Pickin' Up the Pieces
An air of hushed tranquility cloaks the Boulder Junior Academy, an unpretentious cinder-block school in a residential section of the town whose name it sports, on this early October Sunday. A smattering of cars occupies spaces in its parking lot, and a handful of casually clad families -- some carrying baked goods, others toting Bibles -- can be seen heading toward its yawning doors. Yet there's little else to indicate that in ten minutes or so, a gathering of men, women and children will be trying to raise the roof in honor of their Lord and Savior.
Inside the Academy's gymnasium, distinguished by a peaked ceiling and a clock with no hands, believers settle into folding chairs arrayed in rows opposite a blue and white wall hanging displayed between two basketball rims. Near the top of the banner are the words "Calvary Chapel" and a stylized depiction of a dove in flight; farther down, the phrase "For we are His workmanship created in Christ Jesus: Ephesians 2:10" is just visible over a combination lectern/loudspeaker, a floral arrangement and an assemblage of six men and one woman clustered tightly together. Several hold musical instruments, but according to guitar-packing associate pastor Michael Patrick, they're not a band. Instead, they're a "worship team."
When the huddle breaks, a trim, vigorous man in his fifties with graying hair, wire-rimmed glasses and the only necktie in the room charges forward, extending his arm to the pilgrims around him. (Before the day is done, they'll number just south of a hundred.) He introduces himself to those he doesn't know with a boisterous "Hello! I'm Pastor Richie!" and his subsequent remarks are equally spirited.
"God bless you this morning!"
"You came up from the Springs today? How nice of you to grace our gymnasium!"
Suddenly the school's bell rings. Without skipping a beat, Pastor Richie declares, "Okay, class! I hope you all brought a pencil!"
The congregation chuckles appreciatively as Pastor Richie scurries to the front of the gym to rejoin the rest of the team: worship leader Scott Sellen, who alternates between guitar and banjo; bassist Sam Fan; Patrick; and vocalists Joan Chiszar, Greg Stewart and Rex Reed. Within seconds, the group jumps directly into a rendition of a folk-rock tune called "Where Could I Go but to the Lord." As the singers proclaim, "Striving alone to face temptation's sword -- where could I go but to the Lord!" with the men occupying the middle range and Chiszar handling the high harmonies in the grand tradition of Emmylou Harris, the sounds of ecstatic strumming fill the hall.
But Pastor Richie, who as Richie Furay is an inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, doesn't push himself to the forefront. Instead he takes up the rear, lost in his own private reverie. After all, he's not here for self-aggrandizement. He's here for Jesus Christ.
During his years as a secular musician, Richie Furay kept some select company. His first major band, Buffalo Springfield (the one with which he reached the Hall of Fame), featured Neil Young, Stephen Stills and Jim Messina, who with partner Kenny Loggins created numerous radio staples. He later moved on to co-found Poco, a combo that helped spur the rise of country rock but never truly cashed in on its enormous popularity as did acts such as the Eagles, which poached two members (Randy Meisner and Timothy B. Schmidt) from Poco's ranks. And when his interest in Poco waned, he formed the Souther Hillman Furay Band with Eagles cohort J.D. Souther and former Byrds instrumentalist Chris Hillman at the suggestion of none other than David Geffen, the mega-mogul who, along with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, runs the multi-media DreamWorks operation. In The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys and Sells the New Hollywood, a current biography by author Tom King, Geffen is portrayed as a megalomaniacal puppet master of mythical proportions, but Furay (who's read the book and liked it) has a different take. "I hadn't talked to David for a long time, but I wrote him a letter last year thanking him for helping us," he says, "and I got a letter back from him in seven days. That shows you what kind of guy he really is."
Additionally, Furay serves as a historical footnote in the career of journalist-turned-movie-director Cameron Crowe. In a recent Rolling Stone article ballyhooing Almost Famous, Crowe's autobiographical tale about his experiences as a teenage rock scribe, Crowe reveals that the first prominent musician he interviewed was Furay; hence the publication of a Cameron-and-Richie photo as part of a collage of shots showing the writer with other R&R heroes. "There was Cameron Crowe with Roger Daltrey, Cameron Crowe with Elton John...and Cameron Crowe with Richie Furay?" he says, laughing. "I mean, what's wrong with this picture?"
