Live in Tulsa, 1979, courtesy of Last Day Ministries
"I Reject Your Festivals, Nor Do I Delight in Your Solemn Assemblies"It was nowhere near Monterey Pop during the Summer of Love--in fact it didn't even come close to the second Woodstock a year later--but by its promoters' standards the 1978 Jesus Northwest music festival was huge. Nearly every one of the growing Jesus Movement's biggest stars: B.J. Thomas, Second Chapter of Acts, and Andrae Crouch, were performing their light-hearted feel-good spiritual tunes for a record-breaking audience who would likely spend a record-breaking amount of cash under the merch tents. Keith Green, the highly anticipated headliner and final act, was a charismatic curly-haired Los Angeles native whose upbeat Billy Joel-esque record For Him Who Has Ears to Hear released the year before was sitting comfortably atop the Christian album chart.
by Jimmy Chalk, NYU '09
On the show's final day, as the applause of thirty-five thousand hoarse attendees built, an anxious, deflated Keith Green tumbled from his trailer in tears. Speaking to a sea of thrilled fans he summarized Jesus Northwest's success thusly,
"This scripture is out of Amos. 'Thus saith the Lord, I hate, I reject your festivals, nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies, even though you offer up to me burnt offerings, I will not accept them. Take away from me the noise of your songs, I will not even listen to the sound of your harps." Green paused, "Does anybody understand what that means?"
Suffice it to say that when Keith Green is upset, everybody knows it.
My dad gave me a Keith Green tape when I was eight. I promptly discarded it. It was... just... old, and not the dinosaur fossil kind of old or even grandpa-old, it was more like disco-old. And when you're eight years old you don't wanna dance, you just wanna rock. Of course, the rock I'm referring to was less Pearl Jam and more dcTalk due to my parents' insistence on musical asceticism, but the point is that Keith Green does not rock. He belts, he croons, he grooves, but the man plays the piano and he does not play the guitar; therefore Keith Green did not often find his way into My First Fisher-Price Karaoke Machine.
By 1965, Keith Gordon Green was bound for child stardom. At age eleven he signed a five-year record deal with Decca and co-wrote his first single "The Way I Used to Be" with Gary Usher of Beach Boys fame, who also had a hand in the careers of Frankie Avalon, the Byrds, and Gram Parsons. (Other singles included a cover of the Beach Boys' 1965 track "Girl Don't Tell Me" as well as "How to Be Your Guy" in 1966.) Upon his receiving an honor for being the youngest member ever to join ASCAP, luminaries such as Sammy Davis, Jr. and Jack Benny invited him to play on various nationally broadcast programs. He was even approached by Colonel Parker, who told the Greens, "If I wasn't tied up full-time with Elvis, I'd take Keith on."
Keith seemed destined, a sentiment that was only confirmed by critics like Gordon Grant of the Los Angeles Times who raved about Keith's "alto that promises to become a strong baritone" and Time, which mentioned Decca Records' new "prepubescent dreamboat." Most important to Keith though was the fact that he was writing his own material; he brags in the 1965 Times article, "I've written about 40 songs and they're still coming. I'll never run out!"
Keith did keep writing songs, but by the time Donny Osmond had risen to teeny-bopper eminence, Decca no longer wanted to hear them. His star was fading but he continued to write and jam with friends while at the same time growing dissatisfied with his family's Christian Science beliefs. Unconvinced of the merits of established religion, Keith, like many of his contemporaries in the now self-aware "youth culture," ascribed to an ambiguously spiritual sentiment like that expressed in a statement from the "Council for a Summer of Love" published spring of '67 in the San Franscisco Oracle, which stated, "The activity of the youth of the nation... is a small part of a worldwide spiritual awakening... It is a gift from God which we may take, nourish, and treasure."
By the early Seventies, Keith became increasingly consumed by a desire for spiritual truth and increasingly dependent on LSD to aid his search. Corporate trips led by Keith were not uncommon, as his wife Melody testified: "It was natural for Keith to evangelize his friends. He was that way with everything. For instance, if Keith fixed his sandwich a certain way... he would tell everyone at his table, 'You gotta try this, man. You'll love it!' Imagine his determination when it came to trying to lead others to where he'd been spiritually." His trips often led to bizarre conclusions such as a journal entry that read, "That trip was really something, I feel different from the guy that took it. I feel like I went to another change. Good feelings. But one thing is for sure. The Dark Age started today." Finally, at age 17, Keith left home for Seattle, intending to convince an acquaintance to form "a spiritual band with a spiritual message."
