Playing in Undercover and Beating Dragons

“Joe – I was wondering if you have regrets in making this type of music considering your current doubts about God?”

This is a common question I get about my ongoing relationship with Undercover, although it’s one of the more civil and thoughtful versions (sent to me by a lifelong friend).  A somewhat more aggressive version usually asks how I can get up on stage and perform those songs when I don’t believe the message behind the songs anymore.  At the other extreme, although thankfully rarer, are questions like this one, posted publicly:

“What’s this contradiction all about. [sic] You’re obviously against Christianity, but you still do these Undercover gigs and sell records under the name of Undercover and Christianity all for the sake of Love, and yet you don’t display love towards Christians. Huge contradictions!”

The short answer to that one is that I have not received any money from Undercover record sales in well over a decade, nor do I sell anything under the name of Christianity.  I will leave the questions of whether I am against Christianity or not, and whether I am successful at the cultivation and practice of love to all people regardless of creed to my other writings and to the counsel of those whose trust for my accountability has been earned. I suspect this person was internalizing and projecting my critique of religious ideas, ideas for which I have no such allegiance or responsibility in love, but I digress.

The questions became more frequent as the date for a high-profile concert in January, 2011 approached. I have to admit I hadn’t given it much thought other than evaluating possibilities for songs to include in the set list.  Some songs we have not played for years because even when we were all Christians they were too far outside where we found ourselves lyrically and musically.   Some just flat out made us cringe and have for years even though they had their place once upon a time. Do I have regrets looking back? Am I being a hypocrite by continuing to play with Undercover? Should I have resigned from the band when I resigned from religion? I think these are fair questions.  They took me by surprise and I had to think through why I still feel sincere and authentic, still in alignment with myself by agreeing to play. Here are the results of my thinking on it and how the future looks from where I stand right now.

First, it’s important to keep in mind that this band is not only mine, nor is it my personal property!  It is the creative collaboration of a number of individuals.   It’s true that I write a good chunk of the material and have been the spokesperson for the group too, but it is a team through and through and we have been united in our love for each other, for the music and our audience.  In fact it is the most successful team I have worked with in my life in terms of longevity and cohesion.  This band has outlived both of my marriages. My own views are only that – my own views.  I am happy to support the other guys however I can. In fact, it is one of the great honors of my life to support them in this way.

Second, the songs themselves all represent steps along my personal journey as an individual and as an artist. Every record we produced was a step of growth, necessarily moving on to new ideas and horizons, leaving some things behind. I am not in the same place now that I was 5 years ago, nor was I in the same place 5 years ago that I was 5 years before that. I see no problem in acknowledging and honoring that process and my own path in the performance of the songs even when they no longer represent my most current thinking. Artists do that all the time.

Third, there is the music itself.  These are songs I wrote, poured myself into, laughed, cried and lost sleep over, helped produce and record, and performed over years and years. They are in a real sense like my children.  They are part of me. The songs we still play are songs we all still love.  I remember how I felt when I wrote them.  It seems to me that stopping the performance of those songs because some of the lyrics come from a worldview I no longer find compelling is like dumping an otherwise great song written for a woman I no longer love.  I will have more to say on the transcendence of the song over its content in a moment.

Fourth, these songs and this band have had meaning for our audience.  They identify the songs and concerts they went to with times in their lives, with events in their own journeys, with struggles and joys.  I have dear friends who have met their spouses at Undercover concerts! I get emails about these kinds of things all the time.  I don’t mean to overstate our importance.  It is what it is, but Undercover doesn’t belong to me or even to the four of us and like many bands, it is larger than just the members and the music.  Undercover has been a rite of passage for a number of people.  I wrote on the liner notes of the live album 3-28-87 that the most important aspect of Undercover has been its relationship to its audience.  That is still true.  To the contrary then, it would seem to me selfish if I were to take away whatever opportunity remains in our lives to allow them to relive those experiences, to celebrate and remember them, however that looks.

I try to be transparent about what I believe and don’t believe.  I am not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes.  If there are people whose experience with Undercover has changed because of my own evolving beliefs, I understand that and have no quarrel with doing what they need to do to come to terms with that.  But for many people it’s not at all about me or us, it’s about what the music and the experiences have meant to them. I’m happy and honored to have been a part of all or any of that in some small way and I’m happy to help give something back in the way of the experience.

As I write this, I am thinking of two nights ago when I went to hear some friends play who also have a number of albums out.  It had been years since I last heard them and I happened to be in town.  During and after the concert a number of people came up to me to introduce themselves and tell me their stories of what our music has meant to them over the years.  After the concert one of the band members came up and also told me how much our album Branded had helped him through very, very dark times and how he still listens to it.  We finished the record in 1986 but even today people find it and bring their own meaning and experience to it.  There was an email waiting for me when I got home that night from someone who wanted to tell me how much some of our songs had helped keep him sane through a very troubled youth.

