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He'd Rather Have Jesus

Josh Caterer of the Smoking Popes used to attract throngs of fans. Then he turned from rock to religion. Mark Guarino - Daily Herald Music Critic


Chicago Daily Herald
Cook/DuPage/Fox Valley/Lake/McHenry
1 (Copyright 2000)

Josh Caterer would close his eyes when he sang "I Know You Love Me," the song that took the Smoking Popes to the height of their success during the summer of 1997. He would hold the mic stand with both hands and croon to the crowd gazing up at him. He was a rock star, finally - all the applause and the cheering proved that - and the Smoking Popes were big time. Their CDs were selling well; their songs were on the radio and they were touring the nation, greeted by adoring fans wherever they played.

But now that Caterer had achieved success, it didn't seem like such a big deal to him. It was just a job. He would go to work (at a rock club), do his job (sing), and then go rest so he could do it all over again the next day. The words he sang conveyed no meaning or message, he decided. When he sang, he simply tried to empty himself of the lyrics. But as soon as he emptied himself of the lyrics, he felt empty too. What filled the vacuum inside of him were questions: "Am I wasting my life?" "What's the purpose of all this?" "What am I supposed to be doing here?"

Caterer began to realize he was just an entertainer. He might amuse people for a few moments, but he certainly wasn't enlightening them or enriching their lives.

Worse, he thought, he might even be lying to them.

At first Caterer told no one about this feeling of numbness he had while performing. He tried not to think about it.

But the numbness wouldn't go away. One day he checked into his hotel, shut the door behind him, dropped to his knees and cried.

"No matter if we became hugely successful or if we failed ... I was going to die," he thought, flooded with panic.

These thoughts made life on the road even more tedious for him. He found himself thinking more about death and less about music. Driving to gigs, he stared out the window. After a show, he'd head straight for his hotel room, watch Cinemax and "sort of wonder what's it all about."

He still partied. He was great at that. He drank heavily and smoked a lot of pot. He once told a music magazine if the Smoking Popes didn't become stars, they might still become famous as "first band to O.D. on pot."

Then he about did.

At an all-night party, Caterer suddenly collapsed. Lying on the floor on his back, his heart started pounding so wildly that his brother Eli could see it bulging through his T-shirt. By the time the paramedics arrived, Caterer thought he was dying. He was sorry he had wasted his life. He desperately wanted a second chance. So for the first time in his life, he prayed.

"I said 'God, I'm sure you've heard this one before, but if you let me live through this, I won't waste my life anymore, I'll look for you.'"

Josh recovered quickly and returned home, determined to keep his promise. But he didn't know how to begin. He wasn't raised with religion and had never been to a church, so he opened the Yellow Pages and started picking churches. Every week he attended a different one.

"I don't know if you've ever looked in the Chicago Yellow Pages for churches, but there's, like, 12 pages of churches," he said, laughing.

This went on for months. The way Josh describes it, he was waiting for another sign. He believed God gave him one by striking him down that night. Maybe God would look down again and, as he hoped, "just lay it on me."

The only connection to religion Josh had was through his voice - he sang like an angel.

His mother played country crooners like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard on the stereo, and Josh emulated their smooth, mellow delivery. But when he and his brothers, Matt and Eli, along with a friend named Mike Felumlee, formed their own band in the basement of the Caterer house in Northwest suburban Lake in the Hills, they cranked up their guitars so they'd sound like the punk rock bands they admired. Josh, however, didn't scream when he sang, he continued crooning. They named themselves the Popes after a Chicago street gang, but added the word "Smoking" when they realized gang members might not appreciate the joke - and might turn up some night to tell them so. The Smoking Popes played basement parties in the neighborhood and released a few 7-inch singles. In 1993, a local label released their first album, "Get Fired."

At that time, Chicago was a hotbed for new bands, and scouts from the larger record labels were scouring clubs, hoping to sign the most promising. By then, the Smoking Popes were regularly booked at Metro, the city's biggest rock club, and its owner, Joe Shanahan, was interested enough to become their manager.

Capitol Records won the bidding war that erupted among the labels that wanted to sign the Smoking Popes, and, in 1995, Capitol re- released the group's second indie album, "Born To Quit."

"Our ship came in," Caterer said.

Capitol sent the band on tour. Prior to this, the band members saved up money to tour for maybe two weeks at a time. Now they were gone for three months at a time. Caterer had just married his girlfriend Stephanie, whom he first met at Jacobs High School. A month later, he was gone.

That's when Caterer began discovering dents in his dream. He could stand and sing to a crowd of kids, but he couldn't feel anything.

