Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Steve Scott: Still No Pop Star (1991)

(A slightly edited version of a piece first published in Rejoice! ...)

The liner notes to Steve Scott's 1988 compilation Lost Horizon (Alternative) contained the following imperative: "Make this man a pop star and order additional copies." The facetious tone belied the frustration that had by then attached itself to the Steve Scott legend.

The LP that was to have been his debut, Moving Pictures, recorded for Larry Norman's Solid Rock Records, was never released. Then Love in the Western World (Exit) by the now-defunct Exit Records (a distributary of Word at the time), seemed a fitting reparation: With Scott's evocative lyrics and haunting hooks fleshed out by his punky Exit-mates the 77's, it was the strongest album to hit Christian bookstores that year. It was also one of the few albums ever to a garner a nasty review in CCM magazine. That dubious honor plus the album's dearth of overt CCM content spelled commercial death. The follow-ups, Emotional Tourist and Rice, due to glitches in secular distribution deals with A&M and Island Records respectively, went unreleased as well.

Then Alternative Records, an indie label based in Eugene, Oregon, came to the rescue and has, beginning with Lost Horizon, been making the missing portions of Scott's oeuvre available to his small but growing audience, an audience hungry for the global-flavored, Christocentric rock for which Scott's experiences as a poet, lecturer, filmmaker, essayist, and well-traveled believer have made him a natural.

Scott spoke with Rejoice! by phone last October from his current base of operation, Warehouse Ministries in Sacramento, California. He addressed topics as disparate as 2 Live Crew's controversial As Nasty As They Wanna Be ("It just didn't seem funny enough to be an interesting sociological statement"), the European Christian arts festival Greenbelt ("I was at the very first one.... I did a poetry reading at it and sold photocopies of poems out of a plastic bag"), his recently published travel journal, The Boundaries ("which is its own thing of prose and poetry"), his latest album (Magnificent Obsession), and the Beat writers ("I read that stuff when I was really young, like fifteen or sixteen, the mid-'60s.... [M]ost of those people were pretty incendiary in what they were doing"). He also expressed admiration for the music of David Bowie, whose music Scott's occasionally echoes, but admitted he's not keeping up with the CD reissues of Bowie's LPs ("I'm broke").

In the following excerpt, he discusses his career and the theology and music that inform his work--all, it must be said, from a distinctly non-pop-star-like perspective.

Why did you leave England in the mid-'70s and relocate to the United States?
I came here and based myself here, initially, on the idea of making a record, and then it turned into staying around and getting involved in a church and in the arts, generally doing a lot of writing on the arts, teaching Bible studies, and just developing a lot of very strong relationships here. I'm still British as far as my passport status goes, but I'm a permanent resident of this country.

How did Steven Soles come to produce Love in the Western World?
When Sangre Productions began its record label, they did a solo album with Steven Soles called The Promise. Then when Exit Records began, Steven was contacted to produce some of the records. He did an album with the 77's, Vector's first, [Thomas Goodlunas's] group Panacea, one with me, and that's as much as I remember. My album came out in 1983. I think it was a pretty good record for the time it came out.

My favorite piece on it was the song-poem about whales, "This Sad Music."
I think the next thing we're planning on doing is more like the whale poem, a whole album of spoken word with ethnic and electronic music in the background.

In one of your lectures at Cornerstone '90, you discussed Vincent Van Gogh and his depression as an early example of the effect that an incoherent theology of art can have on a Christian artist. Does this dilemma persist today?
I don't think there's that much [artistic activity] going on within the Protestant evangelical church. I'm sure there are pockets, areas. I think there might be a growing concern, but I'm not sure there's much going on that even appropriately nurtures the creative people in their midst. And what I mean by "appropriately nurture" is they might say, "Welcome, welcome to our flock, Artist," but they can't get across, they can't communicate, and that the recognition of diversity and the sense of community in the body and blood of Christ is there, but it's very much a lip-service thing, unless you happen to be a businessman or a construction worker or much more a part of the mainstream of society--a doctor or an oil-drilling person.

