One of the most widely-read posts on my little site is the first interview I did for Down The Line magazine in 2010 where I publicly discussed not being able to accept the tenets of any version of Christianity any longer. In 2017 I was approached by Doug Peterson to do a follow-up interview, published in July, 2017. Here is that interview.
In the midst of a full and busy life, Joe Taylor aka Ojo graciously took time to ponder some questions and offer thoughtful observations/reflections. Having grown up with Undercover’s catalogue, I was stretched in healthy ways with the latter discography. Branded to Forum encouraged me to embrace my humanity in conversation with the Spirit of Life. With this interview, that conversation is again being revisited, only deeper.
Thomas Merton, in his Raids On The Unspeakable had this to say of poets, and I think it aptly describes the gift of words of which Joe imparts: “We are the children of the Unknown. We are the ministers of silence that is needed to cure all victims of absurdity who lie dying of a contrived joy. Let us recognize ourselves for who we are: dervishes mad with secret therapeutic love which cannot be bought or sold, and which the politician fears more than violent revolution, for violence changes nothing. But love changes everything … We are stronger than the bomb.” Joe, you are Da Bomb!
Hi Joe. It’s daunting to follow up on Steve Ruff’s exemplary interview you did in DTL issue 7 in 2010. You covered a lot of ground there. Looking back to that interview, is there anything you wish to re-visit in hindsight?
I went gently in that interview, as much for my own sake as the readers’. It was done very shortly after I went public about having realized I was no longer a religious believer. I have no regrets about any of it and I think there was some good stuff in there. I’ve referred a number of times to things I wrote in it. In that sense there’s nothing I’d really change about it; nothing that I think is wrong, inarticulate or needs clearing up in hindsight. Steve asked direct questions about where I stood on things, and was gracious in letting me speak my mind freely and without limit so it was broad enough to become the starting point for an ongoing dialogue with the Christian music audience. I intend to put a “Read this first” link to that interview on my blog. It sets things up nicely for the rest.
When I say that I went gently with it, I’m thinking of a number of reasons why that was the case. First, as I just said, it was an introduction to where I was then with my beliefs and the church. I didn’t want to really blow anyone away or present myself in a way that was any different than the person I was then and had always been. There’s an unfortunate temptation among believers to think that once someone does let go of faith that somehow it’s because they’re rebellious, antagonistic, against God or driven by some other faulty motivation. There’s a lot to say about that.
More important, I don’t think believers understand how tender it is to go through the process of growing past beliefs that one can no longer believe by sheer will. I hear all kinds of dismissals of my journey and path: “You’ve been hurt by the church,” or “You were never really a Christian to begin with.” “You just want to sin,” “You took the easy way out,” “You’ll come around again, at least on your deathbed,” or any number of other disrespectful dismissals. Any statement that minimizes another’s path, even the supportive-sounding, “I’m praying for you,” can be toxic and prejudicial. I understand that those are just projections on the parts of those making those assertions. It’s just too hard to accept the simplest explanation; there is not sufficient evidence or basis to believe the claims religions make and so they project all this other stuff onto unbelievers. I also find it interesting that so many articles about “Why people are leaving the church,” and those kinds of things offer up all kinds of red herrings and miss that same simple fundamental explanation; the claims are simply not believable for us.
It would be easy for me to lay out my life as a believer, from my earliest memories in a devout Italian Catholic family, in Catholic school, watching religious movies over and over in tears as a young child, as an altar boy having to learn the Tridentine Mass in Latin and the Baltimore Catechism, having received the Sacraments, my detour to Evangelicalism and then back to Catholicism a few years later, pilgrimages to Rome, my work with Undercover, all the songs, the places we played, the messages and Bible studies I gave, the people that I spent time with talking and praying, who responded to our music and were changed by these experiences (a mystery I am forever grateful for and cannot completely grasp), the teaching of my children in the faith, taking them to church, reading to them, telling the stories in ways they could understand, taking them to concerts, observing the holidays, the holy days, the rituals and liturgies. I watched my mother die of cancer saying the rosary whenever she could, documenting her transition out of this life on Forum in at least three songs, praying over her body with our family.