So, isn’t it as clear as anything that all of the life-changing testimonies from so many people over so long from all over the world point the way to a living and loving god? I don’t think it does, even though the framework for those testimonies is Christian. Many believers think otherwise and attribute those inner shifts to the power of God.  Thinking back on our earlier history and the impact we had on people’s lives, I wrote in another place that “I was not then at the point where I believed any of that was comprehensively possible outside of Christianity.  I know it is now, and that it’s not important what container love comes in.”  I don’t accept the premise that the deep inner and outer experiences that come with being human are religious phenomena. It is also certainly clear that those experiences cannot be assumed by any specific religion or creed as uniquely proprietary, nor are they any more real, intense, or deep simply because of faith.  These are human experiences, not religious experiences, and all peoples have them.

G.K. Chesterton, a believer, famously said “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” I am not saying that the Christian basis for the lyrics in Undercover are fairy tales although I do believe many of them are based in legend and mythology.  But whether or not the stories of the scriptures or dragons are real misses the point.  They may be legend, myth or fairy tale, and they can still be true and powerful.  They can truly tell us that dragons can be beaten and often that is enough.

I have gone through the songs I’ve recorded over and over in my mind to see if there is anything there that could not possibly have had a positive impact outside the existence of God with no other possible explanation, and I come up empty. Forgiveness, love, tolerance, acceptance, kindness, charity, patience and long-suffering, a fertile, open and receptive heart, all human virtues are available to all of any creed and those with no creed in exactly the same way and measure.  How are they activated?  What needs to be done for us to see, to know in the depths of our hearts that dragons can indeed be beaten?  Is it truly necessary to believe that dragons exist to know this, or does focusing the emphasis on the existence of dragons itself make the practice of virtue even less effective?  Why not play these songs?

It’s been said that a Native American storyteller used to begin his stories by saying, “Now I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true.”  As I work on my first new set of material well beyond a religious belief system and continue to integrate some of the older songs I’ve written that I still love into my performances, it is my intention to continue doing just as I have always done when I’m at my best – to tell my own truth and by doing so beat my own dragons and hopefully help any who listen beat theirs as well. No, I have no regrets.

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Photograph of roses by Rich Brimer. Photograph of Undercover by Anne Marie Wilson.

14 thoughts on “Playing in Undercover and Beating Dragons

  1. Thanks for sharing so deeply about this, Joey. Though I’d never be so forward as to have asked you, the thoughts had occurred (though in the offensive way of your e-mailer, more in terms of “how do you feel about it” – which has now been answered!).

    I count myself among the many whose lives were impacted for the positive by Undercover, at many different points and in many different ways. Thanks for all of that and for continuing regardless of where you’re at or what others think.

    We all are at different points along our journey, and I believe God will evaluate all at the end, though the criteria are often less than clear.


  2. Thanks Joe for posting the link to these writings on FB or else I would pobably never get around to reading them. I can atest to the positive power of positive influence that you and all the members of Undercover made in my life through your music and your friendships off and on through the years. The time I spent being around you all is still stories that I tell family and friends. I still remember the time that Joe called me up(You were still going by Joey at the time) and asked me to start being a paid roadie for you goys and I had to turn down the opertunitie due to the fact that I was starting football for my senior year in High School and you were surprised to find out I was still in High School. You subsequently hired Chucky the Meek and he worked with you guys after that. I have no regrets for all that I was able to do with the Band and I have no regrets for not being able to work further with the Band. that was just where I happened to be at in life at the time.I learned so much at that time and enjoyed myself imensely. I wish nothing but the best for you all and love to read of the ongoing journey of life from your perspective. God Bless . DEAN

  3. Joey, thanks for finding such an eloquent way of communicating these things. Something that stands out for me is the relationship a band—especially bands like ours—have with our audiences. That was the most profound loss I felt when I had to leave Altar Boys, and then thought I was doing everyone a favor by disappearing. That was a loss I never really got over, and why I started poking my head in the door (so to speak) just over a year ago and discovered that the connections were still there, and that all I’d lost was time, not love.

  4. I some times chuckle that I still like to listen to my Christian alt rock collection. I still buy new albums from the Choir, the Violet Burning and others-even though I don’t quite share the beliefs anymore. They still evoke positive memories for me. Does listening to Forever Mercy or Devotion somehow dishonest? Am I somehow not allowed to feel a connection just because my beliefs changed?

