Praise the Lord and pass the guitar picks
He’s been famous, and he’s been humbled. But all along the way, Michael Roe believed in redemption through honest lyrics and rock.
In many ways, the scene is straight out of a David Lynch movie. The living room doesn’t look lived in. The walls are bare, and aside from a pair of sofas that line the walls and a strangely out-of-place upright piano, the room is empty of furniture. The floor space is bare carpet. Far back—in fact as far back in the room as one can get—sit a dozen or so people, most in their mid-30s and all sporting a unified clean-cut, all-American look resonant of an Abercrombie & Fitch advertisement.
They stare, apparently mystified, in the same direction: a singular vision that ultimately seems the source of a steady mixture of concern, confusion and adoration. One might expect the focus of that gaze to be on a religious lecturer or an Amway salesman, but tonight the focus of that stare is a singer-songwriter. If the collected Abercrombies look the part of stereotypical Christians, then the musician on the other side of the room is their essential opposite.
He is identified as a “Christian musician,” to be sure, but in comparison with the audience, he is strikingly different. He is older, for one thing, by about 20 years. His hair is messed into a sort of drooping black coiffure, as if the Cure’s lead singer, Robert Smith, had gone the way of Icarus, flapping his wax wings too close to the sun, with the resulting heat partially melting his hairdo.
In his hands, he flays an acoustic guitar, playing it with a madman’s abandon atop a mess of cables, pedals and amplifiers. And when he sings, his voice is a mixture of beautiful tenor and snarling, gutbucket bluesman.
It is a stunning performance in every sense of the word, a show that seems to spark directly out of the man’s heart like electricity from a wire.
In a Saturday-night bar, Michael Roe might appear totally normal onstage: another guitar slinger, songwriter, singer and musician with that job’s requisite sense of destruction, excess and abandon. But this isn’t a bar, and the dozen young Christians seem somehow confused by the whole proceedings. To be sure, there are a few die-hard fans in the meager crowd. But, on the whole, the applause between Roe’s songs tonight is a bit hesitant, even for a house concert.
The situation itself is a strange one, for not so very long ago, Roe was poised on the edge of stardom, or so it seemed. Instead, his career entered what has become an old, tired story: the story of someone who was nearly famous; who almost made it; who was almost, but never quite, a superstar. It’s a particularly strange position, for in some circles, Roe is about as famous as a man can get. In the Christian-music scene, he and his band, the 77’s, are nearly legendary. They have sold thousands of albums worldwide and have headlined the massive Christian-music festival Cornerstone a number of times. But here in his hometown of Sacramento, only a few people know who he is at all, and most of those probably know him in some kind of Christian-music context.
It’s a limited context and one that has served Roe as much as it has hindered him. After all, if one looks at his upcoming tour dates, those in support of a new album he’s recording with longtime collaborator Mark Harmon, they are for venues that most touring musicians would scoff at: Christ the King Church in Oxford, Miss.; North Rock Hill Church in Rock Hill, S.C.; Community Baptist Church in Somerset, N.J. Peppered in between the church shows are occasional secular venues—a bar here, a coffeehouse there—but it’s crystal clear that the church shows (and house concerts like this one) are more or less Roe’s bread and butter.
And therein lies the tension: Roe is neither one nor the other. He’s not a dove-stroking, organ-playing door-knocker ready to crank into another run at “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” But he’s not a drug-fueled, excess-heavy rocker worthy of VH1’s Behind the Music either.
Instead, he is like a man caught up in a high-wire act between faith and rock ’n’ roll, for while rock music has been the music of youth (especially white, suburban youth) at least since Elvis first shook his hips onstage, it also is a form of music often ascribed—at least by Christians—to that cloven-hoofed beast, the devil himself.
The balancing act between these extremes ultimately uncovers a mostly untold story about one of Sacramento’s greatest musicians and about a period that many secular music fans know little about: a period in which Christian music was the city’s biggest export and in which a collection of bands—among them Roe’s own group, the 77’s—were poised, for a brief moment, on the edge of mainstream stardom, only to have those dreams be dashed by a music industry that quite simply dropped the marketing ball.
Raised by devout Christian parents IN San Jose in the 1960s and early 1970s, Roe immediately was drawn to music. But there was a conflict built directly into that music, for Roe wasn’t drawn to the schmaltz, but to the rock.
Years later, sitting outside of a Starbucks coffee shop in Citrus Heights, not far from the modest apartment he has lived in for more than 20 years, Roe noted that “in those days, there was a sharp line between doing music and doing the church.” He paused to take a drag on his cigarette, and then said, “It was either the devil’s way or God’s way. I was no different than Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis in that regard—all guys raised in the church. I was a Pentecostal, just like Jerry Lee.”