How easy do people think it is to abandon all that? How cavalier would I have to be to have so easily tossed all that aside for the reasons these people incorrectly assume? It is tender, one of the most difficult and painful things to endure and many unbelievers I know say the same thing about their own transitions out of faith. We risk the alienation of our families and communities, our government and laws, public scorn and contempt, suspicions and accusations of not having a moral foundation, of not having a “spiritual” or inner life, being without “the Spirit” as it were, of being at enmity with the divine and outside the fellowship of “the saints,” as they call themselves. To most believers there is nothing good about it, nothing good that can come from it. We are in error. We are less-than. How could it be otherwise? To admit otherwise would be to call their own faith into question. I could count on one hand the number of believers that would allow that in their theology, I have equal-standing with them in every way in the eyes of their God and in their own heart.
It’s not that I believe in their God, but people project their heart onto their God all the time. As Anne Lamott said, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do,” or the same things in this case, that our God feels the same way about things that we do. I have no doubt there will be similar comments wherever this interview shows up as well. There’s a strain of Christianity, religion in general really, that must dehumanize others to preserve its beliefs, theology and doctrines even while professing some kind of love, godly love as it were. That’s not a compelling idea of love at all, not the kind of love I’m interested in, nor the kind people are drawn to.
When I first considered that I might not be a believer anymore, an insight as surprising to me as anyone else, I remember praying and asking God to be gracious to me while I worked through this, and laughed to myself at the irony of such a thing. “God, please go easy on me while I figure out if I believe you exist or not.” It was however, a sincere prayer. I had not figured things out to the point where I felt I could have an intelligent discussion about it. I had many questions that I knew would take a while to get to the bottom of. I was reluctant to talk to anyone. I had not formulated nor was I ready to defend a new worldview given these questions and the implications of the answers. I just knew that the house of cards had fallen from the removal of one or two key cards after years of accumulating doubts, questions, inconsistencies; “death by a thousand paper cuts,” I’ve called it. There was (and is) no way to re-believe those things. I came out tenderly, and it had to be so. I think that gentleness came out in the interview. I’ve been around a few blocks since and there is no reason to pull punches anymore.
In your Facebook posts and blogs, you articulate where you stand politically and philosophically. You are critical of the current political climate in the US and voice those concerns. It’s obvious the US is deeply divided. How do you think people can communicate with each other, given the great divide that alienates family and friends? Is it even possible?
I do consider this last election historically catastrophic for our country. That opinion is not rooted solely in party, ideology, or politics, where I do have significant differences, or the legitimacy of the election, which I do not question. It’s based on concern for governance, our democracy and Democracy in the rest of the world. It seems there’s a new episode every day. David Brooks, a conservative Christian, captured this concern in a New York Times essay, The Crisis of Western Civ:
In America, the basic fabric of civic self-government seems to be eroding following the loss of faith in democratic ideals. According to a study published in The Journal of Democracy, the share of young Americans who say it is absolutely important to live in a democratic country has dropped from 91 percent in the 1930s to 57 percent today.
While running for office, Donald Trump violated every norm of statesmanship built up over these many centuries, and it turned out many people didn’t notice or didn’t care.
The faith in the West collapsed from within. It’s amazing how slow people have been to rise to defend it.
There’s nothing I’m going to say that will persuade people politically and I’m not going to try because that’s not what this is about. We’ve all endured transitions of power from one party to another with varying levels of outrage, disappointment, frustration and concern. It’s much bigger than policy issues favored by the left or right. There’s a cloud of conservative and religious witnesses like Brooks and David Frum who are equally and deeply troubled.
