Chapter 9: Fat City

Touring is what kept most of the Jesus musicians going. The lack of contemporary radio, national record distribution, and church acceptance had ostracized them from the normal church ''circuits'' enjoyed by the larger, more ''established'' music groups. While many of these other musicians sang before giant church suppers and home-cooked meals, the Jesus-music troubador often ate what food was left in the trunk of his car. Concerts came few and far between; the work hardly kept the artist alive. Some solved the problem by taking on part-time jobs; others just stuck it out.

   Tom Stipe, who worked with the groups out of Calvary Chapel, observed, ''If you go physically seven days or so without a good night's sleep and good meals, you will get sick. Our groups would come back from almost every tour with well over half the band sick with colds, and the things that were related to the lack of proper nutrition.''

   Tom recalls one of the groups going to a certain area for a series of concerts, and it had not been communicated that the sponsor was to provide meals for the group. ''The group literally went two days without food,'' he added, ''because they were broke and they felt embarrassed to bring the subject up to the sponsor.

   In the words of a Michael and Stormie Omartian song, ''Fat City, I could be livin' in. . . .But it wouldn't mean a thing without you.''

   ''Probably the hardest things to take in the early days of touring,'' Tom explains, ''were misunderstandings and the problems of growth. In one group I was in, there was a situation where we'd stay in hotels; the expenses were all included and we'd just take care of ourselves on the road. But there's a whole other world which 90 percent of the Christian groups—and the early days 99 percent—

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would fall into. That was where you would go out on the road in your van, or maybe a trailer. You wouldn't be flying all your stuff in fancy flight cases. You'd be just touring. You'd drive into a town and you'd be at the mercy of your sponsor.

   ''Sometimes you'd walk into a situation where the people would be absolutely ready for you. But in the early days, we found that it was really hard to communicate to people the physical needs in a touring situation. When I say physical needs, I don't mean physical luxuries, because hardly anyone expects luxuries on the road. But sometimes you'd walk into a situation and ask . . . 'How about blankets and a pillow?' They'd say, 'Blankets and a pillow? I thought hippies slept on the floor.' Then they'd say, ''I didn't know there were seven of you. I thought there was just a soloist in this group!'

   ''Now, I've heard of some groups who go in and insist on a feather mattress and a certain kind of pillow,'' Tom adds. ''That's absurd. There are some people who spend their whole time complaining about everything, but that's not the element that I'm talking about. I'm just talking about those early days when people were beginning to relate to the spiritual and physical needs on both sides—the sponsor and the group. Sometimes there was a complete lack of communication.

   ''Some sponsors had the idea that the communication was done simply by the name of the group. In other words, 'Well hey! These guys, they have a record out, they must be famous. We'll just spread it around a little bit.'

   ''So you come into a town and no one shows up at the concert. The people go tell the artist, 'I thought you'd fill up this auditorium.'

   ''You start asking questions. You ask them, 'How many fliers did you make up?'

   '' ' Well, just a few because we thought you guys were famous. We thought you'd draw in the unbelievers.'

   ''You start quizzing a person on how much work and prayer have gone into a situation and they really kind of expected that your presence there and your name would somehow do the evangelism for them. They never communicated things like what street the auditorium was on, what time the concert was, what type of concert, and who was playing.

   ''Then there were the spiritual preparations; communicating to the body of Christ as a whole just what was going to be expected spiritually,'' Tom continues. ''There used to be a lot of gaps upon coming into a town and finding there was no prayer, or there had been disunity in the church. In many cases we'd walk into situations

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and find that just the planning of our concert had created great divisions in churches.''

   The early years of touring presented trials for the wives and girlfriends of the musicians, too. In some cases, the wives toured with their husbands. But often it was a matter of enduring at home. Tom's wife, Mary Ellen, recalls those days:

   ''The times that I remember were as a girlfriend when Tom was on the road. I recall the heartbreak of watching the poverty they went through in those early days—memories of them coming home from the road after being gone for two weeks with no money and then living on macaroni and cheese for a week. The girlfriends kept trying somehow to supplement the guys' incomes by bringing over meals or pinning $5 bills to their door screens or whatever we could do to get them through.

