Politeness has its place. Polite children don't throw french fries across crowded restaurants. Polite motorists don't honk the horn the instant the light turns green, and they avoid all unseemly hand gestures in favor of waving, "Howdy, neighbor!" Yes, the gracious oil of politeness would be a marvelous lubricant spread over airport ticket counters, auto repair shops, and telephone solicitors. Politeness counts - except in rock and roll.
Such is the lesson learned by Randy Stonehill. Somehow along the way, the gifted songwriter/singer/comedian turned 30 and became eccentric Uncle Rand. He started making up goofy songs about American fast food, and mounted a one-man crusade to keep disco alive in the 80's. And, in deference to Christian radio, he was oh, so polite.
These observations are more or less echoed by Stonehill himself. Of his recent work, Stonehill says, "The more pop-oriented things that I'd done, although they were done very honestly - I wasn't trying to manipulate the audience and just garner more sales - I found that they were interpreted differently than I'd hoped. People started looking at me as mellowing out, or as someone who vacillated artistically. The signal I got from the audience was, 'Who are you?'
"So I came away from these last two projects just scratching my head, thinking that I was just getting farther away from the bull's-eye. So I thought, why not just do what I wanted to do? Do an album close to my heart and my own artistic sense, and damn the torpedoes. And trust that God would honor the exercising of my faith in this area of my life as well."
Politeness is no longer the byword as Stonehill gets ready to rock with a vengeance on his new Myrrh/LA Records release, The Wild Frontier. Say goodbye to affable Rand the Beach Nut.
Major credit for the new direction in Stonehill's sound goes to producer Dave Perkins, a brilliant musician with a near-obsessive thirst for perfection. Stonehill refers to him affectionately as the "Rock Nazi."
Perkins' reputation for highly disciplined and demanding production was enhanced by his recent work with Servant on its album, Swimming in a Human Ocean. Vocalist Sandi Brock laughs about it now, but that project's grueling recording sessions often reduced her to tears, as Perkins drove her and the rest of the band to their emotional and physical limits. Result: the best record of Servant's career, an effort the band now looks back on with pride.
So, it's Randy's turn to cry, as it were. At a Pizza Hut in Libertyville, Illinois, Randy Stonehill described what it's like doing a record with Der Fuehrer Dave.
Earlier in the evening, Stonehill and his band, the Rockets, had played the Cornerstone Festival in Grayslake, Illinois, headlining an improbable bill which also included Jessy Dixon and metal monsters Barren Cross.
After the final encore, Stonehill came off stage and headed straight for the record table located in the Exhibition Hall. He was still very much "on" as he signed autographs, made faces, told jokes, and accepted hugs and handshakes from his attentive fans.
The Barren Cross devotees slouched by with obvious disdain, wearing their black leather knuckle-gloves, spiked armbands, long ratty hair, and enough earrings to make a National Geographic Aborigine blush. Randy Stonehill? No way. We're into rock and roll, man.
An hour and a half passed. Stonehill continued to hold court, an artist for The Rest of Us. His tour manager finally dragged him back to the dressing trailer to collect his garment bag and suitcase. There's a quiet knock at the door. The bass player for Barren Cross steps inside and, respectfully offering a handshake, asks if he and Randy could have their picture taken together.
After joining the Rockets at the Pizza Hut Restaurant, Stonehill leans back in the booth, exhausted, doing his best imitation of a tire going flat. The waitress arrives with his dinner. Stonehill looks at it out of one eye, as though wishing it could be administered intravenously. He livens up, however, as talk moves to the subject of his new album.
"Dave's making me stretch. He's making me dig deep. We got together because I was so impressed by the essence of rock authenticity about him, both in his writing and his playing. I felt that it was time, in order to stay fresh, to take some chances and jump in with both feet. I really wanted to do a go-for-the-throat rock and roll record."
After much prayer and checking around, it became apparent that Perkins was the one to help Stonehill realize his goals. "However, he made it clear that, in order to do that, I would have to sacrifice certain vital bodily organs," chuckles Stonehill.
Perkins began the transformation by indoctrinating Stonehill in the Ways of Winning Rock and Roll. "Dave told me, 'We're not going to make a polite record. Rock and roll that is winning has a high emotional content and, long after trends change and new record product comes out, if something really sounds like there was some commitment there, and the artist really had his heart on the line, that's what gives it longevity. That's what keeps life in the work."
Perkins liked Stonehill's writing but felt that the recent albums had a "scattered" quality as though the songs never really all belonged together on the same piece of vinyl. "He made it clear that my record would have to stand apart. It would have to be bull's-eye tight with a style so consistent, so identifiable, that it would stand out amid the whole sea of records out there."
Stonehill continues, "Dave's a very lovely man and a really committed Christian, so, he was kind in the way he said it. It was so interesting how he did this. We were talking about getting back to my roots and translating that into the 80's - that basically means Tom Petty meets U2. So, he played me some of the things he considers to be the rock and roll edge: the Alarm, the Waterboys, Chameleons, The Lucy Show, Big Audio Dynamite, all these bands. And, so, without him having to say anything, I listened and I said it to myself, 'Y'know, I'm 34 and these records I've been doing - I'm proud of 'em in some ways - but, by golly, I sound like I'm 34! I sound like a 34-year-old family man trying to do rock and roll.' And he just sort of smiled and said, 'Uh, yeah.'
