best. night. ever.

Here, my friends, is the story of one of the most amazing things that has ever happened to me.

The thing I’m talking about happened this month, but in order to appreciate it we have to jump back a few decades, to the early 1980s in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was a student at what I sometimes refer to as Famous Televangelist University. Christian college can be a stiflingly-conformist environment; I had a dorm director once proclaim in a devotion that it was one of the hardest places to be a Christian, because it was so easy to just drift along with the crowd and do all the right things for all the wrong reasons, or for no reason at all.

Then, as now, there existed both really bad Christian music and really good Christian music. I had the quirky sense of humor to latch on to several artists with satirical sensibilities – songwriters who could laugh at themselves and poke at the foibles of both the secular world and the imperfect church. During my years at ORU, I became a particular fan of the band Daniel Amos, singer-songwriter Randy Stonehill and singer-songwriter Steve Taylor.

Daniel Amos, by the way, played a concert at a church in Smyrna three or four years ago – the first time they’d toured in ages. But I couldn’t go; I was in camp that week, as a volunteer in Mountain T.O.P.’s Adults In Ministry program in Grundy County.

About a year and a half later, my wonderful sister, who had drawn my name for Christmas, gave me a ticket to a nostalgia-themed all-star concert of Christian entertainers from the 1970s and 80s which had Randy Stonehill as one of the headliners. But the concert (which was going to be taped for a TV special) ended up being canceled for some unknown reason.

i-want-to-be-a-cloneFor purposes of this story, then, let’s get back to the third member of that troika. Steve Taylor’s 1983 debut EP, “I Want To Be A Clone,” had a blistering, new-wave title song. That song, and the EP, were a perfect antidote to Christian college conformity. The song was all about Christian conformity, and how some within the church seek to impose their own private beliefs, practices and even language upon others.

By the time that album came out, I was using my own sense of humor to help keep me level at ORU. My good friend, the late Kendall Durfey, and I produced parody radio ads which I played over the public address system prior to on-campus movies (I spent 2 ½ years as ORU’s campus film chairman, and then my senior year I was vice-president of the Student Association in charge of campus activities). I wrote the spots, we both voiced them, and Kendall used his production expertise to make them sound great. In many of the spots, Kendall played a funny character, “Dr. Herb Zimmerman.”

I also wrote a humor column, “Speed Bumps,” for ORU’s campus newspaper, the Oracle, and was in charge of a special April Fool’s edition of the paper my senior year, setting the stage for the April Fool’s story I now do each year at the Times-Gazette.

Time marched on. I graduated in 1984 and moved home to Tennessee a year later. Steve Taylor released several more of his own albums. He was also a member of a crossover band, Chagall Guevara, which had a secular record deal. I went to see Chagall Guevara in Nashville in 1991, the only time I’d ever seen Steve perform live. Steve became a record executive, and played a key role in the success of Sixpence None The Richer, among others.

He directed a number of videos – for himself, for Sixpence and for other artists – and that gave way to him becoming a movie director. I and my girlfriend at the time went to Brentwood Baptist Church to be in the crowd scenes for “The Second Chance,” a movie Steve directed starring Michael W. Smith.

More recently, Steve directed a movie adaptation of “Blue Like Jazz” by Donald Miller.

Now, after a 10-year absence, Steve is making music again. He’s put together a new band, The Perfect Foil. Their new album was released earlier this week. A few weeks before that, Steve started releasing videos to promote the new album.

I enjoyed all three. While watching the last one, “Goliath,” I happened to click the “like” button on YouTube. Because of the way my YouTube account is configured, that automatically generated a Twitter post stating that I had liked the video.

Right away, the official Twitter account for Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil favorited and retweeted my post. No real surprise there; any artist with a good social media team might have done the same.

But then, almost right away, I got a message from the account asking if I was the same John Carney who had attended ORU in the 1980s.

I had to admit that I was. I was also, at that moment, pretty curious.

