Let’s Do This

I have been toying with this idea of writing a partial autobiography for quite some time now. There have been numerous attempts to begin it but none have been fruitful. The idea of doing a chronological memoir does not appeal to me for various reasons. First of all, I am not famous and do not have any historical significance outside the very small circle of my influence. Secondly, I honestly do not remember much about my early childhood so there is not a deep well of memories to draw from. I know the basic facts but that’s about it. Lastly, my attention span would make it extremely difficult for me to stay focused on a concrete time line. I have never been diagnosed as having ADD but I am definitely scatterbrained at times and have great difficulty concentrating.

For those reasons, I have decided to write short installments based around the memories that certain songs bring to mind. For the moment there is no rhyme or reason to the order in which they are chosen. I don’t have a master list that I am following and I am not considering where they fall chronologically in my life. This exercise is as random as the thoughts that typically pop into my mind on any given day.

For the time being, I am calling this project Live Every Moment. That is the title of a song from one of my all time favorite bands, REO Speedwagon. I already know that several of their songs will come into play (pun intended) as this progresses. I will be writing and publishing this via my blog until I have reached a point where I think it is ready to organize and edit. After doing that I will have to decide if I want to actually print it or make it available electronically. I really can’t answer that right now because I may never reach that point. Given my track record with this sort of thing, I may only crank out three or four installments before I crash and burn.

One last thing, I will be incorporating bits and pieces from all my earlier attempts. Those of you who read my blog my recognize some of the anecdotes from old posts. Some of you have known me through the internet for quite a while and may see some things that I posted years ago in other places. Those of you who have heard some of these stories may feel cheated but I promise you, it was not done intentionally. I really did have some good stuff written that never progressed and much of it will fit here nicely.

So, there you have it. I am going to give this whole memoir thing ANOTHER shot. For those of you who have been waiting and urging me to do this for the last several years, here we go. For those who have just shown up to the party, I hope you enjoy it.

The first installment will be up tomorrow. Until then…enjoy some REO Speedwagon.

Ten Christian Albums That I Think You Should Hear

I originally sat down to compile a list of the ten best albums released by Christian artists but soon discovered that I could not whittle my list down to ten. I couldn’t even get it below fifteen so ten was completely out of the question. So I took a cue from my last list and decided to give you a list of ten albums that I own and love. I am not saying these are the “best” ever but they are significant to me and I believe that they are good enough to suggest to others. Some are going to be familiar (maybe even obvious) and that is okay. A few are actually out of print and one or two are actually quite difficult to find. This is all good stuff so if you’re curious about hearing the more obscure stuff…let me know.

Number Ten: Dakoda Motor Co. – Into The Son

I first heard this album on a friend’s Saturday morning radio show at NC Wesleyan college. His name was Derek and he played Christian music that did not get played on the few Christian radio station that existed at the time. I immediately fell in love with it. I am an East Coast guy but this album made me want to move to Southern California and take up surfing. Part punk, part surf rock, and part bubblegum pop, Into The Son is one of the catchiest albums I have ever heard. The lyrics aren’t straight forward praise and worship (with a couple of exceptions) but they are filled with spiritual insights that are sincere and refreshing. There has never been anything quite like this on Christian radio. I bought my CD copy used off of Amazon.com.

Number Nine: Imagine This – Imagine This

Derek also introduced me to this band. His show was called Waking The Dead (after a Michael Knott song) and he played two hours worth of stuff you couldn’t hear anywhere else. Imagine This sound like a cross between Roxette and Extreme. They blended keyboard pop and melodic guitar rock and threw in just a dash of funk from time to time. Had this album come out three years earlier there is a good chance it could have been a crossover hit. They were good musicians and understood how to write hooks. Although they sang about spiritual things they weren’t preachy and sometimes tackled social issues. They only released two albums and then vanished off the face of the planet. My cassette copy of this died years ago and I had to pick up a CD copy off of eBay.

