Steve Taylor: This Joker's Wild!

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Gospel Music Today
January/February/March 1988
© 1987 Word Records Limited
Cover story, Pages 3, 9-10

By Roberta Croteau

Picture this: the medieval castle in the midst of the darkest age of man. Enter the court jester--he leaps, he sings, he dances, he laughs--and the King is amused. But listen--behind the mask, underneath the music--listen to what he says. He is not afraid to risk his life through the offense. His art is the truth and his antics are the presentation of that truth--and in his one shining moment on stage he reveals what no man in his day would dare...

Enter the 1980's and Steve Taylor. Shuffle through your standard fare of today's Gospel albums and you won't find many artists jumping on some of the topics Taylor covers on his latest release, I Predict 1990. Abortion clinic bombings ("I Blew Up The Clinic Real Good"), psychoanalysis ("Jung And The Restless"), humanist education ("Since I Gave Up Hope I Feel A Lot Better") and the seduction of fame and power ("Svengali")--all are "Taylor-ized" into one of this year's most provocative albums.

Just like the jester of old, Taylor isn't afraid to risk it all in an effort to reveal the truth to his generation. Although 1987 seemed to be a year of "retreat" in contemporary Christian music, with many artists shying away from overtly controversial musical styles and lyrical content, Taylor again, as the L.A. Times boldly proclaimed: breaks tradition with a sledgehammer by stretching the boundaries of what's expected in a Christian album. The criticisms of evangelists like Jimmy Swaggart and David Wilkerson, who denounce the use of rock music in evangelism, aren't worrying Taylor.

"People who listen to what I do probably aren't going to buy into that in the first place, and people who believe what those men are saying probably aren't too much into getting their minds opened or changed. There's a real danger when people become so spiritually proud that they won't see any other way of communicating the gospel other than the way that they themselves communicate it."

Taylor believes an artist should be more concerned with his life style than his musical style, and tries not to let criticism affect what he's initially set out to do--that is, to use music and satire to provoke the Church into action.

The trademark satire of Steve Taylor is, of course, the backbone of I Predict 1990. Listeners are whisked from street corners to psychiatrist couches, from college campuses to high rise business offices, and there's even a stop at Jim Morrison's Grave. The settings, although diverse, relate back to the basic theme which runs throughout the album.

"It wasn't really intentional at first, but we were listening to a playback of "I Blew Up The Clinic Real Good" and there's a line in the song that says 'Preacher on the corner, calling it a crime, says the end don't justify the means anytime.' And my wife, Debbie, said to me, 'You know, if there is one theme running through the whole album, it's that the end doesn't justify the means.' Expediency is not what Jesus had in mind for His followers. Right now, there's a lot of Christians that are going along with the idea that it's okay to do things that are morally questionable as long as the end result is good or as long as we're protecting American interests or personal interests. We've certainly seen that theory espoused in things these days, like the Iran Contra hearings. Yet, if our Jesus can say without a doubt that there is a right and a wrong, then that philosophy is the way to go."

Musically, I Predict features one of the hottest bands in Christian music--Steve Taylor's own--Some Band. Production credits go to Dave Perkins who has recently worked with several other Christian heavyweights like Randy Stonehill on The Wild Frontier and Rick Cua on Wear Your Colors as well as releasing his own critically acclaimed solo album The Innocence in late '87. Did working with Perkins and a "live" band create a departure from the Steve Taylor of past albums?

"Using my band on this record really made a big difference in the sound. The band has been playing together for a long time and not many bands actually have the sum of players and playing abilities that this one has. Each of the guys really knows their way around their instruments. That gave the record cohesiveness and a personality that I don't think it would have had if we had chosen to use studio musicians. Working with Dave Perkins also added a lot to the record. We both had the same vision for what we wanted the record to sound like and what we wanted it to say. We wanted it to have a lot of emotional impact. That's probably part of the reason we worked for over a year on the album. We wanted to get it right and not put it out before it was done... Musically I suppose it's a logical progression from the last studio record--built around the drums and bass. Its certainly very much in a progressive rock vein, but of course, the themes to the songs themselves dictate a lot. Doing a song like "Jim Morrison's Grave" seems to lead to a certain musical intepretation. On the whole the album, I think, has a lot more emotion to the songs and there's a lot more kick to the arrangements."

The haunting "Harder to Believe Than Not To," the closing song on the album, certainly bears testament to the strong emotional impact of I Predict. Steve Taylor critics beware--there's more to chew on here than a volume of doctrinal theses:

Are you sturdy enough to move to the front
Is it nods of approval or the truth that you want?
And if they call it a crutch, then you walk with pride
Your accusers have always been afraid to go outside
They shiver with doubts that were left unattended
Then they toss away the cloak that they should have mended
You know by now why the chosen are few
It's harder to believe than not to.

Taylor explains his inspiration for the song: "There's a writer of short stories and novels from the South named Flannery O'Conner who wrote in the '40's and '50's and then died quite young in the '60's. She was a Christian, but a very rare writer in that she was both a Christian and a popular writer. Her novels and stories were full of religious imagery and extreme characters.

"Her literary friends in New York were very taken with her writing and she was also very popular with the critics, but they couldn't understand how she could buy into something that was as weird, in their minds, as Christianity. And she writes in one of her letters to a friend that they just don't understand the cost involved in Christianity and the cost involved in being a follower of Jesus. It is not an easy road and it requires a lot, probably more than we were initially willing to give.

"So I look at that song as a kind of correction of the preponderance of many songs in Gospel music that dont necessarily paint an accurate picture of the Christianity that involves a greater cost."

For the past five years Steve Taylor has been on the frontlines of Christian music, venturing where few artists dare to tread. The clown, the poet, the social commentator, the rocker--the mosaic that makes up Steve Taylor continues to surprise, confront and wake up the Church to the truth he's found in Jesus Christ.

And what does the man himself predict he'll be doing in 1990?

"1990? I'll probably be busking at a subway playing the accordian.

"You know, it's really hard for me to look past this record, because I don't have any long term career visions in music, and I try not to approach this from a career standpoint. It's because I don't want all the baggage that comes along with looking at having a music career and I don't particularly like the tendency that it has in basing your self-worth on record sales and concert attendance. So I just like to take things one project at a time. I don't look at God's will as something that He's ordained where I sing songs. I think God's will is more concerned with loving Him with all my heart and my soul and my mind, loving my neighbor as myself and following His commandments. So that's why I really have a hard time saying, 'God's called me as a music minister' or a singer or whatever--I don't know what I'll be doing in a couple of years.

"I was a very good janitor. I did that before I started recording, so I've always got that to fall back on..."