More insight into Michael Been (~1989)
Michael Been is one of the most inspired songwriters in music today. Through his songs he has spoken to all of us in some personal way - - digging into our deepest emotions. The following interview reveals a bit more of the man behind the songs.
How would you measure success?
Success to me is appreciating what you have. Truly appreciating what you have, rather than the constant temptation and frustration of a goal.
Are the same things that motivated you, say ten years ago, the same today?
No. I think anger was a more prevalent, more powerful motivating factor in my life ten years ago. Today it’s hope.
How would you define rock and roll?
At its best it’s an art form that inspires, sometimes teaches, sometimes threatens. Its only crime is when it bores. I don’t agree with what some people consider the orthodoxy of rock and roll - - that it’s for kids and addresses adolescent problems. I don’t believe that now and I didn’t believe that when I first heard it. I always preferred the blues guys like Muddy Waters and B.B. King, who could be fifty years old and still play you right under the table, to this precious you thing that rock and roll was supposed to be. I go back and listen to records from the last fifty years and there’s that human feeling. Music has the potential to be life altering. Most pop music today is totally submissive to the business. There’s not one element of subversion in it. It’s no longer a healing art. We live in an escapist, cynical culture right now. A lot of people like songs that completely take them out of reality and put them into some sort of fantasy, romance-type world. That doesn’t speak to me about my life so I don’t write songs like that. I think you really have to look at the power of the arts to at least help awaken people’s personal experiences and put them in some kind of perspective. I know music has done that for me. I was powerfully moved by music. It helped me at some of the highest points. It affirms the reason that I’m alive.
Rock and roll seems to have always been a male-oriented, male-dominated profession. But many women have made major, profound contributions. Who are some women artist that you admire or have influenced you?
In rock and toll it would be Chrissie Hynde, Annie Lennox and Sara Lee. And for other musical styles, Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline, Aretha Franklin, Edith Piaf, Bessie Smith, and Mahalia Jackson.
To you what makes a good song?
Melody, lyric and groove-in that order.
Have you ever had a particular artist or band in mind when writing a song?
Oh, yeah. “In The River”, “Same Ol’ Story”, and “Memory” were all definitely written with the Band in mind - - that kind of atmosphere, a rootsier approach.
How do you feel about the seemingly cozy relationship between rock and roll and the corporate world; sponsorship of tours and commercialization of songs?
I’m not against bands that use sponsorship by corporations. We recently did a college tour with major corporate sponsorship from AT&T. For me to take that stand against sponsorship I’d feel a bit self-righteous, feel like I’m being a naïve idealist. As for taking a song to sell shoes or beer, I think there’s a big difference between the two. I’m okay with the shoe thing - shoes aren’t harmful. But I’m not okay with the beer thing which is harmful because I feel alcohol is the most destructive drug in the world right now. But if I was going to take a stand like that - a moral, ethical stand - then I would have to follow it to its logical conclusion, which means I would spend my life in prison because I could not pay taxes that go toward the making of weapons. Many of your major corporations support righteous causes, but they also have investments in South Africa, the Philippines and Central America. You would have to seriously check into each corporation’s involvement. You would have to be such a conscientious citizen. I think on many levels it’s important as far as things you can do, from supporting the homeless in your area or recycling - not using so much plastic. All those things are wonderful. But like, for example, with Nike you would have to find out if they are supporting South Africa and then if they are, what do you do? I would probably back out. But I certainly don’t think if I were to support a righteous cause it would mean I’m a righteous person. That’s the trouble with a lot of liberal organizations is when they cross from concern to self-importance. I think you can support a righteous cause and be an absolute scum-bag. You can support an unrighteous cause and be a good person only if you are ignorant of the facts.
Can you name someone historically you would liked to have met?
There are many. I would have loved to have talked with Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson, Jesus, Joseph Conrad, Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
You employ a lot of symbolism in your lyrics. Are you aware of doing this as you’re writing?
Sure. Although I don’t sit down and say I’m going to write something really symbolic. I tend to write from a subconscious and unconscious place and that’s the way the subconscious and unconscious speaks to all of us. The conscious mind, what we are aware of at any given time, is just the tip of the iceberg of our entire being. So if you figure the tip of an iceberg is 10 percent of the total iceberg, the conscious mind is only 10 percent of our total existence. Most of it is going on beneath the surface which speaks to us in our dreams, speaks to us in feelings, some of it speaks to us through confusing us with a lot of images that we have to sort out and see if we can apply to it something tangible in our lives. If you have a dream and apply a literal interpretation, I think that can be confusing. People sometimes take a dream as prophecy. Like if you have an accident and get hurt in a dream – that’s not so much telling you that you are going to have an accident, as it’s telling you that you’re living that kind of fear, you’re living tat kind of anxiety and tension in your life. Nightmares are like that – they’re just telling you there’s some chaos going on internally that you should deal with and try to figure out what it is. And don’t deny yourself professional help if you have a professional problem. Life right now is so chaotic and complex I think people could use some help. But not everybody can afford or has the inclination to go to a psychiatrist or counselor and really work at their problems.
