Steve Taylor: Rock 'n Role Model

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CCM Magazine
January 1988 Volume 10 Number 7
© 1988 CCM Publications, Inc.
Cover story, Pages 3, 14-17

By Chris Willman

It is an odd thing that the words hero and heroine have in their constant use in connection with literary fiction entirely lost their meaning. A hero now means merely a young man sufficiently decent and reliable to go through a few adventures without hanging himself or taking to drink."

--G. K. Chesterton
A Handful of Authors

"Welcome to the 'in for the money as an idol' show
When they ain't as big as life
When they ditch their second wife
Where's the boy to go?..."

--Steve Taylor, "Hero"

G.K. Chesterton probably had a point. It may be indeed be a peculiar time in which the most astonishingly virtuous folks we can think of to lend our deepest respect to are the slightly above-average Joes and Johnettes down the street who simply strive to live up to the values once taken for granted.

By Chesterton's old-fashioned standards, Steve Taylor would be no hero. And he's not exactly one by most modern folks' standards, either: not only is he this long-haired musician type, but he's this long-haired musician type who doesn't even have any gold records on the walls of his modest Southern California apartment, and if the gospel music industry that's he's chosen to be part of is as lucrative as some of its fan seem to think, well then wife Debbie must have her mink at the cleaners today as we visit their apartment.

His sense of humor isn't going to win him any presidential medals, that's for sure. Although Taylor's new album, I Predict 1990, contains far fewer yuks-per-revolution than any of his previous satirical salvos, it still has some pretty outrageous stuff--"I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good" (thank you, SCTV), "Since I Gave Up Hope, I Feel a Lot Better" (thank you Dylan and your subterranean homesick blues-rap-rock), and "Jung and the Restless" (no thank you for the psycho-analyses).

Nevertheless, one suspects that--had their life spans overlapped--Taylor and Chesterton might get on together just fine. Sit our singer/songwriter down for some casual chat about what it means to be a practicing Christian in 1987/8--which is a little like what it means to be a practicing American moralist in 1987, only with some hope in the long run--and he can get real riled up. Passionate, even. No jokes. Well, just a few here and there.

Taylor thinks that the title of his fourth and best studio record, I Predict 1990, does have something to do with the contents assembled therein, but he'd prefer not to try and spell it out for people, rather letting them come up with their own interpretations. (This is as close to cultural relativism as he comes.)

"The title came when I was flipping through the TV channels and, on one of the Christian stations, a guy was hawking a book called, I think, I Predict 1986, where he was saying what God had revealed to him about what was going to happen. And the idea struck me as being so absurd that I thought it was a worthily absurd title for a record.

"It's not a concept record, but when we were listening back to 'I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good,' my wife Debbie pointed out the line in the song where the preacher on the corner cries, 'The end doesn't justify the means any time' and said that if there's a theme to the record, that's it. That there's such a thing as right and wrong and that things can't be justified because they'll protect interests--be they American interests or personal interests--in the long run. That there are things higher than just expedience."

"I Blew Up the Clinic" starts the record off hilariously as the most outright example of Taylor's outraged outrageousness. It's also something of an anomaly on this, a far more sober record overall than he's made before. "It wasn't really a conscious effort to do less satire," he says. "I definitely didn't want to do any more 'Lifeboat'-type songs that were like comedy sketches set to music. But beyond that, I think it was just time to write some things that dug a little deeper and satire that had a sharper focus and more bite to it.

"The thing that worried me more was having songs that were so topical that they wouldn't be relevant in 10 years--and that's certainly been the case with a few of them in the past. If you write a song that's so specifically about something current that it doesn't really have a lot of other application..."

Taylor wrote nearly all the material for the album some time ago, then recorded demo tapes of the songs with his group, Some Band, and vowed to make a record with those tunes that stuck fairly close to the live-sounding spirit of those recordings.

His label at the time, Sparrow Records, liked most of the songs (except for some qualms about "Clinic") and was willing to stick up for any provocative content, as the company always had over the years--but, he recalls, was aghast upon learning that he really did want the finished album to sound like those demos.

