asked "How do I get booked in secular venues?" She replied, "You need a record." I then called Lenny Roberts, who was working with George Martin on a Little River Band project, and said "How do I get a record contract?" He said, "You need to tour and build support." Catch 22.
Ok, Lenny said, I could maybe just get a record contract, if I gave up this Christian stuff. He said, "Look at Bob Dylan. Once people found out he was peddling this Christian stuff, there were almost more returns than there were sales. Look, if Bob Dylan can't do it, you can't."
I admitted he had a point. Now, he might be wrong, he might be right. Many people have crossed over, to some extent. Debby Boone had a hit with You Light Up My Life; my old buddy Bob Carlisle recently created a crossover sensation with Butterfly Kisses. Amy Grant did Baby Baby and then a lot of other songs. Maybe I wasn't good enough, or maybe their crossover approach was different than what I had wanted to do. I'll probably never know.
I was ready for something knew. I didn't see Apologetics as a full-time career. I was end something of a dead end with my music.
In Defense of the Normal LifeSusan (unreleased demo w/Bob Bennett & Phil Kristianson)
I said at the time that I thought my talking had outrun my living. You have to remember that a traveling Christian musician's life is not the norm. First, you spend much more time in airports or hotels or looking at the line in the middle of the highway or setting up and tearing down than you do actually playing and ministering. The accolades are really unusual, too. You can't imagine how easy it is to assume you have a spiritual superiority to your audience, even though you're on stage on they're not by virtue of the fact that you happen to play music. It took a long time in my non-career, but things actually got to the point of people asking me for my autograph when they'd see me on the street. That was just nuts. I lost respect for people that made me out to be something fabulous, because I knew they didn't know me, they just imagined how they wanted me to be.
Around that time I met the most extraordinary woman I had ever encountered. Susan Snider. She had worked with Crusade and intentionally picked all the difficult assignments. Her friends were ministering on the beaches of Hawaii and San Diego; she picked the Chicago inner city. Other people talked and talked a great set, she quietly and simply lived it. We said "Go out to the hopeless and helpless" while we catered to the winners and the saved. She actually went out and did it.
One time Lenny Roberts was complaining about the television evangelists. "What about Jimmy Swaggart? What about Oral Roberts? ..." and I interrupted "What about Susan Snider?" He stopped, amazed, and said "Who's that?" I said, "She's a Christian doing ministry." Lenny said, "Why haven't I heard about her." "Because she doesn't have any money!"
I loved her more than anybody. She was the person I wanted to have that close relationship with. We got married in 1983, with Schuller doing the ceremony on Easter Eve (a tough time to book a guy like him); Bugs was my best man; Bob Bennett and Phil Kristianson played for the wedding. I decided to quit traveling and do something else.
I won't bore you with my futile attempts to find a new spot. The Lord just shut the doors on all the normal things I thought to do. I'll just tell you that we finally moved to Seattle, and settled down to a "regular life" with a "day job" at the Seattle Housing Authority.
Some people started questioning my faithfulness to the Lord, wondering what the heck had happened to me. The only answer I really have is "I'm doing what I think the Lord wants me to do. Deal with it." But that comes across as too pat. What can I say? The circumstantial details pertain just to me, and aren't all that interesting. But the principles may be important, so I'll try to give more of an answer as candidly as I can. Why am I living a "regular life"? I'm happy doing what I'm doing now, so I'm not dissatisfied, but I have also sometimes asked the Lord why he doesn't want to use me more in the ways I'd expect. Here are some of the answers I've been given. Take it for what it's worth.
[Note: I'm not trying to say that leading a "regular life" is better than a CCM career, only that it's not an inferior way of life. Once again, everyone should do whatever the Lord has for them at the moment.]
God has no special classes of people. I had always said this from the stage - ministers and professional Christians are no more important than garage mechanics. We are all called to give 100%. Too often, we musicians looked down on the regular people, "the masses." Secondly, I have always had a weakness for "elite-ism." Not the rich and the famous, but the "best of breed." Down deep, I thought that Montgomery, for instance, was better than most people. I wanted to hang with world-class achievers, maybe even become one myself. To the Lord, we are all like children. Say you happened to see a little kid, and he was bragging because he could lift a little more weight with his skinny arms than some of his buddies - you'd laugh.