For me it’s also and perhaps most of all rooted in civil rights and concern for the well-being of people who are going to be harmed by policies and laws that are explicitly being proposed and enacted. I am concerned for medical care and coverage, income inequality, LGBTQ rights, voting rights, actual religious freedom (not the kind being packaged and thrown at us, which is nothing more than licenses for the majority religion to discriminate when their consciences dictate) and separation of Church and State. I’m concerned for our institutions; the courts, schools, the Intelligence agencies, the EPA and the Depts. of Education and Energy, which are now (among other federal agencies) being run by people who have explicitly advocated for their closure. There’s a lot to be concerned about even before going into the many ethical questions and investigations now underway. There’s no shortage of debate and argument on all sides of these issues. So let me cut to your question.
We are deeply divided as a nation, as deeply divided as I’ve ever experienced. Families and lifelong friendships are impacted including my own, strained over religious and political views. Those two things are not independent. The factors that best explained the white vote in 2016 were religion and education. It threw me for a complete loop (although perhaps it should not have) when 81% of Evangelical Christians lined up politically with folks like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, Kenneth Copeland, Jim Baker and other televangelists, the Family Research Council, and groups like them. This includes people I’ve known, worked with, made music with, traveled with, and lived with for years and years. How did this campaign, this rhetoric, these platforms and policies that do actual harm to “the least of these,” how do these cabinet appointees align with these folks’ faith and morals? I had and still have a very hard time with all that, as do a number of now-former evangelical Christians like Tony Campolo. I do not share their values and feel there is not much of a basis or, I admit, desire on my part to engage.
So what can I do about it? I do think it’s possible to communicate with each other, not in all cases and not always, but there is a place where we can meet. These are some of the principles that guide me in dialog with others.
1) I have to accept that people think differently than I do and hold different values including values about the role of government.
2) There has to be a basic level of good faith, good will, intellectual honesty, and a willingness to listen and learn. Discussion often ends right here.
3) I have to resist taking things personally when people disagree with me or when I disagree with them.
4) There must be absolutely no personal attacks, bearing of false witness or name-calling, even of public figures. This is completely counter-productive even if it is cathartic. Leave it at home or just admit that the goal is not real communication. Ideas do not have to be respected (there are plenty of bad ones out there) but people do, even those we have no personal experience with.
5) Ideas have to be discussed and debated on the merits, not on ad hominem or tu quoque attacks, straw-man arguments or assumed or imputed motives of the other person.
6) We have to stick to the facts as much as is possible, and we should be able to determine what the facts are.
This is a tall order, it’s not easy and not always possible if some or too many of these are missing. In those cases I am happy to part ways peacefully or not engage at all. But it seems to me we have to have the discussion, and when we can’t it’s still important to speak my truth and to speak truth to power. I’m grateful for a free press.
What albums from CCM do you find yourself returning to for repeated listening?
I don’t listen to any. Or if I do, it’s only records that are part of my life’s work, records I had something to do with, but even then it’s just a handful of things I might go back to once in a while. I also listen to my close friends’ music-making. I love that. I listen to a lot of stuff every day of course. I teach music at James Madison University, so I hear students’ songs, the repertoire from my History of Rock class, I try to stay up to date on new composers and at the same time shore up my experience and knowledge of the standard classical repertoire. There’s only so many hours in a day and really no reason for me to listen to CCM musically or lyrically at all since it’s not really a style of music, but an ideology set to notes.
When I look back at Undercover’s latter career, I find some significant albums that helped many of us in our journeys. Branded and Balance Of Power were overall heavy and dark. It was as though those albums gave us permission to rethink some of the shit we had experienced or would experience later on. Do you have any reflections or afterthoughts from that period?
People have said that Undercover grew up in public. I think that’s true to some extent especially tracking the lyrics from the first album on. The turning point for me was the Boys & Girls record, although I don’t know if that would be obvious to listeners. I hear it though. It’s just a little darker, or at least not quite as unabashedly exuberant. The seeds of Branded had been growing during that time. Branded was then born of the kinds of circumstances you mention; divorce and death in the case of these two records.
I have two thoughts that have been persistent over the years. First, I feel incredibly honored and fortunate to have had our music show up in such meaningful ways in others’ lives. I have received so many heartbreaking and beautiful letters and testimonials over the years, people telling me what was going on in their lives, their marriages and how the music was transformative for them. I couldn’t begin to put the gravity of all that in words. I get notes like that still, 31 years after the record came out.