Number Eight: Tourniquet – Pathogenic Ocular Dissonance

Although the birth of Christian Contemporary Music can be traced back to the Jesus Music of the late Sixties and early Seventies, it never really became popular until the early Eighties. Record labels soon discovered that they could put out a Christian “alternative” to whatever was popular and it would sell within the church crowd. The result was that Christian music was always a few years behind the times. With very few exceptions, Christian bands in the Eighties and Nineties were not much more that copycats. Tourniquet was one of those exceptions. Even though they came onto the thrash metal scene in the early Nineties (after it was starting to gain momentum), Tourniquet managed to create their own sound and actually outshone some of their secular counterparts. With technically complex musical compositions and bizarre medical terminology scattered throughout the lyrics, they stand out as one of the best thrash metal bands ever. This was their last album with original vocalist Guy Ritter and it marked the end of an era. They soon watered down their sound (can you say Metallica) and were never quite the same again. Theodicy On Trial may be the craziest metal song ever written.

Number Seven: Adam Again – Dig

Adam Again was an early Christian “alternative” rock back from California. Under the leadership of Gene Eugene (R.I.P.) they released several excellent albums but in my opinion, Dig is the highlight of their career. The vocals sound eerily like Michael Stipe in places and the music is on par with popular bands of the day like Pearl Jam. Adam Again weren’t quite as heavy musically but lyrically they had depth and tackled subjects uncommon to the CCM radio stuff of the day. Twenty-three years later this album still sounds fresh and relevant. It’s a shame that Adam Again didn’t receive widespread recognition and it’s a bigger shame that Gene Eugene is not longer with us. This one can be found on eBay and Amazon.com at a reasonable price.

Number Six: Grover Levy – Wrestling Angels

Grover Levy released two brilliant albums in the late Nineties and then disappeared from the music industry. He currently coaches high school basketball and as far as I know doesn’t write or perform music. I chose his second album because it is a collection of near perfect pop-rock songs that honestly address matters of faith. If You Want To Lead Me To Jesus and Tell Us What We Want To Hear tackle shallow faith and compromised lifestyles without coming across as judgmental or cynical. The songs have a slight Beatlesque feel in places and Levy’s voice is reminiscent of Phil Keaggy or The Rembrandts. Both of his albums were on iTunes the last time I checked.

Number Five: Ric Alba – Holes In The Floor Of Heaven

I’ll go ahead and tell you that this one is hard to find and that it might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Ric Alba was the bassist and one of the founding members of Altar Boys, who were a punky rock band who channeled The Ramones, U2, The Clash, and The Police. This album sounds nothing at all like those four bands and would come closer to Echo & The Bunnymen, The Psychedelic Furs, The Cure or The Smiths. It’s spacey pop music with a dark side. Alba’s voice is haunting at times which only adds to the dream-like quality of these songs. Although it was released in 1991 it is more akin to music in a John Hughes film from the Eighties. I forget how much I paid for this one on eBay but it was more than $20.

Number Four: XL & Death Before Dishonor – Sodom And America

This was my jam (yes…I just said that) during my first attempt at Bible College in 1994. Once again, I have to give my buddy Derek credit for turning me on to this one. XL & DBD played high energy hard rock (bordering on thrash) with rap vocals. They were similar to Ice T’s Body Count in concept but were explicitly Christian. XL tackled tough subjects at a time when most Christians avoided them like the plague. Distrust of the government, hypocritical Christians, and racism are just a few of things he addressed in unforgiving manner. He definitely did not pull punches and although the style is somewhat dated this album still hits hard. I picked up my copy for $5 used on Amazon.com but it isn’t always easy to find.

Number Three: Under Midnight – Under Midnight

Thanks to Nine Inch Nails and a host of others, industrial music is not the underground thing that it once was but back in the early Nineties is still wasn’t mainstream. The surprise is that unlike many genres, Christians were making this type of music almost from the beginning. I own albums from a handful of Christian “industrial” artists but the debut from Under Midnight is the best of them all. It is dark and menacing but still offers hope when you take the time to listen to and decipher the lyrics. It gets major points for sampling Blade Runner in several places. Like Nine Inch Nails, Under Midnight were able to take dark and abrasive music and inject harmony and pop sensibility. This album is a classic in my opinion but can be difficult to find. I picked it up (along with their second album Void) for about $15.

