|Erick Nelson was one of the many artists to come out of Calvary Chapel during the Jesus movement. His name graced many a Maranatha! Music recording of that time and he was a member of several Jesus bands including Selah and Good News, in addition to later having a solo career. He is probably best known for his song "Pickin' Up The Pieces." Erick, like so many of us, was influenced by the guys in Love Song and I thought it would neat to hear his story. Thanks, Erick, for sharing with us. You can find out more about Erick on the Jesus Music site.|
Dave Hollandsworth asked me to write down some of my impressions of Love Song, since they were very influential in my life. So here's what comes immediately to mind.
I first saw Love Song at Calvary Chapel some time in 1971. I was a Senior at Pomona College. I had been a Christian for about three years. A friend at school named Ed Sage was a Christian Scientist, and we used to talk about theology a lot. He happened to know some of the members of Children of the Day. He said that he knew of a little church that had hippie music I would like and offered to take me there. He warned that their theology was awful (coming from a member of the Christian Science church, I took this as a good sign), but guaranteed that I'd like the church and the music.
So we drove on down. There was the little chapel, sitting in the dark of night in the middle of a bunch of bean fields. Once inside, I took my place on the floor, packed in next to people who looked just like me, and joined in their sing-alongs. When it came time for a Bible reading, the young girl next to me let me share her cloth-bound, decorated Bible. Chuck Smith sat on a high stool wearing a turtle-neck sweater, and explained the Bible passages. I think a couple of groups played some songs. (In those days at Calvary, you didn't applaud, you raised your index finger in the One Way sign, to indicate praise to God rather than glory for the musicians. This was kind of a nice thing, except as a musician you tended to be a finger-counter: you could tell not only how many people were praising God for your contribution, but which ones! That tradition faded away.)
Then Love Song came up and played. The visual presentation of the group was always impressive. First, they all had fairly long hair and beards, which was a definite plus. They weren't boys, but men. You knew they had been around - had tried drugs, alternative life styles, religions, ... all of which gave them instant credibility. Chuck Girard looked kind of like wild west prospector, or a prophet, with a very cool beard; Tommy Coomes and Fred Field had afro-type hair and I think that Tommy had John Lennon-type glasses. But Jay Truax, the bass player, was by far the most impressive. He looked like a prophet, or an angel, with long blond hair, blond beard, wearing a tunic-type shirt which looked kind of like a robe. With yellowish spotlights on his head, he took on a golden glow.
For some reason, Chuck Girard didn't play piano at all that night, but played acoustic guitar - which gave me the impression that they had no keyboard player. Their harmonies reminded me of the Sons of the Pioneers - and I mean that in a good way, because I really liked that sound. They did some country songs like "Since I Opened up the Door" and "Front Seat, Back Seat." Fred Field played the fiddle. The whole atmosphere was one of joy and freedom. And not just general joy and freedom - their songs made a part of me resonate with them. Yes! Since I myself had opened up the door to Jesus, I can't "think of anyone" else either! They expressed what I had experienced, brought it out to me, made it even more alive. I got excited about knowing and following Jesus.
Then Chuck Smith did a simple invitation to accept Christ, and said to stand to your feet. I had never seen anything like this before. I thought to myself, "Yeah, right - people are going to stand up and get embarrassed." And to my surprise, dozens of young people did just that. And for some reason it sticks in my mind that the people who stood were not just impressionable high school kids (from my perspective), but people I would look up to: college radical-types, carpenters with full beards, grown men in their mid-20's!
Anyway, Love Song played "Feel the Love" and "Welcome Back", and I could feel the love. Those new converts were now not only standing to their feet, but were walking forward to receive Christ. I was in awe. What if the very God of the Universe was using music to communicate His love and truth in an almost tangible way? What if peoples' whole lives were being transformed right in front of me, and these guys got to be a part of it? I instinctively knew that this miracle was not due to their technical brilliance, their musical giftedness, or the way they looked. Jesus was doing something in that very room, with their music, to change hearts and souls.
Well, any musician who witnessed such a thing would logically conclude, "Hey, these guys are using music the way it's supposed to be used - as a channel for inspiring, for giving insight, for healing." And I said to myself, "I wish I could be a part of this. I wish I could help these guys - maybe carry their equipment, maybe play keyboards for them (since I didn't know that Chuck was their keyboard player), maybe ..."
As Ed and I drove back to school, I asked him if I could meet the Children of the Day, since he knew them. Maybe I could find a way to help out. (I was already in a secular group and had career ambitions with them. I wasn't trying to join any group as such, but I felt drawn to participate in some way.) To make a long story short, I went with COD to one of their concerts, met a little Maranatha group called Selah, and wound up quitting my group and joining them.
On the Personal Side
Love Song was the leading Calvary group. They signed with another record label (Good News, with Freddie Piro) and so, ironically enough, were never a day-to-day part of Maranatha Music. But that was ok. We all looked up to them. I remember them coming back from the Philippines. Apparently, they had a number one hit there and did a huge concert. They were like the Beatles there. At one point, hundreds of teenagers ran toward the stage with chairs held above their heads. The guys thought that they were going to be mobbed. As it turned out, the teenagers were just moving forward to get a better seat! At least, that's the story I heard.
I wound up living in the same apartment complex where Jay Truax and John Mehler lived. They were married and had great kids. Jay and John were both so nice to me. A couple of times their wives fed me. John's drumming hero was Buddy Rich. He would practice his drum solos in the garage for hours at a time. John became the "house drummer" for the Maranatha groups, and played with Selah a lot. Jay and I played tennis.
