Nearly Buried Alive By the Blues
**This post was written Kristin Tennant, a member of the NCF community, for her blog, Halfway to Normal. Michael Powers plays drums for NCF worship services nearly every Sunday.
He’s not your typical street corner evangelist.
In fact, most people who know of Michael wouldn’t tie the word “evangelist” to him at all, unless they were referring to his knack for spreading beliefs about the power of music and laughter.
In my town, Michael is the fun, one-man-band—the guy at the farmers’ market with the monkey puppet on his hand, the maraca tied to his foot, and a group of children gathered around him, hopping and dancing. He seems intent on spreading only smiles and toe-tapping.
A life driven by the blues
A few decades ago, Michael’s image conveyed “evangelist” even less. Michael was a premiere blues drummer, playing with the Finchley Boys, and later with Jerry Lightfoot and the Essential Blues Band, and collaborating with the likes of BB King’s piano player. While that time of his life was a “success” in some respects, Michael says that for a few years, in the late 1960s and 70s, he did little more than drink alcohol, take drugs, play music and sleep.
“By the time I was playing with Jerry Lightfoot in Houston, I was deep into the blues circle. I knew I wouldn’t survive if I kept only playing the blues. We recorded this song ‘Buried Alive in the Blues,’ which was a song Janis Joplin was supposed to record, but then she died. That sort of says it all.”
Being brought back to the “land of the living”
A lot has transpired since then—easily enough to fill a book—but the gist of Michael’s story is this: he stopped drinking, quit playing the hard-core blues, and says he was brought back to “walk in the land of the living” by God.** It’s not like he had a single, “born again” moment. It’s more like God has been working on him, little by little, all along the way.
These days, he’s working through everything from musical styles to memories to Bible verses that have a way of sticking to him.
“There’s the verse [Ephesians 5:15-20] about speaking to one another in Psalms and spiritual songs—that’s no problem at all!” Michael says. “That’s second nature for me! But right before that it talks about spiritual wisdom, which is like ‘woah!’ That’s a whole different thing. It’s easy for me to just show up at church or at the market and play music, but in the past year I started feeling like if that’s all I do, I’m leaving the most important part out. The reason behind why I play is much more important than what comes out.”
Facing a dark past
This new way of seeing things began to crystallize last summer, whey Michael’s old band, the Finchley Boys, got together for a reunion performance at the Champaign Music Festival (July 10, 2010). The experience was a jolt for Michael, who suddenly could see again, in detail, the life he had been living during his blues-playing days.
“It was extraordinary, just to relive that. I had to face a lot of memories, of playing at all kinds of festivals and regaining consciousness in the freak-out tent. I should never take it for granted that I survived.”
And as they began playing their old songs again, Michael says suddenly all the words took on new meaning, especially this Willie Dixon song, “Spoonful.” Here’s a video of “Spoonful” being performed at the reunion show last summer—the first two minutes is all guitar solo, but then you can catch Michael on drums and singing this line at the end):
Could be a spoonful of water
To save you from the desert sand
Just a little spoon of my forty five
Will save you from another man
“With those words it sort of hit me. I had always focused on what I have been saved from. Now I want to focus on what I have been saved for, or to. The phrase I used to use for this sort of thing is that it ‘blows my mind,’ but now I choose to say I’m astonished. The wonder is not that I’m not dead, but that I’m alive, living a whole life I couldn’t have imagined.”
Giving God the glory
Michael suspects the image of him at that reunion gig a year ago was of a gritty, mean, dirty blues man—a survivor, but of a different sort than he really is. He wants to get the story straight.
“God and the Word—that’s why I survived. When I’m playing, it’s not ‘Look at what I’m doing for the Lord,’ it’s ‘Look what the Lord has done for me.'”
Michael has been living in Champaign-Urbana again for 20 years now, pursuing his one-man-band concept and playing drums at New Covenant Fellowship, my church and the community that had embraced him during his earlier days in Champaign.
“I don’t know how it will happen, but in some way I want to make a statement. God is good. His mercy endures forever. Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Do unto others. That’s what I want people to know. I just need to take one day at a time, be honest and open, and not shut down in fear. This is the way I can walk before God in the land of the living.
** Psalm 56:10-13
10In God will I praise his word: in the LORD will I praise his word. 11In God have I put my trust: I will not be afraid what man can do unto me. 12Thy vows are upon me, O God: I will render praises unto thee.
13For thou hast delivered my soul from death: wilt not thou deliver my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the land of the living?