The message came from Steve’s manager, Nick Barre. Nick was a few years behind me at ORU. He remembers the funny fake radio ads and the humor column. He said that Kendall and I inspired him, and made him want to be creative too.

We could stop the story right there and it would be pretty darn amazing. This guy remembers my humor – 30 years later! – and actually calls me an inspiration. He took the time to introduce himself and tell me so on a social media site. I was deeply flattered. That compliment alone made my night, and it’s probably the most amazing thing about this story.

But then, Nick continued. Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil would be playing Nov. 21 at the Cannery, a Nashville nightclub. The band was billing it as their album release party.

“I’d love to put you on the guest list,” wrote Nick.

Nope; sorry. Not interested. I mean, why would I want to be an invited guest for a show by one of my long-time favorite artists? That wouldn’t be any fun, would it?

Two of my ORU friends, Emory Stagmer in Maryland and Darrell Grizzle in the Atlanta area, went to earlier concerts on the tour and gave them glowing reviews.

I arrived at The Cannery early enough to get one of the last few free parking spots, before people started having to park in the paid lot next door. I must have gotten there about 20 minutes before the doors opened at 7 p.m.; it was an 8 o’clock show.

While I was waiting outside, a man in a plaid shirt darted out, and we instantly, if hesitantly, recognized each other from Facebook profile photos.

“John?”

“Nick?”

Nick was busy with his managerial duties, but he stopped to introduce himself and welcome me to the concert (as if I were doing him a favor rather than the other way around). He mentioned that The Perfect Foil’s lead guitarist, Jimmy Abegg, was “under the weather,” which I mistakenly thought meant he’d have to miss the concert. It later turned out he had gotten severe food poisoning while the band was in Atlanta for that show earlier in the week. (Darrell, do we need to educate you Georgians on food safety?) He was still not feeling well at show time, and Steve made reference to this, but you couldn’t tell it from his playing.

Nick did, however, tell me that there would be “surprises” during the concert.

I made polite conversation with a few other people standing there on the porch – a lot of them, not surprisingly, were my age, and the porch looked like Old Fart Jubilee, to borrow a phrase from Joe Bob Briggs.

The Cannery Ballroom is one of those big open standing-room-only nightclubs. There are no tables around the perimeter or anything like that. I was there early, and so I was thrilled to be standing very, very close to the stage.

WP_20141121_007The opening act was the husband-and-wife duo Fleming & John – not a coincidence, since John Mark Painter also happens to be the bass player for The Perfect Foil. I’d heard the name but wasn’t really familiar with their work. I was blown away – they were great, melodic and entertaining. I will definitely be checking out their catalog. I posted a photo to Facebook after their set, and was tickled when my former castmate Sharon Kay Edwards responded by saying that “I’m Not Afraid” had been her “high school jam.”

Later, during his set, Steve said his goal next year is to release a new Fleming & John record.

WP_20141121_017Then, of course, it was time for Steve and the new band. They were every bit as good as I thought they’d be. I was worried about standing for three hours. Steve, who is 4 ½ years older than me, rubber-legged and skinny as a rail, bounced around the stage, flailing and crouching and spinning and leaping with the same energy I’d seen at that Chagall Guevara concert in 1991. He has an incredible stage presence.

The set was a perfect mix of new and old songs.

They opened with “Only A Ride,” which had been the first video released from “Goliath,” but “I Want To Be A Clone” popped up early in the set as well.

I was lost in the music throughout.

When the show was over, we screamed for the encore. Steve, true to form, came back out and performed – so help me – a cover of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” Then he launched into the real encore, “Jim Morrison’s Grave.” I had seen reference to this having been the encore at one of the previous concerts.

But it wasn’t the only encore.

After that, Steve brought out Dave Perkins, Lynn Nichols and Mike Mead from Chagall Guevara. Mead displaced Peter Furler at the drum kit, but Abegg and Painter stayed on stage, and The Perfect Foil / Chagall Guevara peformed a cover of “Gloria” and then “Violent Blue,” off the Chagall Guevara album. That was the surprise Nick had hinted at, and what a surprise and thrill it was.

