Tony Cummings reports on blues rock veteran and father figure of US Christian music, GLENN KAISER
In the long and fascinating history of Christian music few musicians are more deserving of the description "father figure" than Glenn Kaiser. This Chicago-based renaissance man is a pastor, singer, guitarist and author of huge influence with numerous albums, books and DVDs. In 2008 Grrr Records, the record label offshoot of Jesus People USA (JPUSA), released a beautifully put together boxed compilation of The Resurrection Band - the hard rock pioneers co-founded by Kaiser who in the '70s and '80s were a seminal force in the development of Christian rock music. Cross Rhythms' Tony Cummings and Mike Rimmer recently spoke to Glenn and began by asking the veteran about the 'Music To Raise The Dead: Resurrection Band 1972-1998' compilation which, as well as showcasing 24 years of hugely powerful heavy rock, contained a video of a performance originally filmed in 1992 but never previously released. Why, Glenn was asked, did the film footage take so long to see the light of day?
Glenn responded, "That's quite a story. We hired an actual professional film crew the two nights it was filmed. The gig was at a really beautiful old Chicago ballroom on the west side of town. It filled up and people were wonderful and it was a wonderful audience, great response, and everything was just perfect on every level, EXCEPT there was a boom mic, and there was an operator on that boom. It is a very long, long thing that hangs right in the front centre of the stage. Either the operator couldn't hear the director, or the director, who was not one of our crew, was giving inadequate direction. Either way, in 80 per cent of the shots, no matter from which camera in this multi-camera shoot, you can see the boom sliding in and out of the shot. So you might have a shot of Wendi singing her heart out; and a really cool shot, great lighting, great angle and all that, and instead of seeing Stu right beside her, you see this shadow of a boom, completely blocking Stu out of the picture. Then you start to seeing the mic itself and a large portion of the boom in many of the shots. Nobody knew this had happened until after the entire weekend was finished and we were back home reviewing the footage. It was so disheartening the whole thing got shelved.
"Well then, the years passed, technology changed. We had these old video tapes on the large reels using obsolete equipment and we began to ask how much does it cost to go into viewing rooms here in Chicago and actually look at this stuff? Then, do we really want to JUST look at it, or should we upload it right away to a different format? We had a lot of questions and a lot of issues that we had to work through. Finally, I have to say, we got so much email and so much input from people around world saying, 'Look, we know you've got some footage and we're seeing stuff up on YouTube that's pretty lousy quality most of the time. Is there any way you could pull some of that stuff out?' So we decided to try and rescue the footage and by the grace of God, we had enough footage to edit a version together. So where we had horrible shots of this camera, where that crazy boom swung right into the picture, there were also other shots where a camera had got a good angle on somebody. So, although there are moments, if you really look critically at it, it ought to be Stu doing a solo, or me singing, instead you get a shot of Roy on the bass! We've got some brilliant people here on staff who just did a great job; Nate Cameron is just amazing and did a great job."
In the interview Mike Rimmer suggested that it was Stu Heiss who was the musical genius in the band. "Oh absolutely, without question," Glenn responded. "Many of the songs were co-written by Stu. Some people don't spend much time, even some of our over-the-top fans, don't always spend a lot of time looking at the credits. Often the lyrics in the songs and certainly much of the music in the songs, Stu would be involved in. A lot of people were involved - Roy in the early days, Jim, Wendi, John, Tom Cameron, our Executive Producer, who played harmonica in the early days of Rez and went on to be our Executive Director at Grrr Records. It was always a team effort."
Another winning feature of the 'Music To Raise The Dead' box set is the quality archive photos and superb design. Kaiser spoke about the packaging, "Jesus People USA is our home church where we live together in a Christian community. We have very gifted photographers, artists, layout people, design people. We have a t-shirt company. From one end to the other, the place is loaded with incredibly gifted artists, some older now and some quite young. Even in the early, early days of The Resurrection Band, travelling around the US, there were always people who were part of the road crew, who happened to also be very gifted photographers. We have multiple thousands of black and white and colour photos and a large staff, as time went on, where they had a dark room. We're just always amazed. I look around and think, man how could we be so blessed? There are boxes and boxes and boxes of photos and very few of them are staged. We've got some promo stuff, of course, but I would say 85-90 per cent of what we used in the box set had never been seen before. And you know, a good photographer can even make me look half passable," Glenn chuckled.
