For people like us, in places like this

by the Night Writer

I read in the news today that Michael Been, lead singer and songwriter for the 80s band The Call, died last Thursday of a heart attack while at a concert in Belgium. The Call was a “Christian Contemporary” band and I was a fan back in the late 80s and early 90s when I was starting out on my current path. Up until that time I thought “Christian” music was hymns or country songs full of sin and remorse – or perhaps a hard-rock hair band like Stryper. I can’t say I ever listened to any Stryper, but the vibe to me seemed to be, “Yo, you can love Jesus and still have long hair, wear leather and rock out because He is the Rock! Wooo!”

That might not be a fair description of Stryper or other bands like that (like I said, I never listened to their music), but I’ve always been put off by acts that merely seemed to be Christian copies of what was being offered in the more commercial world (I feel the same way about authors, movies and television shows). I don’t want to feel as if I have to like something just because it’s “Christian” — forgiving sloppy execution and musicianship simply because the boys “mean well.” Intellectually, I had not come easily to my faith and while I didn’t quite trust “traditional” Christian arts or artists, I also wanted more than platitudes or suggestions that one’s life hadn’t been — or needed to be — changed all that much. I certainly didn’t want facile posturing or sappy smiles. Bands like The Call and artists such as Bruce Cockburn were an exciting revelation to me; here were men willing to write and sing about their struggles, their doubts and their attempts to simultaneously wage war and live peace in an insane world, and to do it with creativity, passion (especially Michael Been) and craft. As dark as that might sound, I could identify with their words and feel myself rise with them as grace and revelation flowed, literally, through their God-given talents.

Been could be especially brooding and challenging, often questioning “traditional” values ascribed to Christians in order to wrestle with the meaning and application of scripture — and did it in such a way that the casual listener wouldn’t necessarily realize that a message was being planted. I didn’t always agree with what he had to say, but I was always inspired. The Call first started to get some radio play with their song The Walls Came Down. As with many of their songs it featured Been’s driving bass and a strong guitar hook. There was also a dash of biblical allegory and pointed political statement at the end that didn’t endear them to the Right but no doubt appealed to a certain audience. The first I became aware of them was with their song I Still Believe, which received regular airplay on my local radio station, The Cities 97. Like Peter Gabriel (an artist The Call would later collaborate with) and his song Solsbury Hill, I liked Believe from the first time I heard it even though I didn’t grasp it’s meaning for some time.

The band’s breakthrough — or should I say “cross-over”? — was 1989’s uplifting pop prayer, Let the Day Begin, but it was usually the tracks deeper on their albums that most reached me, such as the song With or Without Reason which especially resonated:

How you gonna tell your story
Are you gonna tell it true
Either with or without reason
Love has paid the price for you
How you gonna cure this feeling
How you gonna right this wrong
Either with or without reason
The weaker do protect the strong…

The wisest of the fools can tell you
Anything you want to hear
Either with or without reason
These are truths you hold so dear
Oh, there’s somebody waiting
Oh, there’s somebody near
Oh, there’s somebody waiting
Oh, there’s somebody here

Aside from that, Been’s beard, hair-style and physique were very similar to mine at the time; watching one of his videos was nearly an out-of-body experience.

As with many bands and most visions, The Call eventually broke up and Been had a few solo efforts, while also moving behind the scenes as a sound engineer. He also tried his hand at acting, appearing as the Apostle John in the controversial Last Temptation of Christ which may have alienated a part of his audience. (I wasn’t impressed with his decision, but I partially understood where he was coming from). Most recently he was sound engineer for his son’s band, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. He and The Call, however, will always hold a special place in my heart and mind for showing that you could live and lead with your faith without short-changing your intellect. As I read the news today, I couldn’t help but think of Been’s words from the song Surrender:

Well I know it’s going to end in laughter
Son, it’s going to end in joy
the surrender in the garden
don’t you run dead poet no more

Here are some videos from The Call, starting with their biggest hit, Let the Day Begin:

I Still Believe:

The Walls Came Down:

Finally, Surrender (pardon the 5-second commercial at the beginning):

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