"You have to believe what you're doing has some greater significance," he said. "That's the pretense a lot of artists live by. Because so many people enjoy what you do, it has to have this almost spiritual quality. I started to wonder, are people just looking for entertainment to distract themselves from asking the big questions? And when you have all your dreams come true and none of those questions have been answered, then you're like, 'OK, what do I do now? I guess I'll start drinking heavily.'"

In late 1997, the Smoking Popes released their second album for Capitol, "Destination Failure." Full of gloomy songs of romantic doom, the jacked-up guitars and punchy pop beats, combined with Caterer's smooth, nonchalant voice, made it one of the best rock records of the '90s.

"I Know You Love Me" became a big hit in the summer of 1998, and its lyrics were the stuff of your typical teenage romance song:

This world is freezing cold
I long for you to hold
Me in your arms
This world is burning and
I'm waiting for your hand
To lead me home.

Only Caterer knew the lyrics were written for God.

He kept his new interest in the spiritual life a secret. But he kept trying to introduce Jesus into the band's work. He would save "I Know You Love Me" for their encore when they played live. Before they played it, however, he would try to explain to the crowd what Jesus meant to him.

The band wasn't too happy about these little speeches, but they tolerated them. "They were just happy at that point I wasn't quitting the band," Caterer said.

But soon he felt "something wasn't right about it ... it wasn't connecting." After all, who wants to hear about Jesus on a Friday night at midnight after tossing back a few beers?

Things got worse when the band toured with Morrissey, the prince of romantic doom often compared to Caterer. Morrissey had a luxury tour bus, while the Popes tagged along behind in a van, with Caterer in a station wagon that he bought so he wouldn't have to ride with smokers. While driving with his brother Eli and road guitarist Tom Counihan, Caterer would draw them into heavy philosophical discussions.

"(Josh) just started getting really introverted and keeping away from everybody," said Counihan. "Ever since I've known him he's been searching for something beyond worldly happiness. We talked a lot about it on that particular tour."

Morrissey, who is about 20 years older than the Popes, wasn't the best role model. Over the six-week tour he only spoke to the band twice and was "very fidgety" and "very uncomfortable," according to Caterer. After every show, Morrissey would dart to his tour bus, making sure he bumped into no one.

"I was realizing that he had a bigger budget than we did, but he was basically on the same treadmill that we were on," Caterer said. "It became a reality to us that this was going to be us, this was going to be me. It didn't seem any more fulfilling for him than it was for me."

So Caterer quit. He felt there was no choice. But his decision came with a price:

"Once I came to the conclusion that Jesus is the truth, people didn't seem to want to talk about it anymore," he said.

The band was on its last legs with its record company, too. They gave Capitol an album of song covers, but it was rejected. They were released from their contract.

"It wasn't working," Caterer said. "I felt like I was either going to have to go one way or another. I just felt what the Lord wanted me to do was use the talent He put into me and put it back to Him to glorify Him to advance the truth of Jesus Christ. Because everything else is a waste of time."

By this time, Caterer had found a church.

After trying out churches for seven Sundays, he walked into Praise Tabernacle Chicago in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood. The church was young - only 4 years old - with only 90 members.

"It seemed more alive," Caterer recalled. "It seemed like all the people in the congregation really meant it."

He knew nothing about church doctrine. He just wanted a place to start. To test his attachment to the church he tried others, but returned to Praise Tabernacle a few months later. All he had was a good feeling about the place, but he was soon learning feelings were the only thing he could trust.

"He was desperately searching," remembered Pastor Daniel Iampaglia. "He expressed a void in the life he was living. We went easy. We followed his lead."

But while embracing Christ and slowly becoming involved in his new church, Caterer was distancing himself from his wife. Their marriage was crumbling. "When I became a Christian, that was the last straw - we had nothing more in common," he said. Counseling didn't work. Stephanie stopped telling people she was even married. He started looking for an apartment in another state.

Then she came to his baptism. It was going to be their last night together. Afterwards, she told him how her job, a charity organization, needed someone to work for one day on a mailing. Besides, Caterer could use the money. When he showed up, her boss was so impressed, he was hired full-time. Caterer's desk was right next to Stephanie's.

Caterer considers this the miracle that saved their marriage. He felt now he could show her he "wasn't some freaky, brainwashed dude."

But by then, Stephanie had become a party girl. While Caterer was on tour, she started staying out late and drinking too much. On many Sunday mornings, as Caterer was getting ready for church, Stephanie was waking up with a hangover. During their reconciliation, she attended a wedding at Praise Tabernacle. "Everyone was so nice, I wasn't scared to go to church anymore," she said.