Most of my dreams are fairly pleasant but sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night really shaken, feeling guilty for not being a better person and feeling very contrite for my sins. I do a lot of heavy praying at that time. But this only happens if I awaken between 2 and 4 am.
Those are the hours.
But before or after those hours I don’t feel like being so hard on myself and I can go right back to sleep.
And that’s mercy – without it we would kill ourselves. We would either kill ourselves or the rest of our lives would be a downward spiral. We would lose hope, that sense of mercy, that sense of redemption.
Do you pray everyday?
That really depends on what you mean by pray. Sometimes I don’t pray if I feel like all I’m doing is asking for something. I usually pray for that thing I was telling you before about success. I pray to appreciate what I have. I think that’s my biggest fear, not appreciating what I have.
You mean like counting your blessings?
Yeah. That probably sounds silly but it’s true. I remember a song by the Smiths “Please, Please, Let Me Bet What I Want”. To me that’s not very wise. But if you turn that around it says please, please, please let me want what I get.
I remember my mother telling me about a Jesus prayer that her mother had taught her and what it is, you say this little chant like thing, maybe three words, “All for Jesus” or something like that, and after awhile you cease saying it or even thinking it. It actually becomes part of your heartbeat, it becomes part of your action. She said that was perfect prayer.
For me perfect prayer is always an action, always constant and not necessarily verbal. It’s a prayer for strength, for endurance. “I want to give out. I want to give in. This is our crime, this is our sin”. That really is the essence of “I Still Believe”.
I had trouble with “I Still Believe” after it was finished. Not with what is in the song, but with how it could be interpreted. Into the Woods was an attempt to say that we’re not out of the woods yet, the struggle continues. It isn’t this theology of glory, where everything is just beautiful here in the garden and all we have to do is stick our heads in the sand and everything will be fine. Reconciled, Into The Woods, and Let the Day Begin have become kind of a trilogy for me. None of the three should be isolated from the other two. And Into the Woods and Reconciled are two sides of the same coin.
Do you have a familiar place you go to for inspiration – not literally a place, but somewhere in your mind?
No, not at all. I write from wherever I am in my life at the time. If I were to return to the same place for inspiration, I would never grow as a songwriter.
I know you’ve begun writing songs for the next album . . .
We do have some new songs, and the lyrics are some of the best I’ve ever written. They are very practical and useful. At least to me they are practical and useful, and hopefully to the listener.
Are you an observer of the world in your writing?
An observer of myself. Everything else only depends on the soundness of the sight itself. You have to have the foundation within yourself really, either that or you’re just pointing out the obvious.
Some songs are timely and some are timeless. An example that comes to mind is Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In the Free World” with the mention of the ‘thousand points of light’ or even his older songs like “Ohio” – they are very timely, pointing out a specific and timely incident or problem. Whereas, 98 percent of your songs seem timeless, writing about this inner search that knows no time.
Another example would be from Dylan’s new record Oh, Mercy “We Live in a Political World” which is an observational song and it’s good, “Everything is Broken” is an observational song and it’s good, but they don’t compare to “Most of the Time” which is a personal examination. For me self-examination is always superior to outside observation.
I’m totally a works-in-progress: we all are. We’re all complex people with different personalities. We’re part 5 year olds, part rebellious adolescents, part disillusioned adults and it takes us a long time to understand all of them. I was not born with the ability to repress the darker side of myself. I don’t mean just acting out evil deeds, but the darkness in each of us. I’m not able to not pay attention to it. I pay attention to it and write songs about it. It’s not so much that I’m being honest out of some pure motive, it’s involuntary. I have to deal with that aspect of life. The bottom line with the songs is, hopefully, a healthy kind of self –examination that is eye-opening and provoking, which challenges us to make a change in our lives. The attempt is really to se that we are terribly fallible creatures. But at the same time we are far more than that, we’re this incredible creation. There’s something sacred about our lives.
People often write and ask questions about your songs. One question that has been asked several times is what you meant in the song “Too Many Tears” when you say “I’ve seen your work everywhere and there’s mercy in hell.”
I believe that love and mercy will have the final word over law and justice.
Do you feel like you’ve reached your zenith in your songwriting?
Oh God, I hope not.