God wants to anoint my whole life. Before concerts, I always prayed "God, anoint this concert", when I often meant mostly "God, help me not to humiliate myself." One night it occurred to me to pray, "God, anoint my life, every minute, every dull moment of every mundane task." I work now at Airborne Express, in the middle of a group of (mostly) non-Christians. How can God use me in my everyday work? There's a guy I work with named Tom, who would never go anywhere Christian music was performed. Maybe the last nine years at Airborne have existing solely for me to be a day-by-day witness for just him. (How have I done? Good question) Or maybe putting love into action in little ways is important to the Lord. Maybe he'd rather have me right now commit myself deeply to my wife and son than travel around the country talking about love.
God cares more about my well-being than what I can produce. I admit that this is a hard one to accept, that the Lord is not impressed with my strengths and what I can "accomplish for Him." I think his attitude is that my strengths aren't really that big a deal, anyway. It's not like he wasn't able to get along before I arrived. What he does care about is my weaknesses, the holes in my life. And my well-being. What if his plan for me is to learn, experientially, how much he loves me? Maybe I know that he loves me, but there's a whole lot about his love for me that I haven't felt. Our little boy has evoked such love from me that it's been hard to realize other dads love their kids the way I love mine. One day, it was as if a voice was saying to my heart, "You see that little boy that makes your heart leap with joy every time he laughs? That's how I feel about you. You see your wife that you share your whole life with and are so proud of? That's how I feel about you." Maybe that's the most important thing in the world to him right now.
"Just follow me." I have tried from time to time to sneak back into Christian Music and Apologetics. I cannot begin to tell you the doors that the Lord closed. It sometimes seems like I have been systematically prevented from doing many of the things that come naturally. On the other hand, he hasn't completely discouraged me. He's kept some doors open just a crack, to let me know that he hasn't shunned me. This interview is one of those little open doors. I have an article on my web site that has interested exactly two people enough to email me about it.
I have said to the Lord, "What about Marcus Borg and Bishop Spong? How can you let them go without rebuttal?" He replied, "I'll take care of them. Follow me."
"Well, what's this deal with Bob (Carlisle)? How come I had a song on his first album that didn't sell well, rather than on his Butterfly Kisses album that sold millions?" "Forget about it. Follow me."
"Yeah, but how about this, and that, and the other thing?" "Get over it. Follow me."
Parting Thoughts - Content is Everything
I was recently asked to think of article ideas for a Christian magazine. I wanted to write one called "Culture Doesn't Matter. Content is Everything."
I'm convinced that people are really starving for something in their lives. They don't need religion, they don't need more church, they don't need a new culture. They need Life. If I'm starving, I don't really care whether the burger you have for me is on a used napkin or on fancy china. Just give me the beef.
The people who influenced me most did so not because they were culturally relevant, or could naturally relate to me "on my level." They changed my life, actually, in spite of cultural or personal differences. Father Harriot, Romaine, Montgomery, and Harold Brinkley were each about as far removed from the hippie sub-culture as you could imagine. What did I care? They put me in touch with Jesus.
Bugs and Susan had no cultural or spiritual pretensions. They were quietly going about their business; they didn't spend a lot of time talking, talking, talking. But I noticed them, and I couldn't help but see the real Jesus in them.
Andrae Crouch was the only singer who always made me cry with joy. You'd think that's because he was so good. But it's not. He was good, but he had Life, and I could sense it. He is evidence, though, that God is not particularly against world-class quality - in fact he uses it. But the presentation is just the earthen vessel. Without content, you still go hungry.
One time I saw Barry McGuire sing in a little church room, no mikes, an out-of-tune guitar. I would certainly label that a minimalist approach. He closed his eyes and sang "Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus." Musically it was no big deal, but if you've ever seen Barry sing, you can imagine the look on his face, there with his eyes closed. And I felt the Lord's presence.
Even our pathetic squawkings at Shirley's bedside brought waves of peace into the room. Content is Everything.