It never occurred to us that Branded might have the impact it did. It made perfect sense that we should translate our personal experiences into song, to grow up in public. I think this was a shift for some folks in the way they practiced their faith and thought about themselves and their humanity. It was ok to admit imperfections and not just to admit them, but to own them in the first-person, bring them out in the open and not feel any lower because of it. The faux-holiness that was (and is) so prevalent in religious institutions including CCM has no place in an examined life or a spiritual practice, because it’s at the expense of authenticity. There’s a lot more to say about this another time, how that faux-holiness self-perpetuates especially when one’s salary and livelihood depend on it, a gravely unfortunate circumstance. I know many people stuck there, pastors and artists alike. I’m grateful for the work of organizations like The Clergy Project. I’m also grateful for courageously honest artists.
I would never want to minimize folks’ experiences with the music or suggest how the songs should be heard. I believe though that it’s a real indictment of CCM and popular religion that the kind of stuff we were writing and singing about are completely commonplace outside of the Christian market. Anyone who listens to Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen or any number of artists for even 15 minutes understands this. But in church we are expected to have been forgiven and to be living as if we were, to have become changed, new creations, filled with the spirit, no longer a slave to sin, an example, the salt of the earth, the light of the world, models of love; choose the talking point. It’s all the same – it’s really not ok to be human or to struggle with it except in the past tense. On Branded we just went the other way.
One question I get from time to time has to do with how I can see the transformative impact the music has had on people and not believe that it comes from God! You hint at this idea in a question below. There are many things that transform people, including music on its own. I don’t think there’s anything supernatural about what happens when we open ourselves to grace, forgiveness, love, acceptance, when we establish and affirm our humanity and individuality, when we come to accept who we are, when we see that others are suffering like us, when our suffering becomes ok to experience, when we feel like we belong and are valued for who we are. This is the mystery that I mentioned earlier.
I don’t mean to be snarky when I say this, but to a hammer the whole world looks like a nail. These are universal experiences and aspects of the human condition and I think it’s a mistake to co-opt them into our worldview and faith and interpret everything that happens to us through that filter as if it’s uniquely a result of our faith. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, and it happens all the time. But we must recognize that the human experience is not unique to Christianity or any other religion. Branded is all about these things but mostly wrapped up in a Christian theology, and that theology is not necessary to live fully. In fact it often gets in the way. I can still listen to Branded and Balance of Power and experience everything those records meant to me back then without the theological trappings.
Undercover’s last album, I Rose Falling, is the only album that took some time for me to embrace. Some of the lyrics read like poetry, though a bit more perplexing in meaning than your previous works. Can you speak to your approach in the making of this album?
It’s interesting that you would put it that way because I did solicit the help of a friend, Valerie Savior who has a MFA in poetry, for the lyrics in the songs I wrote on that album. Overall I was bumping up against the limits of what I was able to accomplish musically and lyrically. We recorded this record at my home studio (Gym Nicholson built the room). So for the first time we had unlimited studio time and I had the convenience of just walking out to the studio whenever I felt like it. I had been out of the business for a while but had begun studying music at CSU Fullerton simply for the love and joy of it and to expand those limits for myself. Working with Valerie was one way of doing that with my lyrics.
The way we worked was interesting from a process point of view. I always write the music before the lyrics and in this case I wrote and recorded the music and then met with Valerie to play her the songs and tell her what I imagined they might be about. I gave her imagery, things that came to mind in each song. She took notes furiously and then went back to put it all together. Now, she is a poet and had never worked in song before. She was clear that she saw these as lyrics, not poems. There are similarities of course, but there are differences too with things like phrasing, melody and prosody and we went back and forth making changes where we needed to, and there were a number of them. It was harder than I thought it would be. Sim was really good about communicating what he felt was more or less singable and Gym was helpful too. Overall I’m very happy with the way those songs turned out and with that experiment.
