Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Flying



How do they do it? I’m talking about frequent flyers. Tens of thousands of people fly at least once a week for business. My friends Jesse Manibusan and Steve Angrisano fly at least four times a month, ten months out of the years, for their road ministry of evangelization.

I’m old enough to remember watching television coverage of the Beatles as they walked down a ramp from their chartered plane at airports in major cities around the world while thousands of screaming teenagers greeted them at the terminal. Those kids wouldn’t even be allowed to do that in these post-9/11 times.




Flying has always been a part of the rock’n’roll dream. Musicians who have reached a certain level of success need to fly so they can bring their music and message across the country and beyond. Popular rock bands and pop singers fly with relative comfort, but most people slog it out with the madding crowd, waiting in long check-in lines, going through security (in my case, with a fragile guitar), and standing in yet another line to board the plane.

When I first started doing this Catholic music thing in the mid-1970s, I was flying from Los Angeles to Boston in a roomy 747, with plenty of leg room to stretch out and a fairly decent in-flight meal like Chicken Cordon Bleu. The plane was full but not overly packed. Nowadays, passengers are stuffed into a 737, shoulder-to-shoulder like sardines. It feels like my knee is touching my chin, and if I stay seated for too long on a cross-country flight my legs start to get numb. For a meal, we’re lucky if we get a tiny bag of honey-roasted peanuts.

I needn’t go on. Anyone who flies knows exactly what I’m talking about. Why do we do it? The simple answer is: to get from here to there as quickly as possible. For us Catholic composers and artists, we’re only trying to get to the people we serve. That alone is worth the inconvenience of airports and airplanes.

Case in point is the gig Jesse Manibusan and I had this past weekend, August 27, 2017. We entertained the military families of Joint Base Lewis-McChord at Fort Lewis near Tacoma, Washington. We toyed with the idea of driving there from Portland, but Jesse was coming from San Francisco and it was easier for him to fly to Tacoma directly. It’s only a two-hour to three-hour drive for me but I just didn’t feel like driving that 143-mile distance alone. So I booked the 30-minute flight on Alaska Airlines. It was really a choice between a rock and a hard place!

Oh, sure, the flight itself was uneventful and quick, but dealing with the usual airport lines and the security and the waiting was a huge headache. And, oy, the walking! The Alaska commuter terminals are way out in the boondocks at both PDX and SEATAC. I was trudging my bags and my bass guitar across long distances that never seemed to end.

But the soldiers and families Jesse and I met at the base more than justified the hassle. We helped lead music at the 9:00 and 10:30 liturgies, working with choirs of young people for each Mass. 





Afterward, there was a barbecue for the first interfaith summer picnic at Lewis-McChord. The base houses soldiers and their young families, often while the father or mother are deployed overseas. There must have been one thousand people on the outdoor picnic grounds, enjoying delicious barbecue by the Knights of Columbus and getting to know one another. The Catholic and Protestant chaplains were very pleased by the turnout and the comradery.




Jesse and I played with a band of base musicians and our friend Tony Gomez on percussion. We entertained the families with our own songs from Fish With Me, plus favorite songs by the Beatles, the Monkees, the Temptations, Ritchie Valens, and even Journey. Keeping in mind the ecumenical mix, we also did some contemporary praise songs that are common to both Catholics and Protestants. The little kids were awesome with the hand gestures, and it was great to chat with their parents and hear their stories.




It was 9:30pm on Sunday evening by the time I returned to Portland. I’m no spring chicken anymore and I was physically drained as I trudged across the terminal, guitar in tow. At one point, a young woman noticed I was limping slowly and dragging my feet. She asked if I needed any help. I smiled and thanked her for her kindness, even as I thought, “Gee, do I look that bad?” But it was a great weekend, spreading the Good News with Jesse and bringing good cheer to families who sacrifice so much for our country.






