Heaven and Heart: The Tense Past of Michael Been

by Thomas Conner

08/16/2011

Methodist church basement, northwest Oklahoma City, 1987. Yes, there is wood paneling. Yes, the carpet is shag, a rich cobalt blue. Yes, a threadbare pool table, a stereo with illuminated VU meters, two speaker cabinets taller than I am at age 16. About half a dozen of us have shown up this evening. I attend church youth group for two reasons. One, that look on my parents’ face when I say, “I’m going to church”—I can dash out with that line and come home late. Two, Sondra might be there. I’ve been enduring youth group since I got my learner’s permit because sometimes I get to drive her home. Tonight she’s here and wearing that shimmery, fuzzy, opal-colored sweater, and tonight the group is going to talk about God and pop music, the spirit and the flesh, love and lust—and I’m supposed to figure out which is which.

The discussion topic is titled “With or Without Who?” and centers on U2’s new single (“With or Without You”). As in, who can’t Bono live with or with- out? Is this a God thing or a woman thing? We talk about other songs, other bands, and inevitably we get to the Call. That band’s singer, Michael Been, is from Oklahoma City, too, and I suspect he’s seen his share of church base- ments and shimmery sweaters. We listen to “Everywhere I Go,” from the Call’s “Reconciled” LP the previous year, and it’s a step beyond Bono’s conflation of religious yearning and gut-wrenching desire. Everywhere Been goes, he thinks of _____, looks for _____, needs _____. Years after Sting stalked his hu- man prey in “Every Breath You Take,” Been is either a monk considering his maker or, given the increasing urgency of his pleas (“I neeeeed you!”), utterly infatuated. He doesn’t sing like a man who gets filed next to Bill Gaither and Michael W. Smith down at Sound Warehouse. He starts barking and yelping and moaning, and Sondra’s doing that thing where she tucks her hands inside the sleeves of that sweater and then leans back and stretches. “Smiles, eyes, pow- ers to confound me,” Been sings, low, patiently. Then his voice thins, gets tighter, on the verge of something: “I lose my nerve / Your voice, it echoes all around me.” God’s voice, or her voice? I’m hedging, praying to both. I’m 16, and I just can’t see the freakin’ difference.

Those were heady days for youth pastors across America. Pop music afforded them new ways to connect with the kids. A band of session geeks called Mr. Mister scored a No. 1 hit with a blatant hymn titled in biblical Greek, “Kyrie.” Amy Grant made a pop record with synthesizers and wore leopard prints on the cover. By the time U2 released “The Joshua Tree,” bearing songs such as “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “In God’s Country,” our youth group topic was inevitable. God had once again taken an interest in the devil’s music.

This was the environment in which the Call thrived. But the Call — even the band name could be a religious allusion, or not — was just the peak of a lengthy career for Been (pronounced like the legume, not the past participle), one in which a deeply personal tug-of-war between spirit and flesh had played out within a large, tuneful catalog of songs. Back and forth he went, from Christian bands with earthy sounds to roots-rock bands with spiritual songs — always swinging widely between heaven and heart. But on Aug. 19, 2010, the latter lost the battle. Been, 60, was backstage at the Pukkelpop music festival in Belgium — he wasn’t on the bill, his son was — where he collapsed of an apparent heart attack.

It’s 1997, and, after being AWOL most of the decade, the Call has released a greatest-hits compilation ahead of a new album, “To Heaven and Back.” For promotion, Been films a chat with a “star” interviewer, Kevin Max. The choice is meant to be ironic; Max is the lead voice in a trio called dc Talk, then at the vanguard of the mid-’90s resurgence of Christian pop music.

By way of asking a question, Max makes a statement about the Call: “That’s what people want to hear from the Call. They want to hear the fight between the principalities of powers.”