Looking back over The Resurrection Band's long recorded history Glenn explained how in 1978 the band moved to a record label but retained creative control almost by accident. "We ended up producing ourselves and even the first record deal with Star Song Records, they were a small independent custom label. Back when we released the first project, it was in the morning church announcements when we gave a notice that we needed prayer because we thought it was time for Rez to record a professional album. Well, a couple who had come to church for some years with us there, one of their grandparents had passed away and left them a large sum of money. They said, 'How much do you need?' I said,' I don't even know.' So we found out that we could do this album in two weeks by doing the overnight sessions, the cheap time, and by recording and producing it ourselves we could save a lot of money. We could do it for about $8,000 US. Well, they said, 'That's no problem. If you want to pay us back some day, fine. We don't care.' They literally signed a cheque for $8,000 and we didn't spend a dime over that and made 'Awaiting Your Reply'.
"I got a hold of everybody I knew and I knew most everybody by then throughout the US, Canada and UK, and every Christian label turned us down. Several secular labels said, 'Great stuff, could you change the lyrics?' The Christian labels said, 'It's too intense, too loud, from the music to the lyrics, it's too shocking for church folk and Christian book shops.' Then this little custom label in Texas at the time, called Star Song, said, 'We don't have any money; we were actually going to call you to do a swap. We have a studio and we were going to offer Rez a full recording in our studio if you will give us a full page in Cornerstone Magazine to promote our label because we would like to be better known throughout the country.' I said, 'Too late. We've already finished the mastering of the first album, are you interested in me sending it to you? If not, then - it's cool, if God wants us to press this thing up and sell it at concerts, that's up to God.' They said, 'Well, we don't have a dime, but we want to be open to the Lord, so send it.' I'm not going to get into all of what they said later but essentially, he said 'the staff came together and started crying and said they'd been praying for a band like this to show up for about a year and a half. So they signed us. The album was already mixed, that's why they didn't have any input. By the time the next album came around, God bless them, even they were a little upset. Because 'Rainbow's End' had a front fold and a back fold kind of like a cut out, and you slid one side of the sleeve in and you had sunshine and Jesus, and you turned it over, slid it in, and through the cutout you saw darkness and a storm and clouds and this ominous spooky thing. Today, of course, that would be perfectly gothic and everyone would love it, nobody would think twice about it. Back in 1979 though, they freaked out."
Glenn told a story of the incomprehension that once existed between the ultra conservative Christian music record labels and the heavy rock playing ex-hippies who were Rez. Reminisced Glenn, "The president of one of the major labels, probably THE biggest label that we were ever on and shall remain nameless, phoned me. He said, 'We want to send this bro up to you for him to listen to your songs as you are selecting them and as you are working in the studio and advise you on how to make them more commercial.' And we said, and I quote, 'There are five of us in the band, we have four or five other people on staff here from Grrr Records and even a couple from our pastoral team, who simply like to look at lyrics, think things through, they're all fans of the band and they are as happy as can be for us to stretch out and experiment and just go for it. We told you this when you signed us. The last thing we care about is mathematics and purely unit sales; if we don't have spiritual integrity about us, if we don't have artistic integrity about us, what's the point? So you can send him but he will be person number nine or 10 sitting in that control room with the rest of us. If he wants to throw his hat in with the rest of us, like myself, he can be refused on nine out of 10 ideas. If you are not willing to do that as a team, then you are wasting your time and your money'. He came up for a day, we had a great time, we fed him well, he went back the next day and basically said, 'They're not kidding, we can't force these guys to become more commercial, it's not going to happen, you might as well give up'. And they did."
