Michael Been, singer for the Call, has died from an apparent heart attack Thursday at a music festival in Belgium. He was 60.
The Call formed in Oklahoma City and rose to a modicum of fame in the 1980s with MTV-fueled hits such as "I Still Believe," "The Walls Came Down" and "Everywhere I Go." The band's sound, particularly Been's volcanic passion at the microphone, was likened to U2 early on, and by the end of the '80s Peter Gabriel pointed to the Call and declared, "[They're] the future of American music." The band's website proclaims them "perhaps the most underrated band ever"; it's a point fans can argue fairly well.
But Been wasn't in Belgium performing with the Call, which hasn't seen much action in a long time. He was running sound for the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club -- Been's son, Robert Levon Been, is that band's singer -- at the Pukkelpop Festival on the same bill with Oklahoma City's Flaming Lips.
According to a statement from festival organizer Chokri Mahassine, translated to the press in Belgium: "Salvator hospital in Hasselt has just notified us of the death of Michael Been. He was taken ill in the backstage area. First aid was immediately administrated, and the Red Cross and medical urgence [sic] teams were immediately at the scene."
Been grew up in Oklahoma City before his family moved to Chicago at the age of 12. Much of the Call's lyrical soul and musical roots are planted in those formative years in this segment of the Bible belt and Chicago's epicenter for blues.
"Oklahoma was the melting pot for that whole area of music,'' Been told me in a 1997 interview. "I was young, but that's when I first started listening intently to music, and I was hearing everything -- country, blues, R&B, New Orleans jazz, rockabilly. It was all an influence ... My only memories of Oklahoma are pretty much sports and music, and I
didn't dig sports that much.
"Then I moved to Chicago and got a big blues influence. That was the time when I was listening to the Rolling Stones, and they were hugely influenced by that Chicago blues sound. I went around town and heard some of the music they had heard. I mean, the Stones began like the Beatles did, not doing any of their own stuff. They were doing these old songs by these blues guys.''
But instead of turning around and producing more bluesy pop about wine and women, Been started writing mainstream songs that packed lyrical punch, songs that spoke of social issues and -- unusual in mainstream pop at the time -- religious ideas. ""The Walls Came Down'' is a foreboding retelling of Jericho's fate which wraps up with this: "I don't think there are any Russians / and there ain't no Yanks / Just corporate criminals / playing with tanks.''
Been even showed up as John the Apostle in Martin Scorsese's film of ""The Last Temptation of Christ.'' He's one from that Bono-Bob Geldof-Mike Peters class of singers who always believed rock could change the world.
"It changed my world,'' Been said. ""Even though I loved that Stones pop music, I found more inspiration in Dylan, Lennon and the Band. In the '70s, I got into Joy Division and the Clash. I loved that passionate singing, stuff built on a social conscience.''