Kate and I are back from the circus that is Cornerstone. For those who may be unfamiliar with what goes on, Cornerstone is a week-long party/music and arts festival sponsored by Jesus People USA (JPUSA), a Chicago-based Christian community. I spoke six times from under the Big Top, but then again, everybody does almost everything at Cornerstone from under the Big Top. That’s because Cornerstone essentially consists of a bunch of big circus tents and food vendor stalls (elephant ears!) set up in the middle of a cornfield outside Bushnell, Illinois. 15,000 people show up for this. And now I understand why. It’s billed as a music festival, and it is (some 600 bands played over the course of the last week), but it’s so much more. And honestly, the “so much more” outweighed a lot of the mediocre music I heard. I’ve been challenged, amazed, boggled, bummed out, and many more things since last Wednesday when I showed up, and I’ll tell you a little bit about why. There were many, many good things, and a few not-so-good things. Here are a few impressions of Cornerstone 2008.
Our trip from Ohio to Illinois, by air, took a mere 11 hours. Curse the very broken American airline industry. There were cancelled flights. There were weather delays. And by the time we finally arrived in the sprawling urban metropolis that is Peoria, Illinois, many hours late, on a different airline from which we were scheduled to arrive, none of our Cornerstone contacts were in sight. I tried calling the Cornerstone folks a few times along the way to let them know what was happening. No answer. They tried calling me a couple times when I was flying in an airplane, and where I wasn’t allowed to use my cell phone. The result: a couple of weary Ohioans sitting for a few hours outside a nearly deserted tiny midwestern airport, waiting for a ride, watching the sun go down.
The ride, when it turned up, turned out to be Scott. And Scott looked like Marilyn Manson. He was wearing a black veil. He had white makeup caked all over his face, and heavy black eyeliner. “My wife almost got fang implants,” he told us a couple minutes down the road. “But she decided against it because she thought it might scare some of the little kids at the preschool where she used to work.” Uh huh.
It started to rain, hard. We were on dark country roads, surrounded by tall standing corn. Do you know the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen is being driven by Annie’s suicidal brother, played by Christopher Walken? That scene flashed through my mind. I was ready to bail out at a second’s notice, and considered the proper way to exit a vehicle traveling at 55 MPH. I was trying to send non-verbal “this is how we’ll jump if we have to” signals to Kate, who was picking up on none of it.
But we kept listening to Scott. He talked about being misunderstood. I was guessing that the Dracula costume might have had something to do with that. He told me I was right. And so we all had an hour-and-a-half long conversation (those cornfields outside Bushnell are a long way from the bright lights of Peoria) about Goth culture, and how God has used that culture to enrich his life. He told us about his band, which was called Leper, and which was playing at Cornerstone. He invited us to the Goth tent, where he and his friends hung out, and he invited us to his concert. It was a good, enlightening conversation.
So we went. The next night we wandered over to the Goth tent, and met people who looked a lot like Scott and his wife Rachel, and who were wearing gas masks over their faces. And Saturday night we went to hear Leper. The music wasn’t nearly as foreign as I expected it to be. It was grating and melodic, pretty much the way I like it, and it sounded like music made by misunderstood teenagers, a farflung and omnipresent musical genre that goes back at least 50 years. And it was about Jesus, a guy who was misunderstood to the point of being crucified. I’m glad we went. And I’m glad we encountered Scott.
Everybody at Cornerstone wore a costume. There were the Goths, of course, who looked like radiation victims after Hiroshima. There were the old hippies from JPUSA, who looked like they were still taking their cues from Woodstock. There were the neo-hippies, hundreds of kids who wished they were alive in 1969. There were the punks. There were the indie hipsters, everywhere. There were the folks from Aradhna, Americans and Canadians who dressed as Indians. There were the Rastafarian wannabes with their dreadlocks. And there were a few folks like Kate and me, middle-aged, middle class farts wearing the official costume of suburbanites on vacation; chinos and sandals and Oxford cloth shortsleeve shirts.
I thought a lot about “identity” this weekend. Everybody was trying so hard to stake out their cultural space, complete with the right image and corresponding lifestyle choices. And everybody mingled together, listened to the same speakers and the same music, thought about what it was like to be a follower of Jesus Christ within their own local communities. It was good.
I am what I am, a 53-year-old aging, balding, paunchy old fart who loves rock ‘n roll, and who won’t pretend to be something I’m not. My costume is pretty much the same one worn by Donald Rumsfeld. Nobody seemed to care. I didn’t either. That may be the best thing about Cornerstone.
Oblivious American Idols
Glenn Kaiser, who is the lead singer and songwriter for The Resurrection Band, is my hero. At a time when Christian music utterly sucked, when I despaired of hearing a single worthwhile thing in the vast syrupy desert of over-emoting and cornpone, along came Glenn and The Resurrection Band, and they restored my faith that Christians with integrity could actually make music that was the equal of anything in the “secular” world, and that the rock ‘n roll gene wasn’t supernaturally removed upon Christian conversion.
So I told him that. He nodded politely, then started to talk about Jesus. And he talked with me about Jesus for about a half hour, and about the need to love people in their brokenness. He didn’t care that he was my idol. He let it wash over him, and then he moved on. I think I love him for that.