    I’ve really appreciated these series of blog postings (glad you liked my recent blog post commenting on some of this stuff!). Having had opportunities to interact through the various points of your journey. My biggest regret from my time in L.A. was not getting around to taking you up on the offer to visit the studio.

  5. Joey:
    You don;t know me and I only know the pictures painted in your music with Undercover. You and I may hold moderately to massively divergent beliefs, but I will unswervingly defend your right to your own intellectual integrity in the face of anyone who would deride it. That is simply piss-poor.

    Thank you for Branded, Balance of Power and Devotion. They may not mean to me what was intended when they were recorded, but to say that they are anything less than powerfully profound would be shortsighted to an amazing degree.

    May the road rise with you.

  6. Thanks for the upfront response. I’m saddened to learn that your thoughts have changed but can appreciate your point of view with regard to the band being a group project. Boys & Girls Renounce the World is still a great album…and thanks to the anthologies, I believe I have everything except for the Cornerstone album. I’m not going to say that Undercover was a band that changed my life, but definately one of the bands I liked a lot…I’ve had very varied likes over the years…Petra, Randy Stonehill, Micheal W. Smith, Altar Boys, Newsboys, Whiteheart, Skillet, Audio Adrenaline, and the list goes on. Boys and Girls was probably one of the first 10-15 Christian albums I bought.
    I know that the journey is pretty crazy sometimes & I hope that some day soon you are able to look back and realize that God loves you. Abundant Blessings!

    By the way…it was way cool to see Ric Alba’s comment too 🙂 I never saw Undercover; but I saw Altar Boys quite a few times!

  7. HI,
    I was an DJ at a couple of Christian Radio stations in Oklahoma City and Manhattan, KS. While I was in the business I thought it was sad that much music that was good wasn’t played on secular stations. I thought that was a odd thing to basically censor the music like that. It was rare to have a CCM artist crossover to secular music stations.
    But now looking back I can see how the music can be viewed and think rightly so it was kept off the air of mainstream stations.

    But I still listen to some of the music from those days and can have a secular enjoyment even though it has a religious meaning. TO be honest, most songs on secular stations have obtuse or obscure meanings. But people like it anyway. Or you can add your own meaning to the music.

    I guess what I am saying is that the reasons you play you music and the reason people listen to it are almost never the same.

    I would wonder if you have any view on making music for musics sake?

  8. Dear Joey,

    Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life, no man comes to the father but by me.” The problem with “Rock stars” is they listen to the praise of their crowd it can mess with their perspective. I see Joey that you are sincere in your disbelief but you still have a conscience. Lying, stealing, lust, envy, blasphemy, gossip, slander, unjust anger, murder,idolatry (making a God from your imagination to suit your sin) and rebellion are still sins. God has written on your conscience as all of humanity. Justice exists as does conscience. “This is how we know what love is JESUS CHRIST laid his life down for us” “God demonstrated his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for the ungodly. ” “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through JESUS CHRIST”. I’m not gonna be one of those people who pats you on the back for losing faith and “being real”. I am going to challenge you to look at justice and conscience. 10 out of 10 people will die and face God. If you die in your sins, you’ll end up in hell. I love you far too much to give you Rock star praise. Truth in Love The only way to love and sins pardon is the shed blood of the lamb of God who fullfilled hundreds of old testament prophecies, who made predictions that have come true, and has done millions of miracles including transforming drug addicts, prositutes, theives. “Wisdom is proved right by all her children”. Jesus is worthy of trust. Comparing him to “fairy tales” is unintellectual. These are historical testimonies. I personally know hundreds of changed people by the gospel of JESUS. In the parable of the seed and the sower……there is one who receives the message with joy but when trials and persectution come they fall away because they have no root. Joey is it possible, you couldn’t stand the heat so you got out of God’s kitchen? Every believer is called to suffer as JESUS did. Rock Star is about popularity , serving JESUS is about sacrifice and laying down your life. To me JESUS IS WORTH any pain I can go through. Considering the severity of all my sin. I deserve nothing from God, any pain I have is far less than JESUS endured to save me from my guilt.

    Jesus said “whoever does not gather with me, scatters” Joey by your preaching lack of faith in “christianity” you are serving the devil knowingly or unknowingly. It gives me no joy to tell you the truth. But I do love you sir. “therefore knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade men”. Hell is eternal torment. You think divorce is hard. try being separated from everything good God gives. That is what hell is like. “weeping and gnashing of teeth” “where the worm never dies and the fire never goes out”

    I’m sorry that you have been hurt in this life but come to your senses…Jesus prophecied that would happen also. “in this world you will have trouble, but take heart I have overcome the world”
    Take your heart to Him.
    “The Lords paitience means salvation”

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