5. For Him Who Has Ears to Hear – Keith Green
FOR HIM WHO HAS EAR TO HEAR (1977)
The three men I admire most
The Father, Son and Holy Ghost
They took the last train for the coast
The day the music died…
Don McLean American Pie
There is an on going debate as to when the “Jesus Movement” and the “Jesus Music” that is attached to it actually ended. Some have argued that ended with the increase in large Christian record companies. Others believe it was when Churches or ministries stopped being the focal point of distribution centers of the albums and artists. Other argue that it was when artists stopped asking for “free love” offerings and started demanding minimum pay outs and contracts with demands. Quite often I hear it is when artists stopped performing “altar calls” at the end of their concerts. Some simply state the turn of the decade between the 70′s and the 80′s spelled its doom.
I will avoid the fray and only make one statement regarding this issue. The “Jesus Movement” with its emphasis on evangelism, giving, street witnessing, free will offerings, altar calls and ministry focus prioritization may have died anytime between 1978 and 1984 as Christian labels began to be absorbed by larger companies who were in turn absorbed by secular, international conglomerates, but the “heart” of the Jesus Movement and Jesus Music itself died on July 28th, 1982 when an overfilled Cassna 414 crashed just after takeoff outside of Lindale, Texas.
On that ill-fated flight were 12 people including the pilot. There was a missionary family; father, mother and six children. Two other children were on board as well. The youngest was two years old. Her name was Bethany Green. Her father, also on the flight, was named Keith.
When Keith Green was 10 years old he was hailed as “the next big thing” in rock and roll. He was one of the youngest solo artists ever signed to a record deal and was the youngest to ever be signed to ASCAP as he was not only the next big heart-throb and cover boy of teen magazines, but he could write and perform his own music even before he became a teenager.
He signed to Decca Records in 1965 and released a couple singles as well as making appearances on The Jack Benny and Steve Allen shows. He was a teen idol in the making. But then along came Donny Osmond and the cute curly-haired boy seemed to fade from the spotlight. God had a different plan for young Mr. Green and the world and the Christian community would be better off for it.
After years of drugs, free love and a self-serving lifestyle, Green found God in a very real and radical way. He developed friendships with other musicians rather quickly and began writing songs for others and started a radical ministry in which he bought several houses in a Los Angeles suburb and made them available to recently converted drug users, ex-convicts and prostitutes. The little neighborhood community was named Last Days Ministries.
Some of those friends he developed included Randy Stonehill, Phil Keaggy and the Ward siblings known then as the 2nd Chapter of Acts. One of the first collaborative efforts became the Jesus Music classic “Your Love Broke Through,” originally recorded by Phil Keaggy and later by Green and a host of other artists.
In 1976 he signed a record deal with the ministry focused Sparrow label and lent his talents to the classic, contemporary musical “Firewind.” One year later the Christian community would be introduced to the man who would be labeled part poet, part preacher, part prophet. His musical style was a piano based pop rock with similarities to Elton John and Billy Joel. His lyrical style was a confrontational, prophetic and exhorting style with similarities to Jeremiah, Joel and John the Baptist!
He would record and release four albums before his death in 1982 including his debut, which is the subject of our writing here, No Compromise, So You Want to Go Back to Egypt and Songs for the Shepherd.
Sparrow would release a “Best Of” collection before his death as well as his relationship with them lasted for only the first two albums. He decided to make a radical shift in the marketing and sales of his product by offering the album only in concert and through mail order. Though that part of the marketing was not original, what was different is that he made the albums available for whatever the person could afford, even if that meant free. Over 25% of the sales of the following albums were sent out at no charge.
Eventually distribution deals were worked out so that Christian Bookstores could sell his product but they were originally only available as two packs where the buyer would receive two copies for the price of one and were expected to use the free copy as a ministry tool to evangelize.
There were several posthumously released albums, primarily best of collections, live recording and tribute albums. There were two complete original recording released of songs that had been recorded, at least in demo form, by Keith before his death. They were “The Prodigal Son” and “Jesus Commands Us to Go.”
The latter was a primary theme of Green’s ministry. Concert were not only evangelistic rallies but were also rallying events calling a complacent Church to missions and evangelism. His lyrical content and between song talks would reflect this position and passion.
