He played the Apostle John in a Martin Scorsese film. He once beat John Belushi in a comedy competition. He counted as friends Bono and Peter Gabriel. Al Gore borrowed one of his songs as the theme for his 2000 presidential campaign.
But before all that, Michael Been began his eccentric and brilliant career as a musician in Santa Cruz, arriving in the mid ‘70s and maintaining a residence here for nearly 20 years.
Been died Thursday of a heart attack at a music festival in Belgium, where he was working as a sound engineer for the band Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, which includes his son Robert Levon Been. He was 60.
He was best known as the lead singer for the 1980s rock band The Call, which during a period in the Reagan era was poised to break into post-punk rock ’n’ roll stardom. But despite a high-profile endorsement from Gabriel and a couple of minor radio hits including “The Walls Came Down” and “Let the Day Begin,” The Call never achieved the arena-rock status that many predicted of them.
“Michael was a very cosmic cat,” said longtime friend and bandmate Dale Ockerman. “He was a poet and a philosopher. But he also had a brutal honesty about him. He was not a go-with-the-program, American-Dream kind of guy.”
Been’s formative years as a musician took place in Santa Cruz from the mid-1970s until the moment when The Call was famously tabbed by Gabriel as “the future of American music.”
Been grew up in Oklahoma in the 1960s. In a 1994 interview, Been told me that he felt uncomfortable there. “In their eyes, I was extreme. I was listening to my rock ’n’ roll records, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and they just couldn’t figure me out. This was a place where people still looked at Elvis as some Satanic force of music. It was the Bible belt, and let me tell you, I felt extremely alone at that point.”
As a young man, Been moved out to Los Angeles with fellow Tulsa musician Scott Musick. The two soon drifted up to Santa Cruz where they met former Moby Grape guitarist Jerry Miller and sax player Cornelius Bumpus. They formed a band called The Original Haze, with Been on bass/vocals and Musick on drums. When Been and Musick broke apart to do their own thing, they enlisted keyboardist Ockerman in the clumsily titled band The Michael Been Band Is Airtight, which soon became simply Airtight.
Ockerman, who later joined the Doobie Brothers and now plays with the White Album Ensemble, said that he joined the group when Been approached him at the Crow’s Nest shortly after Been’s guitar player left the band.
“He just walked up to me and said, ‘Hey, I know you. Want to sit in with us?’”
Ockerman said that Airtight was pursuing a sound similar to The Band, the classic Canadian group that served as Bob Dylan’s backing band (The Band’s Garth Hudson even played with Airtight for a while). But as the 1970s turned into the ’80s, Been became re-energized by the post-punk new music of the time, a period that produced the Police, Talking Heads and U2, among others.
It was then that Ockerman, not happy with Been’s new influences, left the band. Been, with Musick, guitarist Tom Ferrier and keyboardist Jim Goodwin re-emerged soon thereafter as The Call.
“We all liked the old rock ’n’ roll,” said Ferrier who still makes his home in Santa Cruz. “We’d sit around all night and play Stones songs. But whatever he heard in that new music of the time, it really super-inspired him and he really hit his stride as a songwriter.”
What followed was a dizzying ride to the almost-top.
“One day, Peter Gabriel called us up,” remembered Ferrier, “and said, ‘You’re the coolest band I’ve ever heard. Why don’t you come out on the road and open for me for the next six months?’”
The band had a bona fide MTV hit with the single “The Walls Came Down,” which fit the anthemic vibe of the era. The band was touring at a constant pace throughout the decade, eight to nine months out of the year. And it broke through the one-hit-wonder barrier by a series of albums throughout the ’80s consistently praised by critics.
But The Call never reached the level that was expected from fans such as Gabriel, Bono of U2 and Jim Kerr of Simple Minds.
Been and his bandmates made a couple of bad decisions — they decided to turn down an invitation to perform in the cult-hit film “The Lost Boys” filmed in Santa Cruz. And they were burned by record-company decisions, as well.
“We were both the luckiest and the unluckiest band in the world,” said Ferrier in reference to the band’s 1989 hit “Let the Day Begin,” which a decade later would be used as the unofficial theme of the Al Gore for President campaign. Upon its release on the MCA label, the song quickly rose to the top of the AOR (album-oriented rock) charts. “That record was just flying out of stores,” said Ferrier, “and finally, we felt were really lifting off.”
But MCA under-ordered the album and the unthinkable happened: “The stores went dry. Two weeks with no records in stores, and then, just like that, it was over.”
The band had a great ride, said Ferrier, but no one made much money, and the rock star life devastated the band’s family relationships.
Throughout it all, Been played the role of the messianic front man, bringing a sense of purpose and charisma to his stage performances, and putting increasing demands on his bandmates and himself.
“He was a big, giant personality,” said Ferrier. “He had a vision that we all bought into, and that’s really how the best bands work. He was the most complete player and musician that I’ve ever been around, and to be in a band with somebody like that, it raised my game.”
“I always loved him,” said Ockerman. “We were not meant to be partners. But we were meant to be friends.”
In an 1994 interview Been reflected on his near-miss career: “I don’t have any regrets that it didn’t happen. In fact, it’s the worst thing that could happen in many ways. I know people who are in that kind of situation and believe me, they spend most of their time talking with lawyers and accountants and guarding their money.”