Randy Stonehill: The Jesus music veteran on the Fallen Angel movie and his latest music

Sunday 1st November 2009

Mike Rimmer spoke to groundbreaking singer/songwriter RANDY STONEHILL about the recent Larry Norman documentary

Randy Stonehill
Randy Stonehill

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 Stonehill: The Jesus music veteran on the Fallen Angel movie and his latest music

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."

Randy Stonehill: The Jesus music veteran on the Fallen Angel movie and his latest music

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. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Mike Rimmer
Mike RimmerMike Rimmer is a broadcaster and journalist based in Birmingham.


Reader Comments

Posted by Ed Lutheran in Pittsburgh,Pa. @ 03:56 on Nov 13 2019

the film "Fallen Angel" grieved my spirit and I believed it grieved the Holy Spirit! Much of it has since been disproved!

Posted by Carey Tuten in St. Petersburg, Fl. @ 22:36 on Jun 3 2014

Well said Billy Bruce. I agree with your statement(s) entirely. I had the good fortune to meet Randy several years ago. He lead a friend of mine back to the Lord. The times that I talked with him, you could tell there was a great deal of tension in his life. I have seen Larry and Randy on tour several times, here in Florida. I have talked to many Contemporary Christian artist through the years that knew or had dealings with Larry. It is unapproppiate to name names. However there was an air of distrust toward Larry and his past business practices. The main issue was truthfullness. I know Larry is with the Lord, and I can't wait to see him when I get there. Love the music that came out of street level, and still listen to it regularly. Blessings to you.

Posted by Connie in Washington @ 06:00 on Jun 26 2011

Loved them both. They are both men, both with flaws. Forgive doesn't mean to forget, but forgiveness releaves us from the burdens that bind us to the past. I wrote them both prior to Larry's death at the Father's relentless behesting. They appeared to have listened as much as we as humans can. Love them both and they seem to have worked on it which was, I believe God's plan.

Posted by Steve G in Canada @ 08:24 on Jul 9 2010

Actually, Fallen Angel made me look into what the truth actually was - in that light I am greatly disappointed by the stuff I found in Randy's history. He should have left this one alone and it puts a whole new slant on Stonehill's stuff. What a shame. I stopped listening to his newer stuff because I didn't like it musically. I still listen to Norman's.

Posted by Chris @ 21:56 on Apr 28 2010

"it seems to me that larry norman was a guy like me and you"

I only hope no one with a camera and an ax to grind comes looking for me after I pass. "Let him who is without sin..."

Posted by Dave in USA @ 00:21 on Apr 28 2010

I love both of these guys (Randy & Larry), but can't quite figurre Randy out. He has just left his wife..and announced it publicly without letting her know he was doing so, and as for the motives of this so called documentary, well, I wish I had saved the emails from David D. that he sent to me....the man is mean spirited and stated that he had a vendetta against Larry. You should check out the website that addresses the claims of this movie: http://www.failedangle.com/

Posted by Alan Coughlin in Utah @ 22:29 on Apr 16 2010

I knew Larry personally for the last 25 years of his life. I can assure you all that the depiction of Larry in the Fallen Angel film is false. There is a reason that most of the people appearing in the film are from 30 years ago. David Di Sabatino had to go back that far to find people that were so bitter about how their lives turned out after Larry quit helping them that they were willing to slander him on film. There are countless people that loved Larry deeply and respected him greatly that would be willing to testify to Larry's impeccable character; people that are thankful to God for the example of love and obedience that he left for us to follow; people who were inspired by him and cherish his memory.

Look closely at the words that come out of Randy's mouth; out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. Read his words again and understand what's in his heart. Now go find some interviews with Larry, and you'll see what was in his heart. I don't need to tell you what to conclude; a righteous man makes a righteous judgement.

Sabatino deliberately kept the truth from you. “The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him” (Prov. 18:17). The truth is coming. If you must see this film, watch it with a critical eye, and don’t become party to a false witness by repeating his unproven gossip.

Posted by Kevin Wayne @ 01:19 on Mar 8 2010

" I believe the grace of Christ abounds in truth..."

Truth is what's established as fact. Failing a DNA test, Daniel's relationship to Larry is not established (the fact that the Norman's haven't given one up doesn't establish it either, fyi.) Neither is the insinuation that LN had self-serving motivations for his trying to make things right with RS- that should never have even been in the film w/o any evidence. Neither should several other insinuations made in the film.

Question for some provocation of thought: Where in the Bible does it re-hash a man's sins that weren’t public knowledge to begin with? I don't think you can find any, since a lot of the King's history was taken from other sources (ex: "The Book Of Wars")

I bet if we really give it some thought, there's no real Biblical justification for this movie. Journalistically, it avoids talking to anyone who knew Larry the last several years of it's life. so it fails that test as well.

Every time Randy opens his mouth, I think of his insensitive comments right after Larry's death. Others who by no means would deny his humanity, think Randy was unprofessional in his involving himself in al of this.
The Grace of Christ doesn’t abound in Truth. It abounds in forgiveness, and that is done by God’s putting them as far as the East is from the West. If you really have forgiven someone, is there ever a need to bring it up again? IFfthe parties involved need closure, I suggest professional counseling.

Posted by BillyBruce in Valdosta, Ga. @ 14:24 on Feb 9 2010

Congratulations to Randy Stonehill for pressing ahead with this important work. I had the honor of interviewing Larry for an update on his health situation wile working as news editor for Charisma Maazine... I treasure that 90 minutes I was able to spend o nthe phone with Larry... And I must say, had I known about this "love child" matter, I would certainly have been asking Larry about it. Although I would have been disturbed if he refused to respond to the query, I also understand God's grace enough to realize that Larry simply, as a flawed human being, may not have been able to mentally cope with the situation. I don't believe Larry was mentally stable, to be honest, bhut hey--I have had my days as well? That doesn't get us off the hook with God--but it doesn't condemn us to hell either, for God's grace and the blood of Christ is sufficient--for Larry, for me, for Randy, for you... So no, I do not believe Randy is trying to make a buck off a dead man--what a horrible statement? I believe the grace of Christ abounds in truth... and it is importnat for us to understand the true human nature of a man who was used very powerfully by the Lord to spread the Gospel in a dying world, in a way that penetrated culture and impacted millions of lives for the cause of Christ... We should welcome the honesty of the filmmakers here, who abide in integrity to share the good and the bad about someone we all loved and admired for just being well, crazy Larry--brilliantly talented but flawed like the rest of us. And it does pose questions for each of us to consider about our own lives and how we deal with our own sin. Thank God for Jesus -- and thank you guys for this film. May Larry rest in peace in the heaven he sang about and the one I believe he is in at this moment--because God's grace and Christ's blood is sufficient.

Posted by Bewildered in home @ 18:27 on Feb 3 2010

And I thought Christians spread Love and Forgiveness. I understand Randy's bitterness and anger at Larry and I hope making money out of a dead man goes some way to making him happy. One day Randy will be dead and then we can pick him life apart when he can't defend himself!

The opinions expressed in the Reader Comments are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms.

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