Number Two: All Star United – All Star United

Of all the albums on this list, this one holds a very dear place in my heart. It was at an All Star United show that I met my good friend Phil Sabella and the seeds for my own band (Oldmangrady) were sown. All Star United were led by Ian Eskelin and played power-pop with Brit-pop influences. The songs are immediately hummable and make you want to pogo along. Lyrically, Eskelin turns a critical eye towards the Christian culture and skewers such things as the health and wealth gospel (La La Land) and Christian consumerism (Bright Red Carpet). He manages to be sarcastic and loving all at the same time. His marketing advice to Jesus (Smash Hit) clearly points out the misunderstanding that many Christians have concerning the one they supposedly follow. It’s not all criticism though, Eskelin also writes worshipful pop songs (Saviour Of My Universe) that balance out the slight cynicism of the rest of the album. This is one of my absolute favorite albums of all time.

Number One: The Swirling Eddies – Outdoor Elvis

I honestly don’t know where to begin with this one. The Swirling Eddies are a side project of Terry Taylor, who is the lead vocalist and primary songwriter for CCM legends Daniel Amos. Taylor has always incorporated diverse styles into all of his projects and this one is no different. The rest of the band is made up of musicians from other bands. At the time, all of the members used aliases and hid their true identities (somewhat) but it was obvious that Taylor was the driving force. Some of the lyrics are absurd and seemingly nonsensical until examined closely. Others are deliberately funny and are aimed directly at the Christian culture of the day. Mystery Babylon, which plays like a Fifties romantic ballad, may be the best song ever written about the book of Revelation. Another highlight is the one minute love song to Billy Graham. Yes…it is that kind of album. The only thing I can even compare it to is They Might Be Giants. My personal favorite moment is at the end of Hide The Beer, The Pastor’s Here when they start calling out the names of various Christian colleges and universities. Even though it came out five years earlier, this album may have been instrumental in me leaving Bible College after one year. This was the first time I heard sincere faith blended with humor, sarcasm, and biting cynicism. It was (and still is) beautiful.

Reading Club

Some friends from a website that I frequent have decided to start a reading club. We are going to pick different “classics” and read them together in the hope that it will spur some interesting conversations. We’re starting with C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity this week. I am going to post the reading schedule here and then share the discussion questions that we use when they are posted. I’ll share my thoughts here as well as on the site where this originated. If any of you out there want to play along…feel free. You can respond to the questions in the comment section as I share them. Let’s roll. FWIW…I put a link down there to amazon.com for anyone who might want to purchase the book and play with us. You can get it for Kindle for $9.99 and used copies can be found for a little less than $5 (shipping included).

Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis

April 27 – May 3: Book 1
May 4 – May 10: Book 2
May 11 – May 17: Book 3 parts 1 through 5
May 18 – May 24: Book 3 parts 6 through 12
May 25 – May 31: Book 4 parts 1 through 5
June 1 – June 7: Book 4 parts 6 through 11

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On an unrelated note…Geoffry (our oldest son) and Becca (his fiance) have moved back up here to Pennsylvania and will be living with us for a little while. He will be getting a job and eventually they will find their own place to stay but for the time being…we’ll all be one big happy family.

The baby is due in August so I am getting closer and closer to joining the Grandparents Club. I’ve already decided that I’m going to be Poppa Lee. It sounds charming and crotchety all at the same time.

Question Of The Day: 4.24.15

Often, we hear people saying, “Everything happens for a reason.” What do you think? Does it?

Without sounding like I’m copping out, I think there are different ways to answer this question. On the surface, it is a true statement. It’s as simple as cause and effect. Sometimes the cause is out of our control and we are innocent victims of someone else’s actions. We may not have wanted the results but there is still a definable reason for whatever it is we may be experiencing.

There are other ways of looking at it as well. Some people feel that there is this grand cosmic scheme we all play a part in. We all contribute to it either positively or negatively. Likewise, we all take away from it. The things that we experience in this life are the result of how much we contribute. Some call it Karma and others use the biblical expression “reap what you sow” to explain it. If we experience bad things it is possible that we have done something to deserve it. If we aren’t guilty, then the negative experiences are building up positive experiences for us at a later time. Either way, there is a reason for the things we go through.

In Romans 8:28, Paul says this:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called to his purpose.