Regardless of what scripture might have to say about the subject of community and diversity, I think the artists today find themselves pretty much outside and fed all kinds of what amounts to kind of un-biblical, somewhat acculturated rationales for why they shouldn't be doing what they're doing or why they should be doing it a certain way. This pushes them further outside, and in isolation they build up their own defenses and reactions and responses, which further isolates them from their sisters and brothers.

Have you had to deal with this problem?
Well, I've been a Christian since 1967, so I'm bound to go through phases of that. You're always running into misunderstandings concerning the role and place of the arts in the church and whether or not artists are strange people. I think it's slowly but surely getting better. I'm in a pretty good situation now [at Warehouse Ministries], but I can't say when I first became a Christian that people were jumping up and down for joy at the thought of me going to art school as opposed to, say, Bible college.

Your songs are not overtly evangelical in form or content. Have you ever done overtly evangelical art?
No. And that was the thing--I mean, van Gogh was, I think, ill anyway. But that's one of the things that split him: He was kicked out of an evangelical college and told that he couldn't preach or something, so he went off and painted. He couldn't reconcile what he wanted to do as a preacher and what he wanted to do as a painter. I never found myself really compelled to do that. If I wanted to evangelize, I'd talk to somebody. I'm very impressed with discipleship and personal evangelism and going door to door with books, Bibles, and things like that.

And can music, or art in general, contribute in some way to this?
I think it's appropriate and possible that art can take its place in opening up the questions--like preparing the field as it were--into which evangelical seed could fall. But art that validates itself by going for the kind of closure that one normally and, I think, biblically associates with dialogue and evagelical preaching--I'm not sure that's ever appropriate, and I've never attempted that. What I'm interested in doing now is art that raises the right kind of questions or represents Jesus in a light that goes along with the questions or suddenly makes him very, shall we say, human. Very identifiable.

How are you doing this?
I've written songs and poems primarily to establish an arena into which people can go in order to work out or to wrestle with their dilemmas, whether it be "Who is Jesus Christ and what claim does he have on my life?" or "Why am I so screwed up?," "Why are we doing this?," or Why do we live this way?" People use terms like "pre-evangelism." I'm not sure if that's appropriate because the Bible seems to recognize every phase of the opening up of a community or an individual to the claims that God makes on their life. And I think every phase could be construed as being an "evangelical" one.

But we've so debased and truncated the concept of evangelism that unless there's some sort of closure, like selling a car, they assume that what you're doing is less than valid. I've never really felt pressured to validate my work by doing that, and the more I study the Bible and the great art that was done by Christians through the years, I see both its intrinsic validity as art and also its validity as a Christian statement both appropriate to its time and bearing witness in our present day.

What do you enjoy listening to where gospel music is concerned?
I like traditional gospel music. Sacred Harp, shape-note hymn singing--I think they still have those singing conventions down in the South. I like those songs for their harmonies and their lyrical content and the group singing. And I like black gospel, country blues, everything from black choirs to the Georgia Sea Island Singers to the recordings of people like Blind Willie Johnson, slide-guitar players, Rev. Robert Wilkins. And then, I suppose, the granddaddies or the forerunners of what we would call today rap music. I have a recording of the Pindar Family, from the Bahamas, in which they are either improvising or they've passed down these long, sung poems based on biblical materials. And there they call it "rhyming."

It's different from slave songs?
Yeah, it is. They basically rhyme their way through scriptural passages. And they have a guitar player with them called Joseph Spence. It was recorded by a guy called Jody Stecher, The Real Bahamas Volume One. That and Volume Two came out on the Nonesuch label a long time ago.

Another vocal black tradition would be "toasting." You have these reggae poets and singers chanting over a reggae track, from the late '60s and early '70s where they'd do it at dance halls. They'd spin the disc and talk over the top of it. And then you have today's rap. There's a lineage there that goes back to at least one particular kind of black-gospel tradition, although with reggae it goes off into pan-Africanism and Marcus Garvey and Hailie Selassie. And the rappers--I'm not quite sure where they're coming from.

