By Camilo Smith
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By Sean Pendergast
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"I never had anything to write about until then," he says. Levine also began tapping into the muse he discovered on first hearing ELP. For him, the band represented everything he wanted to be: a writer/performer with classical flair, jazz attitude and pop appeal. "I never knew what I wanted to do with music until then," he says.
Once he had decided to write his own words, Levine, who had studied the work of pop lyricists such as Cat Stevens and Donald Fagen, found himself tangled in another problem: how to write spiritually uplifting music without preaching.
One way for Levine to approach this seemingly impossible mission was to avoid the use of buzz words and religious jargon. His music began to convey spiritual messages and religious overtones, all encoded in smart pop lyricism. "At the time," says Levine, referring to the early 1980s, "everything not about sex, drugs, and rock and roll was considered religious."
And nearly every genre, with the exception of country, was crossing over into the mainstream, including gospel/Christian (though most of the acts that landed any crossover success were discreet about their Christian biases). Unabashedly Christian acts such as Stryper and Amy Grant scored big. Stryper earned a Grammy nomination and a gold record for its 1984 album, Soldiers Under Command, while Grant, after scoring crossover hits in 1985 with "Find a Way" and "Wise Up," hit No. 1 on the pop charts with "The Next Time I Fall," a duet with secular rocker Peter Cetera. And "closet Christian" bands were also assuming positions of power: Mr. Mister used spiritual themes in its music (though never admitting to it) to deliver two No. 1 songs in 1985, "Kyrie" and "Broken Wings." And of course U2, which distracted people from its obvious Christian leanings with superlative pop, was the most popular band in the world.
Fascination with God-rock had only been bigger during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar, and ancillary hits such as Godspell and Al Green's "Take Me to the River," transformed the perception of Jesus from a suburban, middle-class night watchman into a street radical. Public interest in Christian music, and spirituality in general, tends to come in waves, peaking every ten years or so. Today, in fact, gospel, and other Christian music, is riding another crest, evident in the successes of Kirk Franklin, Creed, Jars of Clay and others.
Though he may not have known it, Levine was tilling fertile ground at the time he wrote his first song for release in 1984. Despite this groundswell of religious music, though, the cassette single of Levine's "Sushi in the Kremlin" and "We Generation," which was distributed through the Baha'i Distribution System, generated no appreciable response. Broke, Levine left for Seattle.
In Seattle, Baha'i arts patrons Kurt and Leslie Asplund put Levine up for about a year and a half. He wrote music endlessly but could not get anything recorded. Not one to burden others, Levine decided he would join the workforce as a nine-to-five stiff, but not until he had recorded the album he knew he could. Raising money for the CD -- which would include four a cappella, three pop and gospel songs and a National Public Radio news broadcast about the deaths of three Baha'is -- occupied all of his time.
Levine had 15 years' worth of material to sift through, enough music for five albums, easily. With so much to choose from, he opted to record two albums instead of one. It was a practical decision as much as an artistic one: Since Levine performed at firesides, he knew having more product to sell would generate a little more change. And change, as all struggling artists know, is lifeblood.
At the beginning of his career, Levine merely assumed he would be a success. He loved writing music. He was fairly proficient at it. Why couldn't he, like so many others, make a living doing what he loved? What Levine did not understand was that success in the entertainment industry takes more than skill and talent. It takes luck -- something Levine would realize was in short supply at the time.
There are numerous examples. Like the time Levine, walking home from work as a box-office attendant at the L.A. Pantages Theatre, stumbled into R&B-pop superstar Edwin Starr's studio and played him a jingle he had written. Impressed, Starr offered Levine a chance to collaborate. Thinking Starr just another disco exploiter, Levine severed all contact.
Or the time Levine put off working with ATV Music, a large publishing group, because he thought he had a collaboration with established songwriter Arthur Hamilton (of "Cry Me a River" fame) in the wings. When Hamilton bowed out, Levine returned to ATV only to find the company had lost interest.
Or the time the songwriter visited one of his heroes, lyricist Leslie Bricusse, played him a melody for what Levine called "the first international anthem" and asked for help. Bricusse said yes, which Levine describes as "the most exciting moment in my career." Unfortunately Levine's balloon was quickly burst when he received a letter from Bricusse, apologizing for backing out. "He said he got caught up in a new play," says Levine, still distressed after all these years. "I can't blame him."