Monday, June 8, 2009

"Plain Ol' Joe," or the Greatest Contemporary-Christian-Music Song of All Time

(As published in The Door--in 1995, I think)

You can count on one hand the number of great contemporary-Christian-music songs. You can do this even if, like Phil Keaggy, you don't have all your fingers.

No one really denies this, least of all the contemporary-Christian musicians themselves. As any issue of CCM magazine will show, these artisans pride themselves on their humility. "I just have to keep remembering that it's the Lord and not me who's making these anointed albums that are blessing so many people," they say. "When I look down from the stage at all those youth groupies wearing T-shirts with my smiling face on them that they just paid thirty dollars for and see them cheering me on, I think, 'Without the Lord I wouldn't be half as talented or blessed with good hair days as I am.'"

In other words, by the admission of the musicians themselves, the music alone doesn't amount to much more than the Jerusalem dirt that Jesus spat on to make the mud that healed the blind man. Why, the church might just as well listen to Ted Nugent should Jesus ever quit spitting on Sandi Patty. CCM's a lot like punk that way.

Even some of the people who buy the music would secretly like to gob on it. Many of them wouldn't listen to it at all if not for the fact that they belong to youth fellowships or Baptist Student Unions that require initiates to sign a statement of faith stating that they've participated at least once in the ritual destruction--by fire if possible, by sledgehammer if necessary--of "secular" CDs and tapes.

The behavior of the music's older adherents also puts the lie to its staying power, for unlike fans of the Rolling Stones, Dylan, or the Bay City Rollers, veteran CCM listeners seldom, if ever, return to "classic" albums for rejuvenation. If for some reason they ever should happen to hear Leon Patillo's I Used to Be in Santana or Scott Wesley Brown's When I Sit Around the House again, they'll almost certainly react with a hearty "I can't believe I used to listen to this crap!"

In fact, the whole process of CCM assimilation bears a striking resemblance to the process by which the citizens of Oceania in George Orwell's 1984 convince themselves that the oily bilge they call gin really tastes good going down. It goes like this: Little Joe Biblethump, having heard one if not one dozen too many sermons about how the music of Green Day and Pearl Jam inoculates him against God's love, decides he needs to listen to something else when he's studying for history class. First, he tries nothing, but the sound of facts pouring unfiltered into his head proves too harsh. So he tries the next best thing--music that sounds like Green Day and Pearl Jam, but with words that, played forward, extol Bible-reading, church-going, and prayer; backward they extol subscribing to Campus Life.

Sure it's lame, but it's either that or backslide. So the kid pretends to like it, and before long he finds his small talk peppered with arguments about why Guardian outrocks White Cross, and his private thoughts devoted to wondering if he was always this way.

And obviously "the world" doesn't think much of CCM. If they did, they'd buy it. As the situation stands now, record stores devote as much floor space to CCM as they do to Albanian Blues, Lesbian Folk, and Menudo simply because CCM cash barely registers.

But to avoid misunderstandings, let's get a few things straight: First, I know that some CCM musicians read The Door--simmer down! It's the ones who don't read The Door that I'm talking about. Second, I'd gladly agree to get paid for writing stuff like "Yet Thorn-N-the-Side consider their music a ministry first and entertainment second" myself if CCM magazine would have me. Third, people shouldn't confuse CCM with "black gospel," a genre that, at its best, sinks some serious fang into Satan's butt while shaking its own big bad one.

And fourth, even someone who pitches for the Seattle Mariners finds the strike zone once in a while.

Which leads us to the CCM pioneer Chuck Girard and his song "Plain Ol' Joe," which he recorded for his 1977 album Written on the Wind (Good News 8106). A Carl Wilson look-alike and founding member of Love Song--the best-known combo in the post-Woodstock days when people called CCM "Jesus Rock"--Girard honed his craft over a series of well-produced solo albums that for some reason always featured members of the big-time art-rock band Ambrosia. At his best, he demonstrated a knack for hanging Beach-Boy-styled vocals on hooks that almost certainly would've imbedded themselves into the Billboard Top 100 if they hadn't supported words like "Who ever thought I'd be a rock 'n' roll preacher / Singing my song so you can hear the good news?"

Search as you may, you won't find Girard's lyrics scrawled on bathroom walls (even at Christian colleges), chiseled onto tombstones, or swelling the pages of The Norton Anthology of Twentieth Century Poetry. This omission has less to do with society's overriding secular bias or the quality of the lyrics than it does with the fact that the words tended toward the predictable. They told you Jesus was to blame for making Chuck happy ("You Ask Me Why"), thanked Jesus for making Chuck happy ("Evermore," "When I Was Ready to Listen," "So Thankful," "Thank You, Lord"), and told you to let Jesus make you happy, too ("Lay Your Burden Down," "Slow Down," "Callin' You," "Return").

But he also wrote another type of song: the narrative. And in these he flirted beguilingly with unconventionality. In "Tinagera" (Chuck Girard, 1975, Good News 8102), for instance, he sketches a portrait of a teenage prostitute who goes by the name of her hometown, the Tinagera of the title. True, Girard can't resist evangelizing her ("There's a Way, my Tinagera!"), but considering the commotion Brooke Shields would cause three years later with her role as a Tinagera herself in Pretty Baby, the song takes risks.