While I do believe in cause and effect and I do believe that we reap what we sow, I think that God controls things in such a way that all events somehow work together and His will is achieved. I don’t claim to understand how that happens but I do believe that even painful and tragic circumstances can still bring Him glory. We may not see it here in the life but I have faith that when we are on the other side, we will see the results.

Just One Song

It is supposed to be spring but we have had some very light snow falling this morning. It’s not bitterly cold out but the wind makes it feel much colder than it actually is. It is supposed to get up in the mid Forties by the afternoon and it should be in the Sixties this weekend. Therefore, I will not complain about one last little gasp from winter. I still haven’t achieved the level of consistency that I want with this thing, but I am trying to do better. Bear with me.

I have been sitting here in the office playing random songs from the Eighties. Most of them were from the early days of M-TV and are what I would call new wave. Then I tried to listen to a couple of songs from the Michael Schenker version of UFO but I just couldn’t get into them this morning. It’s not that I don’t like that style of music, I just think my head is in another place.

I am currently listening to Boston’s Third Stage. I probably didn’t realize it at the time, but this album is one of those landmark albums from my high school years. I had heard Boston before (my uncle was a big fan) and I knew all the songs from those first two albums. I don’t know that I would have considered myself a fan but the truth is, I was. It was a big deal when Third Stage came out in 1986 because it had been six years since Don’t Look Back. People wondered if it was going to sound like Boston. After all, the music scene changed a lot between 1980 and 1986. Fortunately, it sounded just like a Boston record was supposed to sound like.

I don’t know why, but I remember that Trevor Biggs and myself were pretty big fans of the album when it came out. That’s pretty funny because most of my memories of Trevor revolved around the silly rap songs that the two of us wrote together. The Beastie Boys and Run DMC were pretty big at the time as well. There were a lot of 15 and 16 year old white boys (like myself) who had no problem listening to a band like Boston, which was already considered “classic rock” by then, and then digging rap music as well. I probably played License To Ill and Raising Hell just as much as Third Stage or any of the hard rock bands I was listening to at the time.

I don’t know why these thoughts and memories come back like this. I guess that is the power of music. Sitting here listening to Tom Scholz’s distinctive guitar and Brad Delp’s voice conjures up images of walking through the halls at Southern Nash Senior High. I can see the band room and all of the people I hung out with sitting in their places. I can the handful of us in Mrs. Hardy’s English class, huddled together by the room divider that separated her class from the next. From down the hall I can hear Martin Liles’ carrying on in his History class.

I can see myself sitting on the hood of my little gray Toyota Celica, hanging out in the parking lot. Mallie’s got that huge blue Ford Thunderbird and Ken is driving a very conservative burgandy Ford LTD. We’re not talking about anything in particular. It’s just another typical day after school.

One song from an album released nearly thirty years ago brought all of that to mind. I can vividly see all of those things and I’m not even trying to remember. Those images are permanently burned into my memory banks and I couldn’t forget them if I wanted to. Trust me, there are other memories there that I have tried to bury for most of my life and even though I don’t want to remember them, all it took was one song.

In case you are wondering, this is the song.

Question Of The Day: 4.18.15

What is a band, artist, or TV show that you “do alone” (no one else that you know seems to be interested)?

George Huntley was the lead guitarist for The Connells from 1985 until 2001. He also sang lead vocals on several songs during that time span. I saw The Connells five or six times between 1989 and 1993. They are in my top ten bands of all time. I don’t know if people don’t realize it or if it is because it was on the crappy TVT label, but George Huntley released a solo album called Brain Junk in 1996.

It came out right around the same time as The Connells’ Weird Food And Devastation. It was a little less “rock” than the stuff typically found on The Connells’ albums but was very similar to many of Huntley’s contributions to the band. I don’t know if he released it because they were using less of his songs at that point in their career or if he just had some tunes he wanted to get out there. Whatever the reason, I am thankful because Brain Junk is one of my favorite albums of all time.

This is the song Overdose. It is my favorite track on the album it is one of my all time favorite songs.

Question Of The Day: 4.17.15

What habit have you most recently dropped or gotten control over?

The extra “hint” adds: Dropped or severely limited. Negated.