Steve-Door

Steve had promised to hang out and meet people after the show, and he was as good as his word. I had brought a 1984 issue of The Wittenburg Door with Steve on the cover, and he signed it for me. Nick was standing nearby and was kind enough to repeat his compliments in Steve’s presence, but the fact of the matter is that Steve was just as gracious to every single person who wanted to speak to him.

I’m an idiot, by the way, for not getting a photo of me and Nick as well.

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By this point, it was after midnight. I told Nick I had to get back to Shelbyville so that I could get up early for a Relay For Life fundraiser at the Times-Gazette. Nick repeated his story of how Kendall and my parody radio spots, and to a lesser extent my humor column, inspired him, and how seriously he took it when he got the chance to program ORU’s campus radio station.

At this point, I’m wondering to myself: If I was really as talented as Nick perceived me to be, what happened? How is it that I’m now 52, overweight, single, seemingly at a career dead end, and fighting my way out of poor financial practices from earlier in life? I was kind of grateful that Nick didn’t see my white 1995 Geo Metro with one red door, the one I literally prayed before the trip would make it to Nashville and back without incident.

But this wasn’t a night for dwelling on the negative. This was a night to accept a great compliment, enjoy a great show, relive some memories and get to know some great new songs. This was, in short, one of the best nights I’ve had in some time – one of the best nights ever.

Meltdown (At madam tussaud’s)

Yes, I know, I haven’t blogged much lately, what with the play and everything. I started to post this to Facebook but decided it was worthy of a blog post.

STEVE TAYLOR HAS NEW MUSIC OUT!!!!!!

You don’t know how happy this makes me.

Back in college, I was a huge fan of Steve’s, starting with his legendary EP, “I Want To Be A Clone.” I attended a Christian college, named for and headed by a Famous Televangelist, and Christians who had a sense of humor, or even a satiric edge, and indicated that it was permissible to think for yourself were like a lifeline to me in the middle of what could sometimes be a stuffy, conformist environment.

Of course, I’m a lifetime fan of Daniel Amos and of The Swirling Eddies, the overlapping bands led by Terry Scott Taylor (no relation to Steve). Steve, like DA, could make fun of idiocy both within and outside the church, and, like DA, sometimes caused controversy by doing so.

Later, after college, I loved Steve’s album “I Predict 1990” and then his participation in Chagall Guevara, a crossover band with a secular record deal. I remember going to a club in Nashville to hear Chagall Guevara, which I hardly ever did even in those days. But Chagall Guevara didn’t last long.

Steve moved on and became a producer and record executive. It was his record label that discovered and promoted Sixpence None The Richer, and he directed some of their videos.

That led to his recent work as a filmmaker. I actually went to Brentwood Baptist Church a decade ago to be in crowd scenes for “The Second Chance,” a movie he directed starring Michael W. Smith. More recently, he took “Blue Like Jazz” – a favorite book of mine, and one that you would not think would lend itself to the narrative of the motion picture format – and made it into a movie. I’ve never actually seen either film.

But now, he’s back where he belongs – making music. He’s put together a new band, The Perfect Foil, and has a new video, which sounds very much like the old Steve we all knew and loved:

I am Groot

Well, I went to see “Guardians of the Galaxy” today. I’d been mildly curious about this movie since seeing the first publicity for it many months ago, but sadly, “mildly curious” doesn’t get me to the theater that often. (The last movie I saw in the theater was “The Monuments Men,” and you probably have to go back a year or two before that.)

But several friends, and several reviewers, were so effusive about it last weekend, stressing how much fun it was, that I decided to go see it. I had the time and the money the same weekend, and I even walked to the theater, getting in my daily exercise. I was warned by the box office that they were having air conditioning problems upstairs, but I took the chance anyway. It wasn’t that bad, and they had ceiling fans running. Once the movie got started, I never had a chance to think about the temperature.

“Fun” is exactly the right word for this movie – the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater in ages. Equal parts wise-cracking humor, breakneck action and eye-popping production design, this is the very definition of a popcorn movie. And it has a heart, to boot.

