"...As You Squint With the Light Of Truth In Your Eyes"

Cross Rhythms
February/March 1994, Volume 2, Issue 19
© 1994 Cornerstone House
Pages 14-16

Whether you call him a satirist, prophet, evangelical iconoclast or just a cutting-edge rocker, few can ignore STEVE TAYLOR. Now he's back and firing on all cylinders report Tony Cummings and Jan Willem Vink.

Five years is a long time. For it's been that long since Steve Taylor, the man Newsweek called "evangelical rock's court jester", made the surprise announcement during a Southern California concert that he was "retiring" as a solo artist. It was abrupt. He left behind a Christian music subculture which was in part pained to see him go. But only in part. For though Steve Taylor drew to his quixotic creative persona a large swell of supporters who loved his mercurial wit and madcap indulgencies in a suffocating church culture that had lost the health-giving capacity to laugh and particularly laugh at itself, Steve Taylor also made a significant number of church-going enemies. In a sense it was almost inevitable. Such was his courageous commitment to sing the truth in love plus his intentionally OTT stage performances that Steve Taylor was always a prime candidate to be accused or misunderstood. There was no conspiracy by the conservative, evangelical power brokers, or no conspiracy that he'd admit to, to close Steve Taylor down. But there were undoubtedly sighs of relief from religious groups as diverse as Dove Awards organizers and Deep South fundamentalists when the clown prince prophet finally stopped rocking the boat. But now, gloriously and unexpectedly, Steve Taylor is back and again the boat is rocking. Steve's new album Squint is a creative tour-de-force and with the marketing muscle of Warner Brothers to shove it under the noses of a new generation weaned on indie and grunge, Steve seems set to again provoke the conscience and fire the imagination of the church while reminding every listener dancing to today's rock music that mosh pits, cash dispensers and a dozen more topics can all be looked at through the unblinking eye of truth.

Steve Taylor was born to Christian parents in America's mid west. Steve's parents encouraged their son to look beyond easy answer believism and cultural conformity and by his teens Steve was reading and thinking hard, had developed a taste for European culture--particularly rock music--and discovering he could sing. Steve did a stint with the Continentals, the middle of the road youth choir organized by Cam Floria. In 1983 the singer/songwriter burst onto the Christian music scene with a low budget 6- song EP I Want To Be a Clone. With a tough, raw sound produced in all its garage-rock swagger by Jonathan David Brown, the songs on I Want To Be a Clone were a revelation: rapid-syllable tirade against theological liberalism bending to accommodate the world ("Whatever Happened To Sin"); fickle Christians endlessly jumping from church to church ("Steeplechase") and the title track, a tongue-in-cheek satire of the tendency for the church to put evangelical cultural conformity in the place of true life set free by Christ. Such topics were seldom heard from America's pulpits let alone from a zany, rock music madcap using as much satire as diatribe. The tiny-budget EP got radio play, rave reviews and an invitation to come and play Europe. Clone caught the attention of wide swathes of believers from young Christians anxious to cock an iconoclastic snoot at their elders to CCM buffs hungry for songs which went beyond 'Jesus loves you' sloganeering and engaged the brain as well as the heart. The record was no fluke. Steve's stage performance at Greenbelt was everything Buzz readers had hoped for and more--all 100 mph energy and enough sheer charisma to make Billboard correspondent Cliff White write, "Taylor has an edge and vitality that is rare for any act" while the same reviewer in Buzz wrote that "he writes like he looks, like he moves, like he thinks. With personal conviction. He's a star if he wants to be."

