Glenn Kaiser, former lead singer / writer for Resurrection Band as well as Glenn Kaiser Band, just completed his new album “Cardboard Box” (GrrrRecords). As GrrrRecords’ website notes, “A majority of the proceeds of Cardboard Box will be donated to Cornerstone Community Outreach (CCO), a homeless shelter in Chicago.”
The album is available online from GrrrRecords.
Glenn and I (Jon Trott) have been friends for… well, since I joined Jesus People USA myself back in 1977. He tells you the truth about himself in unvarnished terms. And sometimes, if you are close to him, he tells you the truth about yourself as well! But there’s a gentleness in this not-quite-young musician/pastor that might not have been there years ago. He’s the first to say that community life, along with Christian discipleship’s “long obedience in a single direction,” has taught him about his own limits. And God’s Grace.
Somewhat humorously, even though I live four doors away from Glenn in the Jesus People USA community and see him pretty much every day, I conducted this interview via email. We talked about “Cardboard Box” — and about a Christian way of seeing our neighbor.
GK: Nice question, Jon! People live in ‘em as our cover suggests. Also cardboard is often tossed out as useless when in fact as the song “Recycled” suggests there is good value in caring about people. But sometimes we sort of toss them aside as useless. A sad predicament but not one we can’t respond to with more love and actual care!
The album artwork –
Janet Cameron’s brilliant idea. She’s quite the artist and captured the feel of the project perfectly.
The blues are about suffering. I hear you sing about it. You’re not afraid to bring suffering right into the living room of faith and plop her down in a chair. Maybe you can talk about where you’ve been re suffering… what kind of suffering have you run into lately?
First off, I know poverty via our family experience as we lost everything, bad business deals and so on… After my Dad got very ill, hospital bills mounted, the walls came down on us. Without welfare and a few kind friends and farmers in the area (Wisconsin) we’d have been sunk. In the end my Mother divorced my Dad and our family blew apart. This is not uncommon but especially when the economy fails as it has in recent times. Second, at present my own personal pain comes from my wife’s continuing pain which the doctors think is an intense form of arthritis; she also has asthma and it’s so difficult see one you love suffer. But this is a part of life in a fallen world. Last, both as I travel and as I receive emails of situation after situation where similar things have trashed people’s lives coupled with my visits, concerts and knowledge from our own Cornerstone Community Outreach shelter program which benefits from sales of this album — all of these people and their stories inspired the songs on “Cardboard Box.”
We’ve lost a number of musicians of late — from Dana Key to Michael Been — as well as a number of Jesus movement era leaders. Jim Palosaari, who led the Jesus People Milwaukee group in the early 70s, passed away just this past week or so. And David Wilkerson, who influenced the Jesus movement even though he couldn’t stand a lot of what we were about, died in a car crash a month or so back. I mention all that because cardboard isn’t just paper, ya know? Cardboard is a metaphor, isn’t it? For mortality? Or is Trott overreaching again? Hehehe…
No, you’re certainly not at all. Life is indeed fragile and people are worth the pain and the blood of Christ so they’re surely worth my, your and other’s sacrifices. And no, nobody lives forever, at least not on this planet in these mortal bodies. Right beside loving God most and best sits Jesus’ other clear command to love our neighbor as ourselves. All the folks you mention (like all of us) had their quirks, temptations, clay feet so to speak, but all were equally loved by God and He loved and loves a great many through their lives and continuing testimony, even after death. This is the legacy we all need to leave as each of them did on many levels.
In “Unemployment Blues” you say “Somebody saw my face / They even asked my name.” I don’t want to universalize everything about this project, but that line really jumps out at me. Sure, it’s a homeless guy speaking. But isn’t it in some way all of us speaking? In short, what inspired it?
