Sunday, August 13, 2017

Troubadour for the Lord

I’m writing a chapter on John Michael Talbot, the famed singer-songwriter whose path from secular rock to Christian music to Catholicism is an inspiring story of the contemporary Catholic music scene of the 1970s. John Michael is one of the biggest names in Christian music. There is a wealth of biographical material about him, and you will read my account of his remarkable life and career in my book, From Mountains High. But, for background interest, I thought I’d share a little of my personal encounter with the artist.

I have been involved in the Catholic music industry for a long time (see my first book, Keep the Fire Burning), so I don’t really get too tongue-tied when I meet composers and recording artists. Over the years I have met such great people as Ray Repp, Paul Quinlan, Germaine Habjan, Gary Ault and the Dameans; Carey Landry and Carol Jean Kinghorn; David Haas; Michael Joncas; and the St Louis Jesuits. I went to college with Bob Hurd and, of course, I interact regularly with such current Spirit & Song artists as Tom Booth, Jesse Manibusan, Sarah Hart, and so many more. The Catholic composer community is an amiable group of people who are all down to earth, funny, and very approachable. But when it came time for me to meet John Michael Talbot for an interview, I found myself in awe.

I had seen John in concert with Tom Booth almost twelve years ago at the Grotto in Portland, Oregon. Certainly, it was a thrill to hear such classics as “Holy Is His Name” and “Come, Worship the Lord” sung by the composer himself, but I was also pleasantly surprised to see what a great banjo picker he is. I mean, it’s not every day you see someone in traditional Franciscan habit wailing away with lightning speed on the banjo fretboard.

As I researched my book and gathered information, I realized I would need to include John Michael Talbot. He came into his own as a Catholic artist in the 1980s, but the roots of his journey lie in the 1970s with the story of his conversion. And there was poetic symmetry when I discovered he was writing the songs for his landmark album, The Lord’s Supper, at the same time that the Catholic Church was experiencing the remarkable Autumn of 1978 that gave us, in quick succession, three popes. My challenge was to find a way to connect with the artist.

Luckily, Tom Booth is a friend of John Michael. I also had another connection through my friend Michael Zabrocki, who does public relations for Talbot. My friends informed John of my desire to interview him. It turns out he heard of my first book and was very open to sitting down with me for my second one and tell his story. We agreed that the annual Southern California Renewal Communities (SCRC) conference would be an ideal venue to set up a meeting, so in August 2013 I traveled to Anaheim, California to meet him.

I had heard that John Michael does not give interviews too often, so I came prepared. I made sure to read Signatures, his well-written biography by Dan O’Neil, from cover to cover so I wouldn’t waste his time by asking biographical questions that he has probably answered hundreds of times in previous interviews.

I flew down to Anaheim, rented a car, drove to the famed convention center, and registered for the charismatic conference. I made sure to get a ticket for John Michael’s workshop so I could see him in action as a presenter. I entered the venue and there he was, with brown Franciscan habit and a beard that was much longer than the way he wore it in the 1980s. He was in busy discussion with the sound people about technical details, and I didn’t want to disturb him as he prepared for his talk. I will admit that I was a bit nervous about meeting this famous artist, so I simply took my seat about four rows from the front.

I was not sure what to expect. To my surprise and delight, John Michael Talbot was funny, engaging, and disarmingly charming as he told jokes and shared the story of his spiritual journey. At one point, he even recognized me, called me by name, and said how much he was looking forward to chatting with me in the evening! The audience members in front turned around and gave me that “Who the heck is this guy?” look. I was floored! We had not yet met but John Michael Talbot knew who I am!

That evening I had dinner with John Michael and his wife Viola at a hotel restaurant. We had a lovely time together. They were so relaxed and forthcoming with stories about their travels, their ministry, and their lives. In addition to his love for God and his passion for ministry, John is a brilliant intellectual. His command of the Patristics and the writings of the early Church is impressive.

I don’t want to give away too much of my book in this blog, but here is a taste of our conversation on that memorable August evening in 2013. John Michael is talking about his ministry today.
“I’m just having a blast. What I do today is very live-oriented: parish missions, 500 to 800 people a night for 3 nights. Not big 3500 seat crowds anymore; just smaller groups in parishes with free will offerings, no tickets, no sound, no lights, no big production. It’s me and a simple parish system that sounds far better than anything I used before. Now it’s half music and half preaching. I’ve gone from Paul the hermit to Paul the apostle.”
John Michael Talbot is a superstar in Christian music but he wears the title lightly. He is indeed a humble servant, a troubadour for the Lord.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Bless the Lord

Note: This is an old blog that was originally posted on the now-defunct back in the mid-2000s. I am reposting it here on my personal blog site because people still ask me about this song. 