Stardom, at least within the limited framework of the CCM scene, was soon Steve's. Sparrow Records quickly made available to their bright new hope a budget sufficient to make a blistering rock statement, Meltdown. Here was a consummate body of work, socking vibrant rock arrangements and lyrics that returned to old themes--lives blighted by sin and the inbred guilt trips of evangelical enculturalization ("Sin For A Season" and "Guilty By Association") but now took in a swathe of new topics like the ghastly specter of racism in Deep South Bible Colleges ("We Don't Need No Colour Code") and euthanasia in America's hospitals ("Baby Doe"). Meltdown was a worldwide hit throughout the burgeoning Christian rock scene and when the June 1984 bible of the Christian music establishment Contemporary Christian Music (now known as CCM) put Steve on its cover with the bi-line 'On Fire Satire' there was an unstoppable buzz about the brash young rock `n' roll rebel. Meltdown went Top 10 in both the British and American Christian music charts and his energized stage performances with his backing team Some Band were audience-wrecking triumphs (the only hiccup being when he broke his ankle during the '84 Cornerstone Festival--but even then he played a gig in Cleveland two days later from a motorized wheelchair!). A year later with the recording budget cranked up several more notches Steve delivered another blistering album. On The Fritz had lost none of its edge. Though the joke of a monologue delivered in a squeaky 'old school marm' voice (the legendary Mrs. Aryan) on "Lifeboat" palled after a few plays, Steve's ability to expose cant and hypocrisy be it in the Church ("It's A Personal Thing") or the world of rock ("You've Been Bought") was unerring. There were also glimpses of a more personal, more Kingdom-directed style in fine songs like "To Forgive" and "I Just Wanna Know". Steve's live appearances with Some Band were now at their most focused with every ducking and diving stage move and every slamming riff from his rock `n' roll compatriots ringing the last drop of sweaty delirium from his huge Christian music following. His top-of-the-bill Greenbelt appearance in 1985 was caught on tape and apart from an ill-judged duet with Sheila Walsh showed, on its release as Limelight, Steve to be a consummate rock entertainer easily able to grip, pummel and energize a 25,000 plus audience.

But the singer/songwriter's intuitive ability to read the hearts and minds of militant evangelicalism began to falter. I Predict 1990, released in 1987, had its moments, like the dark, brooding magnificence of "Jim Morrison's Grave", but some of his songs and metaphors now left even his enthusiasts scratching their heads with incomprehension while another satirical exposé of OTT church fundamentalism ("I Blew Up The Clinic Real Good") was even used by American critics to put forward the preposterous suggestion that Taylor was encouraging Christians to blow up abortion clinics!

In Europe things began to falter as well. Two years before a tour with Sheila Walsh, at the height of her Rock Gospel Show popularity, had established Steve in the hearts of the Christian music audience. Now the I Predict 1990 tour undid much of the good work. Musically, his work was getting heavier and darker with great walls of guitar feedback drowning many of his lyrics while the grandiose satire of his expensive stage sets teetered perilously close to rock prima dona indulgence. Criticism and incomprehension began to come at Steve from all sides. When he visited Greenbelt in 1988 not to perform but to direct a film of the Festival he, and his wife, artist Debbie, were clearly bemused by the incomprehension and even hostility he was no encountering. Steve struggled to find a project or a direction big enough to contain his consummate talent. Momentarily re- locating to London, he and long-time friend Lynn Nichols produced an album for Phil And John, Don't Look Now It's The Hallelujah Brothers but the retro, back-to-the-60s sound of the album was not a success either in the market place or with the duo themselves.

Steve and Debbie returned to the States and settled in Nashville. There he began again, not in the CCM pond he knew but in the turbulent ocean of the rock music mainstream. Steve, keyboard maestro Lynn Nichols and grunge- guitarist supreme Dave Perkins had all received a mauling in the past by a safe and insensitive CCM industry. So when the three decided to form a new rock band, Chagall Guevara, it was hardly surprising that they didn't go knocking on the door of a Word or Sparrow. Instead they chose the hard road. Chagall Guevara toughed it out in bars and clubs wherever an unknown band could get a gig. When I saw them play in an echoing concrete barn in 1990, they offered an immensely loud, grungy wall of found. Steve, hair now long and growing daily, sung furiously as Perkins' and Nichols' guitars shrieked and the rhythms section threatened ear drums. Steve still had the dancing perpetual-motion-machine stagecraft to hypnotize the 150 or so in the audience. But the lyrics were inaudible.

