Here’s to You, Michael Been

A general rule: It’s far harder to be an optimist than a cynic.

That rule easily applies to everyday life, but it especially reflects music. Looking over my music collection, I can roughly estimate the negative/morose CDs outnumber the wide-eyed, joyous ones by a margin of eight to one. As Jack Black’s character taught us in School of Rock, one of the best ways to write a song is to write about something that pisses you off.

The Call rarely wrote such music (with the exception of the band’s minor hit “The Walls Came Down”). In the height of the U2’s reign as idealistic rock icons, the Call was writing their own anthems. Peter Gabriel and Bono each professed their admiration for the band and with songs like “Let the Day Begin” and “I Still Believe” (which was featured in one of the iconic movies of the ’80s, The Lost Boys). But while U2 embraced everything from the blues to irony and Peter Gabriel moved to more atmospheric compositions, the Call continued to record the same style of anthemic music.

The brief reign of grunge, combined with gangsta rap and the all-encompassing “alternative” rock movement in the early ’90s, pushed bands like the Call out of the radio. And when the band’s type of rock reemerged, other bands like the Dave Matthews Band and Hootie and the Blowfish quickly came in and dominated the airwaves.

When a band past its commercial prime plays at a club, and only 200 people show up, cynics call it an embarrassing display. What else do you call it when a band just a few years ago was playing venues and now it doesn’t sell out a bar with a capacity of 500? That’s how I saw the Call in 2000. Part of me felt sorry for a band that had traveled this far to play in front of so many people. That feeling quickly dissipated when Michael Been took the stage. Playing a few chords of the first song, Been closed his eyes and filled the room with his unmistakable baritone like he was playing to a packed theater.

Listen to the Call now and there is no denying some songs sound dated, thanks to an overabundance of keyboards. But Been’s songwriting remains a rarity. Yes, many of his songs have heavy Christian overtones, but it was never preachy. And even with a few dated elements, there was no denying Been could pen a helluva hook.

Even if no one picks up another album from the Call, the band has already enshrined themselves in history. In perhaps the most-disputed election in U.S. history, the Call’s “Let the Day Begin” was the campaign song for Al Gore. It was a song that celebrated both the leaders of the free world and the dreamers in the bars. With an inferior songwriter, the song would have been pure corn, but Been’s hardened realism made you believe every word of it.