"I was on a plane to Las Vegas. The desert was like a skillet and the heat was coming up in waves. You know, I fly all the time and my palms never get sweaty, but there was so much turbulence I really thought we were going down. I believed I was going to die." Randy Stonehill's pale eyes cast a far-away glance as he remembers that moment, 72 hours earlier, when suddenly it all seemed to hang in the balance.
"What overwhelmed me then was the thought of how much time I'd wasted. I mean, how many hours had I racked up in commercials alone? It was like I suddenly woke up from a long sleep, the sleep that the routines of life lull us all into. We get fooled into thinking that it's going to just go like this forever. It's not. We've got to remember eternity.
His words hang in the sunny, salt-kissed air of the southern California resort town he calls home. Afternoon light floods the restaurant/bar that reminds him of his favorite sitcom, Cheers. Beyond the plate-glass window, kids with skateboards drift home from the beach. Welcome to paradise.
"That night I did a concert and as I looked out into the audience I just wanted to shout, 'Wake up from your half sleep.' More than ever I just wanted to cut through the distractions, to let them know that they're part of the most enthralling drama ever conceived, bigger and better than anything George Lucas can throw on the screen. I wanted for them what I desperately wanted for myself -- to take my faith seriously, to live like I really do have one foot in heaven. Christianity is an incredible adventure. . . It boggles the mind. That's why I called my album Love Beyond Reason".
For Randy Stonehill, the adventure of Christianity is an all-consuming vocation. Even in the mellow midst of a seaside afternoon, there is a certain edge to his mood, a tension in his lean, lank frame that is underscored by the painstaking way he picks his words, each one carrying a special weight of meaning. Dressed in a purple Hawaiian shirt and loose slacks and sporting an anchor-shaped pendant around his neck, it would be easy to mistake the 33-year-old singer, songwriter, and Christian music veteran for any of the laid-back denizens around him who are killing an hour in the cool of a neighborhood pub. It's only up-close, face-to-face with the peculiar, sometimes painful, intensity of Randy Stonehill that one understands the urgency that infuses his life. And his music.
Rock 'n' Roll Basics
"I feel like I'm going back to the edge," he continues, feeling his way through his thoughts like a man picking through a mine field. "I'm feeling a lot of anger, a lot, of righteous anger, these days. There's something in the air -- a sense that things are coming to a head. Itís not just AIDS or toxic wastes or the threat of nuclear war. It's a different kind of bill that is coming due. I think that's what's being reflected in my music, and I'm glad it's finally getting said."
The subject under discussion is Love Beyond Reason, Randy's latest album and compelling proof that he is indeed putting his talent where his convictions lie. A taut, propulsive, challenging offering, Love Beyond Reason stands as the most mature, involving work of his 15-year career. The song titles say it all, and while the 10-tune collection provides some polished pop pleasers, it's in scorching selections like "Angry Young Men," "Judgment Day," and the album's centerpiece, "The Gods of Men," that the heart of this remarkable new work is found. The LP's title track and a predictably bouyant duet with Amy Grant, "I Could Never Say Goodbye," aptly demonstrate Randy's continuing facility with contemporary Christian crowd pleasers, but the haunting sentiments of "Hymn" and the painful truths of "Your Loved Tonight" point to a new kind of creative sensibility: nakedly emotional, confrontational, uncompromised.
"It's a return to rock n' roll basics," Randy claims. 'It's lean and mean and it really represents a musical progression for me. By using the Fairlight CMI synthesizer for the first time, I was able to realize my creative fantasy: getting the sounds in my head onto a record.
"Love Beyond Reason is sort of the Welcome To Paradise of the '80s," he continues, referring to one of his best-known and most successful albums in comparison. "I recorded Welcome To Paradise in 1975, and it seemed to articulate what was going on in the hearts and minds of a lot of people. It helped them understand that God really is involved in their humanity and that this relationship can be celebrated through rock 'n' roll. Things are different now, but Christians still need to hear that message."
Things are indeed different. Listening to Randy Stonehill circa Welcome to Paradise reveals a pastel and paisley aura of good vibes, a World According to Randy that still retained, in large measure, the hopes, fears, and delusions of the '60s. It's an album that does indeed, as its creator acknowledges, have a special place in Christian music, but it's a place that seems dated, almost quaint, in contrast to the harsh realities of life in the eerie '80s.