Under the Big Top
I spoke six times under the big top, twice per day on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. I rambled about a lot of different kinds of music, played about 20 different songs, and chatted with the folks who were there. I learned a few things that will serve me in good stead if I’m ever invited back, such as don’t play a six and a half minute Joni Mitchell jazz tune when you’re dealing with the multitude of sounds that bleed through from the other tents that surround you. But I had a blast, and as best I can tell, the folks who were there seemed to get what was I saying, and were engaged in the proceedings.
There was music at Cornertone. Duh. Because I have been spectacularly unaware of the Christian music scene and its attendant stars for the past 25 years or so I’m probably not the best person to comment on what went on. But do you think that will stop me?
There were 600 bands, of whom about 500 seemed to play the emo/screamo Bellow For Christ form of pain management that I simply can’t abide. I can find something of value in about 98% of the musical world. Cornerstone seemed to focus on the 2% that simply gives me a headache. I’m told that former members of Anthrax and Korn were there. Good for them. I’ve never heard Anthrax or Korn either, to my knowledge.
I did hear some good music. Mike Farris, formerly of the Screamin’ Cheetah Willies, performed a great rootsy gospel set, and did a more than passable Al Green As White Boy impersonation. The 77’s and The Lost Dogs, comprised of old farts who hearken back to the days when I paid attention to CCM, were there, and they were solid. The 77’s, in particular, were pretty wonderful, and laid down a marvelous cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s (by way of Led Zeppelin) “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” The Lee Boys performed an incendiary set of sacred steel music, a la Robert Randolph. A Toronto band called New World Son did Otis Redding proud, and resurrected an old style Stax/Volt soul revue in their set of original gospel songs. The Resurrection Band, God bless ‘em, reunited for the first time in many years and played the hits. Josh Garrels, from Muncie, Indiana, impressed me to no end, and delivered the best sets of the festival as far as I was concerned. Josh has the Ben Harper soulful folkie vibe down, and his songs were amazing; full of poetic imagery and internal rhymes.
There seems to have been a particularly virulent outbreak of worship music in the intervening years since I stopped paying attention. Don’t get me wrong. I like worship music. For worship. But the hyperventilating, hip MC with the shaved head and goatee kept whipping up the crowd as one earnest worship leader after another closed his eyes and sang his worship tunes. We all sat back on the grass and watched them strum their guitars and close their eyes. Kate and I left after a while. We couldn’t deal with it anymore.
We weren’t, by the way, at a worship service. We were at a concert. And nothing fails more spectacularly than worship music at a concert. I hate it, hate the whole artificial Madison Avenue/Nashville hype machine surrounding this music, and couldn’t stand that f#&$ing MC for good measure. I don’t care who’s a rising star in the worship music field, and the whole approach strikes me as fundamentally, spectacularly wrong. I wish it would go away. Worship, by all means, and if you want to write original music to make that happen, then more power to you. But don’t stand up there in front of 15,000 people and peddle your latest (and best yet!) CD and sing your trite “apple of my eye/wind beneath my wings” rhymes to U2 accompaniment for the 20,000th time. Do something better for God. Just quit.
And while I’m at it, according to the breathless, relentlessly hyped video we witnessed multiple times, there’s apparently an upcoming preaching/rock ‘n roll tour where cute Christian guys tell all the 13-year-old Christian girls what Christian guys really want, and which features the music of latest Christian heartthrobs Hawk Nelson. You people have no shame. God, I hate the Christian music business.
I got to hang out with a lot of amazing people, some of whom were known to me before Cornerstone, some of whom I met for the first time. I spent time with my old Ohio University friends Keith and Darlene Wasserman (and son Timothy) from Athens, Ohio. Keith runs several shelters for the homeless in southeastern Ohio, and he was at Cornerstone speaking about his work with the homeless. It’s always a joy to reconnect with these folks.
I hung out with Chris Pyle, who runs a recording studio in Athens, Ohio as well as Donkey Coffee Shop; a quality guy who is very interested in quality in its caffeinated and non-caffeinated manifestations, and a fun rock ‘n roll bass player to boot.
I got to meet longtime e-friends Jim Eisenreich, Joe Kirk, and Mark Mayhle, and their families. These are folks I’ve “known” for twenty years. It was a joy to meet them face to face.
I got to spend good, challenging and stimulating time with Crystal Downing, who teaches English at Messiah College, and who was at the conference speaking about both post-modernism and the relationship between Dorothy Sayers and C.S. Lewis. I was able to spend about an hour with Charlie Peacock, watch him eat a corndog, and listen to him explain his work with the Art House in Nashville. I got to hang out briefly with theologian Miroslav Volf, a very smart man who wears his knowledge humbly, and who interrupted his work at Yale and in working toward Christian/Muslim reconciliation to speak at CStone. I hung out with Mike and Janey Hertenstein, the unsung heros of CStone, longtime JPUSA members who worked long and hard to coordinate the appearance of dozens of speakers in dozens of locations at the festival. And I met and connected briefly with dozens of other folks, and I wish I’d had more time to get to know them better.
I had a great time. It was exhausting. It was challenging. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.