That, in large part, is the story of Furay's dalliances with the fair mistress Fame: He twirled her around the dance floor a time or two but never truly managed to consummate their relationship. For a time, he concedes, the unfairness of this fate obsessed him, and his comments occasionally hint at some lingering bitterness. Nonetheless, he's currently got his eyes on another prize: spreading glad tidings about the Man From Galilee.
Doing so has been a struggle at times, and Furay's surprising approach to his faith hasn't always made things easier. Observers who know something about his slant on country rock would likely expect his church to be as laid-back as much of his music, and on the surface it appears to be: There are no flowing robes or burning incense pots in sight, and worshipers and celebrants eschew formal attire for jeans and other weekend wear. But Furay's spiritual philosophy is harder than the Rock of Ages. He's affiliated with Calvary Chapel, a theologically conservative non-denominational church whose roots stretch back to the early '70s, when Pastor Chuck Smith formed the first Chapel in Costa Mesa, California. As such, Furay views the Bible as the actual word of God and is critical of those who take some parts of it to heart while dismissing others as anachronistic or not meant to be taken literally. It's all or nothing for him, which helps explain his rigid opinions about hot-button issues such as homosexuality ("The lifestyle is an abomination unto God") and abortion ("In Psalm 139, David talks about how 'You knew me from my mother's womb,' which tells me that a child is a child from the moment of conception. What is that pill RU-486 doing? It's killing. It's RU-486ing those kids").
The Bible doesn't allow for compromises, Furay feels. "I believe Jesus said what He meant and He meant what He said. And if that's offensive to people, then that's offensive. But I can't do anything about it."
Selling this heavenly vision has been tough in Boulder, a community whose essential liberalism attracts purveyors of religions miles from the mainstream. Not that Furay's efforts have been a bust. Since starting his first Bible study group in 1983, his flock has grown steadily, now numbering just over a hundred adults and around eighty kids, and his status as a rock-biz luminary regularly draws curious visitors from far and wide. But he laments that after seventeen years, the church still can't afford a building of its own. (That's another challenge Boulder presents: sky-high real estate prices.) Funds are being collected for this purpose, but Furay's reticence to shake down his followers has prevented the campaign from gathering a great deal of momentum.
"We don't believe in pounding people over the head for donations. We believe that where God guides, He provides, and we need to be thankful for what He's provided for us. It would be nice to have our own identity, but the rent at the school is pretty reasonable. And what's most important is that we have a place to offer praise in His name."
Applause is certainly warranted at the conclusion of "Where Could I Go but to the Lord," but none is forthcoming. Instead, the congregants -- a mainly middle-aged bunch, but with a sizable number of folks on either side of that range in attendance -- merely turn to each other and smile, as if checking to make sure that the people with them enjoyed the ditty as much as they did. Shortly thereafter, the worship team rolls into "I Just Want to Worship," a slightly stodgier slab of folk gospel that, thanks to the musicians, still manages to rouse.
The song's last notes are still bouncing around the rafters when Sellen, who's co-written compositions with Pastor Richie for years, speaks up. He greets the faithful, inviting them to stick around after the service "so we can fellowship with each other" before launching into an apparently extemporaneous prayer thanking the "Lord of Lords" for the opportunity to worship Him.
An "amen" later, the worship team is back at it, blazing through "From the Rising of the Sun," and for the first time, Pastor Richie's light, crystalline tenor floats freely over the other voices. It retains its prominent place in the mix for a fourth tune, "Glorify You," but Pastor Richie stays in the background, gladly granting the spotlight to his son-in-law Dave Aragon, who steps to the lectern after the song fades to read Psalm 115.
"Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to Your name give glory, because of Your mercy, and because of Your truth," Aragon intones. "Why should the Gentiles say, 'Where now is their God?' But our God is in heaven; He does whatever He pleases. Their idols are silver and gold..."