Then there's "Old Dan Cotton" (Glow in the Dark, 1976, Good News 8103). A mysterious combination of Grizzly Adams, Grandpa Walton, and Jed Clampett, Dan is so old he's fought Indians and outlived a wife or two, and whenever the ol' ticker commences to actin' up, he gets house calls from Doc Jones. Anyway, one day he wanders off into the woods, finds God (Girard doesn't say how, exactly), and goes to heaven when the big one finally comes.

But "Plain Ol' Joe" is the best of all. It starts with Girard softly playing triplets on a piano with the pedal all the way down, but it soon turns out that more than the pedal's depressed. A few measures in, in an eerily somber voice, Girard begins singing this tale of woe:

He lived in Cincinnati, was born in '29.
His life was uneventful, not a bit like yours or mine.
His mother raised him proper, and his dad kept him in line.
He lived in Cincinnati. He was born in '29.

Then Girard gives us a "Hmm-mmmm" from which the bottom drops out, and all of a sudden only the assurance that he's going to get Plain Ol' Joe as saved as Old Dan Cotton makes the melodramatic melancholy of the descending chord pattern and ghostly production bearable.

He went upstate to college. He got no honors there.
He had a lot to offer, but no one seemed to care.
He'd visit home on weekends, and his folks would see him then.
They never asked him what he'd done or where he might've been.

Then another "Hmm-mmmm," but --holy Harry Chapin!--almost unnoticeable amid the pity party comes that "see" at the end of line three, a verb that in this context connotes something truly awful. "Sized up," "saw through," and "looked down upon" only begin to get at it.

He met a girl along the way. He thought it was romance.
He started to come out a bit. She'd given him a chance.
For a week he couldn't find her. Then he finally got the news:
She married an old boyfriend, and she moved to Syracuse.

"Hmm-mmmm." Syracuse! I mean, could Schenectady have been any sadder? With one well-chosen city of 200,000, Girard captures the same ineffable loss as Dylan does in "Tangled Up in Blue" with "Some are mathematicians, some are carpenters' wives. / Don't know how it all got started. / I don't know what they're doin' with their lives."

He holds the hurt in nicely, so you'd never ever tell.
Outside he looks like heaven, but inside he feels like hell.
He's cryin' out for something that he'll never ever know.
And everyone ignores him 'cause he's just a plain ol' Joe.

No "Hmm-mmmm" this time, rather those Beach-Boy-styled vocals wailing over and over, "Oh, oh, plain ol' Joe!" And for what serious Christian does the haiku-like "Outside he looks like heaven, but inside he feels like hell" not resonate?

At this point, the tug of war that Girard has established between the song's tear-jerking scenario and the optimistic swelling of its singing and production threatens to tear the song in half. But the struggle survives yet another upcrank in intensity as it reaches the bridge:

Everyone around him seemed so self-assured.
Everybody seemed to have it made.
Everybody acted like you never lived.
You're just a guy who never made the grade.
You're just a guy who never had a real friend.
You never seemed to ever really bloom.
But you finally made the papers just the other day
when they found your body in your lonely living room.

That's right, Joe dies. And not only does he die, but he dies alone. And not only alone but unsaved. And not only unsaved but unevangelized. And not only unevangelized but invisible, making him the Bartleby the Scrivener--and in some ways the Camus-esque Stranger--of CCM, a genre that by definition (and by abundant evidence) refuses to acknowledge such people exist. And dig the oxymoronic use of "living room."

But, you say, surely Girard goes on to resolve his tragedy the way Petra would two years later in "For Annie," the titular heroine of which kills herself only to provide Petra's Bob Hartman with an excuse to urge us to evangelize.

No, none of that for Chuck. All he gives us is a reprise of the first verse with the last line changed to "He lived in Cincinnati, and he died in '69." End of song. No heaven, no hell, no purgatory--zilch.
True, the next song on the album, "Harvest Time," resumes evangelical propriety by decrying the dearth of witnesses to the Gospel, and the remaining songs--"Fool for Jesus," "Hear the Angels Sing," "Peace in the Valley," "The Warrior"--betoken more of the same. But in light of the long look into the abyss that Girard braved in "Plain Ol' Joe," what else would you expect? You think any self-respecting CCM pioneer would put two songs about existential despair on one album?

No, and as things turned out, Girard wouldn't put two songs about existential despair into one career, either. Two albums and a best-of later, he disappeared from the scene, resurfacing only within the past year on the Love Song reunion album (Word/Maranatha) that a lot of people seem not to have noticed.

The only call I felt like putting through to Word's PR department was answered first by a woman who said Maranatha Records had no publicists, and second by a woman who, after apologizing for only working there three months, took my info and said she'd get back to me after she told her supervisor to tell Girard's people what I wanted.

Girard's people? A guy makes one, maybe two, albums in ten years that nobody knows about or buys, and he has people? Needless to say, a few months after the call, I'm still on hold. Funny, you'd think saying I was with The Door would've gotten someone jumping. I mean, do we or do we not have six-thousand subscribers?

But I have an idea about how to flush Girard out. Since Written on the Wind has been out of print for years, and since "Plain Ol' Joe" isn't on Girard's aforementioned best-of, I don't see why The Door can't enter into a for-a-limited-time-only agreement with him the way we did with the legendary Wauhobs ten years ago.

Maybe the smell of the millions to be made on this project will convince the man behind the greatest contemporary-Christian song of all time to finally tell us what inspired him to such heights in that long-ago summer of the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and the Clash.

After all, a guy's gotta pay his people.

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