Waxing Nostalgic Connecting the Dots: Steve Taylor/Chagall Guevara

Published on November 20th, 2013 in: Music, Waxing Nostalgic |

By Jeffery X Martin

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It’s 1983. I’m in one of my phases of really trying to give Christianity an honest go. I’m in a high school auditorium with hundreds of other Christian youth, watching a band called Petra. I will eventually see this band three times. Petra knows all the tricks. Founder and guitarist Bob Hartman has all the pedals and a basic understanding of the hammer-on technique. Their singer has a four-octave range. He wears a shimmering jump suit. His hair is long and blonde. The amplifiers wobble slightly from the force of volume. Dry ice fog drifts across the stage. Lights blind the audience.

This sucks. It is like a Journey tribute band without the lovin’, touchin’, and squeezin’. The show ends with an altar call. The altar call ends with a reminder that the merch tables will be open for another half hour. Something smells wrong here.

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There’s an earnest desperation about mainstream Christian rock. Stylewise, it remains about ten years behind its secular counterpart. If it sounds like Train or Tal Bachman but it’s not, it’s probably a Christian rock song. It wants to be a viable alternative to secular rock. It wants to be uplifting and comforting. By doing so, it becomes bland and ineffective.

There was, however, this one guy . . .

+ + +

It’s 1985, and I am looking through some of the music in my Youth Minister’s office. He got promo copies of stuff, one of the perks of the job, I suppose. He has a cassette called On the Fritz by some guy named Steve Taylor. The cover looked cool, that weird angular New Wave design, gratuitous triangles everywhere.

I listen to the album and am shocked. I’m not exactly sure what I’m listening to, and when it ends, I play through it again. I laugh a lot, even though the songs aren’t necessarily funny. I laugh because this guy’s pissed. He has honed in on things that irritate me about Christianity and recorded songs about them. How did this get released on a Christian label? Why haven’t they run this guy out of Christendom on a rail yet?

Taylor attacked Bill Gothard and his intensely patriarchal view of marriage in a song called “I Manipulate.” The chilling and hilarious piece, “Lifeboat,” went up against children being taught something called “values clarification” in public school. Oh, and Jimmy Swaggart came up a couple times for ridicule, if not by name, then certainly by inference.

It was revelatory to hear a Christian artist get mad about the same things I was mad about. I felt like Taylor was the only artist in that whole genre doing it right. Not only was his music current and not a lame rip-off of some godless band, but his lyrics were devastating.

His next album, I Predict 1990, took it to a whole ‘nother level. He riled up the Christians with a song called “I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good,” an intensely sarcastic song that included the lyric, “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with this country a few plastic explosives won’t cure!” Some Christian retailers refused to carry the album because they thought his cover art looked like a Tarot card (it doesn’t). His hilarious criticism of college courses, “Since I Gave Up Hope, I Feel A Lot Better,” didn’t garner him too many fans, either.

You either got Steve Taylor or you didn’t. If you didn’t, there was no way to explain what he was about. He wasn’t Petra, that was for sure. When he disappeared for a while after the I Predict 1990 controversy, I was sad but not surprised.

+ + +

It’s 1991. I’ve made a poor decision and now I’m stuck in a Christian college. Strangely enough, this is where I am introduced to both tabletop gaming and Slayer. I am also introduced to a band called Chagall Guevara. Pretentious name, right? Oooh. You’re revolutionary. We get it.

The lead singer sounded familiar immediately and after a few seconds of scowling and muttering, “Who is that?” I realized I was hearing Steve Taylor again. It was joyous. The album, much to my relief, was not overtly Christian, but Taylor’s concern with social issues and his sense of humor were prevalent.

The environmental anthem, “Murder in the Big House,” sets the tone for the album, which is a raucous affair. “Escher’s World” talks about how easily people carry two completely conflicting ideas. The effect of divorce on children is the subject of “The Rub of Love,” and child neglect has never been funkier. It’s the best song on the album, and one of the best songs on the subject ever written.

+ + +

Chagall Guevara had one album and a song on the Pump Up the Volume soundtrack. It’s the same old story; critically acclaimed and publicly ignored, Chagall Guevara faded off into obscurity. You missed it.

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Steve Taylor is the rock and roll rebel you never heard of. In a genre full of platitudes and guilt-inducing smarm, Taylor stood out as the bastion of snarky reason. He was able to turn a critical eye at his own belief system and find it wanting at a time when self-examination was not a hallmark of the Christian faith. People didn’t understand him. They didn’t think he was funny. He stood, waving his hands, warning about the train wreck up ahead, and the masses ignored him.