There are lines from the song Svper Terram that I wonder about: “When I was little, I waited for a benevolent friend. Gilded with stories. I prayed, waiting for him. Now, I think there is no fissure in firmament, no divorce of earth, or cove of lament, only a little boy’s dreams entwined with incense.” When I hear these lines, it appears to me you do not need a set theology to capture the sacred. What is the significance of these lyrics for you?
This song is based on two events that happened when I was quite young (and these can be squarely placed in the context of my answer to the first question, “my life as a believer, from my earliest memories in a devout Italian Catholic family, in Catholic school.”) First, I dreamt that I was inside the Vatican. John XXIII was Pope so I could not have been more than a few years old when I had this dream. I had died and was in a long line with others who had also died. We were waiting to ascend a staircase that would lead us to heaven. The Pope was there in the halls and he knew we were there and could see us, but nobody else in the basilica could, or knew of our presence. I had never been to the Vatican but had seen pictures and my mother must have taught me these things very early.
The second event was when I was in first grade in Catholic school. My teacher, a nun whose name escapes me, told us a story of two children, a brother and sister who were lonely and went into their church to pray. They knelt at the statue of the baby Jesus, which then came to life and played with the children for a while. That’s all I remember of the story, but I knew that I was lonely too. So after school I went into the church and knelt before the statue we had there and prayed as well. I prayed that this statue would come to life and play with me and I prayed for what seemed a good while.
I think from these stories the song should become clearer, that there was in my thinking just the sheerest of veils separating this realm from the next, a simple continuum of existence. Of course I don’t have reason to believe that there is a “next realm” anymore. I may be wrong but neither do I have any fear. The first part was a dream after all and the second, well, my prayers were not answered in that way.
Greg Lawless from Adam Again and I were talking not long ago and he made a really good observation that I’ve thought about many times since. He feels (if I understood him correctly) that the window is closing over time on the number of their songs that are still relevant and can stand the test of time. I feel the same with ours. As far as I’m concerned, the more our songs deal with theological topics of one sort or another, the less relevant they seem, the less appeal they have and they have lost whatever potency they might have had for me. That’s true of some more than others. They may still be musically interesting but lyrically not so much. All of our records have some of those songs; more on the early ones, fewer from Branded on. Branded has “Tears in Your Eyes” and “If I Had a Dream” after all, where the wicked all will be burnt alive. It’s hard to get on board with that one anymore.
There are other songs that still hold up for me but those are the ones where the painful beauty of the human experience shines through more. Even a song like “Pilate” whose story is based completely in scripture goes beyond the theology. It’s not about the historicity of the story or the spiritual lesson of it or anything like that, but the human experience of what it must have been like for him as a person if that story were true. I submitted the Branded album as a term project in college for a Religious Studies class on existentialism called, “Anxiety, Guilt and Freedom.” So I don’t know – I don’t want to seem to be telling anyone what they can or can’t, should or shouldn’t get out of a song. The experience is personal and belongs to each. I am happy to have my work welcomed into someone’s life, however that looks. “Svper Terram” is special to me because those two memories were so innocent, so pure and were vivid and powerful to my 6-year-old self. It seems to be that growing up in public thing again.
Are there any songs you’ve written that have surfaced into existence with little or no effort, sort of like a spiritual experience?
I wouldn’t really call it spiritual, because I’m not sure exactly what that word means. If you mean supernatural in any way, then no, I don’t believe so. There are songs that have come in one sitting or very quickly and others that have taken literally years to complete. I never know which ones will be easier than others. “God Rules” and “Come Away With Me” both came at once and yet they are very different songs. On the other hand is “Line of Thinking,” from I Rose Falling, (which Gym says is his favorite Undercover song, by the way) which took forever and sounds very little like it did when I first conceived of it. I have pieces of songs now that are even older that I am sure I will finish and use whenever I get around to making another record, which I hope will be before too long.
The best I can do is to quote Leonard Cohen on this. “If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition. It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery.”