Of course, Roe’s aspirations to play rock ’n’ roll were no different from countless other similar teenage dreams. Nonetheless, to Roe’s parents, they were probably the same as having their only son fall directly into hell itself. After all, the view of most Christian music in the mid-1960s was essentially the same stereotypical vision that many of us still have of Christian music: old white men playing organs and singing paeans to Jesus. The idea of rock music—to some the very definition of sin and sexuality—was antithetical to the safe, popular Christian music, a music perhaps best epitomized in the 1970s by Jerry Lee Lewis’ first cousin, Jimmy Swaggart.
So, what’s a Pentecostal kid to do when his tastes veer more toward Led Zeppelin than “Just a Closer Walk With Thee”? As a teenager, Roe made his first attempts to reconcile the viewpoints. “In 1969, I was 15 and had a group called ‘The Brotherhood,’” Roe explained. “That was a Christian [rock] band, but there wasn’t really anything like that at the time.” The biggest show the band ever played was opening for none other than Swaggart himself, to an enthusiastic audience of 15,000 who cheered the band’s Christian rock music with rapturous applause. Swaggart, not to be upstaged, followed up by giving a sermon on the evils of rock ’n’ roll music.
In talking with Roe today about this event—35 years after the fact—one can sense an upwelling of impish glee at this last detail. His eyes twinkle, and he lets go a loud, guffawing laugh that is half real and half an outtake from the Hee Haw television show. If there are parts of the story that trigger such outbursts, they are the moments when the bare ironies of the world are revealed for all to see: Roe’s first success at rock ’n’ roll was at once a mixing of spiritual and secular goals. He must have felt elated at the knowledge that these worlds could coexist, only to have that elation stomped on by a man who was, at that time, perhaps the most powerful and well-known leader in American spiritual life.
Today, Roe has a few vices, vices mild to those not religiously minded but perhaps looming more importantly in the eyes of Christians. Smoking is one (he puffed casually through many of our interviews), and the occasional glass of wine is another. When he was an adolescent, the third major vice was rock ’n’ roll. “I wanted my music to express the idea of faith and still wanted to serve God through my music even though I didn’t know what that meant,” he said. “I didn’t know how to work that out.”
What happened next really does carry the features of a VH1 rockumentary. First, Roe quite literally heard the voice of God telling him—of all things—to go to Sacramento. Rather than heed the call, Roe chose to ignore it, and his already stressed mental faculties became more and more frayed. It was a moment in which desire to serve both God and rock music seemed to pull the young man apart. “It became a real Jonah-and-the-whale story—very biblical,” Roe commented. In the biblical story of Jonah, Jonah hears the voice of God and ignores it. It takes being swallowed by a whale and later being vomited up on dry land to convince Jonah of his own error in judgment. Roe’s belly of the whale was the Pomona Psychiatric Hospital. “I was eventually hospitalized in Pomona and endured six hellish weeks of mental torment, fear, hallucinations, group therapy and extremely tasty Cream of Wheat in the commissary,” Roe said. “I was administered Elavil [an anti-depressant] and Haldol [an anti-psychotic] and was sent home after my parents’ savings had run out.”
The move to Sacramento came soon after he was released from the hospital. It was a significant move, in large part because it marked the beginning of Roe’s serious involvement with music and because it intersected with a local ministry just starting to become a force, both in Christianity and in Christian music.
Warehouse Ministries, known to most simply as “the Warehouse,” opened its doors officially in 1974. It had a somewhat shaky start, if the church’s own Web site is to be believed. But, before long, it flourished under a particularly edgy banner: that of Christian rock ’n’ roll. Mary Neely, who founded the church with her husband, Louis, had modeled their ministry after Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, a church considered by some to be radical for producing weekend Christian-rock concerts as part of its ministry. In keeping with Calvary’s format, the Warehouse also produced weekend concerts (many in support of touring Christian-rock bands from Southern California).
Roe was hired as a Warehouse employee after arriving in Sacramento in 1979. Soon after that, the church suggested forming a house band that would perform at local high schools in order to promote the weekend concert series. Roe was tapped as the guitar player and primary vocalist for the project, along with bassist Jan Eric, keyboardist and second guitarist Mark Tootle, and drummer Mark Proctor (and, for a time, singer Sharon McCall). The band initially was called the Scratch Band. Later, with the departure of McCall and the replacement of Proctor with drummer Aaron Smith (whose drum credits included work with the Temptations, Ray Charles and Christian-rock group Vector), the group changed its name to the 77’s after a line from the biblical book of Daniel.