For me it would be the consumption of carbonated beverages. I haven’t completely given them up but I have cut back from the three or four 20 ounce Mt. Dews that I used to drunk every day. I started by switching to diet sodas and then I slowly reduced the amount that I drank. I still have a soft drink every now and then but usually I reserve them for when we go out to eat. I still drink coffee in the morning but I mostly drink water or skim milk.

One of the great things about this is that I have dropped nearly forty pounds over the last year and half. I contribute it to drastically reducing my soft drink and snack cracker intake. Now to work on something else.

(Thinking And Wondering) What I’m Gonna To Do

We are currently making plans to move Geo (our son) and Becca (his soon-to-be-wife) back up here in May. They were here briefly last year but decided to move back to North Carolina. They are expecting their first child in August and are planning to get married the weekend we go down there to move them up here. This definitely was not something I ever saw coming but it is what it is. I have hoped to one day be a grandfather but I honestly didn’t expect it THIS soon. I am excited about it though and at the risk of sounding selfish, I am glad that they will be up here.

I am currently planning out a week of summer camp for 4th and 5th graders. I have volunteered and worked at camp many times throughout my life but this will be the first time I have been the dean. I’ve got a meeting tomorrow night over at the camp. The first time deans (like me) are going to get together for pizza at 5:00 and then all the other deans will get there at 7:00 for the official deans meeting. I’m really looking forward to it. Fortunately, I have been paired with someone who has done this before so that I will have some help finding volunteers. I’m new to the area and don’t know as many people up here so that will be very helpful. My theme for the week is “We Were Born To Thrive” and will be based around Psalm 1.

I have been watching a lot of documentaries on Netflix. I just finished watching Supermensch, which is about Shep Gordon. He got famous for being Alice Cooper’s manager. He later when on to manage such diverse artists as Anne Murray, and Teddy Pendergrass. One of the more interesting parts of the film is the story of how he became friends with the Dali Lama and then later went on to basically create the genre of celebrity chefs with Emeril Lagasse. He is one interesting dude.

Question Of The Day: 4.13.15

Who do you “straighten up” for when they’re around?

This one probably isn’t as surprising or revealing as it could be. Being the minister of a church sometimes requires that I refrain from saying or doing things that I might not have a personal objection to. I don’t know that I would necessarily call it “straightening up” but I guess it does fit. I try to maintain a certain amount of transparency with the folks in the congregation. I don’t mind sharing my personal thoughts and feelings but I don’t preach them from the pulpit as if they are the gospel.

I do carefully monitor the things that I say (and share) on social media outlets. I watch what I post on Facebook and I even watch what I “like” because I know that stuff is visible to others. I sometimes wonder if it is hypocritical of me to be that way. Am I being one person in public and another in private? To an extent…yes I am. However, if we are truthful I believe that most (if not all) of us do the same thing and I don’t think it’s wrong. There are some things that I can discuss with my wife or my close friends in private that don’t need to be posted for the entire world to see. I know I can express myself and be 100% open and honest in some situations but not in others.

For me it comes down to Christian liberty and how I understand it. The apostle Paul said that all things may be allowed but they might not be beneficial (1 Corinthians 10:23). If that means that I sometimes need to “straighten up” around some people then I have no problem doing so. The only time when it is wrong is if the “straightened up” version of me and the “real” version of me are nothing alike. When that happens it is probably time to take off a mask or two.

If you’re interested…I did a guest spot on a friend’s blog.

HERE is the link if you want to check it out.

Album Review: Newsboys – Hallelujah For The Cross (2014)

I want to begin by making two confessions. The first is that I don’t really follow contemporary Christian music. We have a Christian station here that I occasionally listen to if I’m in the car but that’s it. I do listen to a lot of CCM but most of it is older or is considered “worship” music. I don’t know the latest groups and I only hear the handful of songs played on the radio. The second confession is that I like the Newsboys. I like every version of the Newsboys. While it’s true that their first three albums (Read All About It, Hell Is For Wimps, and Boys Will Be Boyz) are not great, they do have a few songs that are listenable. I would venture to guess that most people haven’t heard much of that stuff and I guess they really aren’t missing anything.