When I first came to saving faith I went to the closest church I could find. No big deal really, but the pastor greeted us all as we left after the service, looked at my forehead and said “So glad to SEE you here this morning” when in fact he didn’t really see me at all. I just thought it was funny, didn’t think he was the devil or anything, just thought about how dry, individualistic and separated people seemed in that particular assembly of believers. We really should think about how we’re interacting- or not- with people who do show up. And I think poor and marginalized people, or in my case a subculture hippie who’d just gotten saved- get treated and interacted with by we Christians. All of us, myself included, are at times “respecters of persons”, that is, we like and get close to only those we feel comfortable with. A lot of negative witness happens via Christians due to that. Healthy boundaries are great. Distance is often not so great. To CARE about the person’s name and to look them in the face is something we are not alway very good at. Again, I’ve been guilty in this myself. God help us!
The interrelatedness of our respective lives really comes through with this lyric from “Loading Dock”:
Pilate drives by
Fast as he can
These nameless faceless,
Got unwashed hands
In this urban squeeze
Ain’t no sin in dyin’
Between two thieves
Unravel that one for us… especially that mysterious last couple of lines.
Well, it’s like “I’m righteous and in power so I’m clean in not caring for distasteful people like THEM” coupled with “The fact is that they’re all bums reaping what they’ve sown anyhow” followed by my own punchline “Do you think the same of Jesus when you drive past the cross? Do you? How about the company He kept, even right through His own crucifixion?” People judge those who try to help as bleeding-heart liberals who are all clueless about the sin that brought many poor and homeless to their situation. It’s like we’re all complete fools for not living for OURSELVES and accepting the “Atlas Shrugged” concept… which is about as far from Christ’s life and Gospel as you can get. I am sad to say many Christians seem as harsh and ignorantly judgmental as they are ignorant of where Ayn Rand was coming from. Or likely ended up for that matter.
Your daughter Amy accompanies you here and there on “Cardboard Box.” One of the… well, strangest songs, “The Protest,” is one that Amy basically takes over. She is amazing vocally, but the song — whew, that is one dark lyric even for a blues guy! Tell me a bit about that song’s genesis.
Of course Curt Mortimer (my Father in law as a matter of fact) is a brilliant poet and he came up with this. It’s all about a poor person living under the El (train) tracks in Chicago, the stigma he lives with and eventually dies with. People just don’t see him as a person, or perhaps only as a non-person. In the end he dies on the tracks, but it’s clean and neat in terms of how the politicians and others think about it, all goes on as normal, and I’m left thinking “How many people are there out there like this who perhaps end their lives in such squalor, horror and societal indifference? Yes, Ami positively nailed this lyric. I wrote the music and melody and such, but from the moment I read the lyric I heard her singing it and I couldn’t be more proud of her obvious gifts!
You have lived in intentional community — with Jesus People USA — since 1971. I’m just a few years behind you. So when I heard the song “Opportunity Dance,” which on the face of it is about a guy living in a shelter and finding some hope there, I honestly thought how similar my experience of community seems to that. I find life and hope in this crazy place. I’d be homeless without these people, with whom I’ve traveled all these years. Since you’ve got at least six years on me, community-wise, you have some thoughts on it?
Only that I’m right with you on all you just said. Real community means people who share at least one or more core mission, who learn to love and forgive in a daily cycle of life. Without it I could never have made it, not as a Christian nor human being. And I certainly would never have seen the grace and impact God has created via all our lives. Couldn’t have even DONE a project like Cardboard Box. So many people are involved in my life, helping me pray, think, interact and produce what I believe will have lasting positive affect. Real community is foundational to all of this, certainly that’s been my experience!
“I just cannot pretend / Bein’ happy, satisfied / Ain’t the beginning and end” — that’s a few lines from “Repurposed.” I remember when I first picked up the CD, I thought “Oh, that will be the cheerful song on this collection.” Instead, it is maybe the most in your face combination of gospel and social justice mixed of anything in the collection. Reflect a bit on what inspired that song.
Thank you. Well, individualistic pleasure focus is in my view, perhaps the greatest enemy of Christ and His Good New, so from time to time I try to target this. God literally recycles US! Of course it’s right and important to care about the environment but how crazy to advance in yet continue considering someone around us as a sort of un-recyclable bit of rubbish?! It’s hypocritical. Thus this lyric.