Stonehill was in for another shock when Perkins and he sat down to review the songs Randy figured he'd put on the album. One after the other, songs were eliminated because they didn't fit The Concept. Suddenly, Stonehill realized that all but two of the songs had become obsolete under the regime of the New Rock Reich.
"I swallowed hard, went out with my coffee cup and my notepad, drove around in my Camaro out in southern California, and just sort of beckoned the Muse," says Randy. "It's the most productive I've ever been in the shortest time because I literally had to come up with eight album-worthy songs in three weeks."
As Stonehill speaks, the Pizza Hut juke box kicks in, "If you start me up, if you start me up, I'll never stop . . ."
As Stonehill pursued the Muse up and down Highway 5, his manager kept calling, curious to see how the new songs were coming. He finally sat Randy down a week before they were to record the basic tracks and demanded to hear the new material.
Stonehill laughs sheepishly, "And I could still only show him just sketchy things, part of a melody or a guitar part. I showed him a few lyrics here and there, and he just looked at me and went, 'Uh, Randy - is this going to come together?'
"I told him, 'Trust me. I know it looks a little weird to you but I know it will.' And it has." In fact, at their next meeting, Perkins was considerably impressed.
"This new album is more of a collaborative effort than anything I've ever done," says Stonehill. Perkins suggested titles or came up with hooks while Stonehill fleshed out melodies or submitted lyrics for Dave's scrutiny and fine-tuning. "And, yet, we never approached the project like that. There was no sense of him trying to crowd my action, like 'I'll produce, I'll play guitar, and I'll write half the songs."
"This is the most serious, passionate record I've ever made," continues Stonehill. "It's like, serious measures for serious times, OK? It's not going to be a dark or a grim record, though. I'm hoping that all the sharp edges are undergirded by the high emotional content and by a current of hope. I'm trying to find a balance. I don't want to just say that the world stinks and that life is a swirling, sucking vortex of despair. Hey, much of life is — but that's not going to help anybody, just to say it! I also want, without hitting people over the head with it, to say, 'Look, there's real life and real hope.' That's why I called the album The Wild Frontier. That's a good description of the faith-walk. It's about really taking a hard look at yourself and letting God redefine who you are and what you're doing here. That's really the thread that runs through the album.
"It's a way of saying that, even in the midst of all the pain and turmoil, there is real hope if you have faith and open up your life and let the wind of the Spirit blow through it."
One new song is called "What Do You Want From Life?" which Stonehill describes as Mike Jagger and Keith Richards, if you can imagine them as Christians, imparting this street-wise philosophy of what is real and what is not as they sing together under a street lamp."
Stonehill goes on, "There's also a song called 'The Dying Breed,' which is about guys you see with that light in their eyes, and you just know they're sold out completely to something, and they're the true heroes in that sense, because they're sold out completely to their beliefs and they stand by them, no matter what the cost is, and they're willing to pay the whole price."
Once the songs had been written to Perkins' satisfaction, the recording sessions began, which Stonehill likens to "giving birth." He would emerge from the vocal booth dripping wet with perspiration, wondering, "Do we really have to do this again tomorrow?"
Randy relates a conversation that was repeated several times during The Wild Frontier sessions. "I'd give a performance that seemed to have some energy and some emotion to it, and all the intonation was correct, and I'd think, 'Well, there you go.' And I'd be kind of proud of myself and say, 'Well, what do you think, buddy?' Dave would just come over the talkback and say, 'Um, yeah Randy — that was, uh, a bit polite.' Naturally, I'd get a little steamed and go out and do it again. And again. What he's making me do is to go for progressive echelons of excellence so that, by the third take (or the fifteenth), the first one would be obsolete.
"I'm just trying to make a record that stands on its own, whether the listener agrees with me on a spiritual or philosophical level or not. I'm trying to return to my initial vision: to be a Christian honoring God with his art and to be the best stinkin' artist I can be — without abandoning the audience I already have because they're like family. They know me and they trust me but I want to be an artist who writes for anybody who's willing to listen. That's a challenge, to get the ears and win the hearts of the people on the street. It's got to be your best. They've got to smell the commitment on the vinyl or they're just not interested. And, if anybody should demonstrate that kind of passion, that kind of commitment, it should be Christians who are committed to the living God who saved us from the Jaws of Death.
What implications with this new music, smelly commitment and all, have on Stonehill's trademark stage persona? Stonehill is a talented mimic, well-versed in ridiculing the excesses and cliches of every rock and lounge act that ever slithered into the limelight. But, who is Randy Stonehill? Is this comic figure a decoy, held at arm's length, while the real Randy is concealed in the shadows off stage, waiting to come out and make his pitch for Compassion International? Is it frightening for him to think about going on stage with so much emotionally invested in the music?