In the context of Sacramento and the Warehouse, the 77’s were not an isolated Christian band. In fact, the Warehouse itself seemed to draw musicians to it. The church’s next logical step was to build a recording studio for these musicians to work in and, eventually, to segue those recordings into a bona fide record label. Called Exit Records and run by Mary Neely, the label was meant to offer an outlet to the various musicians who had begun to congregate around the Warehouse scene, among them transplanted Englishman Steve Scott and Sacramento-area native Charlie Peacock. “Exit was edgy,” Neely remembered from her Warehouse office. “We were really edgier than, say, anything coming out of Nashville. And I think the 77’s were a part of that edginess.”
The 77’s debut album, Ping Pong Over the Abyss, appeared in 1982. Today, listening to that initial release, Ping Pong stands out in part because the band doesn’t quite know what it wants to sound like. What is clear, though, is that Roe, even at that early date, was already a phenomenal, passionate guitar player. His contributions to what was essentially a Christian new-wave album consisted of moodily moaned vocals that are reminiscent at times of Michael Gira of Swans or Doors vocalist Jim Morrison, often over a music backdrop that was so completely of the 1980s that it sounds, to today’s ears, terribly dated. What doesn’t sound dated, though, is Roe’s guitar work, often coming in like a blast of chaotic noise that totters between weird rockabilly riffs and the burned-out, late-night heroin dirges of Velvet Underground-era Lou Reed.
The rest of the 1980s was a roller coaster, both for the Warehouse’s burgeoning music scene and for the band. Just before the 77’s released their second album, the superb All Fall Down, Sacramento-area native Peacock released his first for Exit. That album, Lie Down in the Grass, became a surprise success. And that album, in combination with Exit’s impressive roster of Christian musicians (most of whom didn’t sound like “Christian musicians”—at least not by 1980s standards), garnered the attention of major-label powerhouse Island Records, home to Bob Marley, Steve Winwood and a band of Irish superstars (three-quarters of whom were also Christians) by the name of U2. Island agreed to distribute Exit titles, and soon the 77’s found themselves label mates with some of their heroes.
Roe had become an interesting and extremely personal songwriter during the space between Ping Pong and All Fall Down, contributing to the latter album “You Don’t Scare Me,” a spooky, harrowing song about worldly evil and random misfortune featuring Roe’s characteristically shaking and violent guitar work; and “Mercy Mercy,” a staggering, punk-rock-meets-rockabilly song co-written by Proctor and circling the idea of asking for forgiveness only after one’s mistakes have already been made. (“I was wallowing / In a pit of snakes,” Roe sings, his voice inflected slightly with Elvis’ fast vibrato. “They come crawling / Up around my legs / Now I despise them / But I know / If they hypnotize me / Down down I go.” The chorus is a simple, effective repeat performed with the quavering, staggering voice like a man caught up on the edge of a precipice he knows he cannot avoid: “Then I say Lord / Have mercy on me.”)
“You Don’t Scare Me” and “Mercy Mercy” are early indications of what Roe would do his entire life: bring a decidedly personal point of view to his music. It’s exactly the same artistic focus that John Lennon had, and it’s the same force that the middle generation of confessional American poets had (among them, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg and James Wright). Here, the art is not some abstract person, thought or idea, but rather about himself, about his own life, revealing his own experience. That sense of the personal—when offered honestly and with integrity—becomes, in a very real sense, universal. This is what poetry does, and this is what makes Roe’s lyrical work fit so easily into the confessional-poetry genre.
Like contemporary Christian musicians David Bazan of Pedro the Lion and singer-songwriter Damien Jurado, Roe’s viewpoint tends toward how difficult it is to live a life of integrity in a fundamentally flawed world (or, perhaps more accurately, a clear statement that the human condition itself is flawed).
These elements all are in abundance in Roe’s lyrics for the album the band released on Exit/Island in 1987. Simply called 77’s, the album featured a live-concert shot on the cover, Roe’s hairstyle a shock of jet black above a ghostly white face. The band hoped that this would be the album that would bring the band from the spiritual world of the church to mainstream American listeners. “In our naiveté, we thought that now that we were on U2’s label, we thought it would open a bunch of doors for us,” Roe commented. His voice is devoid of irony now, tinged instead with a sense of slightly hidden bitterness.
At the time, the band’s connection with Island must have seemed like a vindication of all those years of teen angst—the tension between rock ’n’ roll and Christianity reconciling itself in such a way as to almost ensure both spiritual and secular success.