Even Chagall Guevara was an experiment in genius. It’s certainly smarter and more cohesive than any Creed album, and (in my old guy opinion) more listenable than any Norma Jean record. Taylor showed up, gave us a gem and for reasons I can’t understand, it remains buried.

Keep Dylan. Hell, keep Elvis. Steve Taylor has more in common with pioneers like Bob Marley, Ric Ocasek, and Stan Freberg. I’ll even go so far as to put him with Bill Hicks and that’s not as far-fetched as you’d think. Brilliant, fierce, and compassionate, Steve Taylor taught me that asking questions was good, even if it got you in trouble. It was necessary. He taught me that not everyone who holds a position of power deserves it, and to look carefully for cracks in the armor of authority. He taught me not to be so damned stuffy all the time.

+ + +

It’s 1985. I am preaching the sermon at the church I grew up in on Sunday night. I refer to the Old Testament personages of Samuel and David as “Sam and Dave.” I do not break into a white-boy blues version of “Soothe Me,” although it crosses my mind to do so. It is a scandal. The elders and deacons are mortified. I am forbidden to take the pulpit there again. My own grandmother calls me a blasphemer and leaves before I was finished. She is my ride home. She does not speak to me for days afterward. That’s a lot of action for a Sunday night.

That reaction hurt. I meant no disrespect. I like to think Steve Taylor would have gotten it and laughed out loud. I learned it from him.

Listen to music by Steve Taylor, Chagall Guevara, and other bands mentioned in this article series on Spotify with our Waxing Nostalgic Playlist! Old music is the new new music!

9 Responses to “Waxing Nostalgic Connecting the Dots: Steve Taylor/Chagall Guevara”


  1. Chelsea:
    November 20th, 2013 at 6:18 pm

    I have to say, as much as I admire Steve Taylor, the film version of ‘Blue Like Jazz’ that he directed put me off my feed.

  2. Winter:
    November 20th, 2013 at 7:43 pm

    I know how you feel I went through the same thing having to go to a Christian High school. Steve Taylor was cool. But I mostly like Small town Poets they were more like what Gin Blossoms use to be. lol

  3. Lisa:
    November 21st, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    *flails*

    OMG! With a sister and brother-in-law who spent time as Methodist pastors, I totally grew up with Steve Taylor. I loved a lot of his stuff, although some of the homophobia and anti-choice rhetoric of his later work put *me* “off my feed”.

    I will check this out, though. And I know what my sister and her husband will be getting for Christmas.

  4. Popshifter:
    November 21st, 2013 at 2:47 pm

    Not having heard his music, I am now curious as to what was homophobic about his work…

    LLM

  5. Lisa:
    November 21st, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    I feel bad about even bringing this up in comments for an article praising him, but this was the song I really objected to.

    http://www.lyricsmania.com/whatever_happened_to_sin_lyrics_steve_taylor.html

    And there’s another song that I felt kind of set up a Staw Atheist just to tear it town. (and I say this as a theist.) Taylor’s iconoclasm just took a self-righteous flavor for a while. Lots of people go through that , though, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that he had mellowed with age.

  6. Popshifter:
    November 21st, 2013 at 3:38 pm

    I could see why that gave you pause.

    LLM

  7. X:
    November 21st, 2013 at 3:56 pm

    Taylor was/is a polarizing figure. I certainly don’t agree with every single thing he has said. I don’t like the homophobia in the song Lisa mentions, and she’s right: there are times where he is self-righteous.

    Conservative? Absolutely, he is. And nobody has to agree with what he says.

    What I appreciate is the fact that he was willing to turn that same kind of commentary onto his own religion. Songs like “(This Disco) Used To Be a Cute Cathedral” and “I Manipulate” were remarkable for their willingness to pull the rug out from under Christian leadership.

    Personally, I would rather an artist start conversations and be a little controversial than be this bland, boring corporate thing. That’s why we’re still talking about Alice Cooper and not The Cardigans.

  8. Rick Vaughn:
    October 6th, 2014 at 9:46 am

    Mellowed with age? Hardly.

    http://youtu.be/1pgyvfNEC7s

  9. Passing THrough:
    October 28th, 2014 at 2:57 pm

    “Chagall Guevara had one album and a song on the Pump Up the Volume soundtrack. ”

    You missed one:

    http://www.sockheaven.net/discography/chagall/stronghand/treasure_of_the_broken_land/

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