Silver & Gold? Isn't that the name of Neil Young's latest album?
Shortly after Furay's birth in Dayton, Ohio, he moved across the state with his family to the tiny burg of Yellow Springs. There, his father, a pharmacist, opened a drugstore, where his mom also worked. That was followed by a small gift shop, which the clan's patriarch still owned when he died. Richie was thirteen when that happened.
Losing a father at such a tumultuous age has caused a good many youngsters to turn to God's son for succor, but not Furay. He was more interested in music than in anything else. From the first time he'd seen Ricky Nelson rocking on The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, he'd been smitten, and his tastes broadened over time. He arrived at Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio, near Columbus, during a period when the Kingston Trio was sanitizing folk music for the masses, and he reacted by forming a folk band in its image. When an a cappella group he was also in headed to New York City for a performance, Furay and a buddy slipped away to Greenwich Village, ground zero for young folkies. That night, they convinced a couple of club owners to let them serenade crowds between shows, and the reception they received was just the push Furay needed. Goodbye, Columbus, and the rest of Ohio, too.
In 1964, Village resident Furay met Stephen Stills, and together they formed a New Christy Minstrels-esque collective that won the house-band gig at a well-known venue, the Cafe Au Go Go. Dubbed the Au Go Go Singers, they earned a smidgen of notoriety, appearing on a TV show hosted by crooner Rudy Vallee and making a record christened They Call Us Au Go Go Singers in a span of about six months. But that wasn't enough for Stills: He headed to California, where his family lived, leaving Furay to make a living working at an aircraft plant in Connecticut. He was still toiling at the factory when his friend and fellow musician Gram Parsons, who'd been a neighbor in the Village, played him the first album by a California outfit called the Byrds. Furay was fired up by the group's folk rock, and after contacting Stills and wrangling an invitation to collaborate again, he headed west to Los Angeles.
By then, both partners had made Neil Young's acquaintance, and when Furay played Stills a song Young had taught him -- "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing" -- they decided they had to hook up with him. In an oft-told story confirmed by Furay, who contributed to a book about those days by writer John Einarson titled There's Something Happening Here: The Buffalo Springfield Story -- For What It's Worth, he and Stills had spent a week trying to track down Young when they spotted him and bassist Bruce Palmer driving the opposite way down the traffic-jammed Sunset Strip in a hearse. Furay and Stills quickly did a U-turn and flagged down the pair. Young and Palmer promptly agreed to join a band that, supplemented by drummer Dewey Martin, became Buffalo Springfield.
In all, the group lasted less than two years, from May 1966 to April 1968, but it managed to leave a considerable mark. As Furay notes, "For What It's Worth," the act's signature effort, wasn't even on the first pressings of Buffalo Springfield, its debut platter; Stills had written it after the LP's release, and when Atlantic Records' Ahmet Ertegun heard it, he insisted that it be added to the lineup ("Baby Don't Scold Me" was removed to make room for it). "I really didn't see that much special about the song," Furay confesses. "But luckily, people smarter than me did." It become a Top 10 smash, and since then, this tune about a largely forgotten event -- a Sunset Strip demonstration over the institution of a curfew -- has become one of the most famous protest tracks of the era.
Even though the next two Springfield albums, 1967's Buffalo Springfield Again and 1968's Last Time Around, contained some prime cuts, including Furay's "Kind Woman," that was it for the hit singles. Meanwhile, ego battles between Stills and Young and a host of other factors made Springfield's demise unavoidable. "At the very beginning, it was awesome, and quite frankly, we didn't think we had any competition but the Beatles," Furay says. "But it seemed like we would take two steps forward and get knocked back three." Young ultimately set out on his own, and after an unsatisfying tour with the Beach Boys -- "We had to sit with our hankies and flowers and fruit and be indoctrinated with the Maharishi before they'd let us go with them," Furay grumbles -- the survivors, including latecomer Jim Messina, decided to cash it in as well.