But just which brand of spirituality he'd yet to determine. He believed that his acid trips had made it clear to him that there was a god, but he remained obsessed with figuring out exactly how to get to him. His parents were Christian Scientists of Jewish heritage, but those seemed too formal for his taste. He also knew he wasn't interested in the "Jesus Freak" scene in the least, an attitude that was confirmed by a visit to a "Jesus Freak" coffeehouse where Keith says "they tried to trip on me about believing the whole Bible, word for word, even the part that says God kills my brother and I just don't believe that. Not my wonderful Father!" As can be seen in this journal entry of November 23, 1970 (three days after the beginning of the Dark Age), Green's spiritual background in Christian Science (whose foundation is ostensibly the same as that of mainstream Christianity) had led him to consider the existence and character of God within the bounds of a relatively conservative paradigm similar to that of Christianity, using familial terms like "Father" and "brother."
Paradoxically, in the same journal entry where he eschews the "Jesus Freak" worldview, he says: "I'm still trusting my bro' Jesus Christ and Father God, who are one together, and one with me, and we're one with everyone. But it's easier to say that the universe and everything in it is one! Peace through unity" Green continued to pursue various spiritual outlets including the Rosicrucian Order and astrology as well as diversifying his drug intake to include mescaline and marijuana, a journey that was captured in-depth on Green's first full-length solo record For Him Who Has Ears to Hear, released in 1977.
The dry desert air of Rancho Mirage, California has a way of carrying smells that you don't catch in the city. As the scent of freshly cut grass mingles with the inevitable cigarette odor of my rental car and the hum of riding lawnmowers collides with Keith Green's acute tenor shuffled onto my iPod, I turn out of the driveway of the Betty Ford Center, stung by the irony: I first heard this record as a really little kid when my dad gave it to me. My dad was everything to me then; even if he liked crappy music, he still pretty much ruled the world. Now--I'm the adult, the responsible one, and here Green is singing: "Do you see, do you see/All the people sinking down?/Don't you care, don't you care/Are you gonna let them drown?/How can you be so numb/Not to care if they come?/You close your eyes/and pretend the job's done." Thanks a lot, asshole.
No, but seriously... thanks.
Green sings of his own recovery on "Your Love Broke Through," a critical cut on For Him Who Has Ears to Hear. His severe, not soothing, tenor lamens repentantly:
"All my life I've been searching for that crazy missing part/
And with one touch you just rolled away the stone that held my heart/
And now I see that the answer was as easy as just asking you in/
And I am so sure I could never doubt your gentle touch again/
It's like the power of the wind"
Accompanied by intentionally soothing strings and painfully saccharine production (perhaps to dull Green's vigorous tone) courtesy of Bill Maxwell (Andrae Crouch, T-Bone Burnett), "Your Love Broke Through" is not a hit. Legato verses give way to legato choruses, swirling strings and plodding piano in tow for the duration. No, it's obvious that Green is not writing to entertain. The melody, well, it's not that important to Green. He seems to be using tunes simply to serve as vessels for his impassioned lyrics, completely confident that his message will carry the music.
By 1975, Keith had returned to whence he came religiously. Everything he'd dabbled in so far he'd ultimately rejected. Melody later wrote: "Even though Keith was turned off by the idea of an organized group, there did seem to be one common thread running through all the teachings Keith had studied. That thread was the person of Jesus Christ." Convinced that Jesus at least had some good things to say, Keith kept writing and performing and most of his songs began to touch on spiritual topics. "War Games," co-written with a friend, elaborated on Keith's spiritual struggle.
Hey God, where were you today?/You didn't answer my prayers.
Lately I pray and pray/And lately you are not there.
Maybe my beliefs are all illusion/Created by my mind just for a crutch
Doubt creeps in to make its reintrusion/And sweeps away the faith I need so much.
