Steve Taylor: Living Life in the Open

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CCM Magazine
February 1994 Volume 16 Number 8
© 1994 CCM Publications, Inc.
Cover story, Pages 38-41


by Brian Quincy Newcomb

photos by Ben Pearson

"Ah, the news of my impending death came at a really bad time for me," begins the latest installment from Steve Taylor. Throughout the mid-'80s Taylor's crown as the comic prophet of Christian new wave pop was undisputed. But now that five years has passed since his "retirement" from the Christian music industry, many might not remember his mix of lyrical satire and rock music on successful albums like Meltdown and On the Fritz. Not unlike the line from Mark Twain, "The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated," Taylor burst back onto the scene of last year's Gospel Music Association Week in Nashville.

The quick-witted Taylor moved with charm and grace to the podium. Rumors had spread and most of the press had come for one reason--to confirm the whispered suspicion that Steve Taylor was in fact returning to contemporary Christian music. Reading from a hilarious script of his own conception and posing for the cameras, Taylor claimed that he would never attempt to buy our industry's respect and support. Then he began throwing the contents of his pockets--candy bars, loose change and some cash--into the crowd. Eventually he offered the very shirt off his back, including his jacket, shoes and accessories.

Don't Call It a Comeback

"The original idea to come back was not my own," Taylor admits after a filling breakfast at his favorite haunt, Nashville's Pancake Pantry. Settling in at the kitchen table of his modest home (which also serves as a painting studio for his artist/wife Debbie), with necessary quantities of caffeine in the form of Steve's homemade ("It's the only thing I can make") espresso, I asked the obvious questions about his return and new album, Squint, and got mostly unexpected answers.

"I have a philosophy of living life in the open," says Taylor. "So, there 's been an attempt to figure out what it is that I am, and what it is that is most important. It's not that there was a dramatic calling to get back into Christian music, it's that a friend of mine kept bugging me to do another solo record."

I Predict 1990, Taylor's 1987 release had proven to be the most controversial record of a career that was often misunderstood due to the satirical nature of songs like "I Want to Be a Clone," "What Ever Happened to Sin?" and "Guilty by Association." But when that record didn't succeed to his expectations, Taylor decided to move on.

"When I said, 'I retired,'" explains Taylor, "that was the best term I could use for it. You don't retire when you're angry, you quit. Retirement felt like that appropriate word, because I wasn't angry. But the future did not look inviting, so that was the best thing to do, just retire. I maintained all my friendships, and just moved on to try something else, and at that time I did not know what the next thing was going to be."

Feeling that his career in Christian music had peaked early, Taylor's next thing turned out to be Chagall Guevara, a band formed with ...1990 producer Dave Perkins, Word Records V.P. Lynn Nichols, longtime Rick Cua/Phil Keaggy drummer Mike Mead, and bassist Wade Jaynes. Chagall released its self-titled MCA debut in '91 to strong reviews in Rolling Stone and elsewhere, but did little touring and the album failed to live up to commercial expectations. Taylor's disappointment is tangible as he explains how the record company dropped the ball, and the band didn't pick it up and run with it. Taylor and Nichols both turned to production (Steve for the Newsboys, Nichols with long-time associate Phil Keaggy), and eventually Taylor began seriously considering a return to make a solo record.

"The critical factor," he says "came when I talked with my pastor. He said two things. Number one, he said 'I liked your band, but I felt that you guys did a better job figuring out what you weren't than what you were,' and that definitely struck a chord of truth. And the second thing he said was 'I plead with you to do another solo record.' I think his thinking was that there was something that was going on as a solo artist that wasn't happening in the band, that what I was doing as a solo artist was important.

"For me, it was figuring out what it is in the end that you want your life to have meant. You decide, I really want to have been a good husband, and a good friend and all those things. And you ask, 'What did I want my career to stand for?' I realized that my heroes were not only not other Christian musicians (although there are Christian musicians who do this thing very well), but my heroes were also not pop musicians that were Christians. The people that I've really admired, and I don't want this to sound self-important, but the people in whose footsteps I want to follow are the people like Francis Schaeffer, C.S. Lewis and Billy Graham. Those are the guys who have most affected my life with regard to my Christianity, which I view as the most important aspect because it affects everything else. Those were the guys who challenged me most, not only by what they wrote but also by the way they lived. Those are the people I want to emulate.

"That puts my desire in context, and writing songs that communicate this Christian worldview became more important than these other things. So, that's the goal, and that's the context out of which I go in to make a gospel record for a gospel label. I realize that it may be 'Steve Taylor, Christian artist' for the rest of my life, but if that's how it is then I'm fine with that."

The Satirist Returns

I asked Taylor if his use of satire might still be misunderstood by some Christian music listeners. "It might still be a concern," says Taylor. "The thing of it is, satire in the context of subversive communication is such a thread throughout the Bible--through the prophets and the teachings of Jesus--that it always surprises me when people are upset by it. When Jesus says, 'It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into heaven,' that's satire. When Elijah taunts the prophets of Baal, saying 'Cry out a little louder, perhaps your god is asleep or off going to the bathroom,' that's cruel satire. So I'm surprised that any Christian would be offended by that approach, but it makes me think, maybe these Christians are getting their ideas and beliefs from other people and some concept of 'cultural Christianity,' rather than going to the source.

"It never really bothered me until the last record," says Taylor of the need to explain his art. "Some people grow up in the church, and have a real oppressive or misunderstood experience. My experience growing up--even with my Dad as a pastor--was really wonderful, with parents that were consistent from what they said and what they did. Then watching my Dad navigate the waters of having to be a pastor, you have to practice diplomacy and bring disparate people together. Seeing how my Dad did that, the thought of being in the place of controversy or where things weren't immediately understood, that never bothered me at all. I think what happened up until I put out 1990, the stuff seemed controversial for all the right reasons. But at that point, it turned into me being accused of using tarot card album covers and new age hand signs. It was really, really way out. That kind of stuff, I'd never dealt with before. I felt stupid even responding to that kind of thing, and that sapped a certain amount of energy out of it.

