Tony Cummings gives a rundown on the life and creative times of the late, great MICHAEL BEEN
The sudden death of singer, songwriter, bass player, guitarist and one-time leader of '80s rock hitmakers The Call, Michael Been, has brought a sudden wave of tributes to a musical figure who in the '80s propelled subjects of faith and redemption into the rock mainstream. The Call erupted onto the scene with such US chart hits as "The Walls Came Down" (1983), "I Still Believe" (1986) and "Let The Day Begin" (1987), the latter even making the lower reaches of the UK charts. The Call had lots of high profile fans like Bob Dylan, Bono and Peter Gabriel who hailed them "the future of American music." After a sojourn as a solo artist and composer of film music Michael took a major behind-the-scenes role with the band fronted by his son Robert Levon Been, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
Often referenced as their fourth member, Michael spent countless hours in the studio acting in many roles from mentor and guide, to helping the now internationally revered band capture their sound to tape. He acted as co-producer and engineer on numerous BRMC albums and was their loyal sound engineer for several years. And so it was that on 19th August, backstage after a BRMC appearance at the Pukkelpop festival in Hasselt, Belgium that the 60 year old Michael Been died of a heart attack.
Michael was born on 17th March 1950 in Oklahoma City. He attended the University of Illinois in Chicago. He became a member of the band Aorta at the time of their second album release 'Aorta 2' in 1970. Been then joined Lovecraft, the successor of the psychedelic rock band H P Lovecraft. He also played with former Moby Grape members Jerry Miller and Bob Mosley in the group Fine Wine and with Miller in Original Haze.
Michael headed to California in 1972. In Los Angeles he met drummer Scott Musick, a fellow Oklahoman who also shared an affection for the music of The Band. Scott and Michael played in a variety of groups in the Los Angeles area. He recorded as a session musician. Ironically considering Been's later disparaging remarks in interviews about contemporary Christian music, Michael played on Jamie Owens' 'Laughter In Your Soul' (1973) and 2nd Chapter Of Acts' 'Footnotes' (1974). In 1976 Been relocated to Santa Cruz and for the next three years worked on his songwriting while playing in several different bands with Scott. The band Motion Pictures was formed when Michael and Scott joined forces with two musicians from the Bay Area - guitarist Tom Ferrier and bassist Greg Freeman. "It all fell together so naturally. We played together so effortlessly and trusted each other," Michael said.
Ultimately, Motion Pictures became The Call. By January 1980, the band were sending around demo tapes to record companies, eventually signing with major label Mercury/Polygram. Their debut LP 'The Call' was recorded in England with Hugh Padgham producing and with Garth Hudson of The Band playing on five tracks. In a 1988 interview Been said that their album "probably came out of anger." 'The Call' didn't produce any hits but it did get a lot of critical acclaim and caught the attention of Peter Gabriel who liked the band so much that he asked them to open for his 1982-'83 Shock The Monkey tour of the USA and Europe. It was The Call's 1983 album 'Modern Romans' with the group taking over their own production which was to be the breakthrough project for the band. Delving into politics with an underlying theme of impending judgment 'Modern Romans' spawned the single "The Walls Came Down" which made 74 in the US charts and which was inspired, Been told interviewers, when he saw the idealism of the '60s give way to more materialistic and militaristic mindsets. Against a chorus echoing the biblical destruction of Jericho, Been sang, "I don't think there are any Russians/And there ain't no Yanks/Just corporate criminals/Playing with tanks."
The Call's next album was 1984's 'Scene Beyond Dreams' which Been referred to as the group's "metaphysical" album. It offered evidence of Michael's increasing tendency towards lyrical introspection. It was during this period that Jim Goodwin, originally form Oregon, joined the band on keyboards. Also at this time Greg Freeman left The Call and Michael switched from guitar to bass guitar.
The group worked tirelessly but were encountering what Been described as "legal bickering" between Mercury and their management company. However, once the deal was signed with Elektra Records, the band resumed playing and produced their most commercially successful album to date. Peter Gabriel, Simple Minds' Jim Kerr and former members of The Band Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson all guested on 'Reconciled' which was released in 1986.
'Reconciled' is for many the pinnacle of The Call and Michael Been's creative achievements. Almost all the songs were written in the first person, revealing what CCM magazine called "the story of a man who has unquestionably encountered a life-changing force and is struggling to come to grips with the alternative future available to him." This is particularly evident in the song "I Still Believe", a bold testimony to the perseverance of faith in the face of pain, grief, lies and wars. The latter song was a Christian radio hit for The Call in 1986 and then again in an equally powerful version by Russ Taff in 1989. A rendition of the song by Tim Cappello also appeared on the soundtrack to the motion picture The Lost Boys. Other noteworthy songs on 'Reconciled' included "Oklahoma" and "Everywhere I Go".