Now he was calling himself a Christian of some sort: "There's no confused Christians like me that I can see or meet." But heavy drug use filled the space between spiritual revelations: "Took a downer, snorted coke--not good enough--smoked dope until the cows crowed." Enlightened by the teachings, confused about the teacher, Keith and his new wife Melody visited Vineyard Christian Fellowship, a small home church in Beverly Hills, where later an enraged Bob Dylan would demand to know why church counselors had encouraged his then-live-in girlfriend to move out. Kenn Gulliksen, the pastor of Vineyard, became a close friend of the Greens (and a mentor to Dylan) and in the summer of 1975 Keith Green reconciled his Jesus questions. So with the same passion he once devoted to leading acid trips, Keith began to evangelize everyone he met, annoying the crap out of nearly same, including his own family with the blunt "Song to My Parents (I Only Wanna See You There)" on For Him Who Has Ears. In Green's typical melodic prose he begs,
I need to say these things 'cuz/
I love you so/
And I'm sorry you get angry when I say that you just don't know/
That there's a heaven waiting for you and me/
I know it seems every time we talk/
I'm only trying to just make you see/
And it's only that I care/
I really only want just to see you there.
The terms exuberant and breathless--three "just"s in one verse, man!--don't just describe Green's writing style, they also seem to define his lifestyle. Obsessed with his spiritual discovery, Keith didn't resist any opportunity to talk spirituality; with his older Jewish friends, with wrinkly Hare Krishna at LAX, or with twenty-something hitchhikers near Vegas, and most telling, with his own parents. Responding to their reluctance, the painfully personal lyrics of "Song to My Parents" bear witness to the sincerity of Green's enthusiasm, if also to his brusque radicalism. Even Green's performance style hints at an unusual fervor; on super-produced ballads like "Song to My Parents," Green's piano and vox remain at a violent fortissimo while drums, strings, and bass maintain a mezzo forte, suggesting that in short, Keith Green lived his life the way he played and sang: as loud as possible.
"My records are in the back. We don't feel good about selling them or setting a price. You can give whatever you want for them, even nothing if you don't have any money."
As the ink dried on a lucrative contract for his third album in 1979, Keith rapped on the door of the Northridge, Texas home of Sparrow Records' head Billy Ray Hearn. He wanted out. His shows were already free and he was convinced that his records should be too. Keith told Hearn, "I blew it. God just told me to start my own label and give my records away. I'm really sorry." Hearn's miraculous response: "I'll let you go."
With the ink still fresh on a new contract (this time a mortgage on the Green's home to pay for the cost of producing and manufacturing 25,000 free records), production began on So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt... in late 1979. With Bill Maxwell still behind the board, the sound is familiar. Keith's new tunes, however, are spectacularly and refreshingly different. The nagging of "Song to My Parents" gives way to nuance in the chilling "I Pledge My Head to Heaven," which features a sparse yet tasteful harp solo from Dylan. However, the real genius here is in the slow-grooving title cut "So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt." After years of winded insistence, Green finally takes a deep breath and cuts up amidst the simulated din of exodus: "Manna waffles. Manna burgers! Manna bagels? Filet of mannaaaaa. Manna patty? Bamanna bread!!"
Keith Green's policy for the sale of So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt... was simple: 'Records are free. If you can, donate something. Feel free to make copies.' Fans unanimously approved while industry types were skeptical. But who could argue? Recorded, manufactured, and mailed to your door for nothing. At this rate, Green was probably not going to see black on a financial statement for years. But stunts like that aren't usually pulled by artists who are interested in the bottom line in the first place. What was he interested in?
For starters, of primary interest after the release of So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt... was constructing a permanent residence for the more than seventy people who'd become members of the Green household over the past four years. First to move in in '76 were Karen and Dawn, a single mother and her six-month-old baby. Later were a forty-year-old woman struggling with depression, a heroin addict, a Seconal addict, a girl who'd escaped from a "Moonies" cult. Out went the piano and in came more and more and more mattresses. Years later, Keith and Melody developed an entire rehabilitation program centered on their new home in Garden Valley, Texas.
More than a songwriter, Keith made a career of doing whatever it was he believed God asked him to. When that meant building an airstrip to help out local missionary organization Youth With a Mission in 1982, Keith put his own cash down to finance it. Cramming himself, two of his children, and nine others aboard a tiny Cessna 414 for a tour around the grounds of further YWAM expansion, his dedication to the cause he loved so dearly cost him his life.
Does anybody understand what that means
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