Gospel According to Matthew
On the surface, "Forever Will Stand," penned by local songwriter Matthew Levine, sounds like traditional gospel. Over a swaying rhythm, complemented by soft piano lines and the collective harmony of a choir, a woman sings: "O sisters and brothers, the hour is at hand / Our very foundation is turning to sand / So gather ye faithful, heed His command / And we'll build a home that forever will stand."
In some ways, this song is gospel -- Christ-inspired music as Isaac Watts composed it in early-18th-century America, around the time of the genre's birth. The song's message is a call to action, a cry for spirituality, a dedication to Him with a capital "H." The song's sonority is harmonious and its arrangement familiar to any who might frequent a Southern Baptist service: a piano intro, wild individual singing, sturdy group harmonies and a soft ending.
But in many ways, the song is decidedly un-gospel. Or more to the point, it is not gospel as the genre is usually defined, the word of Christ in song. It is gospel in that it is symbolic of a strong belief in something.
Matthew Levine is not a Catholic. Or a Jehovah's Witness. Or a Baptist. In fact, he is not even Christian. He is a Baha'i. And as a Baha'i, Levine embraces the messages of every religion's prophet: Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, Zoroaster, among others, as well as Baha'u'llah, the prophet who initiated the creation of the Baha'i faith around 1850. And as a member of one of the world's most widespread religions, with communities in more than 200 countries, Levine believes in the unification of all peoples, regardless of beliefs. He attempts to bring people together by writing music that is uplifting yet never particularly faith-specific, never particularly Christian.
Yet Levine's music is often mistaken for traditional gospel by many, including some knowledgeable folk. "Forever Will Stand" has won three national songwriting awards over the past year and a half. It placed first in Songwriters Resource Network's "Great American Song Contest," took the grand prize in Enormous Records' competition and was one of three finalists in the 1998 John Lennon Songwriting Contest. Each victory came in the gospel category.
"It depends on the lyrics in 'gospel-inspirational,' " says Greg Ross, JLSC spokesperson. "And Matthew's song is a gospel song. It seems like traditional gospel."
Of the song's lyrics, Levine says: "The words can be attributed to Christ. A Baha'i friend of mine got professional Christian singers to record this song, the best, and none of them knew I was a Baha'i until afterward. I asked them, and they really liked it. They said, 'It's straight-ahead.' "
While the tune has earned Levine, a self-professed struggling songwriter, a minimal amount of success, its true rewards have not necessarily been measurable to the eye. Aside from some encouraging words, a couple of thousand-dollar checks and the self-assurance that comes with writing "John Lennon Songwriting Contest finalist" (out of 2,700 gospel entrants) on his résumé, the full-time graphic designer has earned something much larger: the confidence and conviction to continue working toward his dream -- composing music for a living.
At the same time, Levine's song has also made him, and some others in the industry, stand back. Naturally, they wonder: What exactly is gospel music? Some lyrical references to Christ or St. Peter? Some "hallelujahs" and the sound of a Hammond B3 organ? The key of G?
Says Ray Tellis, gospel performer and producer and session pianist on "Forever Will Stand": "Gospel to me is the message. In my [Protestant] faith, I believe it's the Good News. Styles may change, but it's the message....The gospel of Jesus Christ, that's what it is. People just interpret it differently."
Of Levine's song, Tellis says the message was "general." He continues: "It's just a general song that any person that loves gospel could identify with. It was a song that promoted unity. And that's why I liked it."
Levine's winning song receives no airplay and can be heard only on the songwriter's home page, matthewlevine.homepage.com, which provides a link to an MP3 page. Levine shrugs off the fact that hardly anyone has actually heard his music. The song has already performed the miracle he needed: When he wrote it in 1993, Levine was on the verge of sheathing his professional songwriting pen for good. But before he called it quits, he wanted to try to compose and record one bona fide, top-notch tune. "Forever Will Stand" was the result.
"When I wrote, I was drawing from the black Christian tradition of gospel," says Levine, a medium-T-shirt-size fellow topped with wispy gray hair, his face covered by thick-rimmed dark eyeglasses. "Having heard it and been influenced by Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire and George Benson, I liked gospel.