With painstaking persistence Chagall Guevara toughed it out in clubland and landed a recording contract with MCA. But the eponymous album was a relatively inaccessible affair even by the obtuse conventions of grunge rock. The noise and controlled anarchy still swamped Steve's lyrics which like I Predict 1990 were not always entirely comprehensible anyway. In America its release went unnoticed in the mainstream while in Christendom it was noted only by the Christian underground fanzines and the small clutch of radio programs playing alternative indie music ("Murder In The Big House" created a bit of a stir). Steve's British support base tried hard--promotion at Greenbelt and heavy radio play by Simon Mayo--but Chagall Guevara was in truth not the grunge classic its supporters claimed. By 1992 the band was on hold. Steve Taylor and Lynn Nichols produced an immensely successful album for the Newsboys. On completion of that Steve began talking ot Warner Brothers. The entertainment conglomerate had gained a successful foothold in the CCM market place with their Warner Alliance offshoot but had, surprisingly, been slow to sign any rock act. That changed with the announcement that Steve Taylor had signed to Warner Alliance. The Christian music scene response to the release of Squint has so far been encouraging for Taylor and Warners. The Bookstore Journal wrote "Taylor is back with some of the freshest alternative music ever to hit the CCM scene. With Squint he reclaims his unique place in Christian music. Welcome back, Steve."

Cross Rhythms asked Steve a batch of questions just before he commenced a series of US concerts to promote Squint.

Your announcement to retire as a solo artist came as a big surprise. You say you were feeling the pressure that to keep selling a lot of record you needed to conform more. Do you think that five years later things have changed? What were your main motives to go solo again?

"You know that Churchill quote about democracy being the worst form of government except all the other ones that have been tried? That's how I feel about the Christian music industry. Every artist I know complains about it, but no one has come up with a better alternative. I haven't kept in touch enough to know if things now are vastly different, but I know at least that I was allowed to make the album I wanted to make.

"At the time I decided to retire, it seemed like the Christian music industry was spending most of its energies reassuring the public that it was still Christian--and in light of the televangelist scandals of the time, they probably had good reason. Unfortunately, many Christian artists were making albums that did the same thing and little else--'Here's 10 songs that prove I'm still a Christian.' I wasn't interested in making those kind of albums, and it just seemed like a good time to try something else.

"My main motivation in doing another solo album was simply this: I had songs I wanted to record that communicate a specifically Christian faith and world view. There aren't at this moment (at least in America) a lot of alternatives beyond the gospel music labels, and I should add that I like working with fellow believers, especially those with whom I share a common vision."

Does this mean Chagall Guevara has come to an end? How do you look back on laying with them?

"I'm not sure that the band is dead, but at this point it's at least in cold storage. I still don't have a clear perspective--I really like the album we made. Our month-long UK tour with Squeeze, one of my favorite bands, was certainly a highlight. I know we were very good live, perhaps one of the best bands around, which made it doubly frustrating that during our last year we barely played any live shows at all.

"In retrospect, I'm not sure that everyone in the band was up to the challenge once the album was finished. I think there was a naiveté on the part of some members in thinking that the record company makes it all happen, which is why we had heated disagreements on what to do when the album was released. The touring aspect was especially thorny--I still can't believe that we never played live on the European continent.

"Overall, it was a good experience artistically, particularly the collaborative aspects, and we all still get along well. Of course, Mike and Wade played drums and bass on my album, and will hopefully be joining me on tour this spring. I still have some mixed feelings about what it all meant, which I put into the song 'Sock Heaven.'"

How would you compare what you do now lyrically and musically with the material on the Chagall Guevara album? Do you feel there were things you wanted to say that you couldn't in the format of Chagall Guevara?

"I was surprised at the number of people who didn't have a clue what most of our songs were about. I think that perhaps we wrote as much for each other as we did for the listener, which may have made some of the lyrics a little obscure. We had no lyrical agenda, so whatever light was present came in through the back door. The main difference between the band's album and my album is the difference between a collaboration and a solo effort. There are similarities, lyrically and musically, but I doubt too many people would confuse one for the other."