But the Island connection backfired. “They just didn’t get our record into stores very well,” Roe commented. “It wasn’t in the regular record stores, and it wasn’t in the Christian stores, so our fans couldn’t find it.” As a result, the band found itself falling between the cracks, signed with a major-label distributor that, in the end, didn’t seem to know what to do with it.
Island’s failure is a shame because 77’s features two of the most powerful songs of Roe’s career, and although they were economically and artistically overshadowed by U2’s breakthrough album of that year, The Joshua Tree, they still stand up as well as anything the label released. The first, “The Lust, the Flesh, the Eyes, and the Pride of Life,” is a Byrds-inspired piece about the real drive to become a rock star (which in the end proved to be more secular and ego-oriented than spiritual). The second, “I Could Laugh,” features Roe at his darkest—a counter to “You Don’t Scare Me,” which ultimately implies that the author was, in fact, scared. Very scared indeed. Bassist Eric commented that “You Don’t Scare Me” was “Mike with a needle in his arm about ready to commit suicide.” And, although Roe has no history of heroin use, it’s an apt comparison. In a slowly spinning monotone, over keening acoustic guitars, Roe sings: “Meanwhile I dwell / On the baby that I killed / Or the drink I should have not refilled / And every heart I broke in 2 / And left to die / Bleeding on the roadside.” Strong words—particularly coming from a Christian artist, putting out a Christian album with a Christian band.
The following months saw the 77’s trying their best to overcome Island’s lack of interest, in large part by staging blistering live concerts. They were burning brightest as a creative force, and, in retrospect, they were at the very edge of burning out altogether. “By this point, we’ve done all these things: packing clubs everywhere,” Roe remarked.
There was a weariness in his voice—a sense that he’d told this part of the story one too many times. “The band is really hot. Really polished. We’d brought this from the church to be a viable club act. It was very bluesy—the Doors one moment, the Yardbirds the next.” But that combination never resulted in the kind of mainstream success the band was hoping for.
Later that year, Eric revealed that he had been having an extramarital affair that eventually led to divorce and the breakup of his family, and pastor Louis Neely felt it important to remove him from the ministry. That ministry included the 77’s. Soon afterward, Peacock made a decision to pursue his own career in music in the center of the contemporary Christian-music scene—Nashville—and Eric, already without a band and still in deep personal turmoil, decided to follow him. “Mary [Neely] was pretty bitter because her baby—Exit Records—began to crumble due to my indiscretion,” Eric said via telephone from Nashville. “If there was a domino that tripped a bunch of other things that were already brewing, I was it.” Regardless of the catalyst, almost overnight Exit Records was no more. The 77’s had lost their bass player, and soon Tootle also chose to leave the band (he still works as the Warehouse’s music director to this day). In the space of a few weeks, Roe found himself without a label and without a band.
Roe settled into a life of teaching guitar lessons from his home—the same modest Citrus Heights apartment that he lives in to this day. He had a new baby, but not so very long after that, his marriage of 10 years disintegrated, leaving Roe even more confused about his future in music and in life. He managed to put out a solo record in 1989, titled after a track on Love’s 1967 album Da Capo, “7 and 7 Is” (which typographically was made to look like “77’s”—this was the 77’s after all, but then again it wasn’t). A collection of home demos and odds and ends, 7 and 7 Is did little to cement Roe as a solo artist, but it at least showed him that continuing to put out records was a possibility, with or without his beloved band.
It seems impossible to describe the ensuing years except as a dichotomy, for Roe has been involved with a staggering number of albums since that initial solo album. Two new versions of the 77’s appeared: the first with Mark Harmon, David Leonhardt and longtime drummer Aaron Smith; and then later as a trio with Harmon and the band’s current drummer, Bruce Spencer. To this listener’s ears, the ensuing 77’s albums have been at best touch-and-go, increasingly relying on the kind of guitar pyrotechnics that have been a mainstay of 1970s classic-rockers such as Aerosmith. If there is a low point to this period, it is the band’s 2001 album, A Golden Field of Radioactive Crows, a guitar-driven album full of overwrought, pseudo-hard-rock posturing and musical and lyrical clichés.