"It never occurred to me that this record wouldn't be with Sparrow, because they not only have been real supportive but really tried a lot of different things. The video we did with 'Meltdown' was done when videos in Christian music were just about unheard of; the EP, I Want to Be a Clone, was probably the first time that had been tried in Christian music; I think they were the first ones to try a 12-inch single, with the Meltdown Remixes; and the live film was a costly risk. It was a lot of experimentation on their part, and they really put their neck out there for me on a lot of occasions."

So why not indulge Steve one more time with the time and money he needed? For one thing, says Taylor, "I was never a big money-maker for them, because even though we'd sell a lot of records, the stuff we were doing cost a lot." For another, "I think a turn toward more traditional Christian music happened with that company about the same time as this record started getting out of hand--everything else was moving on one direction, and I was moving in another--and so that combination of things I think maybe caused them to reconsider whether it was such a good idea for me to be on the label, and whether maybe the money could be put to better use," he theorizes with a chuckle.

"But they were really honorable about the whole thing. The could've torpedoed the whole thing and said, 'We own these masters, we'll take 'em and mix 'em ourselves and put it out.' But they had enough respect for me and what I was doing... I remember their words: 'We feel that this record is important and it needs to be out, and so if you can find someone else to put it out, you can go with our blessings.'

"And the thing of it is, Christian music sometimes gets a black eye because we all tend to judge its business ethics pretty harshly, but my experience with Sparrow has always been that they really are an ethical company. And I am proud to have been associated with them, because they again showed that they have deeper concerns than the bottom line, and that ministry and ethics play a big part of Christian music, and they took that responsibility seriously and certainly proved it in this and other situations... And I promise I get no kickback for saying all this stuff."

Enter Myrrh Records, which was willing to kick in the cash to keep alive the far-from-done project--a rare case in which everyone sticks by his honor and principles and convictions and there's sort of a happy ending in there anyway. Happy, if not yet profitable; the ultimate public reaction remains to be seen to a record that is quite a departure for Taylor, who--in being less wacky and raking on fewer in-joke, in-church targets and just generally not necessarily giving the people what they want--may be letting himself in for a commercial letdown. Making fun of an easy target like Bob Jones or Jimmy Swaggart was one thing, but do the faithful really want to hear challenges to the basic American way of life?

Oliver North is not Steve Taylor's hero.

"The catalyst (to the latter stages of the album) was the Iran/Contra hearings this past summer," he says. "There was one side of me that was fairly sympathetic to what North was saying. In fact, I remember very clearly, Deb was making dinner and I was sitting watching him on TV, and he was asked, 'Why did you lie to the Congress earlier?' And he said, 'Lying doesn't come easy to me, but I admit that I did it and it was because American interests had to be protected.' And I'm thinking, 'If lying doesn't come easy to you, you sure seem to have done a good job of it the last however many years.'

"That's when it really hit me, because I'm thinking, 'I'm pretty sympathetic to a lot of what this guy is saying, but listen to this.' And I realized that so many of us are so anxious to agree or disagree with someone and their philosophy that we stop thinking critically about what it is exactly that they're saying.

"Here's this guy saying, 'I lied, but it was to protect American interests.' And I started thinking how many times people lie to their husbands or wives because they're afraid that they might hurt 'em, or how many times we might lie to our children because we're trying to protect them... And how quickly that stuff turns into political assassinations and turns into wars because we're trying to protect national interests. What amazed me was so many Christians going right along with this--'Yeah, right on, we've gotta do that.'"

Taylor takes a breath and smiles wearily. "So now here I am spouting off--I certainly don't want to become any political spokesperson. And I'm not. But I just want to know why people tell lies and think that it's okay.

"That was the fire that really lit up a lot of this record, I think, because we can't do that; we can't believe that way. And Christians are the one group of people, it seems to me, that can say there is such a thing as right and wrong, and expediency isn't the final say-so. But in many situations, we've stopped doing that."

To Taylor, that innate sense of responsibility is a Christian's cross to bear. Which is why the popular notion that Christianity is a "crutch" for the weak particularly gets Taylor's gander--and why he ended the album with a rather mournful song, replete with orchestra and opera singer, that asks "Can't you see by now why the chosen are few/ It's harder to believe than not to."

"The whole idea of 'Harder to Believe Than Not To' is that Christianity demands a lot more of us than if we went through life thinking that we were the end-all and that there was nothing more. It makes very great demands on our ethics and our attitudes, so that it's not just a matter of what we do but why we do things. It should force us to be very thoughtful.

