Michael Been, Heeding the Call

Michael Been, lead singer, songwriter and bassist for The Call died this week of a heart attack backstage at a music festival in Belgium. He may not have wanted it any other way.

Been was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, where from an early age he was immersed in Southern music – Elvis, Buddy Holly, gospel and country blues. When Been was 12 or 13, his family relocated to Chicago and he was exposed to harder-edged, urban blues. His biggest influence, though, was The Band.

“I went to see The Band when I was about 18,” Been said in an interview posted on The Call’s official website. “And I remember looking through the crowd and seeing people with tears in their eyes. I'd never seen that before. I knew immediately what I wanted to do.”

The Call was formed in Santa Cruz in 1979 and went on to enjoy some hits during the '80s – “The Walls Came Down,” “Everywhere I Go” and “I Still Believe (Great Design)." Their 1989 song “Let The Day Begin” hit #1 on rock radio charts (and was later used by the 2000 Al Gore campaign) but, due to a change in management, the record company did little to promote the album. Trouble with labels, legal wrangling and an admittedly eclectic output perhaps kept The Call from reaching the wider audience their fans – among them Bono, Peter Gabriel and Bob Dylan – thought they deserved.

“You better love this with all your heart because you’re going to encounter forces that are gonna try and rip that joy right out of you,” he told Zball Magazine when asked for his advice to young musicians. “You've gotta stay focused on why you’re doing it.”

The Call released their last album in 1990. Been stayed active though, contributing the soundtrack for Paul Schrader’s Light Sleeper (1992) and releasing his own solo record in 1994. He also appeared as Apostle John in Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ (1989).

But music remained his first passion, and recent years saw him in the studio as producer and on the road as a sound engineer with successful alt-rockers The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. The band is fronted by his son, Robert Levon Been.

Back in 1991, Michael Been told an interviewer that he and his bandmates, “grew up admiring the lifestyle of the blues, jazz and the big band guys who stayed out on the road almost year round. We love playing live and being out in front of an audience. We always have and probably always will as long as we’re physically able…Maybe when I’m 50 years old I won’t want to go out and play, but right now it’s an integral part of my life.”

Michael Been was still heeding the call of the road at 60 years old when he collapsed backstage on August 19th at the Pukkelpop festival in Belgium. Here’s The Call performing their biggest hit, “Let the Day Begin.”