This creative downward spiral could be ascribed to many sources, not the least of which is Roe himself, for while he has been involved in an ever-increasing number of albums—including his work with the 77’s; his solo albums; and ongoing projects with the Lost Dogs, a sort of Christian-rock supergroup—his actual songwriting and musical creativity was increasingly waning in the 1990s. He views himself as essentially musically passive, and Harmon and others have corroborated that assessment. Regarding Radioactive Crows, Harmon said, “We were set up for Mike to write, but he was just going through a lot of personal stuff. … But it’s like everything else—if you don’t do it, it atrophies. He’s passive, not lazy. I think part of it’s writer’s block, but it lasted a long time.”
But just one year later, he released two projects that have reasserted his presence as a musician and as a creative force: the 77’s 2002 EP release, Direct; and, in particular, Roe’s latest solo album, Say Your Prayers. Something of the fire of Roe’s earliest releases is present again, and yet they are contained in relatively quiet packages. Spencer’s rock-solid drumming is coupled on such songs as Direct’s “Dig My Heels” (a song Roe co-wrote with Spencer and Harmon) with an acoustic-guitar-driven and melodic presentation. Lyrically, Roe seems to be casting back over the previous year’s sense of artistic loss: “Like a hurricane year ’round / winds of change were blowing / but we did not hear the sound / now all is lost / and I’m needing to be found.” Say Your Prayers, influenced heavily by Mark Kozelek’s album Rock ’n’ Roll Singer (itself a collection of acoustic covers of AC/DC songs), is similarly quiet and textural, relying on delicate lyricism and beautiful melodies.
Today, Roe is pragmatic about the possibilities and about the way in which he’s lived his life. He has been doing some local session work lately (most recently with singer-songwriter Lisa Phenix) and periodically records radio commercials (he’s the musical voice of the State Fair, for example). Most Sundays, he can be found at his local church attending to his spiritual needs.
He is also weeks away from completing a new album, this one a collaboration with 77’s bassist Harmon titled Fun With Sound, a project that couples Roe’s vocals, guitar, and lyrics with Harmon’s interests in electronic and loop-based music. It’s a surprisingly different album for Roe, but if there’s one thing that can be said about the artist, it’s that he leaves his particular stamp on everything he touches. For, despite Fun With Sound being a departure, it still sounds remarkably like a Michael Roe project. It is a sound signature that he has retained from that first 77’s album in 1982 right up through today: a combination of arching, explosive guitar and melodic, soaring vocals.
In many ways, he seems reconciled to the tensions of his youth. Christian rock is a multimillion-dollar industry these days, so much so that as the rest of the record industry complains of economic doldrums, the Christian-music scene (including pop, rock and country) is on the sales upswing, and the 77’s and others of their generation certainly did something to create that model. Roe hasn’t tapped into those millions—after all, artistic pioneers seldom get to reap the rewards of their innovations—and he still seems out of place performing in living rooms and at churches. But then again, that’s one of the differences that have made him something of a legend in the Christian-music community, a fundamental understanding that who he is—as a person and as a Christian—is not going to be shaped by what others want him or need him to be.
As for thoughts of “success,” Roe has come to terms with such ideas: “I had to come to a new place inside to understand what success was about.” He pauses, taking another drag on his cigarette. “None of the labels of ‘Christian music’ were going to work for me. I was going to have to come up with a new template.” Again, a drag. His daughter, Devon, is 15 years old now and sits at her father’s side during the interview, quietly reading C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. “I had to realize that I was not going to be a successful pop star of any kind,” he says. “Instead, I was going to try to survive with some shred of dignity. The road was rocky, but the high points became the music. And then the gradual realization [came] that there were hundreds and maybe thousands of people who had heard it and were affected by it, many in profound ways.”
It is closing in on midnight on Roe’s back patio, and, after a time, Devon retreats inside again, fearing spiders. Apart from the quiet murmur of Roe’s voice, all is dark and quiet. “I had a therapist tell me that I was one of the only true neurotics he’d ever met,” Roe says. “He defined it as someone trying to live in two worlds simultaneously. But that’s the classic Christian condition.” Roe takes one last drag and snuffs his cigarette out. There is a long pause as if he’s waiting for the weight of those words to sink in: a Christian musician essentially calling Christianity a state of neurosis.
Perhaps it’s as a state of neurosis—an accepted state of neurosis—that Roe has reconciled the tensions that have made up his life, for if his many fans can learn anything from his music it is that a religious belief often makes life not easier but vastly more difficult. “There are a lot of facets to this walk of faith,” he has said. “It’s often a lonely, heartbreaking journey for anyone.” One might assume that the rewards are worth that effort. But, more often than not, Roe’s songs tend the garden of loneliness, of difficulty, of losing one’s way along the path. If he has found some sense of grace amid that loneliness, it is in accepting it as it is rather than fighting to change it.