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