"I always write lyrics first, and if the lyric suggests gospel, then gospel music is written....This lyric was inspired by Baha'u'llah. I was thinking of him the whole time."
One of Levine's first transcendent experiences came as a long-haired teen in California, his home at the time. Emerson, Lake and Palmer's "Fugue" spun on the black plastic portable turntable as Levine listened intently. He let the 33-rpm vinyl disc spin a couple of seconds, then deftly lifted the needle from the record's surface. With his other hand, his writing hand, Levine grabbed his pen and spiral notebook and transcribed the sounds he had just heard.
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.
"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."
Levine spent $5,000 to record "Forever Will Stand." His motivation for investing that kind of cash was not exactly clear. He felt no one would buy the song or even listen to it, since airplay certainly was not an option. Says Greg Ives, who produced "Forever Will Stand" and met Levine through the Baha'i community: "He was committed. Committed to excellence and wrote good songs and wrote what he believed was good rather than trying to write what was popular at the time. If something was marketable, that was great with him. But that wasn't his [priority]."
Having no outlet, Levine entered the song in contests around Hollywood; he figured his tune at least might get an audience there, particularly since it was well recorded. But, he says, "I knew people listened for production. Not song quality."
All the while, Levine was touring and playing firesides across the globe. He met his wife, Jia-yi Cheng, in Pennsylvania and, a year after marrying in 1996, relocated to Houston, where she would teach at the University of Houston. The couple has a daughter, Dana, who is almost two years old.
Levine once again began submitting the song to contests after receiving a letter in 1998 from his mother, who resides in Newport Beach. In it was a John Lennon Songwriting Contest ad ripped from the pages of Rolling Stone and a note promising to cover the $150 shipping costs and entrance fee. Levine entered. He discovered he was a finalist and soon began entering other contests. Like JLSC, the contests all had respectable reputations and all employed professional gospel performers and producers as judges. Finalists in JLSC, for example, have their material listened to by CeCe Winans, an international gospel superstar.
"I remember Matthew, and he was quite a go-getter," says Steve Cahill, president of Songwriters Resource Network. "I will say, as a general comment, we see so many well-intentioned and talented people come through here....And heaven helps those who help themselves. We encourage everybody to keep knocking on doors. It's an achievement, but do you expect someone to come up to you and say, 'Hey, do you write songs?' "
Aside from entering contests, Levine has been quixotically trying to get his music recorded or published. Adding to Levine's obstacles is the fact that he believes the gospel industry is one of the most difficult genres to break into as a songwriter. Church choirs and performers typically pen their own material, he says.
But Sam Harris of Pure Platinum Music Group, a local gospel label that has experienced some degree of national success, disagrees. He says: "There are a lot of gospel writers out there who aren't performers. It just depends on what you have, what form the song takes." To strengthen his point, Harris says that outside writers penned nearly half the songs on the Reverend Paul Jones's Pure Platinum CD, I Won't Complain, which, according to Southwest Wholesale, has been a steady seller since its release in 1991.
"We have writers we work with," continues Harris, himself a performer. Other Pure Platinum artists include Reginald Dees, Jennifer Cobbs and 'N Phocus. "A writer hears a voice he likes, he writes a song for him. Or a singer likes a writer and wants to sing his songs. It's a combination of both."
Levine says no one in Houston -- that he knows of -- has heard his award-winning song. Which is okay by him. "The music business in Houston is nonexistent," he says. "Unless you're in rap, it's mostly people trying to make it." In fact, Levine says, trying to find a "decent" lead singer in Houston is a hellish undertaking. And it will be a cold day in hell before Houston-based gospel publishers see any of Levine's music at their doorsteps.
But Levine doggedly is trying to market his song by other means. He has sent copies of "Forever Will Stand" to BMI and the Dove Awards, the Grammys of gospel. "I don't expect to hear from them," he says, sighing. If these futile attempts prove anything, it is that Levine enjoys the chase.
Levine's short-term goal is to get his songs recorded and to the marketplace. "I have a family to support," he says. "I can't have the free time to write without making money. Right now, I'm riding the wave of the gospel tune."
E-mail Anthony Mariani at anthony.mariani@ houstonpress.com.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.