Mike Rimmer spoke to groundbreaking singer/songwriter RANDY STONEHILL about the recent Larry Norman documentary
The release of the documentary film Fallen Angel which examines the life, music and ministry of Larry Norman has once again brought to the forefront the relationship between Norman and his long-time best friend Randy Stonehill. Part of the story of the film is the disintegration of the relationship between the two men. Stonehill is still moved and broken when talking about some of the difficulties between them. For the film, he returned to some of the songs that he originally recorded when Norman was producing and mentoring him. They've been remade for the film's soundtrack in the style of the originals and so the album 'Paradise Sky' will definitely bring back some memories for older Christian music fans.
I invited Stonehill onto my live evening radio show and tracked him down to a recording studio in Hollywood. He confessed that it's a rig that he's set up in conjunction with Mike Pachelli, who produced the remake album. "He is an old friend of Phil Keaggy's and a great guitar player in his own right and a great engineer. So we decided about three years ago to put our hand to producing like-minded bands and artists as well as working on my own material. So it's a fun, ongoing concern."
The last time I saw Stonehill was at Gospel Music Week in 2008, where an early version of the film Fallen Angel was being shown at his manager Ray Ware's house. Larry Norman had died a couple of months previously and a number of musicians were there to share memories of their friendship with him and to sing some of his songs. Then David Di Sabatino, the film's director, showed an early cut of his movie. Stonehill was featured quite heavily in the film contributing extensive interviews and providing the music soundtrack. Having seen the finished version of the film is he happy with what's portrayed on there? "Yeah, I really am," he shared. "I think these guys, David Di Sabatino and his associates, worked long and hard to strike a healthy Godly balance in a story worth telling that was told well. I think it has a vitality about it because David dared to tell the truth and of course the light of truth exposes the best of us and also our brokenness. But ultimately there's a real validity about it because I think the overriding thing you come away with is a recognition of God's grace in the middle of our journeys, which always have ragged edges, you know?"
The film portrays Larry Norman and does a good job because it shows his place in music history in terms of the groundbreaking records he made. But it also shows that in many ways he was Machiavellian, particularly in his dealings with his artists. The things that happened to Stonehill that he talks about in the movie were pivotal moments for him, and sometimes not good pivotal moments. Obviously the artistic thing, in terms of Norman producing him and helping him develop his music in the '70s, is balanced out by problems with Larry in terms of publishing ownership and royalties. But also on a personal level, Norman ended up marrying Stonehill's ex-wife! So those are very heavy and very difficult things to deal with. I wondered if it was hard revisiting those things 20 or 30 years later? "Yeah. But I think it was important too and it reminded me of what I've learned with my own flaws and failings. I think the pain of those times with Larry helped me learn to really be a Christian and to recognise that though you need to speak truth albeit in love, if God has forgiven you everything all the way from Heaven to the cross then that love demands that we forgive those who have wronged us. So my experience with Larry was really valuable in beautiful ways and in painful ways."
Randy continued, "I do have to say that it is strange - these things that shape our souls and shape our journeys. It was strange for me and even a bit surprising that 20 or 30 years later, in doing those interviews with David Di Sabatino, I found myself revisiting the anger at times. I found myself tearing up at times, and not just because of being wounded but just the strange mystery of remembering this season with a guy that I deeply love and frankly, I will always love, even in spite of all the damage. I love him. I even find in strange ways I miss him at times. He was such a totally unique - albeit dysfunctional - but he was a unique and wonderful guy in a lot of ways and sometimes I'll find myself going about my daily business and I'll be humming one of his songs to myself."
In his manager's house, Stonehill sang a couple of Norman's songs. Other musicians in the room joined him singing harmonies and fumbling for the right chords. It's obvious that they are still fans of Norman's music. But then Larry Norman always had a very loyal fanbase that stuck with him through the classic recordings and also the huge amount of low budget live albums, endless compilations and thrown together CDs of odds and ends with which Norman's Solid Rock Records swamped the market. Did Stonehill feel Norman's many fans will be ready for this film? "I imagine a great deal will not be," he responded, "especially given the fact that his death is still relatively recent. All I can say is that you have to just trust that I see this as a valid, vital piece of work. I know that for me, I'm not worried about repercussions or fallout from it. I believe when people see my participation in the film they'll see grace and forgiveness. I'm sorry this is a long answer but obviously none of these are easy questions."