According to biographies and interviews Green was fascinated and impressed by the evangelist and preacher, Leaonard Ravenhill. Ravenhill’s no-nonsense evangelistic approach and fiery sermonizing would leave a lasting impression on Green that would inform his worldview and theological leaning. This would be all so present on the debut album, “For Him Who Has ears to Hear,” the object of our discussion.
The primary theological pool that Green drew from was of the Finnyist and Arminian variety and he took seriously the call to proclaim the need for works and to warn of apostasy. This would show most often in his songs directed toward himself. Green’s focus though is directly related to the Church and what he saw as a complacency. Taking a cue from Tony Campolo Green proclaimed that we are to “go unless we are called to stay.”
The exclusively law oriented content would start to even itself out with a more gracious understanding in the following releases. Though there was plenty of content aimed at the inadequacies of the Church, there was a much better understanding of God’s grace and His working within his Church.
One interesting note to consider is Green’s belief in the deceptive nature and actions of the Devil. The first three projects all contain a song that deals with Satan. It stands out because of the very limited number of Christian artists that deal with the subject and here Green had recorded three songs on three albums.
One other important progression on later albums like “Egypt” is the beginning of a more worshipful tone. The album contain the worship classic “O Lord, You’re Beautiful,” a focus that would consume his final album, “Songs for the Shepherd.” More than worship Green’s songs come across more like hymns.
“Songs for the Shepherd” would be Green’s final release before his death. It almost seems fitting that the final album would be an album dedicated to worship and contain hymns that would continue for decades, possibly centuries to come. Songs that continue to be used in Churches worldwide even today include How Majestic Is Thy Name, You Are the One and There Is a Redeemer.
But our focus here is on the record that started it all in the Summer of 1977.
The sweet-natured half-smile, kind eyes and one-way finger nearly obscured by the head and face of hair on the cover does not serve as indication as to what laid within the grooves of this album. This is not sweet, syrupy, pabulum CCM with songs of encouragement for your “tough days.” Though the Jeremiah in rags pointing at God’s people with the Word as a sword would be the experience of the following album, “No Compromise,” there still is the ever-present call for repentance and holy living. But also noticeable are songs obviously written at a time just after conversion focusing on those beginning moments of love and joy.
This debut album would not only showcase Green’s songwriting and vocal acumen, but would also be the most piano focused release. There are times that the listener feels like Green is sitting in his living room playing their piano and performing just for them. The central focus of the piano in the instrumentation and mic puts one of Green’s finest skills front and center.
The reason for this is that the album was recorded almost completely live in the studio with very limited overdubbing, just limited to strings and backing vocals. This “live” feel was probably as much for budget as for the listener’s experience, but for this record it works. The focus throughout remains the voice, the piano, the songs.
The album starts with “You Put This Love In My Heart,” a Elton John type piano driven pop song reflecting on God’s undying love and intrusive offer of love and grace.
Cause your love has released me
From all that’s in my past
And I know I can believe you
When you say I’ll never be forsaken
Your love is gonna last
There’s so much more I should say
If I could just find a way
You put this love in my heart
A continuing theme of God’s faithfulness amidst our sin is the focus of the ballad “I Can’t Believe It!” which introduces an endearing and lasting (though short lived due to his death) ballad form. The Elton John quality here is often where Green is at his finest.
“Because of You” handles the same topic but in a decidedly more upbeat fashion. Where the former is more introspective the latter deals with how the change in one’s life impacts those around them.
Now people just can’t believe, that my life used to be
Something that no one had any use for
I’d stay at home each night, never shine the light
And i thank you, it will never be like before
It’s because of you
People point at me and say i like what that boys got
And because of you
I confess i don’t have a lot
But what i have is because of you
Now people smile at me and ask me what it is
That makes them want to be just like i am
So i just point to you and tell them, yes it’s true
I’m no special one, i’m just one man
It’s because of you
The more upbeat songs tend to showcase Green’s amazing piano work in a rock format and this song may be his finest work on the album using this style. His rollicking piano form owes much to the Jerry Lee Lewis revivalistic R&B.
One song from the album that remained a radio standard for many years to follow is “When I Hear the Praises the Start.” This song of God’s undying love for His bride is sung from the point of view of Jesus calling out to His Church.