   ''In those days, Tom would rarely call me on the phone when he was touring because of the expense. So I mostly got letters. I can remember, too, my friendship with the different girls in Love Song, and I recall watching them go through it as they struggled financially. I often wondered then if I really wanted to marry someone who was in the music ministry. But I did. And when it came my turn, it was basically a time of learning how to get through it!

   ''What do you do when your husband is gone for three weeks and leaves you alone?'' Mary Ellen continues. ''There were other girls who had my similar problem; so what we would do was stay in the same house and share food bills. That would give us fellowship spiritually, and also someone to talk to. We weren't so lonely and we could share financial resources as well.

   ''We'd pick out whoever had the biggest house and just all go over there, kids included. The guys didn't normally always call on the same night, so it was really neat to stay with the other girls. One of the other girls' husbands would call and we'd have word of all of them—what they were doing and what was happening on the road. That way we interspersed the phone calling, too, and it wasn't so long between calls. You could find out what your loved one was doing from the other one's husband.

   ''I remember times when the guys would call us and they'd tell us that they'd had a bad gig and we'd get depressed for them. We'd share the agony and get in a circle and pray. As wives, that was the main thing that we were called to do when the guys were gone. If we were at all in the Spirit, as Christian wives it was our duty to pray. So, when they'd call and there would be a bummer, we'd pray and at times we'd think, 'Is it worth it?'

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   ''The hardest thing for me to take would be when people weren't appreciating the talents my husband had to share, or if they belittled him in some manner. For instance, a lot of people think that the preaching ministry has some kind of supremacy over the ministry in music. Tom used to get criticized especially for his music ministry—since he has both callings—to choose music above preaching. Some people would think that was really a drag. Yet, I believed in him and I believed in his music ministry. So it used to be hard for me when people would come down on him as a musician or not understand his calling. That would be the hardest thing for me to have to handlethe hardest thing to give to the Lord. But in most cases we'd come to the Lord in prayer and he'd take it from us.

   ''A lot of times, wives, friends of mine, and I would go to gigs and we'd have to sit in the audience and listen to remarks from straight church members coming down on our husbands for their songs or for what they were doing. Those people had a complete misunderstanding of the musicians' calling and, a lot of places, since we were sitting next to those people, we would be the ones who would have to take up the banner and explain to them what contemporary Christian music was all about.

   ''It was such a pioneering spirit involved, the whole family had to be behind it. If the wife wasn't behind him in the early days of the Christian music scene, I don't know how a man ever made it. If his wife was nagging at him to get out of the music ministry along with all the pressures involved with just being accepted, there was no way he could ever get through.''

   One wife who actually worked on the road with her husband was Karen Johnson. Mike and Karen performed on stage together. Though Karen said later the two of them usually had enough to eat, she remembered most ''not having a place to go home to.''

   From the Johnsons—Mike, Karen, their dog Jessie, and later a baby son—home was a small trailer they pulled behind their car. At nights they parked it in driveways, truck stops, roadside rest areas—''anywhere we could put it,'' Mike recalled later.   

   As hard as touring was, doing concerts was often much easier and less risky for artists or groups than investing hundreds or thousand of dollars in an album which may or may not have wound up in their garages in unopened cases.

   There were quite a few Jesus musicians and groups who never even got to the stage of having a record album, but were very much a part of spreading the Word through contemporary music. Since no

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albums were recorded, the only legacy they left was in the changed hearts of those who heard and heeded their musical message of Christ.

   One of the most common faults in the music world as fans was the haste in assuming that when no record album was released by an artist, or when there was a lull in between record releases, that meant the artist was either backslidden, a has-been, or in an unfruitful ministry. Though any or all of these might have been true, musicians sometimes felt that their concert ministries were much more important than a record.

   Also, there were some musicians who simply sounded much better on stage than on record, were more humorous in person than recorded, and generally ministered more effectively face-to-face with the audience. In some of these cases, a recording and the time involved to make it would have been a diversion from the Lord's intended work in their lives.

   Hundreds of small, hometown bands and solo artists with no recordings helped to keep the fire smoldering during 1973 and 1974, the ''underground years.''

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