"Hey," he confesses, "we all have our favorite eras, but that doesn't mean we want to live in them. The important thing now is that Christian music is starting to really express the gospel in a powerful and accessible way. I've been hoping for something like this to happen for a long time. Christian rock 'n' roll used to be just barely tolerated. We were on the fringe. Then the record companies and the churches, too -- began to realize that there was a huge need on the street level, a need that wasn't being met in traditional ways. Suddenly guys who could rock, guys like me, had a place, a function. We were the ones who could talk to 'the kids.' Now, for the first time, we have a chance to really shake things up."
Staying in Touch
After a decade-and-a-half pioneering Christian rock 'n' roll, does Randy still consider himself qualified to "talk to the kids,' to compete head or with the skinny tie and synthesizer crowd? "Absolutely," is the reply. "I've had practice, and through trial and error I've learned how to communicate, to make better music and speak a clearer message.
"Look," he says, leaning forward, a determined glint in his eye, "I'm going back to the edge. That's where I came from and that's where I'm most effective. I'm not trying just to keep up with all the youngbloods who are making new noises. I want to be in front. It's poor stewardship just to sit back and rest on your laurels. Sure, I'm feeling stretched and I like it. Christian music is getting dangerous and that's what it should be. I mean, we're more willing and able to point out what's wrong with the world and how to change it than anyone else is, especially those guys in the mainstream.
"Look at U2. I think their music is great and they're really making a statement artistically, but it's discouraging to me that they resist their opportunity to really nail down the Christian world view for people who've never heard it. In their desire not to be pigeonholed, not to offend, they've become opaque. Christian artists don't have that problem. We've got a role to fill, and we've got to try and rise to the challenge.
Having declared his determination to return to "the edge," the obvious question becomes where has Randy Stonehill been. "The years 1974-78 were a real low point in my career," he explains. "I was getting a lot of flack from the church, and Christian rock was generally looked on with disdain and distrust. There's still some of that today, but not nearly to the extent of those years. The whole idea that being in the spotlight was somehow self-serving caused me to do a lot of soul searching.
"It's devastating when people question your motives, but after a while you gain confidence simply by knowing the Lord and seeing Him work in your life and bless what you're doing. You've got to constantly check yourself with God, to keep refining what you do, and why you do it. Popularity is never a measure of spiritual depth, especially when you realize that by trying to please everyone else, you lose your integrity before the Lord. I began to trust the Holy Spirit to be my witness when I saw the fruits of God's work in my music quenching the doubts of dissenters. They simply couldn't deny what was going on. Lives were being changed.
After so long a period of attack from the powers-that-be, it would seem natural for Randy to consider the Christian establishment with suspicion if not with downright hostility. Not so. "We need each other," he avows. "That's why Iím not into overturning the traditions of Christianity. The reason we have those traditions is because they work, because God established them. My only regret is that I can't plug into them more. I travel so much I think I've got permanent jet lag. When other people are going to Bible studies and Sunday services, I try to have the Church of the Airplane, the Church of the Taxi, or the Church of the Hotel Room. It's absolutely essential that I stay in touch with God by whatever means necessary."
"Staying in touch" borders on an obsession for Randy. He is a tireless performer and, although he asserts that he's "only begun to rock," one can see that life on the road is not without its cost. Despite his desire to keep out in front of the fast-rising new wave of young Christian artists, the nagging question for Randy Stonehill, a husband and father as well as a Christian media "presence," has to be the future directions his career will take. It's apparent, for example, from simply sitting and talking with him that he is considerably more than just an amplified troubadour, a man with a guitar permanently strapped around his neck. Humor, quick wit, a gift of mimicry, and his obvious talent for thinking and acting on his feet seem to portend more than strictly musical outlets for his abundant creative gifts.
"There are times when you just get a little numb," he reveals. "You sing the same song and rap the same rap and after a while gravity just starts to pull you down. For me, those times are a red light. God's telling me it's time to move on, to discover new ways to articulate the faith. Taking new chances is always a challenge and you need courage to risk what's comfortable for what's unknown. I think commitment to Christ provides that courage."