He continued, "But I guess I think this; I think that if people tend to canonise Larry that's kind of their own issue and I just have to leave that between them and God. I've told people before that I truly respected Larry enough to tell the truth, with both the good and the bad, because to do any less would actually be disrespectful. Even though the truth can be uncomfortable I would hope that people, if they ever made a film about me, which is doubtful," he laughed, "but if they ever did I would hope that they would do the same and that I would be man enough to embrace it even though some of it made me wince."
The issue this brings up is the tendency, within the little bubble called "Christian music", for people to expect too much from musicians. It's only understandable to expect somebody to live a pretty good life because of their profession. But this tendency to project a level of holiness onto their favourite CCM stars is an odd entity. There's a strange phenomenon to see that fans do project a kind of holiness of life; a Saint Paul of Tarsus type level of holiness onto their favourite CCM star. "Yeah, yeah," Stonehill agreed. "But it's born out of a need for heroes. And though you can say, well God is holy and he loves you, in our subconscious we're saying, 'Yeah, but can I have a hero with skin wrapped around it?' I think also the nature of the fact that you're in the spotlight and you're doing something that moves people with your art also distorts the picture. And I will have to say too, in candour; Larry was always fascinated by guys like Bob Dylan; people that could build their own legend, which helped bring visibility to their work but it also distanced them from the world. It was somewhat false and protective. That was something that Larry did, and he did well, but I think also ultimately to his detriment, you know? Because no one is larger than life than Jesus and you just have to be really careful about how you negotiate that terrain."
With the 'Paradise Sky' album Stonehill has gone back to some of his early recordings. Was it an interesting exercise for him to go back and do that? Stonehill laughed, "Yeah, it was a combo plate I'll tell you! It was a little bit weird, a little surreal to me. Sometimes it was aggravating because I've got a whole new record's worth of material that I'm in the process of recording now and I was thinking, well I don't really want to revisit the past. I did that, it was substantial and had its own brand of charm, can't we just leave it? Well, I'll tell you a couple of things about it. On the one hand it was kind of aggravating really to go back into my history; on the other hand I recognised the privilege. I remember talking to Mike Pachelli, who was watching me work through the tedium, and he said, 'Randy, you know even guys like John Lennon, they said, man, they wish they could go back in time and revisit the work having learned what they know now as craftsmen and with what can be done with technology. And of course Lennon never had that opportunity. Now Randy, you do. So look at this as a really special privilege. You can record some of the seminal work of the genre. Let's try to maintain the basic, the foundational strengths; but now we can undo some of the mistakes of youthful inexperience.' So I tried to approach it that way. I'm very proud of the work. But I will tell you, it was kind of bittersweet; like to be playing the acoustic lead break on 'Keep Me Running' with the same guitar that Larry Norman gave me I think in 1974. I could feel him hovering at my shoulder and I was thinking, 'Well man, I hope you like this!'" he laughed.
Stonehill re-recorded the songs very much in the same style and same sound as the original recordings. He added, "Well, if it ain't broke don't fix it, first of all. And then fix the little things that need to be tweaked. And also we were doing that because David Di Sabatino came to me when he was working on the film and he said, 'You know, Larry's really stonewalling here. He's not going to allow us to use the original recordings. He's got this wrapped in legal red tape. But this IS the music of the time and what do you think about the idea of going in. . . you have the legal right now because you own the copyright. You can't use the original masters but you have the legal right to go in and put your hand to this. Would you be willing to do that?' So we did it because that was obviously crucial for the film and David just generously facilitated the funding of the project and I went, 'Well, shoot man. Okay, here we go!'"
The 'Paradise Sky' album looks backwards but the next chapter in Stonehill's musical journey is his next album, a collaboration with Phil Keaggy. He says, "We're like happy little kids. It's called 'Mystery Highway'. We just had so much fun making a really sweaty rock and roll record! So I think we're going to do some touring behind that." Obviously it would be really brilliant if the pair made a trip to these shores. We can dream, eh?
In the meantime, after 40 years of making music and sharing his faith and overcoming the different trials of his life, it's encouraging to see Stonehill still looking forward and creating new songs and new opportunities. He continues to be a Christ-like inspiration.