As time went on, I got to know Tommy Coomes, too. Tommy asked me to play piano for the first Praise Album, and called on me for later Praise work, too. He named one of his kids "Erick" because he liked the name. Later, he, Fred Field and I did a tour of Germany together. Fred and I used to play tennis regularly - he was very competitive and a clever tactical player. Sometimes Chuck Smith would call us up and we'd play doubles.
When Fred left the group he was replaced by Bob Wall. Bob and I played music together informally. He was a great R&B-type singer, and liked to sing with a gospel piano sound. Chuck Girard turned out to be the only one I didn't get to know, only because our paths didn't seem to cross much.
Bob Wall left the band, and they were looking for another guitar player. Jay, I believe, read a magazine article about Phil Keaggy, who apparently stated that Love Song was one of his favorite bands. They got in contact, and Jay came over to our apartment one day with a reel-to-reel tape of Phil's album What a Day. Phil had played all the instruments. The guitar work was, of course, fabulous. The question everybody had was, will he fit in with Love Song? Eventually he came out and joined the group for a time - then they broke up and some of the guys formed Wing and a Prayer.
All this is to say that, personally, these were great guys, warm and friendly, and I appreciated them. I have great memories of them. This isn't to suggest they they were all perfect. They had their flaws and quirks, just like me. The easiest situation would have been if one member was the leader, and everybody else just wanted to do what he was told. However, each member had pretty strong opinions - each guy was a leader in his own right - and sometimes their opinions clashed. Sometimes they argued and bickered (just like we did in my groups!). Tommy Coomes' "Let Us be One" came out of these experiences. In a way, you have to respect them even more than if they had lived an idyllic existence. They had to negotiate with each other, deal with differences, and come out of it together. I think it gave them a certain maturity.
They not only played their songs - they had things to say. When they spoke between songs, there was something for everyone. When Chuck explained his spiritual journey, he just made so much sense; you wanted to know the Master, too. Tommy came across kind of mellow and wise. Jay, looking angelic as he did, couldn't miss, and often had something humorous to add. Fred Field seemed (and was) very intelligent, and almost always had something creative to say. Bob Wall would just speak from his heart and be really informal ("Hey, man, don't turn us off before you've heard what we have to say.") John Mehler had the crowd in stitches, with a rambling explanation of something-or-other that wound up making a point.
Above, I emphasized that the power of Love Song was not in their expertise, but in something over and above that. I still think that there was a vibe to the group that was more than the sum total of their talents. However, that is not to say that they were mediocre musicians. My favorite example is a concert they did after John and Fred and left the group. It was a huge concert, maybe 4,000-5,000 people, at the Long Beach Municipal Auditorium. All they had was Chuck, Jay, and Tommy. No drums, even. It was the best I ever heard them sound. They had kind of a new-Beatles sound as they launched into "Freedom." Soaring vocals, very dynamic with only piano, guitar, and bass. "Jesus is the one that makes me want to shout the NEWS ... above the rooftops ..." And Little Pilgrim: when Chuck sang "give your heart ... and your soul and your BODY and your MIND and your LIFE ... to the Lord", I got goose-bumps. Still do.
My early experiences with Love Song probably had a greater impact on my view of music than I normally realize.
(1) The overwhelming impression of Love Song was not that they were another "religious" group, or "gospel" group. Like others at the time, I had originally thought that there was one thing called "religious" music, and another thing called "secular music". Love Song did something that sounded like secular music, but was about Jesus. Their kind of music, to me, was not just a hip, contemporary version of "gospel music." That's exactly what it was not. It was part of a growing trend in popular music.
If you look back on the evolution of rock 'n roll, you see a transition from songs about girls and cars to songs about life issues. Bob Dylan led a "content" revolution in popular music. People started singing protest songs, songs about the problems of life, social issues, even theistic themes ("Spirit in the Sky") or anti-theistic themes ("Dust in the Wind"). It was only a natural extension of this new freedom of expression to sing about The Answer. That's what Love Song was doing.
(2) I learned things from their individual personal lives. When John played with Selah (and later with Good News), he acted like we were the greatest band in the world. In Fred I saw an intense dedication that took him half-way around the world. The way Chuck explained the gospel had a lasting impact on me. Bob was always just one of the guys, never pretentious. Tommy was a calm, stabilizing influence during the turmoils of our Germany tour and during the wrapup of The Misfit album. And Jay gave me one of the books that completely changed my life (J.W. Montgomery's History and Christianity), that first convinced me that the objective evidence supported Christian claims.
(3) Many people debate the propriety of rock 'n roll, popular music, cross-over music, etc. A great deal of Contemporary Christian music, and proclamation of the gospel, for that matter, is just TALK. Yak, yak, yak. As Bill Batstone once wryly observed, "Everybody's an expert." The guys in Love Song didn't do that. If they tried to explain what it was they were doing, it was just an add-on. They just went out and did it. They played at all the little Christian coffee-houses, at churches, at parks, at colleges - wherever they had the opportunity. They got paid less than subsistence wages. Day after day, they piled into their van or cars and just went out and did what they were called to do. Don't underestimate the importance of seeing a good theory in action. If someone had told me about these new possibilities, I would have said "yeah, yeah", but to see people doing it in concrete actions made all the difference for me.
(4) There was an "anointing" going on with Love Song that I came to experience as well. I was well aware that I was only a fair-to-good piano player, singer, song-writer, presenter. In order to be effective, I had to fall back on sincerity, and the inherent power of the message I had to share. If I had sung about girls and cars, I would never have moved people. But even so-so performances can make a powerful impact, if (a) they give the truth and love that everyone hungers for, and (b) God moves. Sometimes I've almost laughed, when I've "been better" than I know I am. That is the secret of Love Song. Can that also be the secret of a successful and flourishing life? Can our everyday lives be anointed like this - can the quality of my contributions in life to go beyond what I can achieve on my abilities alone? Why not?