My child, My child, why are you weeping
You will not have to wait forever
That day and that hour is in My keeping
The day I’ll bring you into Heaven
For when I hear the praises start
My child, I want to rain upon you
Blessing that will fill your heart
I see no stain upon you
Because you are My child and you know me
To me you’re only holy
Nothing that you’ve done remains
Only what you do in Me
Honky-tonk piano highlights “He’ll Take Care of the Rest,” a song that continues the theme of God’s persevering work for His people. using Moses and Noah as Biblical examples of God’s faithfulness. This song shows Green’s more playful and humorous side that would be nearly completely absent on “No Compromise” and return on “Egypt.”
The classic “Your Love Broke Through” follows. There is an interesting story regarding the song. Green had written the song a few years earlier with Randy Stonehill but graciously allowed Phil Keaggy to record the song and release it before himself. That is simply unheard of not only today, but ever. And with all due respect to Stonehill, Keaggy and others, this is the definitive version.
The first of Green’s “trilogy” of songs about the Devil follows with “No One Believes In Me Anymore.” Again here Green displays his lighter and more humorous side. Honky-tonk piano again drives this song about the limited belief on the Devil, both in and out of the Church. The point is the deceptive nature of God’s enemy, his greatest deception being that of getting people to no longer believe in him. The song works as a musical version of CS Lewis’ classic book, “The Screwtape Letters.”
Oh, my job keeps getting easier
As day slips into day
The magazines, the newspapers
Print every word I say
This world is just my spinning top
It’s all like child’s play
You know, I dream that it would never stop
But I know it’s not that way
Still my work goes on and on
Always stronger than before
I’m gonna make it dark before the dawn
Since no one believes in me anymore!
Well, I used to have to sneak around
But now they just open their doors
Green’s most passionate performance is reserved for “Song to My Parents,” a plea to his family to find the love that God has for them. As one whose entire family are believers I can only imagine how heart breaking this experience must be for people.
“Trials Turned to Gold” deals with the common struggle all Christians face when coming against difficult times and trying to understand God’s plan amidst the trials.
The view from here is nothing near
To what it is for You
I tried to see Your plan for me
But I only acted like I knew
Oh Lord forgive the times
I tried to read your mind
Cause you said if I’d be still
Then I would hear your voice
The album closes with Green’s version of the 2nd Chapter of Acts classic “Easter Song.” This song in unique on the album as it is the only song not written or co-written by Green and one of the few times he covered a song on any album in his career. It should be noted that Green does add a verse not in the original.
Green’s voice, though, is brighter and stronger on this song than just about any other in his career. This remains one of the two or three greatest songs of the Jesus Music era and Green’s version is a worthy one and the perfect way to finish this amazing and timeless classic record.
Green’s impact on Christian music and ministry cannot be understated. There have been three tribute albums made by various artist including one by rock and alternative label, Tooth and Nail nearly 20 years after his death. His impact was so great that a collection of artist there were in diapers when he dies were moved and motivate enough to lend themselves to covering his amazing music.
I only saw Keith Green in concert once – if it can be called a concert – at the Anaheim Convention Center. I don’t recall too many songs from that evening. I don’t even remember much of what Green had to say. What I do remember was that he demanded after the last song that everyone not applaud, get up and leave quietly and not to talk until they got to their vehicle.
I did not leave convicted as I am sure was the purpose, but rather left condemned. The grace of God was a foreign subject that evening. There was plenty of “law” present but no grace. I would later come to discover Green’s approach was very similar to that of traveling evangelist of the 1800′s, Charles Finney.
I have had several people tell me that as Keith’s ministry matured his level of grace presented increased and the case made for evangelism was more compelling than condemning. Unfortunately for me that evening informed my opinion of Green and his music more than the music itself and I did not listen to Green’s music until after his death in 1982, some three years after the concert I attended.
Oddly enough when I share this story I find that I was not alone in my response. Right or wrong there were several others like myself that possessed the same testimony and feelings regarding Keith and his music. But in hindsight I discovered the true treasure that was Keith Green and especially the debut record that bore the message of Jeremiah, the zeal of John the Baptist and the heart of the Jesus Movement.