Except for the pre-credits prologue, which documents how young Peter Quill was abducted by aliens after running away from his mother’s deathbed in (IIRC) 1987, the movie is set far, far away from Earth.

I’m echoing several reviewers when I say this has the fun and humor of the initial Star Wars movies, without the ponderous self-seriousness of the prequels.  It also has the fast pace of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” There are times when it’s hard to follow certain nuances of the story, but it hardly seems to matter.

The two CGI characters – Rocket the Raccoon and Groot, a tree-like creature with a one-phrase vocabulary – work surprisingly well and you find yourself surprisingly invested in their fate. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista are all terrific, as are all of the various supporting players. (Wish they’d given John C. Reilly more to do.)

One thing many reviewers have mentioned, and justifiably so, is the movie’s soundtrack – a soundtrack so wonderful, and so of my generation, that I immediately had to come home and buy it from Amazon. Young Peter Quill’s only possession when he’s abducted – his only link to home, and his mother – is a Sony Walkman with a mixtape his mother made for him. That becomes a plot point in the movie, and it includes some of my favorite songs. One reviewer referred to them as “80s songs,” I guess because the opening scene is supposed to be set in the mid 80s, but they’re mostly 70s songs – songs the mother would no doubt have listened to in the 1970s when she was an adolescent, songs she would have treasured and wanted to pass along.

Here’s the list from the soundtrack album, which should give you an idea:

1. Hooked on a Feeling, Blue Swede

2. Go All the Way, The Raspberries

3. Spirit in the Sky, Norman Greenbaum

4. Moonage Daydream, David Bowie

5. Fooled Around And Fell In Love, Elvin Bishop

6. I’m Not in Love, 10cc

7. I Want You Back, Jackson 5

8. Come and Get Your Love, Redbone

9. Cherry Bomb, The Runaways

10. Escape (The Piña Colada Song), Rupert Holmes

11. O-O-H Child, The Five Stairsteps

12. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Tammi Terrell

“Hooked on a Feeling” and “Fooled Around And Fell in Love” are among my all-time favorites, and I have great memories of most of the others as well. Yes, they’re sometimes used in a tongue-in-cheek manner within the movie, but they’re still great songs – and the movie knows it. No wonder Peter Quill is so protective of that Walkman!

This is a Marvel Studios movie, so be sure not to leave the theater just because the end credits are rolling. Stay until after the credits and you’ll be rewarded. (Remember that Marvel and Lucasfilm are now both owned by Disney, and think back to 1986. That’s all I’m saying.)

news from the ding-a-ling

WP_20140108_003I made a reckless, spur-of-the-moment decision tonight, and I blame my sister-in-law in North Carolina.

That may not really be fair; I’ve thought that handbells were beautiful ever since I first heard a handbell choir play. But it was Kelly who was my closest example. She really enjoyed it and talked with pride about playing.

My church, First United Methodist in Shelbyville, resumed its Wednesday night meal this week after a two-month break for the holidays and other church functions. There’s a catered meal, followed by a variety of other activities. I used to stay for the Bible study, but for various reasons I dropped out, and for the past year or year and a half I had just been showing up for the dinner and then going home.

Tonight, during the announcements before the meal, they mentioned that a new handbell choir was forming. FUMC has had handbells for many decades – the bells themselves are 40 years old, although they were recently refurbished and have new handles and what have you.

WP_20140108_001I don’t know what made me decide to show up for the handbell choir, but I did. We have kids and a few adults. Dulcie Davis, an elementary school principal, is our director. Her mother and aunt, Ann Spencer and Ardis Caffey, are also there to help, and they’ve been involved with the handbells for generations. We have both children and adults in the choir. I think there were 18 of us behind the table tonight.

Dulcie suggested that John Hendren, Allen Doyle and I play the heaviest bells, down at the low end.

I’ve never had any musical talent. I taught myself to play the harmonica a few years ago, and I keep meaning to get serious about it, but I never stick with it and all I know are about 3 songs and some blues riffs that you can put together randomly. I’ve always envied those with musical or artistic talent.

