by Fred Clark
NOTEBORED Mar/Apr 1993
“This is a definate coming back to the beginning,” Terry Taylor says of the latest release from Daniel Amos. ‘Motor Cycle’ is the band’s tenth album, not counting various solo projects, the Swirling Eddies releases, a live album, a commentary on the book of Revelation, and one prickly-heat miracle telethon of love.
For a band whisch has had so many incarnations in it’s 18-plus years, it’s difficult to know which beginning they are getting back to. Judging by the ‘Abbey Road’-meets-Southern California sound of ‘Motor Cycle,’ it’s probably the beginning of side two of 1977’s ‘Shotgun Angel,’ which along with the watershed ‘Horrendous Disc’ marked the transformation of a country-gospel quartet into the most important Christian band in the 80’s.
‘Motor Cycle’ also marks the return to the full name Daniel Amos (instead of the recent variations - DA/Da/da). “The changes in the name in a way represented the changes artistically in the band,” Taylor says. “It was a way of keeping our fans and ourselves on our musical toes. It seemed appropriate for this record, because of the nature of the record and the reunion of basically the original members (Where’s Steve?), to come back to the name Daniel Amos and not to be afraid of that name. That’s who we are.”
Perhaps the most significant “coming back” on ‘Motor Cycle” is the return of the band’s original lead guitarist, Jerry Chamberlain, who co-produced the album with Taylor. Chamberlain also contributed his unique guitar sound, vocals, and songwriting talents. “Obviously, Jerry had a big influence on this record,” Taylor says. “He and I teamed up to write a lot of the songs. It was a new experience for us - a renewed experience, I should say. We hadn’t had a songwriting partnership for many years.”
The title track, which they co-wrote, reflects this sense of renewal and return: “Today is our last day/the first and the only day/We went out in the dark and/came back again...”
Chamberlain left the band after ‘Doppleganger’ in the early ‘80s and was eventually replaced at lead guitar by Greg Flesch. “Jerry was married and wanted to establish a family life,” Taylor explains. “He was tired of the road and tired of the problems that any Christian rock ‘n’ roll band encounters.” Although not a member of the band for the past decade, Chamberlain was never far removed. “Jerry’s one of my very, very best friends. On a social level and a spiritual, fellowship level, we always remained friends.”
This kind of relationship is shared by the entire band. “We’re friends on a much deeper level than just ‘let’s get together and do a record.’ We have a repport with one another, especially on a spiritual level. We can let our hair down with each other, and we get true ministry from one another.” It’s this closeness which keeps their work together fun. “One of the supreme moments for me is when we get together in the studio and start doing what we do. We know each other so well on all levels, musically as well, that it’s justa blast to do it each time.”
The band’s enjoyment of the studio experience is captured in the song “Traps Ensnares.” It’s sort of E.E. Cummings-meets-’Sgt. Pepper’s’ tune, written by the band in the studio. (“Mr. Spoke speaks, deadly nightshade/in his brain pan/mock aliens breed silent zeros of/fresh young flesh...”) “I would have bits and pieces on a tape recorder, and I’d get together with Jerry on a couple of things, and it began to formulate and come together.” Taylor and Chamberlain co-wrote five of the album’s thirteen tracks; the rest are credited solely to taylor.
The album’s credits also thank Fredrick Buechner, “whose inspiration guided this recording.” Buechner’s influence can be heard directly in songs such as the Beatlesque “What Comes Over Me” (“the Holy Dream becomes a Holy face...”) and on the title track (“and to our dear dead dears...”). His influence can be felt indirectly from the emphasis on hope, grace, and wonder which prevads the album (“Grace Is the Smell of Rain,” “Hole in the World”). (Recommended reading: The Alphabet of Grace.)
“Buechner is a wonderful writer,” says Taylor. “When someone says something true and it rings that note in your heart, then you want to say it in a way that is a personal observation. I have been influenced by many writers, and some of what they have to say, because it is so universal, finds its way into what is written down lyrically.”
Followers of Daniel Amos and Taylor’s solo projects over the years can attest to the diversity of literary influences which have crept into his music. William Blake’s influence has been pervasive over the years. Knowledge & Innocence and Fearful Symmetry (both from 1986) took their titles from Blake’s poems, which also shaped much of the imagery on those albums and on 1984’s Vox Humana. The presence of T. S. Eliot is felt throughout the Alarma Chronicles, perhaps most on Doppelganger, from 1983 (The Hollow Men”). Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz has found his way into many Daniel Amos songs, but may have been alluded to most on last year’s Kalhoun (“I Will Return,” “Tracking the Amorous Man”) and on Darn Floor, Big Bite from 1987 (“The Unattainable Earth”). Many other writers appear in and between the lines of Taylor’s songs - Thomas Merton, Byron, Shakespeare, Shelley, Frances Thompson, Fydor Dostoevsky, George MacDonald, and C. S. Lewis, to name a few. Taylor interacts with these writers in a genuine conversation which is natural and unpretentious. Rather than merely mining their works for ideas, he reinterprets their insights from his own unique perspective. These allusions also serve to direct listeners to go on to discover these writers for themselves.
