By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Over and over again that summer afternoon in 1975 Levine worked on translating keyboardist Keith Emerson's fingerwork into notes on a page. The experience for young Matthew, never before so engrossed in a recorded work, was the closest thing to a spiritual awakening he had ever known. "That [music] was my closest friend," he says. "It made me ecstatic."
Levine was born in 1958 in Pacific Palisades, near Los Angeles, the oldest of three brothers. After graduating from Newport Harbor High School in 1975 and studying for a year and a half at Orange Coast College, he realized he wanted to return to his teenage aspiration: He was going to become a professional songwriter, even if that meant leaving college to do so. He was 19 at the time. "They don't give songwriting degrees," he says. "You can't get anywhere unless you're in that field."
Levine had studied classical piano for seven years, up until he was 16. His chops were always decent, he says, but he "had no talent lyrically." The only thing he had ever written was in high school, a barbershop quartet number for a banquet.
He did not know it then, but he would soon discover his lyrical talents lay dormant in an unusual place: religion.
Raised Jewish, Levine had always been surrounded by the traditions of his family's faith. But that type of spirituality was, for young Matthew, constricting, more symbolic than practical. He often questioned what it meant to be Jewish. "I got dumb answers from every Jew I talked to," says Levine. " 'Why am I Jewish?' 'What is a Jew?' I needed a seriousness and knowledge. I realized I had no need to be called a Jew. I wanted to be represented 100 percent or be in limbo. That was the honest thing to do."
Levine ultimately questioned himself into a dead end. Though he enjoyed his bar mitzvah, he knew he had no solid interest in Judaism. He just liked the experience, the singing, the celebration. Nothing more. He eventually denounced all religion before he was even old enough to drive a car.
But over the course of the next few years something happened to change Levine's attitude about religion and faith in general. A friend invited him and buddy Chip LeRoy to a "fireside," an informal gathering of Baha'i followers that takes place at a given church member's house. "We were so cynical," says Levine of himself and LeRoy. "We made fun of a lot of groups. So we thought we'd just go for a laugh. At the same time, we liked discovering new things. But after we left that fireside, it was silent. Like, an uncomfortably long silence." There was nothing to laugh at.
Levine forgot about the experience until another fireside a couple of years later. Still confused about religion and what it meant to belong to a group, Levine, when given the chance to talk, asked the same thing he had asked Jewish leaders in youth: Why would I call myself a member of this group?
He heard some interesting answers.
"In the Baha'i faith," says Levine, "there is no individual power," which means no one member wields more spiritual power than any other. All of Baha'i's church legislators are elected by blank ballot. Selection is based on members' "spiritual qualities," not their ability to politick for the job. "It eliminates all individual corruption," says Levine. "It's so simple, but it has never been done before. That was one thing." Another thing, for Levine, was the fact that the church resembles a living organism, one that needs to be nurtured and maintained to function well. "You can get so much done when you're clean and in good shape," he says. "I joined the faith as a vehicle for peace."
Liberated from college, Levine left for Los Angeles, the place where his songwriting, and his perspective on religion, would change for good.
In L.A. Levine was invited to another fireside. It was there that the religion's practical side and spiritual side made sense to him. "I was a Baha'i mentally at the beginning," Levine says. "But my heart was not involved until L.A. Then I realized what it meant in the bottom of my soul and heart." Something, he cannot recall exactly what, was said that "was like a ton of bricks on my head," he says.
"The idea of a prophet of God was too foreign to me to understand," Levine continues, conveying the essence of what he heard on that day in L.A. "But that speaker made it clear. I have more knowledge now of what a prophet is, that extra thing they have. I have the holy writings of Baha'u'llah."
Since Baha'i is one of only a few religions to have occurred in recorded history, and since Baha'u'llah's writings have been documented and reportedly supported by fact, the once skeptical Levine now had the empirical evidence he needed to throw himself wholeheartedly into the faith.
This gradual change of spirit affected Levine's music directly. Not only did he begin writing music that sounded like traditional gospel, but he began writing lyrics. Up until this point Levine had been outsourcing his lyrics. His faith, he says, gave him the courage to tackle the craft himself.