When The Resurrection Band called it a day in 1998 the music making didn't stop for Glenn. The veteran formed a gritty blues rock three piece. 2008 saw the latest album 'Octane' released by The Glenn Kaiser Band following on from 2000's 'Winter Sun', 2001's 'Carolina Moon', 2003's 'Blacktop' and 2005's 'Live'. Glenn spoke about the GKB lineup, with obvious pride: "Roy Montroy is the bass player and a brilliant songwriter. He was, of course, the guitarist with The Resurrection Band. Our drummer Ed Bialach is a bit more of a rocker at heart. But both of these guys grew up in Michigan, near Detroit, and have soul and R&B and an element of blues in them. Now when I grew up, and for about three and a half years, I didn't listen to anything but African American music. I just found out two years ago that my best friend was Hawaiian! I thought he was African American all these years!" Glenn laughed. "I don't know why that never came up, but the bottom line is, we didn't have time to get into that stuff.
"I'm actually writing a pretty intense article that will be tough for some people to read. There are elements that I very much lived a minority life myself and still feel like I do on a lot of levels. I love music that has passion and heart and feeling and guts, and I lived in blues and R&B and soul music for about three and a half years. A number of years back some radio interviewer asked me, 'What brought you back to white rock music?' And I said, 'Jimi Hendrix'. Of course, he about fell off the chair laughing. It literally took a black man to bring me back into white music and that's why you always heard that blues thing in The Resurrection Band. After Rez quit, all of us were involved in so many other ministries and several still involved in music, especially Roy and myself, leading worship and doing a lot of blues sets and I'd done a lot of blues solo albums and tours and so on. I didn't just want to do the acoustic blues sets with the dobro and harmonica and stuff. I also wanted to do the electric blues side and that takes other people. I just said, 'Guys, I don't mind doing a hybrid of blues and rock but you know I'm going to lean to the blues. The reason I think it needs to be a three piece is, we'll probably crank it a bit more and that'll give a little of that rock vibe for the people who want that. So it's a tip of the hat to you both, but I've also got to tell you, if I had my way, it would be like Hound Dog Taylor and house rock. It would be so RAW, and it would be a whole lot smaller audience I think.' That's where my heart is, I'm into cigar-box guitar building these days. I play three string slide guitars. I'm doing all sorts of crazy stuff. Anyway, being able to get out with the guys in a three piece group is really good, we can jam, very spontaneous, very risky, very exciting and every now and then, we have a really stellar night."
Despite his continuing musical achievements there is something more important to Glenn than music, namely the radical discipleship modelled by Jesus People USA. He told Lane Walker, "We are constantly reaching out to the outer community, such as the hundred seniors that we take care of, who live within the top three floors of our building. We also have a 380-bed shelter three blocks away. In our apartments we have 18 families, mostly single moms with kids who came through our shelter programmes, and God has really worked through their lives. We work with inner-city kids through both our Boys Club and Girls Club. The bottom line is there is a lot of ministry to broken and messed up people. We don't live in a pretty or nice area, we live about four blocks from a very wealthy area, but our area is called uptown and it's poor. There are a couple of rival gangs that have no problem fighting it out for turf (I guess we are the biggest gang so we do get a little bit of respect from those guys). The politics in Chicago as you know is infamous, and it's the truth, we're on the radar because the city sends us people to help. The city has run out of resources and so we are in a very unique situation."
Glenn continued, "I was 18 years old when we started Jesus People USA in the Milwaukee area of Chicago in 1973. We were a little different than some of the Jesus People houses, ministries and movement because we made it a point to reach out to the traditional church from day one. We have always had in our community, friends, pastors and leaders within the Baptist, Lutheran, Anglican. . . go down the list. We didn't accept everyone's teaching or doctrine because we would constantly go back to the Scriptures. But we didn't throw them out of the door either, we kept asking them to come back, come and teach us, speak to us. First of all, not only do we have a high view of real fellowship, real community, we have a high view of the whole Church, the whole body of Christ and when somebody treats me like dirt, my job is to forgive 'em and love 'em not to dis' them or say you hurt my feelings and you got to be respecting and loving me. If we do that we are forgetting our own responsibility to express love and forgiveness and compassion for them. The issue for us from day one was you may throw us out, you may not invite us in, but we're still going to call you our brother or sister. One phrase from the Evangelical Covenant Church, which we as a community joined 14 years ago, was a quote from the Psalms, 'I am a friend of all those who fear thee'. And I am a friend of all those who reverence, really and truly respect, Jesus Christ as their Lord. Whereas a lot of people wanted to be independent of the 'traditional Church', we always wanted to have more commitment, we wanted to have more relationship, We really believe in the body of Christ and we really believe in accountability; it's not just a word, it's saved my neck. I'm on a pastoral team of nine, and all of us really and truly do love one another, pray with each other and confess our sins and minister to one another. We've really tried to live that example out in the whole of community and we have that relationship with the Covenant denomination."