I admit that I am partial to the three album run they did with Steve Taylor while John James was still in the bad. Not Ashamed, Going Public, and Take Me To Your Leader ARE great albums and contain some classic songs. They also established the Newsboys as one of the leaders in CCM during the Nineties and on. Like many, I was surprised when founder (and only original member) Peter Furler left the band several years ago. I was even more surprised when they announced that Michael Tait (formerly of DC Talk) was going to take over on vocals. I assumed that they would do one tour and maybe release an album before fans abandoned them and they called it a day. I was wrong.

Arguably, the Newsboys are as popular now as they have ever been. They have released a string of albums that sold well and they continue to draw crowds when they tour. While it is true that they are not the Newsboys of the Nineties, they do retain three of the musicians who have been with them since those days. Jeff, Jody, and Duncan have been in the band longer than John James was. They are a part of the Newsboys sound and I think that is one reason this versions continues to succeed. That, and the voice of Michael Tait is instantly recognizable. They are not a great band but they are really, really good.

I said all that to say this, I had no idea that they released a new album at the end of 2014. I just discovered it this morning. It surprised me, not only because I didn’t know it existed, but because it’s an album of hymns. Mind you, they are done in the style of music that the Newsboys are known for, but they are still hymns. I want to take just a minute and go through the album track by track and share my thoughts.

All Creatures Of Our God And King – I realize that this is one of the “go to” hymns (along with Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing) that modern artists like to pull out, but there is a reason. It is a great song. It is one of my favorite hymns. Musically, it sounds like the majority of the stuff on Christian radio but retains the original melody line and lyrics.

Where You Belong/Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus – This is actually a new version of a song found on 1992’s Not Ashamed album. The original was almost entirely keyboards and this one has a bit more guitar so it’s got modern vibe to it. Although it is a modern take on an older tune it probably sounds more like “classic” Newsboys than anything they’ve done lately.

His Eye Is On The Sparrow – I don’t know why but I was surprised to see this one. This is one that I remember singing in church when I was kid. I am not sure when the last time I heard it. As with the rest of the album, the music is modern pop-rock, but hearing the familiar words and melody brought back memories. This is a highlight of the album for me.

Hallelujah For The Cross – I don’t know this one so I assume it is either a new song or an old one that I have never heard. It sounds like a modern tune though. I do like it. It could have been on one of the other Tait era Newsboys albums.

It Is Well – This is another well-known hymn that has been done by many others. There is nothing incredibly original here but they have been respectful to the traditional arrangements while performing them in their own style. This is an album that can please multiple generations.

Jesus Paid It All – I believe this is the same arrangement that Kristian Stanfill does. The bulk of the song is the familiar hymn but there is a second section (something I’m not always fond of) that actually enhances the original tune. I love the refrain of “Oh praise the one who paid my debt and raised this life up from the dead.” It’s probably one of my favorite modern takes on an old hymn.

I Surrender All – I’m not 100% certain but I believe this was the song being sung the night I came forward and was baptized when I was eleven. It has always been a prayerful song and Tait’s soulful vocals add to the vibe. The music is a bit more subdued than the rest of the album but I believe it makes the song more effective.

What A Friend We Have In Jesus – I always hear this one in my head the way Randy Travis does it. I don’t know why but I have always felt like this was a country-gospel song and even when I have led others in singing it I have leaned in that direction. This is not country-gospel by any stretch of the imagination. Once again, the original melody is retained while drums, electric guitars, and synthesizers carry the tune along.

Holy, Holy, Holy – I like the mellow vibe of this one at the beginning. A simple drum loop and soft keys accent Tait’s tuneful singing. The instrumentation does build up as it moves along but it never becomes overpowering or drowns out the lyrics, which are some of my favorite. There is a newer part added on that repeats “You are holy, holy, holy” but it doesn’t take away from the original song or distract you.

All Hail The Power Of Jesus Name – I was glad to see them doing a lot of my personal favorites and this one is no exception. What is different though, is the arrangement. Seeing the title before hearing it had me imagining how they might rock it up. What I got was an a capella (manipulated in the studio of course) treatment that brought both Seal (remember him) and Boyz II Men to mind. It came out of left field after the previous nine tracks but I can honestly say that it is my favorite song on the whole album. There is nothing to distract you from the words and I love that.