Been agrees. “I think we separate life too much from spiritual,” he says. “I don’t know what it is. I was talking with a friend of mine just last night. One of my favorite authors is a guy by the name of Frederick Buechner, and Buechner wrote about the trouble with, like, church. The trouble with church is we all go in and sit quietly — it’s totally unlike the other seven days of the week and the rest of the pretty much other 23 hours of Sunday. It’s this one hour when we have to be in and be so reserved, and it’s tense and it’s quiet and every

one gets real uptight if the kids are making noise. He was saying this kind of thing should be done in the midst of children running around playing and having fun. We separate this flesh and blood, nuts and bolts, children laugh- ing, screaming, Grandpa over there snoring — all of that is supposed to be part and parcel of life.”

He follows with a story about seeing Martin Scorsese’s 1973 film “Mean Streets,” which opens with Charlie (Harvey Keitel) in a Catholic church, hold- ing his finger over one of the candle flames. He’s practicing, building up a pain threshold. When Charlie was a boy, he watched a priest do this for a long, long time. Charlie’s opening lines to the film, in voiceover: “The pain of hell has two kinds. The kind you can touch with your hand, and the kind you can feel in your heart, your soul. The spiritual kind. And you know, the worst of the two is the spiritual.”

Immediately, the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” kicks in.

“I thought, God, it’s spiritual, and then, ‘Be My Baby,’ ” Been says. “Rock ’n’ roll and the spiritual — all this stuff became one thing to me. Finally my life really turned into this kind of struggle between spiritual and the flesh, between ‘Be My Baby’ and that holy candle.”

Years earlier, 1988, Been was actually on one of Scorsese’s sets. I didn’t even recognize him as the Apostle John when I first saw Scorsese’s adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ, after elbowing my way through protesters outside a Memphis multiplex. Here’s a different story of the life of Jesus, not as an incor- ruptible deity among men, but a divine being in a human body — and thus subject to the same doubts and desires inherent to the form. His temptations are real. He finds himself, like all of us, struggling to do God’s will.

“When the old authors first wrote the Bible, they had this guy Jesus,” Been told the Los Angeles Times that year. “He’s a man, everybody knew he was a man, everybody knew where he was born, they knew he died, they knew he had followers, he had a reputation as being demonic and revolutionary and every other word at the time that they called heretic. And then these guys who wrote the New Testament had this massive job of proving to everybody that this man was God. So the emphasis of what they did was on [the man’s] God qualities, divine qualities — which are all accurate, all true, to me. … But 2000 years later, the job’s reversed. You have to remember he was a man, because if he wasn’t a man and didn’t go through everything we went through, it wouldn’t mean anything to me.

“I remember at one point in my particular life, somebody saying to me if I was in a lot of pain or struggling or doubting, questioning my life, in that kind of turmoil, and somebody would say, ‘Well, Jesus knows what you’re going through,’ I would’ve said, ‘No way does he know what I’m going through. Not if he’s God. Not if at any time he can call upon his God side and rise above the problem. He wouldn’t really know it. If he did know it, it would be patronizing, condescending.”

Been was raised in Oklahoma City but moved to Chicago when he was 12. He saw Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed, and he toyed with comedy (even beating his pal John Belushi in a state comedy competition). His swings between heaven and heart began there: He formed a band called the Saints, then joined two bands already in progress: Aorta and Lovecraft.

Been first helped turn Aorta from a middling psychedelic band, to a country-rock band with Christian overtones on 1970’s “Aorta 2.” Been loved Dylan, Van Morrison, especially the Band (whose members Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson eventually recorded with the Call). Whenever Been picked up an acoustic guitar, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” wasn’t far behind.

“We got in to see the Band [after a Chicago concert],” said Chicago-based jazz guitarist James Vincent in a recent conversation. Back then, he was named Jim Donlinger and was Been’s songwriting partner in Aorta and Lovecraft. “For him it was like meeting the Beatles. That’s where it was for him, that pop-oriented, maybe slightly country music with big ideas in it, sometimes spiritual, sometimes very earthbound. That’s what changed Aorta and really made Lovecraft. You can hear the beginnings of Michael’s thoughts there, anyway. There was always some religious component to his songs, but not in a way you could call gospel, you know? … We weren’t writing gooey love songs, either of us. We were trying to make a statement. Some of the things we wrote about were almost — we were kind of fascinated by death, I guess. Don’t know what that was all about. One song we wrote together was about somebody who had a consciousness after death. It was that person’s perspective of what the experience was like. I can’t remember what it was called. It was serious, though. Michael was serious. He wanted to understand it. He wanted to understand it all.”

