Michael Been 1950-2010: the hero dies

It’s always a bit of a shock when someone you’ve admired passes away.  It’s not just a reminder of one’s ever-shortening mortality; it’s like one of the fixed points in your universe shifts.  I remember being numb a couple of times it’s happened — my mind just refused to accept for a while that they were gone.

I had one of those moments several weeks ago, and it’s taken me a while to be able to blog about it.  Back on August 19, Michael Been died of a heart attack.  He was only 60.

Some of you may be thinking to yourself, “who?”  I’ll explain.  Michael Been was the lead singer, bassist and main songwriter for the San Jose-based rock group The Call, one of the best rock & roll bands ever to come out of Northern California, IMNVHO.  They only had a few hits on the pop charts — including “The Walls Came Down,” “I Still Believe” and “Let the Day Begin” — but were much admired as musician’s musicians by such luminaries as Robbie Robertson, Peter Gabriel, Jim Kerr (of Simple Minds), T-Bone Burnett and Bono.  And, simply put, they rocked.

But they were more than just a crackin’ rock band, and that’s largely because of Michael Been.  See, Been was a solid Christian — he played bass on some of 2nd Chapter of Acts’ early tunes — who wasn’t afraid to let his beliefs show through in his songs.  “I Still Believe” is a cry of perseverance in the mold of parts of Jeremiah or Habakkuk, and “Let the Day Begin” is a tribute to God’s grace extended to all His creation.  From affirmations of God’s presence even at our lowest points (“You Were There”) to rejoicing at His transforming work in another’s life (“What’s Happened To You”), Been wrote and sang about life as a believer in the modern world, in a way that was intimate, realistic and not afraid to admit weakness or failure, knowing that God would bring ultimate victory.

At the same time, Been wasn’t marching in lockstep with the expectations of American evangelicalism.  The Call recorded for “secular” labels Mercury and MCA, not one of the Nashville-based “contemporary Christian” music companies marketing to the evangelical ghetto.  His politics tended toward the liberal and pacifist — against the grain of the 1980s “Moral Majority” — and he wasn’t afraid to sing about them in songs like “The Walls Came Down” and “Back from the Front.”  He would occasionally have a beer or use a mild cussword, and didn’t apologize for either.  And then there was his appearance as the apostle John in Martin Scorsese’s movie The Last Temptation of Christ, which is the one public move he made that I know about but can’t get behind.  (Then, I’ve made odd career decisions too …)

Nonetheless, the fact that he didn’t toe the party line was an inspiration as well — it helped teach me that not everything is true just because it’s preached from a pulpit or sitting on a shelf in a Christian bookstore.  I tend to be a double-checker by nature, and Been’s contrary stances encouraged me to be unafraid to question and decide for myself.  Same with his willingness to reveal his doubts and fears in his music.  A song like “Closer,” a searingly vulnerable heart-cry to a Savior who sometimes seems distant, was a spur for me to be more open and vulnerable in my own prayers … which in turn built my trust in God in a way that many people I know have never managed.

Michael Been wasn’t one to force his views down other people’s throats.  He’d state how he saw an issue, and leave it at that; whether you chose to agree or disagree was your business.  And he didn’t big-shot his status as a “rock star” — for the last several years, he’s worked behind the scenes as the sound engineer for his son Robert’s band, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, an eminently humble post.  (BMRC is a pretty good band, too … but they’re not The Call.)  In fact, that’s how he spent his last moments — his fatal coronary came while running the soundboard for BMRC at a pop festival in Belgium.

Now, a few people may want to give me heat for praising Been, especially given that whole Last Temptation of Christ business.  (Full disclosure: I’ve never seen one second of the film — or wanted to.  The premise of a Jesus different from the historical record just doesn’t interest me.)  Considering I once caught flak in this space for praising Jars of Clay, it wouldn’t shock me.  Go ahead if you want to; I don’t care.  But I know that Michael Been’s music has been a good influence on me and an aid to my walk with Christ for about as long as I’ve walked with Christ.  Nobody’s criticism will change that.

I leave you with a quote from the title track to The Call’s 1984 album Scene Beyond Dreams, where Michael Been was singing about the Crucifixion:

I stand where I stand, convinced by the sight
We hold in our hands darkness and light
Where they meet in a scene beyond dreams
And a mother cries
And she cries
So we watch, and we wait
And we watch, and oh, the hero dies!

One of my heroes died in August.  And I’m going to miss him.  Enter into your rest, Michael.

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