Over the decades, the band has been the object of substantial nostalgia, but few figured that Young, the first to split, would be struck by such sentiments. Wrong: He's been working for years on a Buffalo Springfield boxed set that may (but probably won't) come out before the holidays. Even more unanticipated was "Buffalo Springfield Again," the centerpiece of Young's Silver & Gold, which hit stores a few months back. In it, he warbles, "Like to see those guys again/And give it a shot/Maybe now we can show the world/ What we got/But I'd just like to play for the fun we had/Buffalo Springfield again."
Does Young seriously want to reunite a band that broke up when Lyndon Johnson was president? Furay isn't sure, but during Young's three-night run at Red Rocks in late September, he spent more time with the legendary chameleon than he has in years. Neither brought up "Buffalo Springfield Again," which was fine by Furay. "It was really about re-establishing a close friendship, and I didn't want it to be about more than that," he says.
Furay adds that he and Young didn't play any music together during the visit -- "but we did play golf."
After Aragon wraps up Psalm 115, the worship team strikes up "You Are My King." The vocalists wail out lines about Christ's "amazing love" as two men pass velvety collection bags down the aisles. Nearly every person puts a little something into the open pouches before turning back to the lyrics printed in photocopied programs that were distributed prior to the start of the service. But at least one woman knows the words by heart. She sits in a chair, her voice raised, her head tilted back, her eyes clenched shut in divine ecstasy, her hands held out in a gesture of supplication. Her infant daughter clings to her blouse, holding on for dear life.
The final chords of "You Are My King" soon give way to worship leader Sellen, who again launches into a prayer. "As we prepare to hear what You have for us in your word," he says, "we ask you to anoint Pastor Richie as he teaches us here today..."
Pastor Richie listens to these words, head bowed, waiting to feel the hand of the Lord on his shoulder.
With Buffalo Springfield finished, Furay and Messina, who'd grown close, began mulling over what they should do next. It didn't take them long to decide. "Jimmy had even more of a country influence than people said I did," Furay notes. "And when we put our heads together, we thought, let's incorporate steel guitar, have a lot of vocal harmonies, and work toward a bridge between country and rock."
This idea was in the air in 1968, and Furay's pal Gram Parsons, who died half a decade later, deserves much of the credit. That year, Parsons's group, the International Submarine Band, issued Safe at Home, which dared to place covers associated with the likes of Merle Haggard in a rock context -- and after the Submarine Band fractured, Parsons joined his cherished Byrds long enough to put his imprint on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, a platter that became a country-rock signpost.
As these albums circulated among the cognoscenti, Furay and Messina were gathering kindred spirits. They wound up with two Denverites, drummer George Grantham and Rusty Young, whose steel guitar had graced "Kind Woman," plus bassist Randy Meisner. Their original moniker was Pogo, after the Walt Kelly comic strip, but under the threat of legal action by Kelly, the band replaced the "g" with a "c."
Poco's 1969 bow, Pickin' Up the Pieces, reissued on CD last year, is among the genre's brightest moments. The sense that the players were heading into unexplored territory is palpable, and their innocence and enthusiasm contrast sharply with the smarmy slickness that would taint much of the country rock that came afterward. "It was raw, and it had that raw excitement to it," Furay allows. "We were the house band at the Troubador [in Los Angeles], and we had a great time seeing the people that were getting turned on by the music." One such fan was future Eagle Glenn Frey, who "used to come over to our house when we were rehearsing and watch us work out our vocal harmonies," Furay says. "He took a lot from us" -- including Meisner, as it turned out.
Frey also had a commercial knack that eluded Poco. Pieces wasn't the smash it deserved to be, and management problems nearly prevented the band from waxing a followup. Furay credits Geffen with straightening out the latter mess, but he wasn't able to fix every disaster. "Poco was asked to play Woodstock, but our manager said, 'No, I've got a better gig for you,'" recalls an incredulous Furay. "And since I can't even remember the other gig, you can guess how much better it must have been."