Caterer would read the Bible to her, too, and soon it became, for her, "like looking in the mirror. I remember saying to Josh, 'No book I've ever read totally just pinpoints human nature exactly like the Bible.' That convinced me."

She finally gave up drinking. She also gave up her own passion - acting. For her, it became, simply, a "hotbed for sin."

During the day, Caterer works full-time at World Relief, where he helps resettle refugees arriving in Chicago. But at night, he doesn't plop down in front of the tube or meet friends at the corner bar.

Instead, he goes to church. At least four nights a week, Caterer and his wife, both 27, are at music ensemble practice, Bible study, prayer meetings or services.

"The rest of the time we do laundry," he jokes.

This isn't a hobby, either. Caterer is a convert, and converts usually want to soak up as much as they can as fast as they can.

"He's insatiable," says Pastor Iampaglia. "He's rolled up his sleeves saying 'What's next? What can I do?'"

Such intensity requires focus. That meant Caterer had to look back at his past and decide what had to go. Being a rock musician, the choice was simple: "I decided I wasn't going to listen to that music anymore."

He went through his record collection. Out went Led Zeppelin. That was heart-wrenching - when Caterer was young, John Bonham's drumming would amaze him. So when he listened to Led Zeppelin, he didn't just hear the music; he heard "everything that band represented to me as a kid and all the pursuits that I followed." Still, out it went.

Out went AC/DC. Was he realistically ever going to listen to "Highway to Hell" again?

Even Merle Haggard, one of his mother's favorites, went into the discard pile. Caterer didn't think he'd ever need to listen to "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" again.

Elvis Costello remains a problem to this day. Caterer owns every album, plus rarities. "I was obsessed," he says. For now, he still owns the albums, but he hasn't decided their ultimate fate.

Those that remained on his shelf were the albums that contained at least a hint of Christian ideals. Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Bryan Ferry - they ended up saved.

Caterer stopped going to rock clubs. He also vowed never to perform his old music again. He shrugs and views it as something he did "out of ignorance." Now he considers it "a waste of time."

In a way, Caterer is exactly the hard-liner most rock-hipster types fear. It sounds like he's saying you can have Jimi or Jesus. Not both.

But that's not really the case. "I don't think that it says anywhere in the Bible you can't listen to rock music. I don't think it's a doctrinal thing. I just think those decisions come down to each person, where the Lord lays on your heart as far as where to draw the line," he says. "I just needed to make a decision. It was a preoccupation for me that led nowhere. I (wanted) to spend my time and my energy just by giving it to God."

When Bob Dylan switched his acoustic guitar for an electric, some fans got angry.

But what about when an artist turns his back on his music altogether?

"I think a lot of people reacted really negatively to what Josh had to say," Counihan said. "I definitely think musicians don't want to think about it."

Caterer understands the reaction: "Rock 'n' roll is all about rebellion and refusing to submit to authority and putting yourself on the pedestal," he said. "And being a Christian is about everything that's the opposite."

But some fans wrote him and said they supported him. Some even found out where he was singing and showed up Sunday morning. Pastor Iampaglia remembers a group of 15 "young ladies with spiked hair dressed in black" showing up several times to hear him sing.

Iampaglia has also received letters as far away as Canada and Hawaii from people trying to buy a copy of "Why Me," a five-song EP Caterer self-released. It features traditional Christian spirituals, but also covers by Kris Kristofferson and Elvis Presley. Instead of a rock band, Caterer is accompanied by only his guitar, a piano or a harmony singer from the church music ensemble he leads.

With such bare surroundings, Caterer's mellow, matter-of-fact voice rings with an unfiltered clarity that is genuine and moving.

"The first time I played it on the radio, it was so good to hear him sing," agrees Richard Milne of WXRT 93.1-FM's local music show, "Local Anesthetic." "He's just finding his voice again."

His rendition of Elvis' "I'd Rather Have Jesus" sounds like a summary of his own decision:

I'd rather have Jesus than people's applause
I'd rather be faithful to his dear cause
I'd rather have Jesus than worldwide fame
I'd rather be true to his holy name.

For the future, Caterer is just interested in writing music for his church and waiting to see how God wants to use him for His purpose. This can happen whether he's "famous or not."

Now, when looking back at the last few years of his life, he feels just one thing: "constantly amazed."

"Why Me" can be purchased for $7. Send a check to Josh Caterer, P.O. Box 25469, Chicago, IL 60625-0469