In 1987 Elektra released The Call's 'Into The Woods' which explored more of the artist's dark side, opening with "I Don't Wanna", a song that lists all the things he is reluctant to do ("tell you how I feel", "listen when you speak", etc). Two years later the group scored big with the album 'Let The Day Begin'. In his Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Christian Music author Mark Allan Powell wrote about the title track, "The title song, a jubilant blessing, became one of college radio's most played songs and ensured The Call a permanent spot on any roster of alternative rock stars (the song went only to number 51 on Billboard's pop chart but hit number one on their Album Rock chart). From its opening line ('Here's to the babies in a brand new world') to its titular chorus, the song shines with a hope previously absent in Been's angst-ridden lyrics. Certainly one of Christian rock's best songs, 'Let The Day Begin' remains the group's masterpiece and an almost quintessential statement of what Christian musicians have to offer the world: a wish or prayer for all humanity to know the 'blessinsg from above' and the joy of life renewed. Other songs on 'Let The Day Begin' also demonstrated Gospel-informed lessons for life. 'The truth can change a man in the wisdom of his days', Been sang. 'It whispers soft but constantly, 'You cannot live this way.'"
In 1980 Christian radio and magazines which had slowly begun to embrace Michael and The Call were stunned when he provided the music for and acted (as the Apostle John) in the high profile Martin Scorcese feature film The Last Temptation Of Christ. Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, the film was widely criticised with many public protests for its fanciful and, many felt, blasphemous portrayal of Christ's life.
The Call's next album 'Red Moon' (1990) eschewed the bombastic, stadium rock anthems that had brought success to 'Let The Day Begin', plumping for a rootsier, more laid back sound. T-Bone Burnett helped in the production of 'Red Moon' and contributing some BVs was U2's Bono. Talking about the album in an interview Been explained, "With 'Let The Day Begin', we wanted to make an album that sounded like a live concert. But with this album we wanted it to sound like we came and set up in your living room and played just for you." Predictably, the record scored bigger with critics than consumers. The song "What's Happened To You" recounted the pleasant surprise of an old friend beholding someone whose life has been changed for the better. "You Were There" offered testimony to the faithfulness of God and on the album's title track Been sang (apparently to God), "I'd follow you to the ends of the earth." Though not released until 2000, the album 'Live Under The Red Moon' offered a concert, taped 10 years before, during the group's tour to support the 'Red Moon' album.
Also in 1990 Been gave an interview to CCM magazine in which he admitted to having a lot of problems with evangelical Christianity. He thought that rather than "evangelizing" the world for Christ, Christians would do well to do what he sees as following the example of Jesus (and most people) and "enter into their pain" which is what a lot of The Call's decidedly empathetic songs were about. "Because I think beneath the pain is that elusive word that causes so much trouble - joy. That's the tough one. A lot of times, Christianity and other religions are out to sell happiness, and I don't think happiness amounts to a lot. It's fleeting, it comes and goes. Joy, the way I'm using the word, is something that would never come and go. It's much deeper. It's a state of being. Happiness is much more a mood. I think what Christians should do is go and enter into someone else's story. And then maybe on the other side of that, that joy, that real sense of peace, comes out of it.
"See, a lot of my lyrics - and I think a lot of my life - deal with this struggle, the anxiety caused by trying to be a good person in a broken world with a broken body, and failing miserably over and over again. But it's that difficulty, or perhaps even the impossibility, of being good, and then even the greater challenge that we're all living in this reality of grace and that's all we've got going for us at the end of the day, at the end of our life - that hopefully mercy will overcome justice and grace will overcome the law."
After the 'Red Moon' tour and a superb appearance at the Greenbelt '90s festival The Call took an extended break. In 1992 Been participated in composing and performing the music to Paul Schrader's film Light Sleeper. The film also featured two of his songs, "To Feel This Way" and "World On Fire".
The Call's inactivity led many to believe the group was permanently disbanded. Such a perspective increased when in 1994 Warners subsidiary Qwest, owned by Quincy Jones, released the Michael Been solo album 'On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown'. Unfortunately the album was not commercially successful despite containing moody, atmospheric numbers like "This Way" and "Luminous". The standout track is the album's opener which Mark Allan Powell described as "a joyous testimony to commitment". The verses of "Us" listed various things that Ben didn't care about: "phoney affection", the "pursuit of perfection", etc. The refrain proclaimed, "But I care about love/And I care about truth/And I care about trust/And I care about you/And I care about us." The album also included a rocking version of The Yardbirds' "For Your Love" which extolled a similar theme.