I grew up reading testimonies of people who had these horrific past lives, and then God miraculously rescued them and set them on the straight and narrow path. Every now and then, I hear people talk about how God saved a criminal or an alcoholic or (fill in the blank) from their life of sin. I think there is an appeal to these stories of redemption. We want to believe people can be rescued. I do not doubt some people have had that happen to them. But as a mental health worker, I have not seen anyone get beyond their addiction or mental illness in at least a decade. So I have pretty well adopted a show me-don’t tell me attitude to these “burning bush”-type experiences.
So the question I ponder, and there may not be any succinct answer, is: how does an understanding of love address helping people who are bent on a destructive path?
You’ve hit on a couple significant issues. First, I’ve heard many stories and testimonials of healing and what you might call deliveries from various maladies and such. I think we are right to be skeptical until we’ve seen the evidence, the medical records, heard from doctors and those kinds of things. I’ve asked before, even of pastors who have made such claims (and ought to know better) to no avail, as if we are just to accept these things on faith. As the Latin maxim goes, “Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur,” – “What is freely asserted is freely deserted.” Or as Christopher Hitchens says, “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”
I have friends who claim and firmly believe they have had personal otherwise-unexplainable “spiritual” experiences that have transformed them irreversibly. I do not doubt their experiences at all. I do doubt their interpretations of it. Such things happen in all faiths, and it’s interesting to me that it always points to the God people have been brought up to believe in, or the culturally dominant or popular religion that’s responsible for the miracle. The fact is that it happens across all faith systems and it’s accepted as confirmation of the individual’s beliefs and theology. I know this from the research literature but I have friends from very different beliefs – Christians, Muslims, Sufis and even atheists (who interpret it differently than believers of course, which suggests the phenomenon is actually not theistic at all) that convincingly describe transformative, dissociative ecstatic experiences or visions. They all describe the same kinds of phenomena – a sense of being one with everything, of being nothing but love, of somehow being separate from their bodies, and it sometimes lasts for many hours and even days. I don’t know enough to explain all this but there is no doubt it happens, across belief systems.
People also spontaneously heal rather frequently. I hear that also attributed to their God, whichever one that might be. Is it possible? I suppose it might be. But without evidence I don’t think we’re justified in trusting these folks’ interpretation of what happened, even if they absolutely had the kind of experience they described, no matter how much they swear their interpretation of it is true. This to me is just another example of what I wrote earlier, that “These are universal experiences and aspects of the human condition and we co-opt them into our worldview and faith and interpret everything that happens to us through that filter as if it’s uniquely a result of our faith.”
So what about love? Well, the bible does not define what that is. It gives examples of it, even gives us characteristics of it, orders us to do it, elevates it to a level of paramount importance, but it does not tell us what it is. This has always been a problem for me. Long before Undercover I went on a mission to get to the bottom of that, however I could. I wrote a paper on it in college. Two writers that were really important to me were Erich Fromm and Scott Peck. Peck actually does define love thus: “The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” This means love is a choice (“the will”) rather than an emotion or feeling, that it is work (“to extend one’s self”) and that it is focused on a result (“nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”) This has been very useful to me over the years and I’ve never found a better definition. There are many other things we call love in English but Peck points out those are more accurately labeled other things (romance, lust, dependency, cathexis, and importantly, self-sacrifice without the aim of spiritual growth, etc.).
What about that “spiritual growth” part? That phrase, “spiritual growth” is used all the time, thrown around cheaply and has become another of the English language’s fluffy bunnies that means nothing unless it’s defined. Peck’s model suggests four stages of spiritual growth, beginning with chaos and disorder, then in Stage II, faith in authority, thinking in terms of punishment and right and wrong, black and white. Growing through that (hopefully) brings skepticism and questioning in Stage III, and finally in Stage IV, retaining skepticism but being able to perceive grand patterns, mystery and beauty, leaving behind fear, judgment and blind faith. One need not be irreligious in this stage, nor is religion required for it, but it is very different from Stage II where religious fundamentalists are stuck.