You don’t always offer answers here, and I gotta know that’s hard for a preacher! The song “Street Talk” in particular offers a life view a homeless man (or woman for that matter) might have. Just “This is how it is, and I get by” sort of acceptance of things as they are. “Urban Hobo” is even a bit darker, less accepting of how things are, but almost fatalistic. Does that ring true to your intent? I mean, I’m not gettin’ my “happy Jesus Joy” here!
Ha. Well, neither are these people in these two songs! I don’t think of myself as a total fatalist, but hope I’m more of a realist than a mere “happy clappy in the Lord” sort of person. I live on Wilson Avenue in Uptown Chicago, not under a rock nor in a mansion. There are so many real people, often returning war veterans who are over their heads with divorce, illness, addictions, and/or cannot find or hold a job, live in the parks and streets. In some ways they are more realists to what society is than many of we so-called “nice folks”. Many of my lyrics, blues or otherwise, are hopefully calling us to all really get inside other’s skin and consider what life IS like for them. These are two examples of that -or so I hope.
The album’s title is also that of a song, and it is another of the “no easy answers here” sort. The man is in a box — literally and figuratively — and there’s no exit. Now, I may get us both in trouble here… but you may have heard Glenn Beck’s comments about — well, let me quote a swath from him directly: “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!” In light of that, how do you, who have preached the gospel across America and in many countries across the world respond. I mean, this album is about “social justice”, isn’t it? Are you part of the Great Hidden Conspiracy or something?
You may know I have love for but complete disagreement with Mormon agendas (though they have much to teach us about love for family and a lot of their outreach work) so on that point as well as others I just can’t agree with him. Regarding his statement about what church to belong to, see what I just said and add Jesus’ own words from Matthew chapter 25 and tell me if His words or Beck’s rock your boat more? I can only add that John chapter 3 AND Matthew 25 are both filled with the words of Christ. I love and do my best to speak and live out both. It would be very cool to see Glenn Beck and everyone else seek to actually do both.
“Live Your Life for a Change” is the banner for the JPUSA community’s homeless shelter, Cornerstone Community Outreach. For me, listening to it was especially moving because of the seamless way it brings preaching the gospel, living the gospel, and feeding and sheltering Christ’s sheep, together.
It really is about living what you say you believe. So many believers compartmentalize their lives and do one or the other. Balance is part of spiritual maturity, and I’m in no way saying I’ve always lived it but that’s one of the genuine goals of a truly faithful Christian life. I see in Jesus THE BEST example of this.
You fooled me with the last song on the album, “What You Did.” I expected a praise song, a way to close this sad album on a sort of upbeat… well, slightly escapist note. But you turned that around. Unpack what you wanted to do with that simple phrase, “what you did.”
It is of course, from Kaiser/Mansfield “Trimmed an’ Burnin’,” but a remix and the production was changed to fit this project. Jon, you know I think it right to finish songs, concerts and messages with a strong punchline. I would rather people get angry and have to wrestle with what I believe is truth and important stuff, rather than love me or think “Wow, how refreshing and FUN!” I wanted for people to walk away from this set of songs thinking hard about what they might do to reach out in their own neighborhood, or of course, to consider getting actually involved at a shelter, local church or soup kitchen, linking somehow with our own CCO if they live in the area, or just DO SOMETHING of loving service for the poor and marginalized where they live. I really want people to remember that these are Jesus’ own words, not some liberal flake trying to make a buck and wreck nice society! I want to see love in action, the Book of Acts live out now -not merely ideas, theories or more rhetoric or excuses as to why we don’t have to really obey Jesus and yes, obey the Gospel- which is by the way a direct quote from scripture. Love is His command. Often a painful one, and that’s life!
Again, the album “Cardboard Box” is available online from GrrrRecords.
And for those wanting more info on JPUSA’s CCO Shelters…. (Cornerstone Community Outreach).