In 1997 Warner Brothers released 'The Best Of The Call' which as well as some old favourites unexpectedly contained different versions of "Us" and "To Feel This Way" than those heard on Been's solo album as well as a dynamic cover of Mark Heard's "We Know Too Much". If fans thought The Call's Best Of was their swansong, they were surprised and delighted when in 1998 Cadence/Fingerprint Records released 'To Heaven And Back'. Christian fanzine Phantom Tollbooth described the project as "thought provoking, faith inspiring and emotionally riveting." On the album "Think It Over" asked the big questions: "What do you live for?/What would you die for?/What do you stand for?/What are you made of?" Others ("Soaring Bird", "Love Is Everywhere") expressed the same hope that made 'Let The Day Begin' so appealing. It also reprised 'Become America' and the U2-like 'All You Hold On To', the two new tracks from the 'Best Of The Call' compilation.
After the release of the 10 year old 'Live Under The Red Moon' in 2000 The Call lapsed back into inactivity. But they were far from forgotten. Politician Al Gore used their "Let The Day Begin" as his campaign song in the 2000 US Presidential Election. In 2009, the Oklahoma Museum of History at the Oklahoma History Center hosted a temporary exhibit entitled Another Hot Oklahoma Night: A Rock & Roll Exhibit. This exhibit explored the rock and roll artists (including The Call), radio stations, personalities, venues and fans that have called Oklahoma home. Beyond the facts of each story, the exhibit showed how growing up in Oklahoma affected the music. The Call's song "Oklahoma" was a finalist for the state song.
Considering his major importance in the evolution of rock music Been was seldom interviewed. One of the best interviews he did grant was published in 1989 in Notified, the official fanzine of The Call. When asked how he would define rock'n'roll Michael responded, "At its best it's an art form that inspires, sometimes teaches, sometimes threatens. Its only crime is when it bores. I don't agree with what some people consider the orthodoxy of rock and roll - that it's for kids and addresses adolescent problems. I don't believe that now and I didn't believe that when I first heard it. I always preferred the blues guys like Muddy Waters and B B King, who could be 50 years old and still play you right under the table, to this precious youth thing that rock and roll was supposed to be. I go back and listen to records from the last 50 years and there's that human feeling. Music has the potential to be life altering. Most pop music today is totally submissive to the business. There's not one element of subversion in it. It's no longer a healing art. We live in an escapist, cynical culture right now. A lot of people like songs that completely take them out of reality and put them into some sort of fantasy, romance-type world. That doesn't speak to me about my life so I don't write songs like that. I think you really have to look at the power of the arts to at least help awaken people's personal experiences and put them in some kind of perspective. I know music has done that for me. I was powerfully moved by music. It helped me at some of the highest points. It affirms the reason that I'm alive."
How did Been feel about the seemingly cozy relationship between rock'n'roll and the corporate world? He answered, "I'm not against bands that use sponsorship by corporations. We recently did a college tour with major corporate sponsorship from AT&T. For me to take that stand against sponsorship I'd feel a bit self-righteous, feel like I'm being a naïve idealist. As for taking a song to sell shoes or beer, I think there's a big difference between the two. I'm okay with the shoe thing - shoes aren't harmful. But I'm not okay with the beer thing which is harmful because I feel alcohol is the most destructive drug in the world right now. But if I was going to take a stand like that - a moral, ethical stand - then I would have to follow it to its logical conclusion, which means I would spend my life in prison because I could not pay taxes that go toward the making of weapons. Many of your major corporations support righteous causes, but they also have investments in South Africa, the Philippines and Central America. You would have to seriously check into each corporation's involvement. You would have to be such a conscientious citizen. I think on many levels it's important as far as things you can do, from supporting the homeless in your area or recycling - not using so much plastic. All those things are wonderful. But like, for example, with Nike you would have to find out if they are supporting South Africa and then if they are, what do you do? I would probably back out. But I certainly don't think if I were to support a righteous cause it would mean I'm a righteous person. The trouble with a lot of liberal organizations is when they cross from concern to self-importance. I think you can support a righteous cause and be an absolute scum-bag. You can support an unrighteous cause and be a good person only if you are ignorant of the facts."
The interview reached its climax with Michael's thoughts on prayer. "For me perfect prayer is always an action, always constant and not necessarily verbal. It's a prayer for strength, for endurance. 'I want to give out. I want to give in. This is our crime, this is our sin.' That really is the essence of 'I Still Believe'. I had trouble with 'I Still Believe' after it was finished. Not with what is in the song, but with how it could be interpreted. 'Into The Woods' was an attempt to say that we're not out of the woods yet, the struggle continues. It isn't this theology of glory, where everything is just beautiful here in the garden and all we have to do is stick our heads in the sand and everything will be fine. 'Reconciled', 'Into The Woods' and 'Let The Day Begin' have become kind of a trilogy for me. None of the three should be isolated from the other two. And 'Into The Woods' and 'Reconciled' are two sides of the same coin."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.