Even so, Poco was able to keep recording despite personnel changes -- Messina was replaced by Paul Cotton, while Timothy B. Schmidt took over bass duties from Meisner before later flying to the Eagles, too. But Deliverin', a more rock-oriented offering than Pieces, went nowhere, and From the Inside, produced by Steve Cropper, wasn't a good fit. Furay felt more confident about the commercial prospects for A Good Feelin' to Know, but his hopes came crashing down on the way to a show in Connecticut, when he turned on the radio and heard not Poco, but "Take It Easy," by the Eagles. "That's when I thought, 'It's not going to happen for us,'" he says. He stuck around for the making of one more album, Crazy Eyes (it was the band's bestseller until 1978's Legend, for which Furay briefly returned), before taking the advice of Geffen, then the boss at Asylum Records, and joining the Souther Hillman Furay Band, an attempt at creating a country-rock variation on Crosby, Stills and Nash. But its two long-players, Souther Hillman Furay Band and Trouble in Paradise, failed to meet sales expectations -- and worse, Furay was in the midst of a spiritual crisis. "My marriage was falling apart," he says.
He'd married his wife, Nancy, in March 1967, and the relationship had lasted through innumerable tours and an early-'70s separation precipitated by a mistake on his part that he declines to detail, but which sounds an awful lot like infidelity. There was also the little matter of a conflict in beliefs. Nancy had "received Christ in her heart," as Furay puts it, after reading a Hal Lindsey book called Satan Is Alive and Well on Planet Earth that was given to her by Debbie Perkins, wife of Al Perkins, the pedal-steel guitarist in the Souther Hillman Furay Band. Furay, meanwhile, remained unsaved.
Al, who had formerly played with the Flying Burrito Brothers, another country-rock combo founded by Gram Parsons, had been working on changing that. One night after dinner, he'd sat Furay down and played him two tapes of Calvary Chapel pastor Chuck Smith. But Furay resisted further entreaties until one night in July 1974 when, after a rehearsal in Aspen, Al asked if he'd pray with him. Furay's still not sure why he accepted this invitation; perhaps it had something to do with being away from Nancy, who was in their home in the Boulder area, where they'd moved four years earlier because of their growing disgust with Los Angeles. But for whatever reason, he joined Al in prayer -- and before the evening was out, he says, "I had accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord."
If Furay thought this epiphany would magically repair his marriage, he was soon disabused of the notion: Nancy had pretty much made up her mind that their relationship was over. That left him to do some solitary soul-searching -- and during a walk on a beach in St. Petersburg, Florida, he looked to the sky "and asked God, 'What's going on in my life, and with my wife?' And I heard His voice tell me, 'You made a commitment to Me. Now let's talk about it.'"
Following a pause, Furay says, "People think I'm weird. Well, I admit it: I am weird. But I heard it as clear as anything, and that was when I knew things would be changing in my life."
Assistant pastor Patrick makes several announcements about church projects before tossing the ball to Pastor Richie, who bounds to the lectern like a man with springs for shoes. "Morning, and welcome to the gymnasium!" he says. "That's what we're going to start calling the church: the gymnasium, where we get spiritual exercise! And when the bell rings, that means I have to stop."
As if on cue, the bell rings. Pastor Richie pulls a face. "You got that backwards!" he says over the laughter resounding through the room.
But that's where the levity ends. Today's readings are from the Book of Revelation, a section of the Bible that makes even some Christians uncomfortable, as Pastor Richie acknowledges. "It's a book of the future, and not very far in the future from where we are now, I might add," he says. "It documents the end of the world as we know it today. It is the unveiling of Jesus Christ not as the suffering savior, but as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords here to judge us in righteousness!"
To prove it, Pastor Richie reads all 24 verses of Revelation, chapter 18, sprinkling the prose with personal commentary and references to additional biblical verses that cause churchgoers to flip frantically through their own dog-earned copies. But he's cautious not to omit any of Revelation's vividly portrayed imagery. He waves his arms in sweeping gestures to illustrate the fiery text:
"Alas, alas, that great city Babylon, that mighty city! For in one hour is thy judgement come...And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and cast it into the sea, saying, 'Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all'...And in her was found the blood of prophets, and of saints, and of all that were slain upon the earth."
