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Excerpt: 'Body Piercing Saved My Life'

A brief foray into the not-so-seedy underbelly of the Christian rock scene.
One of the funny things about being a rock journalist is that you quickly find out that the most restricted areas of venues are usually dumps. Dressing rooms, tour buses, and the wings of a stage are all stark exceptions to the glamour we assume cossets our rock stars.

Switchfoot's trailer at the Cornerstone [Christian rock festival] was no exception. The stairs swayed ominously as you entered, and the interior was a spartan, wood-paneled reminder that this room would be someone else's home tomorrow. Some of the band members sat on aluminum chairs talking on their cell phones; others perused the card table piled high with snacks courtesy of well-wishers from earlier days: JON, TIM, CHAD & JEROME, WE'RE SO PROUD OF YOU! GOD BLESS YOU! read a note affixed to a cellophane-wrapped plate of cookies.

The group's manager introduced me to the fellows in the band, and I had a few moments of amusing banter with guitarist Andrew Shirley, who offered to tell me "the truth about these guys." And then, suddenly, I was whisked into an adjoining room where Foreman was sitting in a folding chair.

Immediately, I sensed this interview wasn't going to go well. Foreman was anything but hostile, but he was maddeningly vague about his relationship with the festival and Christian music. Keyboardist/guitarist Jerome Fontamillas had told me he'd been to Cornerstone 13 times, but Foreman kept trying to steer away from questions about his own history at the festival with nonanswers like, "I dunno. It's a unique experience."

Then, I asked if this was the only Christian event Switchfoot played.

He lowered his eyes.

"You have to be -- the thing is, when you're talking about Switchfoot, you're talking about music that we've fought really hard to keep out of boxes," he said.

"I'm not interested in 'proving' you guys are a Christian rock band," I told him. "But this is a Christian festival."

"That's the thing," he replied. "If we're gonna stay out of the box, we're gonna have to be very conscientious of what everything is saying. Even opening up for Kid Rock (which they had done earlier that year) says something. Like everything in life, any relationship is a compromise. But where we're at right now, we're fortunate enough to pick the shots, and this is one of the festivals that, for the most part, it's a lot of people that are, you know, searching spiritually. It's actually a bunch of people that want to see the world change for the better. I don't know, that's important to me."

Later, he told me that most of the kids at Cornerstone "can relate to being treated by how they look, and maybe they can band together and be part of changing that."

Now, I'm willing to grant him a bit of room on the idea of Cornerstone being filled with "spiritual seekers" rather than Christians who were stuck in their ways. The crowd here was young, and fire and brimstone was definitely at a minimum. But I'd never seen such a clean-cut crowd in my life. For every punk kid with piercings or tattoos, there were ten who looked like they'd come straight off the set of "Everwood." Overwhelmingly below 20, well-scrubbed, fresh-faced, and good-natured, if anything, these were the kids school administrators wished all their students looked like.

Foreman's insistence that Switchfoot came to Cornerstone to connect with these radicals was beginning to sound more and more like cognitive dissonance. Especially in light of the fact that the same summer, Switchfoot played at two other Christian festivals and showed up for the Dove Awards -- the Christian Grammys -- where they took home three statues. It's easy to understand why Switchfoot would want to avoid being known as a Christian rock band, but they also seemed to want to have it both ways.

Later on, as Switchfoot played, Foreman introduced his songs using terms not entirely unfamiliar to the crowd. "This is about the war that goes on inside," he said, introducing "Ammunition."

"I'm burning for something beyond what we have in a physical sense" led into "On Fire."

"You can never get comfortable here," he told the audience after finishing "The Beautiful Letdown," with its gospel music-like chorus "I don't belong here."

The concert, like Switchfoot's records, was terrific. But I had to wonder how Foreman could play his cards so close to his chest and still achieve the connection he repeatedly told me he longed for with his audience.

Reprinted with permission from "Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock" by Andrew Beaujon (Da Capo Press, 2006).
Andrew Beaujon is a music journalist and the author of "Body Piercing Saved My Life."