When it comes to the everyday act of loving then, this is the goal. It can be the smallest of acts, as in giving food to the needy or physical care, or it can be the hardest choices we make in our most important relationships to cultivate our beloveds’ spiritual growth, to actively and purposefully help them become and realize their highest callings as human beings. This is obviously an over-simplified discussion of what has become for me the guiding mission of my life, my prime directive.
Can we rescue people “bent on a destructive past?” These are hard decisions. Sometimes we must intervene directly, especially when life is threatened. Sometimes we can’t and shouldn’t intervene. There is a lot to be said for requiring people to assume responsibility for themselves and their actions. It depends on the circumstance. The behavioral health and medical sciences have given us tools to help when we can. I’m not an expert in those areas, but at least I have a map that can guide my intentions and behavior towards others. Peck’s definition and discussion, as well as Fromm’s and many others’ are a starting point. If we believe that love is central to human existence, we must not be complacent in its mastery and nuance in our lives, to the extent we can help that along. It is after all, also “our own” spiritual growth that is the point of love, in this case self-love.
The music industry has changed a lot in the last decade or more. Finding ways to make it successfully in music has a new set of challenges today. How do you suggest new artists find their path in music today? Any words of wisdom and/or advice?
In our Music Industry program at James Madison University, we spend four years with students helping them answer this question. We do our best to increase their likelihood of success, however they define that for themselves, in whatever capacity and activities they choose. It’s important to be mindful of the odds, obstacles and challenges to be able to navigate them. It’s also important to be persistent and not be self-limited because of the odds at the same time. It’s a paradox. As artists, we have to find our own voice and poetic center, cultivate our skills, and speak our own truths. Many people do this for the love of music with no regard for industry success. Still others find innovative ways to cobble together creative lives for themselves sometimes by combinations of activities that allow them to spend their days making music. And then there are the stars.
I’ve had students go on to wild successes. On the Music Industry page on the JMU School of Music website, there is a slideshow of just a handful of our alumni who have gone on to careers in artist management (Chris Stapleton’s manager was one of our students), intellectual property law, publishing, tour management, sound design, videography, all kinds of things. So my nickel’s worth of advice would be that you have to know yourself, you have to persist, you have to have marketable skills, and you have to know as much as you can about what you say you want to do. Chance favors the prepared mind, and you have to put structures in place that support what you say it is you want to spend your time doing. It also doesn’t hurt to be in the middle of things geographically, wherever that might be for what you want to do.
Bill Flanigan, who wrote for Musician magazine, stated that the American rock trinity was made up of Elvis, Dylan, and Springsteen. Do you agree with this? As a professor teaching the business end of music, who would you place on the mantle in rock/pop music from a music business perspective?
I haven’t read that so I’m not sure what his criteria are for coming up with those three. Sales? Name recognition or popularity measured some other way? Influence on other artists and importance to the business? Pushing things forward? Or is it more stylistic, a sense of “Americana?” That would seem kind of arbitrary. I could quibble a little here and there, but they’re giants for sure. Elvis didn’t write music. Certainly Dylan if anyone deserves that honor. Springsteen? How about Paul Simon, or Brian Wilson? Why no black artists, without whom there is no Elvis or Dylan? Arthur Crudup, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, so many. It’s kind of a fool’s errand I guess, to try to rank artists and music like this and it would not be fair to criticize his picks without hearing his case. How do we define rock music anyway? Why not Michael Jackson? If you just want to look at the business side, how about Kiss or Jay Z.? Why no women? That’s probably a discussion for another day.
You have been a long standing member of DAS, which is easily a group made up of musical comrades from other bands, past and present? Any update on DAS endeavors?
It’s a rather loose but close coalition of musicians. We do love playing together and the lineup has been more or less stable for a while. It’s Brian Healy’s brainchild and clearly he steers that ship. When we were working on Kissing Strangers (which took almost 6 years I think) some of us were much more involved than we otherwise might have been because Brian was dealing with health issues. I’m happy to help however I can but I’m more on the periphery I think, partly because I’m on the East coast most of the year, and partly because for a number of reasons (and there are a number of reasons) I am not really interested in playing at Christian-sponsored venues and events (I’d do them, but only on my own terms). Last I heard, Brian and Gym were working on new material, but I only heard that through the grapevine. I have no idea really what the future holds, but I love the guys and making music with them in any capacity.