The Video Album
Recently, a not-so-calculated risk resulted in one of the most unique and satisfying artistic innovations in Randy's career and across the broader spectrum of modern Christian music as well. Taking the outstanding cuts from Love Beyond Reason, fully employing his acting, conceptual, and comedic skills, and milking every last cent from a shoestring budget, he has created the first, full-fledged video album. If is an inventive, sometimes dazzling, always diverting package which combines extemporaneous skits, flashy performances, and often evocative concept pieces in a Stonehill showcase that is certain to point the way for other artists struggling to make effective use of video.
"I feel like the first guy out of the trenches and over the barbed wire," Randy remarks wryly. "I hope others will follow. Doing the video album tapped into acting and comedy resources I never knew I had." The video album's ad-lib material -- which includes an inspired stream-of-consciousness ramble in a surreal bedroom along with some wicked send-ups of the show-biz veneer of Christian music -- were among the easiest and most comfortable elements of the shooting schedule, Randy explains. "What was hard was the serious stuff. That required real acting and that was scary. I had to really reach down inside and totally believe those songs again."
The results are, on occasion, stunning. On the video album, "Hymn," one of the songwriter's most affecting compositions, is set on a World War I battlefield in the last days of the conflict. Portraying an agonized soldier, Randy conveys as much through his eyes as through the tune's haunting lyrics. It is a bravura performance and an intriguing glimpse of what may be in store for this diversely talented artist.
Once my manager, the record company, and I agreed that the songs warranted a visual approach, the problem became how to pull it off," Randy continues. "I think that, to whatever degree the video succeeds, the real triumph was in the fact that we produced what amounted to five videos for about a tenth of the cost of one 'real' video. The whole thing was shot in just three days . . . three of the most intense days of my life. It was all new, and the time and budget restraints made the whole thing that much more of a gamble." It is, happily, a gamble that has paid off handsomely.
As important to Randy as his continuing evolution as an artist and performer is his ongoing work on behalf of Compassion International. It was in 1984, while working on the album Celebrate This Heartbeat, that he was first introduced to the work of this relief-and-development organization dedicated to relieving suffering among the children of the world. A subsequent trip to Port-au-Prince, Haiti galvanized his concern and commitment, which the song "Judgment Day" on Love Beyond Reasoneloquently expresses.
"Along with 'Who Will Save the Children' from my last album, it's a musical statement on the dilemma of impoverished people," he explains. "I wanted it to capture the heartbreak and anger I felt when I finally saw poverty up close. In Haiti, children were living and dying on the streets, and it changed my life to witness that. It was no longer an abstraction, no longer a dream. I went back and I wrote 'Judgment Day.' It's an indictment of those who turn their backs on the suffering of the world. We will reap on Judgment Day from the seeds we plant in our refusal to help in any way we can.
"Working with Compassion has had a landslide effect on my life," he continues. "I've realized the importance of taking a stand for issues outside the world of music. Christians should stand for rightness wherever the opportunity occurs. I continue to speak and sing about world hunger and I point audiences towards Compassion as an effective organization. I want to use my visibility to prod people to action. It's important that they realize that this ongoing tragedy isn't going to be solved in one fell swoop by a bunch of rock stars getting together and singing a song."
With a full schedule of concert appearances, including a current U.S. and Canadian tour with his brand new rock ensemble, The Rockets, Randy is determined to make the most of his musical platform. "The Rockets are the first real rock 'n' roll band I've had in years. Before, I'd either perform solo or simply put together whoever I could find. These guys are very carefully picked. I want it to be 'Randy Stonehill & The Rockets,' a rock group.
"I guess you could characterize my feelings about the future of Christian music as cautiously optimistic," Randy concludes. "We're only human, and if left to our own devices I'm sure we'll run amok. It gets back to checking with God. We've got to remember who we are, where we are, and what we're here for. If we're given the opportunity to speak into the 'big mike' the media offers, we've got to respect the honor by listening to what He is telling us.' For Randy Stonehill, the simple priority of listening before speaking has resulted in a vital and rich music ministry. "I get the feeling after 15 years that I'm really only just beginning," he says -- and the evidence of his art and life support that contention.