The rest of the ’70s find Been sporting a sculpted mullet and bouncing around different bands, looking for the right middle ground between the spiritual and secular. At first, he fell in with full-fledged Christian bands, playing bass on an album called “Laughter in Your Soul” and with the family gospel band 2nd Chapter of Acts. His next two bands were named for more sensual pursuits: Fine Wine (to which Been contributed the songs “Heaven Knows” and “I Wonder If It’s All Worth It?”), and the Original Haze, a name shared by a particularly potent strain of marijuana.

By the time Been and Musick formed the Call, the New Wave was beginning to wash ashore a propulsive strain of rock ’n’ roll that welcomed Been’s instrument, the bass. The connective tissue between the black-and-white beat and the melody’s Technicolor, the bass flourished in the romantic corners of New Wave music, driving both sides and sometimes blurring the distinctions entirely (New Order, Japan, the beginnings of Duran Duran, the end of Roxy Music). Been’s bass, next to the drums of Scott Musick, a fellow Oklahoman who’d moved to San Francisco with Been and been behind the kit in the Origi- nal Haze, drove much of the Call’s music.

New Wave also was populated by many like-minded idealists—Bono in U2, Mike Peters in the Alarm, Mike Scott in the Waterboys, Jim Kerr in Simple Minds — inspired by the righteousness of punk but also the arms-wide scope of ’70s arena rock. Here, Been’s illusions of grandeur had plenty of room to roam, between heaven and earth, and a driving style to support and enhance the urgency of their messages.

The band had its moment in the sun. The Call made music that was shown on MTV and played in church basements. It wasn’t wholly religious, and it wasn’t completely secular. By the band’s second album, “Modern Romans” in 1983, they opened with “The Walls Came Down,” a superb rock hymn about Jericho that never mentions Jericho. Instead, it turns the city back into a fable, a story, a symbol, and like so many Call songs, it turns into an allegory of modern war. “I don’t think there are any Russians / and there ain’t no Yanks,” Been sings, drawing the song to a conclusion by pointing out and trying to knock down a contemporary wall, “Just corporate criminals / playing with tanks.

A ying-yang dichotomy pervades the Call’s catalog, often in clever ways. Songs include “Day or Night,” “Flesh and Steel,” “Back From the Front,” “With or Without Reason.” He even seems to cop to it: “I’ve been tortured by this riddle / and I don’t know how to stop” (“Too Many Tears”). In “The Morning,” he sings exuberantly of the spiritual (right?) things he does want: “I wanna live, I wanna breathe, I wanna love hard / wanna give my life to you.”

Also in that song, one of his best, he again admits: “I’m divided / but I’ve decided / it’s my nature.

In a 1997 interview, I asked Been whether the Call was a Christian band.

“Certainly not in the definition of it today, where there’s an entire genre of Christian rock,”’ he said. “We’re not part of that. This just had much more to do with the way I was raised and the way I learned how to write and express myself. I was born and raised there in the Bible belt — it’s classic Southern guilt. Those religious ideas got a hold of me as a kid, and none of it struck me as spiritual. It was all rules and threat and punishment and fear. You hang onto those things later in life, and they come out. I’m no peddler of Christianity. It’s just the language I use.”

The issue was hotly debated in some Christian circles, especially as the religious pop music market became a bigger commercial concern. A September 1990 article in Christian Century magazine, “The Call’s Cry in the Wilderness” by Brent Short, analyzed the band with scholarly detail.

“Unlike much of ‘contemporary Christian music,’ The Call uses no religious rhetoric and attempts no proselytizing,” Short wrote. “Their style is at once driving, confrontational, rhythm-oriented, vulnerable and self-deprecating. … Their records show not a trace of the self-righteous theologizing and Bible- quoting that ruins so much ‘Christian music.’”