You've probably been more successful in Europe than the US, especially in the UK. You've lived in London for a while, and chose to record Limelight at Greenbelt. What attracts you to Europe? Do you think you are influenced in a big way by European/British thinking?

"I actually went thumbing through my CD collection yesterday and realized that about 80 per cent of the music I listen to is by British and European artists, so the influence musically is undeniable. I'm certainly no expert on European though, and I'm hopeless at other languages, but I've always sensed--rightly or wrongly--that it costs a bit more to be a Christian in Europe than it does in America. Christianity in America is still accompanied by a lot of excess baggage, much of which has nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus, and some of which is directly at odds with his example. I think the time I've spent in Europe has helped me to keep a better perspective on what's important. I can also say with certainty that the Europeans I know are a lot more fun to argue with!"

You've recorded the new video in various countries around the world. Do the places of recording refer to the songs as well, or was it a good way to travel around the world? Can you tell something about your experiences in different locations?

"It was a good excuse to travel around the world with someone else paying the bill. When Chagall Guevara did our one and only video (for 'Violent Blue') I was so disappointed with the way it turned out that I decided next time I'd do it myself. I knew I wanted to shoot the videos for this album in exotic locales, but I didn't want them to be immediately recognizable. So I picked locations in countries that are off the beaten track, starting with Nepal and Vietnam, and then filling in the other stops to make a round-the- world itinerary. We experienced the sort of surprises you'd expect on a trip like that, including shooting the first music video ever filmed in Vietnam (which I guess isn't too surprising). There were only four of us traveling, along with out 12 cases of equipment. I actually bought a 35mm movie camera for the journey, so the overall look of the video is quite good. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and amazingly, everything went right. The weather was good (despite the fact that we visited most of the countries during monsoon season), nobody got malaria, we got some really great images on film, and I can tell you for a fact that elephants are more comfortable to ride than camels. I'm spending most of this fall editing it all together, and so far it's coming together very well.

On this new album there are three songs ("Sock Heaven", "Jesus Is For Losers" and "The Finish Line") that seem to be more personal and emotional. Can you tell more about the background of these songs? Is there any relation between them?

"'Sock Heaven' was a rarity for me in that it dealt with a slice of my own life, specifically the decisions leading up to starting the band, and on through to when we gradually began drifting apart. I believe it is somewhat connected emotionally to the song 'Jesus Is For Losers', in that I had to take a hard look at all my motivations of the past five years in order to figure out where to go from here. The title 'Jesus Is For Losers' seemed both an adequate summation of my state of mind, and a good reminder that Jesus didn't come for the healthy, but for those who needed a doctor. Finally, 'The Finish Line' may be the closest I've come to writing a song that really moves me on an emotional level. I had in mind various friends who were having a crisis of faith, and I suppose the message is simply to persevere."

The material on the three-song demo we heard sounded on one hand a logical conclusion of your previous work, but on the other hand still very experimental. Did you set yourself any goals before recording?

"This was my first time to produce myself without the help of a co-producer, which takes away all the usual excuses. I just wanted to get the songs on tape before they could start 'talking back' to me, before I could start second-guessing everything. We did lots of experimenting with sounds and textures (some of the songs have as many as three bass tracks on them), but if something wasn't working, we'd move on. I firmly believe that lax schedules and huge budgets are the enemies of creativity, and I didn't even spend all the money I had to work with--the first time that's ever happened! I worked with great musicians and a great engineer, and it was easily the most fun I've had in the studio."

Are there any things you did during your Sparrow days as an artist you are determined to never do again?

"I look back on most of those events very fondly, but there were a few embarrassing moments. The one that springs more immediately to mind is a certain duet that the record company talked me into singing on. I think that, given the choice between prolonged dental surgery and hearing that particular record in its entirety, I would choose the former."

Tony Cummings is the editor of Cross Rhythms and Jan Willem Vink the editor of Holland's Bottomline magazine.