Strong words, these, and Pastor Richie's interpretation of their meaning does nothing to weaken them.
"We have the word of God, and set it against what men and women might say," he points out in a rising voice, shaking his Bible in one hand. "And if we're wrong about the Bible being the living word, then we're all in the same boat. But if we're right that Jesus is the way, the truth and the light, then those who have willfully chosen to reject Him will have all eternity to reflect on the consequences!"
After he'd wandered in the wilderness for seven months, a miracle took place: The Furay marriage was healed -- and the quarter-century since has only deepened the bond between Furay and his family. He and Nancy have four daughters -- Timmie, Katie, Polly and Jesse -- between the ages of 21 and 30, as well as two grandchildren whom they adore.
Life in the music business hasn't gone nearly as smoothly. After patching up things with Nancy, Furay wanted to create a solo album that would chronicle what they'd just gone through as openly as possible -- which meant sharing his religious breakthrough. Asylum's Geffen, who had signed Furay as a solo artist, gave him the go-ahead, but Furay didn't take this as permission to proselytize on vinyl. "I don't think the name 'Jesus' is anywhere on the album," he says of 1976's I've Got a Reason. "Which offended the Christian community. If they didn't hear 'Jesus loves me, this I know,' they weren't happy. And the secular community wasn't happy because I was alluding to Jesus. I couldn't win."
This pattern repeated itself again and again. Solo albums such as Dance a Little failed to win over listeners and radio programmers suspicious that Furay was trying to sneak that old-time religion past them, and his attempt to work the other side of the fence with Seasons of Change, made for the gospel imprint Myrrh, didn't make him a hero to Christians, either. That left him with some decisions to make. Although he still wanted to make music, he had to earn a living; his royalty statements were nice, but as he concedes, "I didn't write 'For What It's Worth.'" At his wit's end, he returned to Boulder, started his Bible study group, and unexpectedly found a calling that would allow him to play, sing and extol the wisdom of God from morning until night.
He hasn't completely left the business of music behind. In 1997 he put out In My Father's House, an inspirational CD, on a label dubbed Calvary Chapel Music, and when Poco comes to town, he often sits in. Indeed, the band, which continues to be anchored by Rusty Young, George Grantham and Paul Cotton, has scheduled a visit to the Grizzly Rose on Friday, October 27, and Furay will be there. He's sure he'll have a good time, too. But at this stage of his life, even taking a stage in front of a keyed-up throng can't quite match the buzz he gets from his day job.
"There's something about knowing you're standing in a pulpit as God's spokesman, representing Him," he says. "I don't think there's anything that can really compare to that."
For the better part of an hour, Pastor Richie has plumbed the depths of Revelation, chapter 18 -- and at last, the moment has come for a closing prayer.
"Father," Pastor Richie says, "there are things we have trouble with, but we know that everything You do is righteous and just. Lord, I pray that if You have gathered with us any today who have not felt the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ, may their eyes and ears and hearts be opened." He looks out at the congregation. "If that is your wish, can I pray for you?"
A young man wearing a down vest stands, hands clasped, head down.
"Is this the day for you?" Pastor Richie asks him.
The young man nods.
"He's nodding yes!" Pastor Richie exults. "He's saying, 'This is the day I change everything in my life.'" Again, he takes in the crowd. "Will you join him?"
No one else stands, but Pastor Richie understands. They've already been saved. So he keeps going.
"Thank you, Jesus, for caring for us -- for saving us..."
Then the worship team starts playing, this time with Pastor Richie front and center, singing as loudly as he's ever sung in his life. And at this moment, he doesn't seem to care that he never became as famous as some of his friends, or that his church has to meet in a gymnasium, or even that the way he chooses to worship is misunderstood by so many people in the town he calls home. Instead, he's enraptured because he's just successfully recruited another soldier for the army of God -- and it feels good.
Just like being on top of the charts.
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