"Well, the element of that, which surfaces at concerts, is this sort of self-deprecating attitude because there's so much of rock and roll that's just blown out of proportion with everybody strutting, and sweating, and thinking they're larger than life," explains Stonehill, not at all defensively. He denies that he plays for laughs to avoid revealing his own vulnerability to the audience.
"I guess it was always my way of saying that I don't take myself too seriously. Although I'm proud of what I do and I think I'm a good communicator on stage, it was always my way of defusing that rock mythology stuff that could crop up simply because you're on stage with a spotlight on you. It's my way of saying to the audience that, 'I take the Lord seriously,' I don't take myself seriously.
"Even if I had the moves of David Lee Roth or Mike Jagger, there would still have to be that 'wink' there. I just think that, once you know who God is and you realize you're not — that you're not even close, you could just never take yourself too terribly seriously."
There are probably those at his record company who would be happy just to have more of the pop product that has done so well for them commercially. So, let's just forget this rock stuff, OK, Randy? Lie down and the feeling will pass. Then, let's do lunch. Hey, howzabout a duet with Carman? He's hot. What? He signed with who? For how much? Well, get me someone who looks like Carman!
But, Stonehill is determined to go ahead and succeed as a rock artist in the big, wide world. Why? "Because it's my first love. Songs like 'Play With Fire' by the Stones or 'You Really Got Me' by the Kinks — I was just transfixed by those songs, they just hit me. And, if I can produce that kind of passionate rock and roll with Christ being the central figure, then I'll feel like I've really hit the target.
"Yeah, my emotional investment is greater on this album than on some of the others but, if it's not accepted, if my sales are only half what the other one was, I could live with that because I'll know that I did an album that was really true to me. We don't know what's gonna happen. Maybe we'll all have big grins on our faces and we'll do, 'Alright! We played a hunch, we created from the heart, and God took it over the top for us.'"
As Stonehill speaks, bass player, Tim Chandler has been standing by the table grinning and wagging his head in mock approval of Stonehill's confident rap. "You know, it's really tragic," says Stonehill leaning across the table toward the tape recorder, "but, right during this interview, I'm going to have to fire my bass player. What a bummer."
On cue, Chandler shamelessly attempts to steal the interview. He swipes a piece of Priazzo pizza right off his boss' dinner plate and, like a trash compactor, jams it into his mouth; a full pound of dough, tomato sauce, sausage, and melted cheese, consumed in one fierce bite.
The molten mozzarella fuses to Chandler's palate; his eyes go wide with surprise, his mouth opens, and the mangled red remains of Stonehill's supper come cascading out all over the tape recorder.
Stonehill fixes Chandler with a leveling gaze. "You know, Tim, you're a growing boy. You're growing, like, really tedious."
Stonehill laughs as Chandler wanders back to the band's table. So, tell us, Randy — besides having someone around to chew your food for you — why else do you want to do more band tours?
"The music on this album really demands that a band play it. I'm digging this hole for myself on purpose. I'm hoping I can get Dave Perkins to go out on tour with me because he can play guitar that will just part your hair. There's a song on the album called 'Here Come the Big Guitars,' so we were thinking of doing a 'Big Guitars Tour,' where Dave Perkins, Rick Cua, and I could go out and create some thunder."
So, it's going to be 'Big Guitars' and 'Tom Petty meets U2.' However, Tom Petty isn't known for doing schtick. Will Stonehill also try to develop a rocker image in order to get his music across to the hordes of the disdainfully sweaty, mindlessly pounding their fists at nothing?
Stonehill turns serious, his face intense and purposeful as he speaks in a voice of strength and self-assurance. "I don't think it's gonna change. I'll just leave room for the music to speak more. I'll find some places to share my heart and, beyond that, have the good time that I always have. I think you can do serious, passionate music and still cut up and be self-deprecating. We're just looking for wholeness and balance here."
The juke box swallows another quarter. By now, the restaurant is empty except for the band. Stonehill looks over at the band table as a familiar voice growls out of the speakers: "Start spreading the news . . ." It's Frank Sinatra vs. the lyrics of "New York, New York." Frank is winning.
Stonehill starts to giggle mischievously. The last trace of seriousness fades back into the depths of his dark brown eyes, irretrievably lost, as he lapses back into his Happy Camper cartoon voice, "Yes, sir - come one, come all. It's the Great Rock and Roll Adventure with Uncle Rand!
The Rockets crowd around the table now, singing into their salt shakers as the Nelson Riddle Orchestra hits the brakes, downshifts the tempo, and kicks the song into the higher key of its final chorus: "THEEEEESE VA-GA-BOND SHOOOOOOZ . . ." Weary Pizza Hut employees stare in disbelief as the band falls into a chorus line behind Randy, who, unable to resist, jumps up from his seat and assumes the Chairmanship of the Board.
"AAAAAANNNNNND, IF I CAN MAKE IT THERE — I'LL MAKE IT — AAANYWHERE!!!"
Yes, indeed. Prepare to meet the challenge of The Wild Frontier.