I wrote about pop music for the Tulsa newspaper throughout the ’90s, as the ghetto of “Christian rock” was overcrowding. I interviewed a lot of Christian rock acts — dc Talk, Third Day, Audio Adrenaline, Jars of Clay. Every one of them told me how much they hated (er, struggled with) the “Christian” pigeonhole. These were Been’s children, young songwriters living their Christian faith not in a bubble but in the world. They were writing songs that weren’t merely modern-language transcriptions of psalms, and they couldn’t understand why their occasionally religious lyrical content damned them to a distant corner of the record shop.

“The odd person will come out to one of our shows and realize that we’re playing the devil’s music because it’s too loud. What I want to know is, exactly what decibel level does the devil come in at?” Peter Furler, singer for the News- boys, told me in 1996. “We’re not trying to play to please the mainstream or to try and please the Christian market because either way you lose. We try to stay focused and do what we do best, making sure we feel our own convictions that we’re doing the right thing. … But I don’t want us to be just a Christian version of Pearl Jam.”

“I think the best thing you can say about a song — whatever experience I had writing it — [is that] all the feelings are so universal,” Been said. “Experiences everyone goes through, just different circumstances, different names, but it’s all similar. If you can write a song [to which] someone can go, ‘I relate that to this part of my life’ — then you’ve really done it. That’s the best you can do. The most you can expect is to spark somebody’s life that they’ve got going.”

As he sang in “With or Without Reason” (with or without who?):

How you gonna tell your story
Are you gonna tell it true?
Either with or without reason
Love has paid the price for you.

Beer and barbecue joint, Tulsa’s 18th and Boston district, 1997. Yes, there is Budweiser neon. Yes, there are two sauces on each table in pointy-tipped bottles. No, it’s not the kind of venue the Call expected to be playing the year they released a greatest-hits collection. But the place is packed, shoulder to pork shoulder.

Been walks in, and suddenly I’m sorry I’ve come. I’m ashamed of my reasons. He’s heavy and moving slowly. There’s more of him for gravity to love. He sets up a stool behind his microphone — God, he’s going to sing sitting down, a big broken body, like B.B. King. It’s going to be the kind of night where he just sits still, the kind of night where he just won’t move. He’s squinty and blotchy and every square inch the aging, also-ran has-Been.

But spirit conquers all. The crowd claps and the band lumbers into its set, the usual mix of new songs and greatest hits, and Been’s voice purrs and growls. He sits on the stool and creeps toward its edge. He slips into “Oklahoma,” his most potent lyrical blend of God the father and Mother Nature, and his low voice rumbles like the approaching storm: “We were shakin’ in our beds that night…” His legs twitch, his feet start scuffing the floor. “There was movement in our hearts that day…” He wants off that stool.

Steamrolling into the catalog, Been finds himself once again restating the de- termination of his belief. He begins: “I’ve been in a cave for 40 days…” He wants to give out, he wants to give in. He sings with closed eyes, he chews his lips between lines. Drink orders are being shouted at the bar. He still believes, through the lies, the storms, the cries, the wars, he still believes. Someone’s brought their kids, and one of them, a little girl, twirls around in front of Been, at his feet. Tossed on the waves, through the darkness, despite the grave, he still believes. Through cold, heat, rain, tears, crowds and cheers — and someone actually cheers. Others follow, mid-song, whoops and hollers. The electricity is crackling now, the voltage ready to spark.

Been drives toward the end of another laundry list of things that will not deter him, and finally cries, “Oh, I still believe!’ — and he’s off the stool like a shot, like it exploded. Red-faced, sweating, he grabs the microphone and spits his sermon. “I’ll march this road / I’ll climb this hill / upon my knees if I have to.” More cheers, noise, cacophony, everything church is not supposed to be. “I’ll take my place / up on this stage / I’ll wait till the end of time / for you like everybody else.”