Christian Rock's "Bad Boy" Steve Taylor's Music Bites

The Dallas Morning News
Saturday, April 9th, 1988
© 1988 Dallas Morning News
Pages 5C-6C
Thanks to Gary Powers

Steve Taylor's Music Bites

By Russell Smith
Pop Music Critic

The odds of an overtly Christian rock musician's winning credibility may be slightly worse than those for a camel trying to pass through the eye of a needle.

On one hand, you have the record company Philistines shaking their heads and saying, "Sorry, kid, Jesus doesn't sell. Got any tunes about the 'Dark One'?" On the other, you have the celebrity preachers to whom even Amy Grant is a siren of Hades.

Steve Taylor (who comes to the Bronco Bowl auditorium Saturday) is well aware of the hurdles, and he's no Amy Grant. BillBoard magazine has dubbed the singer-songwriter "the bad boy of Christian rock," partly because Taylor's penchant for satire tends to make the fundamentalist crowd nervous.

His latest album, for instance, bears the cryptic title I Predict 1990, which is, as it turns out, nothing more than a joke on a religious snake-oil salesman whom Taylor saw on TV a couple of years ago promoting a book of do-it-yourself prophecy.

"I was flipping through the channels, and a guy on a religious channel was selling his new book, called I Predict 1986," Taylor said on a recent visit to Dallas. "It was, like, the stuff that God had told him was going to happen in the coming year. The whole idea seemed pretty absured to me."

The only prediction Taylor had to offer was that "Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos will host the PTL Club by 1990."

It's not just this kind of gentle shop-talk ribbing that has made some of Taylor's fellow Christians wary. Consider the first song on Side 1 of the I Predict LP. "I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good" recounts the highly topical story of an ice-cream vendor who's in the habit of bombing abortion clinics.

"Now I don't care if it's a baby / Or a tissue blob / If we run out of youngsters / I'll be out of a job / And so I did my duty / Cleaning up the neighborhood / I blew up the clinic real good."

Taylor writes with an edge unheard of in the typically white-bread world of Christian pop, but his blade cuts both ways. He takes on one of rock 'n' roll's most beloved fallen idols in "Jim Morrison's Grave," a debunking of the "blaze of glory" myth that has glamorized the fairly ugly lives and deaths of sad, messed-up people. The haunting imagery that closes the song is another excellent example of Taylor's songwriting prowess:

"I got weary / Lord I don't understand / How does a seed get strangled / In the heart of a man? / Then the music covers like an evening mist / Like a watch still ticking on a dead man's wrist / Tick away."

Tall and skinny with a mane of blond hair and the profile of David Brenner, the 30-year-old Taylor wrote the song after he stumbled across Morrison's resting place during a stay in Paris.

"The first thing I noticed was a lot of bottles and cigarette butts," he said. "There was Doors graffiti everywhere and lyrics -- 'Break on through, Jim' -- covering up all available wall space. There was a group, maybe 15 or 20 people, standing around in a clump, and Jim Morrison's grave was in the middle.

"It was kind of like a non-stop party -- a rather sober party, but, you know, people hanging around, picking up vibes, waiting for him to come back or something. It starts making you think about who the guy was, what he stood for."

Taylor said he found no comfort in reading a Morrison biography that detailed the rock star's descent into drugs and alcohol and his sometimes vicious abuse of friends and family.

"They elevate these guys into mythic proportions and assume that that's some kind of role model to follow," he said of Morrison's ever-loyal cult of fans. "There's nothing attractive about dying in a bathtub."

Not that Taylor bears any resemblance to Jimmy Swaggart, the TV evangelist who -- until more pressing problems arose -- spent much of his time denouncing rock 'n' roll as the language of the devil.

"I didn't really get motivated in songwriting until I heard The Clash," said Taylor. "I think London Calling is my favorite album of all time."

Talk about revelations. It's no less surprising that Taylor is a preacher's kid who didn't go wrong. He said he simply had nothing to rebel against.

"My dad was really conservative," said Taylor. "But he was also real consistent between what he said and what he did. ...

"My parents are actually pretty supportive of all this. When they come to my concerts, they bring earplugs."

"Supportive" is not quite the word tod escribe the initial reactions Taylor got from the secular record companies he tried before finally settling with the Christian label Myrrh.

"You could sing about sadomasochism or whatever you wanted to," he said. "But if you sang about spirituality, you were treading on thin ice. ... There are many points of view being pushed in rock music -- so why can't spiritual things be one of them?"

Progress on that front seems to have been made in the last four years, with artists such as U2, T Bone Burnett and even Bob Dylan leading the way.

Still, Taylor -- who says he's not even sure how long he wants to stick around in music -- revealed mixed emotions about show business in general, both in regard to the responsibility of the artist and to the basic insanity of the celebrity system.

"The Swaggart thing is a great example," began Taylor, referring to the evangelist's sex scandal, which was only days old at the time of the interview. "All these people put their faith in this one person; he falls and takes a lot of people down with him. I appreciate that, in a lot of interviews that (U2's) Bono has done, he's tried to demystify himself, saying, 'Don't follow after me, because I'm still searching, too.' I put myself in that category.

"The problem is that you're a role model whether you want to be or not. And rock musicians that don't want to accept that are really fooling themselves; they know inside that kids come to rock concerts and pay a lot of attention to what they say and do."

In the meantime, Taylor must contend with the distrust he arouses among those who, ostensibly, share his active faith in Christianity.

"You've got a lot of suspicion of satire in the church," he admitted. "And I think there is some initial suspicion of motives: 'Why are you doing this?'"

More conservative elements of the church frown on members who feel compelled to grab the spotlight on a stage in a roomful of people, said Taylor.

"I've got to admit that, if I was a perfectly well-rounded, mature individual, I'm sure I wouldn't feel the need to get on stage in the first place," he said. "But I've got things I want to communicate through music."

And, oddly enough, he said that the recent round of evangelist scandal -- from Jim and Tammy to Oral, Jimmy and Pat -- might be just what everyone needed.

"Something's going on," said Taylor, "a kind of shaking out. I see it as a good thing, because -- and I hope I don't sound hypocritical saying this -- we don't need media personalities to follow after. We need more personal rewards: the teachings of Jesus, his lifestyle, those directions.

"It's a little bit strange to me, selling records with your face on them and doing concerts where you're the center of attention. I still grapple with that. All the circus that goes on in trying to sell a record seems to me at odds with a lot of Jesus' manner and the way he did things."