"The whole thing about being an artist, it's all so self-centered anyway that it's a lot more rewarding to talk about things like satire, and what this or that song is about. But when you have to go around saying, 'I'm a nice guy, and I go to church.' It's like suddenly, I was in the position of defending that I really was a Christian. It felt like it was a big step backwards."

Making Movies

This year Taylor takes a giant step forward as he has written and produced his new album, and worked as director of his videos for the forthcoming long-form release. Taylor took his video budget, bought a 35mm movie camera and four round the world airline tickets, so that he and a small crew could make the world their canvas. "It's an idea I had blowing around in my mind for a while," says Taylor. "Instead of staying here and trying to build sets or make Nashville look interesting, I thought we could just use the world as our backdrop. That way, if I'm boring as a performer, there'll still be other things to look at. We just tried to go places that no one had really seen before. For whatever reason, God smiled on us during that trip. You think of all the things that could have gone wrong, and nothing went wrong on the whole trip."

The six song video album, Squint--Movies from the Soundtrack, is set to hit the retail racks in March and will feature along with "Bannerman," clips of "Smug," "Jesus is for Losers," "The Finish Line," "Sock Heaven," and "Cash Cow."

During his Christian music years Taylor had made touring an important part of his connection to his fans, and he promises he'll return to that pattern. "In some ways, it's sort of like starting from scratch again," admits Taylor. "It's been a while. The plan is, we're going to go out this spring and take the film to like, 15 cities, and I'll go along. Then we start actually touring with the band in the middle of April, playing mostly festivals and stuff in Europe until the fall, and then we'll hit it more seriously. Of course, you're not a band if you're not playing, so the live aspect is what makes it all worthwhile. I always felt that if there was time to say hello, and shake somebody's hand, that something important actually happens there."

Bannerman Strikes Back

Something important--that pretty much describes what Taylor has to say on Squint with songs like "Bannerman," which mounts heroic praise on the guys who hold aloft those "John 3:16" placards at sporting events. It's a song that would have been too obvious in its faith context for the mainstream ambitions of Chagall. "Part of this is a reaction to the band," suggests Taylor. "If I had written 'Bannerman' five years ago, it would have been a completely different song. It was the same thing about street corner preachers, the boldness and the artlessness of it, that 'I don't care what anybody else things, this is important enough to me that I'm going to hold this banner up and I don't care if it embarrasses me or anybody else.'

"I'm not sure whether the guy is effective or not, I'm not sure that it matters. But there's something about the motive of a guy like that that I don't necessarily get, but I admire. Partly, it's because I don't have the nerve to do it. It's that passion of the simple message that 'God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son...' It's the same sort of experience I had growing up as a kid, my Dad would take me with him to missions and I'd meet these people, and some of them weren't very sophisticated but they sure knew that Jesus was the answer for the world. That part of it is easy to lose. Whoever these guys were, there was something about them that I liked."

Now that Taylor has the freedom to again write "from a specifically Christian worldview," he's taking full advantage of the opportunity. Take for example, "Jesus is for Losers."

"The impetus of that song came I think," Taylor admits, "when I was reading about some porn star that had become a Christian. My first reaction was exactly the same as that of people who might have a problem with the song. I thought, 'That's just what we need, a porn star for Christ, what an embarrassment to the church.' But you catch yourself right in the middle of thinking that, and it's like 'Are you hearing what you're saying?' The whole reason Jesus came was to heal people that are sick--He didn't come for those who don't need a doctor. My first reaction to this guy was 'go somewhere else,' but that's not a real Christ-like attitude to have. These songs are very self-indicting.

"On this record, if there is a theme, it's that Jesus is the answer. I don't know how to put it anymore artfully, because I'm absolutely convinced of it afresh. Apart from Jesus, I don't know how people do it. It just worked out that way, I can't say that will happen with future records, but that's what I most want to communicate with this one. There's not much sense in doing Christian records, if you're not convinced of that, or at least periodically re-excited by it. It's a simple message, but the ramifications are way broad.

"I suppose if I was defensive, that alone would be reason enough for me not to be doing Christian records. I guess that's a good way to judge. When people ask what I do, I say 'I make gospel records,' and I guess I should worry when I start deleting the gospel part, and being embarrassed about it. That's one thing I've learned in my attempt to live life in the open--I make gospel records. Whether that's something that's going to last, who knows? But right now, it's something to be grateful for."

BRIAN QUINCY NEWCOMB somehow makes time to interview gospel artists in between pastoring two churches in St. Louis, MO and contributing to other music publications.

Taylor's Tabloid Truths

Full name: Roland Stephen Taylor

Birthplace: Brawley, California

Other clones (siblings): Jim, Dawn

Height: 6'3"

Weight: 160 lbs.

Blood Pressure: yes

Education: High school diploma-Northglenn High School; Bachelor of Arts-University of Colorado; French for Tourists, Tape 1

Automobile: Honda Civic hatchback

Last book read: The Brothers Karamazov, Cliff Notes

Travel vaccines received in 1993: Tetanus/Diptheria, Malaria, Polio Booster, Gamma Globulin, Typhoid (oral)

Most recent celebrity sighting: Nirvana in a London curry house

Got autographs from: David Byrne, Cliff Richard

Seeking autographs from: Billy Graham, Mookie Wilson, All surviving members of the Clash and Abba

Other things you want CCM readers to know about you: "It wasn't a tarot card."