Monday, August 28, 2017

Grant Us Peace



Note: This is an old blog that was originally posted on the now-defunct spiritandsong.com 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 was April 1992. The four LAPD officers who were on trial for the beating of Rodney King received their verdict from a courtroom in Simi Valley, California: not guilty! A predominantly white jury had acquitted the white officers of all charges of violence against the African-American motorist they had pulled over. The reaction from the black community was shock and disbelief, and this anger erupted almost overnight into a full-scale riot that decimated the city. 

The Los Angeles Riots would last for several days, and the extensive media coverage shocked the world. By the time it was over there were 53 deaths, over 2000 injured, and almost $1 billion in material damage. Stores were looted and buildings were set on fire as anarchy ruled.

The riots of Los Angeles inspired similar uprisings in the Bay Area. An angry San Francisco mob displayed their solidarity with LA by tipping cars over and smashing windows in downtown storefronts. At the time, I was rehearsing with my band, Serious Children, in the heart of Oakland. We were an inter-racial punk pop band and I had just joined them as bass player. After a couple of hours of jamming, we turned on the TV and were amazed at the destruction that was going on in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Suddenly, there was Rodney King himself, facing the cameras.

"Can we just try and get along?" he implored. Here was the man whose beating at the hands of the police was the source of all the civic unrest. Now he was pleading for peace. It was a heart-wrenching moment. I quickly wiped the tears from my eyes so my bandmates wouldn't notice, but they were crying, too.

I drove home carefully around midnight. My bandmates pleaded for me to spend the night with them at their rehearsal studio because it would surely be unsafe to drive Oakland that late. But I wanted to get home. I lived in a warehouse in a somewhat dangerous neighborhood near Alameda and I felt a responsibility to get home and see if my roommates were okay.

The streets of Oakland were deserted. Police cars were everywhere, red lights blaring. At one point a patrol car drove up next to my truck and the officer shined a light on me. I rolled down my window and told him I was going home. He nodded and zoomed down the street.

I felt horrible about the riots and felt helpless. I wanted to do something, anything, to help make the world a better place, but I was just one person, a punk rock musician, no less. What could one man do?

I prayed. This was during my prodigal time and I hadn't really prayed for a long time, but as I drove back to my warehouse I prayed for peace. That's what Los Angeles needed now. The closing words of the Lamb of God prayer at Mass kept circling in my head: "Grant us peace, grant us peace . . ." By the time I got to my warehouse I had set the words to a new anthem-like melody:


Grant us peace. 
Grant us peace.
Only love can make us free.
Grant us peace.


So I had the beginnings of a song. It was simple, but sometimes simplicity is the best way to go. I didn't know what I was going to do with it because I wasn't involved with the Church at the time. I was making punk rock, not liturgical music! But I stored my new song in the back of my head, and the catchy melody insured I would never forget it.

Fast forward about a year and a half. I had just met Jesse Manibusan, and we were asked to lead the music at the Diocese of Oakland's annual youth rally. By this time, I had made my return to the Church and to youth ministry. Jesse and I were at a liturgy planning meeting and we tossed around ideas for the Communion Song. We wanted to do something new and exciting that the teens could get into. I suddenly remembered "Grant Us Peace" and played it for Jesse from memory. I had no verses yet, but Jesse liked it and encouraged me to finish the song. I did within a week, and we sang it at the youth rally, and in several other youth events over the next couple of years. The song was always received enthusiastically.

And then, I forgot all about "Grant Us Peace" as I started composing more new music, including all the songs that eventually went on the Love Never Fails CD that Jesse and I produced in 2003. "Grant Us Peace" was buried in my music files until OCP began working on the Never Too Young music resource for students in grades 4-8.  The editors asked if I had anything new.

So I dusted off "Grant Us Peace" and was amazed at how well the old song stood the test of time. In fact, with so much war and hatred in the world, the message of peace is just as valid today as it was in 1992.  Lord, grant us peace!





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.