Anyway, tonight we focused on the basics – how to treat the handbells, the basic circular motion and wrist snap, and what have you. Even so, I didn’t feel like I was doing very well. I would be trying to ring both of my bells at the same time and would hear or feel them hitting separately.  Dulcie tries to treat this very seriously, for everyone’s benefit, and I hope I can get better in the next few weeks.

I had to call North Carolina as soon as I got home from church, and tell my sister-in-law what I had done.

“You’ll enjoy it,” she said.

“If I don’t,” I answered, “I’m blaming you.”

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They placed a wreath upon his door

Towards the end of each night of the “Hee Haw & Howdy” show, Pete Carter – who’s been playing and singing in Bedford County for decades – did a medley of George Jones tunes, including an abbreviated version of “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

“He Stopped Loving Her Today” by George Jones is the ultimate and best country song, in the same way that “Born To Run” by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band is the ultimate and best rock and roll song. You would think that these would be subjective matters of personal opinion, but they are not. If you disagree with me on either point, you are simply wrong.

Turn up the Rdio

I have had the free Spotify account for about six months – almost six months exactly. I knew that, because of this, restrictions were about to kick in on my Spotify account – only 10 hours of listening per month, and only five plays of any given song. But I don’t want to sign up for any of their paid plans right now.

Then, yesterday, I had a technical glitch. I’m still not sure what happened – whether the six-month restrictions kicked in and triggered some sort of bug, or whether this was just some unrelated problem. But the service quit in the middle of a song. When I tried to log back in, it kept telling me it couldn’t sync with my Facebook account. (Spotify requires Facebook integration.) And yet, I kept getting e-mails from Facebook telling me that Spotify had successfully logged in to my Facebook account.

I finally got the error messages to go away, but when I did, I noticed that my playlist – the one I’d spent months building, containing hundreds of songs – was gone. Disappeared. Nowhere to be found.

Well, I’ve ditched Spotify for the time being. I’m trying out Rdio, another streaming service. I understand that Rdio has limits on its free service, but they’re sort of vague about what they are, except for a green progress indicator on the web site or desktop client, and they seem to be more generous than the ones I was about to run into on Spotify. Rdio doesn’t have as many songs as Spotify, from what I’ve read and from my quick experience, but they still have a lot to choose from.

Sacred and profane

While adding a couple of more things to my Spotify playlist tonight, I wondered if I needed to set up separate playlists for Christian music and secular music. I’ve never done this on my normal MP3-player or computer playlists, and I’m not going to do it here either, except maybe to set up some special-occasion playlists. When I want to listen to music, I want a hodgepodge, a return to the good old days when radio stations weren’t so specialized and consultant-driven.

This leads, of course, to some sort of bizarre segues. Then again, even if you ignored the lyrics, I have eclectic tastes in music in general, and so you’re likely to hear a variety of styles and eras represented.

Granted, a lot of the Christian music I listen to (built around songwriters like Terry Scott Taylor and the unrelated Steve Taylor) has a satirical bite to it, although I do have some more literal and straightforward songs on the list as well.

So am I crazy or corrupt for listening to the sacred and the secular intermingled?

I apologize to my Facebook friends for all of my Spotify links this weekend. I’ve been having fun with the service.

One caveat: Spotify has so many songs that in several cases I’ve discovered that I have added an unexpected version of the song to my playlist – the live version instead of the studio version, a dance mix, or (in the case of some oldies) a re-recorded version from a nostalgia album years later, perhaps after the artist has changed record labels and no longer has the rights to use the original track. Usually, you can go back and figure out the version you really intended to add. In one case, there was a sound-alike single (Spotify has those too, along with karaoke tracks) mislabeled as being the original artist, in this case an artist that Spotify doesn’t have the rights to yet. So I couldn’t replace that one with the real track; I just deleted it.