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It all started innocently enough. We were having a rockin’ jam session at St. Monica Church in Moraga, California. Yes, a flat out alternative rock blow-out right in the church, in the choir area near the sanctuary! By “we” I mean our newly formed Youth Mass Band: Marc Cavallero on electric guitar, Kevin Roth on keyboard, Dan Brennan on drums, and me on bass, plus Rich Reggio as cantor. We had just concluded our 5:00pm liturgy and now were just hanging out after Mass, the band and several other teens.  Our pastor was cool and he allowed us to jam after the church had emptied.

This was back in 1994, I think – way before Spirit & Song. There we were every Sunday night, jamming, getting tighter as a band, and basically forging lifelong friendships. One night the guys were grooving on the classic I-IV-V rock/blues progression on the G, C and D chords. “It’s an Offspring song," they claimed. They didn’t know the words so nobody sang. In earlier decades this progression was the basis for such songs as “Hound Dog,” “Louie, Louie,” “Hang On, Sloopy,” “Twist and Shout,” and “La Bamba.” But because this was the Nineties, the guys played it with an edgy alternative feel: Dan gave the drums a thwacking back beat. Marc threw in staccato power chords while I anchored him with a driving eighth note bass line. Meanwhile, Kevin filled out the sound with airy chords on his keyboard. I think we might have jammed on this progression for almost ten minutes, having the time of our lives.

It was in the middle of this jam that I started hearing the words “Bless the Lord, O my soul” in my head. I suddenly realized that we had an original liturgical song! So after we stopped I told the guys, “Hey! Do you realize that we just created an original liturgical song?”

I don’t recall any particular kind of reaction from them except maybe “Yeah, right.” I do remember that we launched right away into a Pearl Jam song – probably “Not for You,” a favorite of ours. But I kept that phrase and our approach to that chord progression in my memory and took it home with me.

I remember going to my piano and just playing with the chords, trying to find a new melody that would add spice to an admittedly tired old chord progression. As per my custom, I opened my yellowed and dog-eared composing Bible and found Psalm 103:

         Bless the Lord, O my soul;
         And all my being, bless his holy name . . .

Psalm 103 has a lot of ideas in its 22 verses. I knew I had to narrow it down. I thought about our youth group as I prayed through verses 1-6:

         . . . forget not all his benefits . . .
         . . . he heals all your ills . . .
         . . . he crowns you with kindness and compassion . . .

I especially loved verse 6:

         He fills your lifetime with good; your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

I realized this would be the perfect psalm for my youth group in the way it expressed what our youth ministry was all about. I eventually came up with the following verses:

Remember the kindness of our God,
 who showers us with blessing all our days.

Remember the justice of our God,
 who stands with those forgotten and confused.

Remember the healing love of God,
 who calls us to be whole and to be free.

So I put it all in notation and brought it to the next Sunday night jam. I showed it to the guys and said, “See, we made an original liturgical song!”

“What? You’re kidding!” The guys were jazzed to see their names listed on the sheet as songwriters. So we started jamming on the progression in our inimitable grunge way. I taught Rich the melody and he sang along. Two weeks later, we introduced it as one of the songs for our Youth Mass. The reaction was immediate and appreciative.

“Where did you find that song?”

“All right! Music that I can relate to!”

“I love that verse about being whole and free!”

The song needed one more thing. There was a lot of space between the lines of the verses and Dan used to joke that the empty riff sounded a bit like that song from the musical Grease. Hey, I-IV-V progression! Well, we couldn’t very well have that connotation during liturgy. That’s where that distinctive clapping lick came from, to fill in those measures. It eventually became the hook of the song.

Over the years the song has become very popular and I get a kick out of hearing other youth groups singing it.  I still stay in touch with Dan, Marc and Kevin – all grown up now and into their careers.  But “Bless the Lord” will always be our gift to the young church. 

Bless our awesome God, ever ancient yet always young! 

St. Monica Youth Choir, circa 1998.