I've always appreciated and enjoyed music coming out of communities who define themselves as Christians. I've got a recording that was made in Scotland of Gaelic psalmody, some community way in the North of Scotland, and it sounds pretty unearthly. It's sung in Gaelic, and harmonically it's pretty strange, but I like listening to that. When I was in Bali, Indonesia, I heard a Balinese gamelan, which is like a chime orchestra, being played by the gamelan orchestra attached to the Protestant Church of Bali. I brought a tape of their music back with me, and to hear Indonesian and Balinese music done with a desire to render Christ Lord in what is a highly traditional, animistic culture was very good too. So while I have some history with some of the forms of gospel music that we're familiar with in America, I'm still looking for new forms of expression, even when it moves into another tradition.

Such as?
Africa. I'm looking forward to spending more time listening to Ladysmith Black Mambazo. And I'm sure there are individual composers too, like Thomas Tallis, the Tudor composer. Classical? Bach. There are individual artists and particular folk cultural traditions that have either grown up or are growing up seeking to express the Lordship of Jesus Christ, whether it's Blind Willie Johnson playing "Nobody's Fault but Mine" or "Praise God, I'm Satisfied" on the slide guitar or the Protestant Church of Bali with an Indonesian gamelan proclaiming Christ as King in a particularly Indonesian kind of way. I'm sure it sounds beautiful to God, and it sounds kind of beautiful to me too.

Why is indigenous gospel music more readily accepted in our culture than, say, Contemporary Christian Music as exemplified, for example, by Amy Grant or Michael W. Smith?
I don't listen to Michael W. Smith or Amy Grant or any of those people. I've no idea really what kind of music they make. I saw an Amy Grant Christmas special a few years ago, [the one] with Art Garfunkel. But that's the extent of my knowledge of Contemporary Christian Music. I don't know what those people do. I just don't listen to them.

The few times that I have listened to what some people are doing, it's always sounded very derivative, very second hand. It might have a nice technological surface to it, and it can sound like they spent money doing it, but, in my opinion, I've always found that it lacks any kind of imagination or real, genuine interface with the world that it claims to be wanting to communicate to.

Might that explain CCM's limited appeal vis-a-vis the indigenous or folk-based gospel forms?
I want to tread carefully here because I don't think it invalidates or denies the spirituality of what's going on, but I think that a lot of [indigenous] music has been accommodated. It's been given a label which allows it to play a certain social role. That doesn't invalidate God's using that music to break through these roles and create a crisis encounter for the individual listening. I think someone could put on a Blind Willie Johnson record, listen to him sing "It's nobody's fault but mine, / my sister told me to read, / I've got a Bible in my room," and God could visit that person and say, "You've got a Bible--why don't you read it?" I think that could happen. But when we think in terms of black gospel or folk music--or classical music, whatever--we have safe aesthetic and sociological categories that become barriers that isolate us. By and large, we render it safe.

How does that "rendering safe" take place?
I think it's possible in a Christian society that when we look at an altar, we see a beautiful painting, whereas the first people to see an altarpiece would have had an experience of God because the altarpiece was set up in a church and they were looking at it during the Eucharist. For a black choir to sing something about God leading them in the same way that God led the Israelites in the wilderness may be their moment, for them, and if you were to tell them that what they did was music, or a wonderful art piece, that might or might not be true, but it would be irrelevant to what God was doing with and through them. We've set up a number of barriers.

And I'm not saying that we're necessarily very evil, twisted people for doing this, [but] I think the minute we walk into a cathedral and admire the architecture, we've lost the point. The first people that walked into that cathedral looked upwards and expected an experience of God, and the people working on it had an experience of serving God. But we've kind of lost that, and we're now dealing in terms of the aesthetics or the history or the social implications of what was going on.

And that's why I think there are certain sections of, shall we say, the evolving Christian expression that are so bound up with the cultural life of their particular country that that's exactly how it's dealt with: as an historical or a social or an aesthetic phenomenon. It's no longer a shared Christian statement per se.

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