The annoying new convert, Spotify edition

If you go to the Spotify web page, and scroll all the way down to the bottom, you will see some blurbs of endorsement, including one from Demi Moore and another from Mark Zuckerberg. But the one I want to cite is from Wired magazine: “Those who have tried Spotify know it’s like a magical version of iTunes in which you’ve already bought every song in the world.”

That may be hyperbole, but that’s exactly what Spotify feels like. There are existing services that do parts of what Spotify does, but Spotify puts it all together in a great, free package.

Spotify started in Europe, and I began hearing my favorite tech commentators rave about it before they were able to bring it to the U.S. It gives you immediate and free access to listen to millions of music tracks. You can set up a playlist, add songs to it, and then just sit back and listen. That playlist lives on the Spotify servers, so you can listen to it on any computer with Spotify installed. You can also share links to playlists or to your favorite songs or albums; you can follow users whose musical taste you appreciate, and see what they’re listening to lately, or they can follow you (if you’ve made your playlists public, and you don’t have to). The basic version costs nothing, and your music is interrupted every 15 minutes or so by a commercial. (So far, all of the commercials are for Spotify itself, but I assume that will change over time.) You can upgrade to a premium version which eliminates the ads and includes additional features, such as streaming music to your cell phone.

I had gotten my Spotify invite some days ago, courtesy of bad, bad Ivy, but I had some trouble getting started and didn’t really figure out how to do what I wanted to do until yesterday. At that point, I became like a man possessed, adding songs to my Spotify playlist left and right. There were obscure songs from my Christian college days – songs I literally hadn’t heard at all in 20 to 25 years – and songs I played on WHAL-AM when I worked there as a teenager. There were recent songs, treacly songs, tough songs, any kind of song. There are gaps – individual artists or record labels with whom Spotify hasn’t yet come to terms – but what’s there is massive, and feels like it goes on forever.

Today, a Facebook friend of mine – a musically-talented friend with whom I shared the stage in a play earlier this year – was asking for suggestions for Christmas songs for a concert she’s putting together. My mind immediately jumped to “The Star Carol,” one of my favorite songs and one you never, ever hear anywhere anymore. I posted a link to an Amazon MP3 and to a lyrics page, assuming (rightly) that she’d be completely unfamiliar with the song.

Then I remembered Spotify (which was already running in the background, cranking out my favorite tunes on the computer). So I immediately started pestering this poor woman with Spotify links to the song and messages about how great Spotify is and how she should sign up for it right away.

Turns out she doesn’t even have a computer at home.

I felt like a bit of an idiot.

Those of you who do have computers at home should go and sign up right away, however.

Tell me you’re coming back soon

All of this ridiculousness about the scheduled rapture got me thinking about two of my favorite songs about the longing for Christ’s actual return.

The first is “Coming Back Soon,” a beautiful little number in which the singer bids his little daughter farewell in order to go out on tour, but promises her he will return.

This is the only video I could find on YouTube; it has Randy before the song, which starts at about the minute mark.

The other one is the strongly Brian Wilson-influenced “Soon!”, written by Terry Scott Taylor and performed by his band Daniel Amos.  I found this video on YouTube, made by a fan. The images which have been selected to accompany the song are kind of, well, cheesy, which is disappointing to me because one of the reasons I like this song is that it doesn’t play to clichés about heaven or the second coming. But this was the only way I could find of getting the music into this post. Click “play” and then minimize your browser until the song is over.

Mountain T.O.P. experience

Okay, now, this isn’t even funny.

As I blogged last week, my all-time favorite band, Daniel Amos, which hasn’t been on tour in a decade, will be in Smyrna on June 13 – when I can’t go to see them, because I’ll be in Altamont for one of the two Mountain T.O.P. Adults in Ministry weeks I’m doing this summer.

Well, guess what? My favorite public radio program, the Chicago-based “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me,” is going to do a show from Nashville this summer.

On June 30.

During my other Mountain T.O.P. AIM week.

Ed, Jay, Julie, Kim, Sam, Bo and Buddy, I just hope you guys know how much I love you. Because if I didn’t love you ….