"The title comes from a quote of Flannery O'Connor, a writer in the Deep South in the '50s who died quite young. She wrote very moody and rather bizarre short stories and novels full of religious imagery and a lot of extreme characters. I was reading through her collected letters, and there was one instance where she was writing to another friend about her Christianity and about how all of her literary friends in New York--she was very popular with the critics--had a hard time believing that a writer of her caliber could be something as common and unfashionable as a follower of Jesus. She wrote about how they just don't understand the cost involved in Christianity and that 'it is much harder to believe than not to believe.'

"That quote stuck with me, and the song is written from the point of view that the cost involved in Christianity--the idea of taking up your cross every day and following Jesus--makes it hard to believe, because Christianity demands things from us that we don't naturally want to give."

"...I urge you to imitate me."

--the Apostle Paul, I Corinthians 4:16

", the foremost of sinners..."

--the Apostle Paul, I Timothy 1:16

"I don't want to set myself up as an example on the one hand, because you're asking for trouble. But on the other hand, you are an example whether you want to be or not. And nobody can get around that. And it wasn't necessarily something that we asked for when we started off in music, but it's just something that you realize--that you are an example, whether or not you chose to be when you started doing it.

"I mean, there's nothing wrong with saying, 'I don't want to be an example,' or certainly trying to demystify yourself, and I think that a lot of what Bono talks about is an attempt to not make himself into some kind of myth. Even with the small section of people who are into what I'm doing, that still can be a problem, and for me, one of the best ways to demystify yourself is to just make yourself as available as you can to the people that like you--whether it's doing the dreaded in-store appearance and hanging around until everybody's had a chance to talk to you, or whether it's hanging around after concerts until the guy who's sweeping up kicks you out, or whatever. Just to make sure that--to the degree that you can do it without going crazy and losing all your privacy--you are approachable and not trying to create this persona, not doing a Prince...

"And the other part of it is, just from working as a youth pastor, I know young people go through a stage where they have to have some role models, and so they pick 'em. And I try to put myself back in that time frame of life where I had to have these role models, and no matter how much my parents or my Sunday school teacher would tell me that 'Jesus is your role model,' I still had other ones. Since some people have chosen to put me in that position as one of their role models, I don't want to let those people down for the convenience of allowing myself to get lax with my personal life. So I take that part very seriously. And I could be setting myself up for a very big fall, but right now it seems like the thing to do...

"A lot of what keeps me in line is probably just the purely selfish reason of not wanting to read about it in some magazine or hear people whispering. And that's not necessarily a very good motivation, but if I'm honest, that's part of what keeps me in line--I just can't stand thinking of the humiliation that would happen..."

Taylor's savvy enough to know, though, that 99 percent of any real danger comes with the stuff that no one ever finds out about, the stuff on the inside, the stuff that maybe you don't realize about yourself. Like when you're trying to make ends justify means.

"This is something that I wrestled with when I was working as a youth pastor. The good end is that you do a retreat and a communion service and you get maybe half the youth group to come forward at the end of the retreat. But the problem is that the means of doing it may be a lot of manipulative talk and a lot of playing with emotions; and candles are burning instead of having the fluorescent lights on... It's real easy to manipulate in those situations--and particulary easy when you're a youth pastor and you've for a group of kids that look up to you and trust you.

"And I'm still working through this when I'm doing concerts--like, what is preening and manipulation in concert. Stuff sneaks in that I don't even realize is happening. It's constantly rechecking your motives and trying to hone things down, and hopefully you'll live by a Christian or Christlike outlook on things--and it's not easy."

Doesn't sound like it. It gets pretty tiring just thinking about it, as a matter of fact, and its toll is probably on some level or in some realm just as much of a psychic strain as the more obvious heroisms--like pulling children from a burning building, or publicly refusing the mark of the beast, or taking a picture of Sean Penn, or whatever--that Taylor and most of the rest of us haven't been put in the position of trying yet. The more cynical among us may still protest this whole outmoded and downright dangerous concept of role models, but shoot, if you need a temporary hero, say just for a week or so on a mental shift change, you could probably do worse than this guy.