Nearly buried alive by the blues

by Kristin on July 15, 2011

in Belief, doubt & hope

He’s not your typical street corner evangelist.

In fact, most people who know of Michael wouldn’t tie the word “evangelist” to him at all, unless they were referring to his knack for spreading beliefs about the power of music and laughter.

In my town, Michael is the fun, one-man-band—the guy at the farmers’ market with the monkey puppet on his hand, the maraca tied to his foot, and a group of children gathered around him, hopping and dancing. He seems intent on spreading only smiles and toe-tapping.

A life driven by the blues

A few decades ago, Michael’s image conveyed “evangelist” even less. Michael was a premiere blues drummer, playing with the Finchley Boys, and later with Jerry Lightfoot and the Essential Blues Band, and collaborating with the likes of BB King’s piano player. While that time of his life was a “success” in some respects, Michael says that for a few years, in the late 1960s and 70s, he did little more than drink alcohol, take drugs, play music and sleep.

“By the time I was playing with Jerry Lightfoot in Houston, I was deep into the blues circle. I knew I wouldn’t survive if I kept only playing the blues. We recorded this song ‘Buried Alive in the Blues,’ which was a song Janis Joplin was supposed to record, but then she died. That sort of says it all.”

Being brought back to the “land of the living”

A lot has transpired since then—easily enough to fill a book—but the gist of Michael’s story is this: he stopped drinking, quit playing the hard-core blues, and says he was brought back to “walk in the land of the living” by God.** It’s not like he had a single, “born again” moment. It’s more like God has been working on him, little by little, all along the way.

These days, he’s working through everything from musical styles to memories to Bible verses that have a way of sticking to him.

“There’s the verse [Ephesians 5:15-20] about speaking to one another in Psalms and spiritual songs—that’s no problem at all!” Michael says. “That’s second nature for me! But right before that it talks about spiritual wisdom, which is like ‘woah!’ That’s a whole different thing. It’s easy for me to just show up at church or at the market and play music, but in the past year I started feeling like if that’s all I do, I’m leaving the most important part out. The reason behind why I play is much more important than what comes out.”

Facing a dark past

This new way of seeing things began to crystallize last summer, whey Michael’s old band, the Finchley Boys, got together for a reunion performance at the Champaign Music Festival (July 10, 2010). The experience was a jolt for Michael, who suddenly could see again, in detail, the life he had been living during his blues-playing days.

“It was extraordinary, just to relive that. I had to face a lot of memories, of playing at all kinds of festivals and regaining consciousness in the freak-out tent. I should never take it for granted that I survived.”

And as they began playing their old songs again, Michael says suddenly all the words took on new meaning, especially this Willie Dixon song, “Spoonful.” Here’s a video of “Spoonful” being performed at the reunion show last summer—the first two minutes is all guitar solo, but then you can catch Michael on drums and singing this line at the end):

Could be a spoonful of water
To save you from the desert sand
Just a little spoon of my forty five
Will save you from another man

“With those words it sort of hit me. I had always focused on what I have been saved from. Now I want to focus on what I have been saved for, or to. The phrase I used to use for this sort of thing is that it ‘blows my mind,’ but now I choose to say I’m astonished. The wonder is not that I’m not dead, but that I’m alive, living a whole life I couldn’t have imagined.”

Giving God the glory

Michael suspects the image of him at that reunion gig a year ago was of a gritty, mean, dirty blues man—a survivor, but of a different sort than he really is. He wants to get the story straight.

“God and the Word—that’s why I survived. When I’m playing, it’s not ‘Look at what I’m doing for the Lord,’ it’s ‘Look what the Lord has done for me.’”

Michael has been living in Champaign-Urbana again for 20 years now, pursuing his one-man-band concept and playing drums at New Covenant Fellowship, my church and the community that had embraced him during his earlier days in Champaign.

“I don’t know how it will happen, but in some way I want to make a statement. God is good. His mercy endures forever. Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Do unto others. That’s what I want people to know. I just need to take one day at a time, be honest and open, and not shut down in fear. This is the way I can walk before God in the land of the living.

** Psalm 56:10-13

10In God will I praise his word: in the LORD will I praise his word. 11In God have I put my trust: I will not be afraid what man can do unto me. 12Thy vows are upon me, O God: I will render praises unto thee.

13For thou hast delivered my soul from death: wilt not thou deliver my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the land of the living?

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  • Ray Hollenbach

    What a wonderful redemption story, focused on the goodness of God in Michael’s life. Thanks so much!

  • suzannah {so much shouting, so much laughter}

    love this grace story, friend. thanks for this.

  • Ron Simkins

    Great story about God’s mercy and grace and about a good man with a big heart! Thanks.

  • HopefulLeigh

    What a cool story! Thank you for sharing this with us.

    This phrase especially hit me: “I had always focused on what I have been saved from. Now I want to focus on what I have been saved for, or to.” It’s not a new idea but definitely something to keep at the forefront of these open days ahead of me.

  • Roxanne

    Michael’s story reminds me that we each have our very own “Road to Damascus” ~ in which we fall from our horse and become temporarily blinded …

  • Beyondmany

    Great read. Thanks for sharing this :)

  • Jack

    “easily enough to fill a book” well Kristin, we’re waiting…

  • Joi

    You should definitely consider publishing this in a Christian periodical. It speaks so powerfully about a spiritual truth that God desires for all of us to discover. Most of us are too caught up in religious haggling and hairsplitting to recognize the fullness of life to be found when lived in daily, intentional relationship/communication with God. You captured Michael’s inner journey so well here.

  • Kristin T.

    Ray, I just think redemption stories are the best! To be able to share them with others is a privilege.

    suzannah, thanks for being open to the blessing of Michael’s “grace story.”

    Ron, God’s mercy and grace really come to life in these stories, don’t they? I do think we’re supposed to tell them.

    HopefulLeigh, that was my favorite quote from Michael, too! Even if we haven’t all been saved from highly destructive lifestyles, I bet we can each apply that idea to our own lives, and do lots of good thinking around it.

    Roxanne, thanks for the “Road to Damascus” reference. I hadn’t thought of that here, but it definitely fits!

    Beyondmany, thanks for enjoying it and letting me know that you did. :)

    Jack, that would be quite a book…

    Joi, I absolutely agree—”Most of us are too caught up in religious haggling and hairsplitting to recognize the fullness of life to be found when lived in daily, intentional relationship/communication with God.” Michael is definitely the sort of person whose very life and attitude bring to mind that “fullness of life.”

  • Angela

    What an inspiring story. I am so glad that Michael has blossomed with an incredible lightness of being. Sometimes Lazarus tales don’t end this well.