“I think the idea as a writer is to speak as truthfully and as transparently as possible with what’s happening in your life at the time, hoping that somehow it strikes a note in another human heart,” Taylor says. “The writers I admire do that. They are able to articulate the thoughts of the heart. They have a way of making personal observation which you and I can read years later and realize it’s as true now as it was then, and that it definately articulates the thoughts of the human heart. Those are the writers that inspire me, and I desire to emulate.”
For Taylor, the mark of good writing, and of good songwriting, is this recognition of the personal in the universal and the universal in the personal which creates interaction between the writer and the reader, the singer and the listener. “Songwriting is entering a partnership with the listener. You leave enough mystery and intrigue and try not to fill in all the spaces. they fill in the holes with their imagination, sensing what is important to them in their life.”
Taylor sees a parallel between songwriting and playing bass. “There are two kind of bass players - one that overplays and feels he has to fill in every hole, and the other kind, who knows that the true nature of bass-playing is what you don’t play, leaving enough air to make it work. That’s probably the difference between good and bad songwriting. the bad songs preaches at you and tells you what you need to think.”
The songs on MotorCycle leave enough air to make it work. “Buffalo Hills” is a description of Taylor’s son playing in a little league baseball game, but at the same time it describes the transcedent slipping through a tear in the fabric of this world. (“Here’s God disguised as men in dark shirts and masks...Around the diamond grass/My Blue-Eyed Dream comes home at last”).
It’s what is left unsaid that makes “Wise Acres” both universal and particular - “The truth would set them free/but no one there can see/the greatest enemy/is the exclusivity/of Wise Acres.” In the song “Banquet at the World’s End,” Taylor retells a parable from a master storyteller who knew how to leave enough air to make his stories work. “The poor are coming/the lame are running/in their sleazy clothes and orthopedic shoes/There’s a harelip spokesman shouting out the news/Come to the Banquet at the Worlds End!”
When Taylor is asked about the meaning of specific songs, he turns the question around, “What do you think it means?” “Usually,” he says, “they’re right on the money as far as the thought I had about it. A lot of times they’ll have insights into the tune that I might not have thought about at the timeI was writing it, and they make as much sense as what I’ve written. It’s a partnership - a link that takes place between the lyricist (‘here I am’) and the listener (‘there you are’).”
Motor Cycle is dedicated to Mark Heard, whom Taylor very much admires as a songwriter and craftsman. “Mark labored at his craft and strove to rise above much of what you hear on Christian radio. Mark seemed to be content with just making great music, whether it was appreciated by thousands of people or just by a small group.” Taylor says that Heard’s integrity as an artist was an encouragement and inspiration for Daniel Amos. “He stood as sort of a standard for many of us. He showed that what’s important is to follow your vision and your dreams. Whether or not that equals a big paycheck every month is really academic.”
For the members of Daniel Amos, artistic intergity has not led to a big paycheck every month. When asked whether their work with Daniel Amos paid the rent, Taylor seemed incredulous. “Daniel Amos? No, not even close. We all subsidize our incomes by other persuits. Jerry does his nine-to-five. Tim [Chandler, bassist] has joined the Choir playing bass, as is playing around a little bit. We all do a little something or other.” Drummer Ed McTaggert has gotten a job as art director for Frontline Graphics, and co-lead guitarist Greg Flesch is a rocket scientist. “I’m fortunate enough to be involved with music one way or another on a daily basis,” says Taylor. His own extra-curricular activities include recording and producing for artists as varied as Randy Stonehill and Mortal, as well as additional projects like the Lost Dogs (with Gene Eugene, Mike Roe, and Derri Daugherty).
It’s an unfortunate reality of the Christian music industry that a band like Daniel Amos cannot make a living at their craft while Carman doesn’t need a day job.
For Daniel Amos, the financial problems are less frustrating than the limits on the audience they can reach. “Personally, I would feel more fulfilled if more people were exposed to what we’ve created as a band, and what i’ve created as a writer... there’s that bit of frustration at times. It would be great if this was something that was released nationally and made available to the public at large, because we think that people would enjoy it.” The band would love for Motor Cycle to receive wider attention, but they have also come to accept their role as prophets without profit. “We’ve gotten older now, and we’re not ready to go out and sleep in our van for a year on the road. We’ll record this album, and if somebody wants to pick it up and liscense it to put it out there, then we’re all for it, but its not something that is a priority for us.”
Taylor seems content with the place that Daniel Amos has found for itself. “I have more of a peace now about it than I ever did before. I derive a great deal of pleasure from getting together with my friends and doing records that we love to do. That’s more fulfilling now than it ever has been in the past.”
That sense of peace infuses the album. “I’ve expirienced a little more of life,” Taylor explains. “I’ve had people I’ve been close to that have died. Once that happens, you come face-to-face with your own mortality and what it means to be coming towards the end of life.”
“I think that’s what colors the record. We do have that hope that this isn’t all there is. There is the resurection and the time when we will be with Christ. There seems to be that hopefulness, and celebration of not only life, but death itself.”