Glenn has a far from romantic view of living in community. He admitted, "When you're living close together day in and day out, not just seeing each other simply one hour a week, the iron is going to sharpen the iron, there's going to be some friction, some sparks, there's going to be some shaking, some unsettling moments and you can't just run and go home 'cause you are home! Our 'live in' membership within our community is huge (about 325 adults and 200 children) and we are constantly fellowshipping, working together, praying together or asking forgiveness and help from one another. When it comes to community, and I want to be clear about this, I don't think God has called everyone to live like Jesus People USA, in the inner-city like we do in Chicago. God has not called everyone to do the exact same stuff in the exact same way, ie, methodology, in the body of Christ. But God has called all of us to be more interactive than independent and there are an awful lot of folks who just don't get along with other people and aren't willing to pay the price. The truth is if we can't forgive each other and love each other as Christians, in the local church, if we find ourselves dissatisfied and always angry and jumping from church to church, a bit like a flea from dog to dog, you know, wherever you go, there you are! And if I keep feeling disenfranchised maybe the problem is with me? So if you can't love your brother in Christ, whom you might truly disagree with, if you won't forgive the person who has truly and legitimately hurt you, you're going to have a hard time walking with unbelievers, who act like. . . unbelievers!"
On his website Glenn tells how he looks upon King David as the "original bluesman". Explained Kaiser to Mark Moring, "Somebody asked me in an interview, 'Who's your favourite musician?' I said, 'David.' He went, 'No, who's your favourite BLUES musician?' I said, 'David. Book of Psalms, man.' Look at David's life. He writes about Nathan the prophet confronting him about being a murderer. And you want to talk about a lust problem? Here's a guy with a harem full of women, sees one more, and sets up her husband to die so that he can have Bathsheba. And here, Nathan the prophet gets in his face. And David repents, God bless him. He humbles himself and repents and writes a song about it. And that's in the hymnbook of Israel. When they're singing and worshiping, when the Levites and the people are worshiping before a holy God, they are singing those lyrics about those events. Come on. You want to talk about worship revival and depth in the Christian Church and the worship movement? Give me a break. Hey, I haven't come to that level of humility and confessional lyricism and songwriting yet, but I'm on my way. But there just aren't that many people who are really breaking down and writing those sorts of lyrics. And we're not going to sing many of those sorts of songs in church because, 'Hey man, I came here to have fun and to feel good about myself.'"
Glenn believes that the whole of life can be an act of worship. The musician who has made such worship orientated albums as 1993's 'All My Days' and 1997's 'Throw Down Your Crowns' said, "I'm afraid we've almost divorced worship from loving our neighbour as our self. The first and most important commandment is, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.' And we go, 'Oh, stop right there. That's worship.' Yeah, but keep reading. Jesus isn't finished yet. And the second most important commandment is this: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.'" And I think I read somewhere that we should weep with those who weep. But I think most of the Christian Church is focused on rejoicing with those who rejoice. It's hard work. It can be depressing if your focus is constantly on the pain and the suffering and the sin and the poor and the homeless and the marginalized, the racism that goes down in this world and even in the churches. I'm not a macabre person. But the bottom line is that worship of God cannot be disconnected with loving your neighbour as yourself. Yet for the last eight or 10 years, when Christians are talking about worship, we're really talking about the songs. That's so one-dimensional. Worship really is lifestyle, and it includes suffering alongside of my neighbour. Worship includes not just bringing my offering to the temple, but for the one who has two coats, to give one to him who has none. And I think that there is a divorce among many Christians when it comes to loving their neighbour, particularly their poor or their marginalized or their not-so-groovy-never-drive-a-Lexus neighbour. That kind of attitude. These folks think they're worshiping God? Because they're singing "the top 10" worship hits on Sunday morning? Excuse me. I'm hearing the prophet Amos hollering in my head."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.