What artists or bands inspire you these days?
That’s a tough one. I don’t really find much popular music that interesting anymore as a fan, although I do keep my eyes on it. In my Songwriting classes the students submit 3-5 songs they’d like to study during the semester so I get a good idea of what they’re listening to. I follow a lot of composers and artists that nobody will ever hear of but who make great noise. I’m also regularly reduced by much of the Classical repertoire. I also try to expose myself to artists that slipped between the cracks of my listening over the years. There are groups that I did listen to but have a deeper appreciation for now. I grew tired of the same old rock idioms sometime in the mid-90s – the riffs, the progressions, the timbres, the stage antics and concert protocols (including encores) – there’s just not much there to interest or inspire me anymore.
My colleagues at JMU and I talk about this all the time. I’m the more pessimistic of the bunch in thinking that rock is moving towards becoming a museum piece. My older friends will disagree. I mentioned that I had been bumping up against the limits of commercial music, which is why I went back to study. I like new horizons, new processes and techniques, new sounds and textures, but I like these things in ways that are accessible and not just novelty. Above all, music has to transport me in some way. That’s one strong lesson I learned over and over from my teacher and mentor Lloyd Rodgers, that music should not ever be separated from a poetic center. One musical commandment, said he; “Thou shalt not bore.”
What keeps you awake at night? What gives you hope these days? What brings you joy?
What keeps me up are the things that get in the way of the things that bring me joy so those dots are connected, I think. I tell my students that as far as I know today, there are two things that will keep me awake on my deathbed. The first is that I will not have been faithful enough to writing music. There is not a fixed number of songs in the universe and I want to write much more than I have. My hearing is fragile as it has always been due to hereditary nerve deafness, discovered when I was 15. This weighs heavily on me because music brings me unspeakable and indescribable joy.
The second is more important – that I will not have loved boldly enough, especially those who are important to me, and my kids are at the top of my list. I do not want to end my life not having expressed my self as much as I can, in music and in love. Both involve courageous and deliberate, relentless efforts towards personal growth and maturity and we all have our structural limitations.
I have a much more profound sense of meaning now that I’ve been able to escape the societal and cultural gravity of religious belief and the worldviews that come with it. The universe is a magnificent place on its own, even more beautiful, mysterious, powerful, wondrous and awe-inspiring than if it were an ad hoc theater for a lonely god in search of love, or for a cosmic battle between good and evil. It gives me great joy to be a tiny part of life on this pale blue dot for just a moment and it keeps me up knowing that my time here will come to an end, without having achieved completion and resolution of my life’s goings-on. I know that end is coming sooner than my kids realize, as my mother’s end came sooner than I realized and that keeps me up. At some point there is no “Could we start again, please?” It will be too late. But we have today.
We fancy ourselves made in the image of God, the pinnacle of creation and yet we hold on to superstitious beliefs and we cannot overcome unsubstantiated fears. We inflict suffering on others and on our planet because of these beliefs, superstitions and fears. We cannot see past ourselves and our history in so many ways. There may be a moral arc, but this also suggests to me that we are still rather primitive and that there is a whole lot of headroom on the evolutionary scale, that future species should be able to surpass us and do much better than we do if we don’t destroy everything first. What keeps me up is that we might do just that. None of us is likely to see the outcomes of those later chapters. What brings me hope is that I still have breath and that it is possible to transcend ourselves in a sense. We can grow and improve in reason, kindness and love.
Postscript: By the way, Joe has offered a song online at Co-Op Communique, which he wrote, sang, and played on, with Greg Lawless on lead guitar and Martin DeBourge on backing vocals. Joe used this song as an example for his students in songwriting. Check it out.
Photography by Audrey Delgado