Posts Tagged ‘Randy Stonehill’

My Christmas playlist

December 26, 2013

Music plays an important role in all seasons of my life. This Advent/Christmas season has been no different. One highlight, for example, was singing and playing (on guitar) Christmas hymns and carols with a clergy colleague for our churches’ combined Men’s Club last week. Then, on Sunday, I played and sang when a few of us went caroling for my church’s shut-ins.

Thanks to YouTube, I’ll share with you a few unusual Christmas-themed songs that have been on my playlist this year.

The first is a traditional song that I fell in love with when I heard it on a Bob Dylan album. Since Dylan’s people at Sony are Scrooges about sharing his music for free online, I’ll link to this version by Paul Brady. It’s not really a Christmas song, except that it takes place on Christmas morning. Some British army officers are trying to recruit the Irish narrator and his cousin Arthur McBride.

To say the least, their efforts are unsuccessful.

The cousins refuse, politely at first. But Sgt. Napper persists. His sales pitch includes telling them that soldiers have fine clothes, beautiful wives, and money—including the signing bonus he’ll give the two right now if they’ll enlist.

Arthur, the spokesman, declines with this witty riposte.

“But,” says Arthur, “I wouldn’t be proud of your clothes
For you’ve only the lend of them, as I suppose
But you’re dare not change them one night, for you know
If you do, you’ll be flogged in the morning…

“And we have no desire to take your advance
All hazards and dangers we barter on chance
For you’d have no scruples for to send us to France
Where we could get shot without warning”

As you’ll hear, violence ensues. But don’t worry: David beats Goliath.

This next song might be, as one YouTube commenter calls it, the “most depressing Christmas song ever,” but I’m not so sure. At least at Denny’s the narrator isn’t alone on Christmas—and, as he sings, the refills on coffee are always free. The song, “Christmas at Denny’s,” was written by a first-generation Christian-rocker named Randy Stonehill (from 1989, if memory serves). Sadly, no video exists of Stonehill’s performing it, but this is a good one.

When I was a boy I believed in Christmas
Miracle season to make a new start
I don’t need no miracle, sweet baby Jesus
Just help me find some kind of hope in my heart

Another melancholy song, this one from Joni Mitchell. “River” is about a break-up for which the narrator feels responsible. Listen to the tenderness in her voice when she sings, “I made my baby cry.” Christmas is a lousy time to be heartbroken, as everyone knows. She quotes “Jingle Bells” on her piano in a couple places, except in a plaintive minor key. No happy Christmas bells here.

Her album Blue, by the way, is perfect and beautiful—simply one of the greatest things ever committed to vinyl. I love it so intensely that I’m apt to pull an Arthur McBride if anyone says otherwise. Accept no version of the song other than Mitchell’s. When she sings, “I wish I had a river so long/ I would teach my feet to fly-y-y-y-y-y-y,” listen to her voice take off into the stratosphere. Are there actually people who don’t love her voice?

I’m so hard to handle
I’m selfish and I’m sad
Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby
That I ever had
I wish I had a river I could skate away on

Finally, here’s a song that isn’t a Christmas song, but I dug it out of my collection of 45 RPM records last night and listened to it—I kid you not—14 times in a row. It’s from Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s self-titled solo album from 1988. (Click here to listen to this version.) Everybody hates the production of this album, which tries way too hard to make Wilson sound relevant to MTV audiences, but if you can hear past that, you’ll hear the man doing some of his best songwriting and vocal-arranging.

There isn’t much to the song, lyrically: three couplets, a refrain, with a “la-la-la” bridge. The world is broken, Wilson says in his typically child-like way, and it can only be healed by love and mercy. He and I both know where that kind of healing comes from.

He sells the sentiment with a gorgeous descending chord progression that reminds me of brother Dennis’s song “Forever.” As with some of his other great songs—”In My Room,” “Don’t Worry, Baby,” and “Time to Get Alone,” to name a few—he melts my heart.

I love this live version with a boy’s choir. By the way, how does Wilson’s voice sound better today than it did back in the ’70s? How did he reverse the years of damage? Getting off drugs helped, I’m sure… But still.

Hendrix never heard of him, but he’s still great

May 8, 2013
Do you think Paul McCartney would have gone in a Christian bookstore to buy Phil's music? Yes, this is Paul McCartney with his vocal twin, Phil Keaggy. I wish I could hear what they were playing!

Yes, this is Paul McCartney with his vocal doppelgänger, Phil Keaggy. I wish I could hear what they were playing!

Christianity Today tells me that singer-songwriter/guitarist extraordinaire Phil Keaggy received the prestigious Golden Note Award from ASCAP. I’ve never heard of it, either. While it’s obviously not a Grammy or anything, it’s nice to see Keaggy getting some recognition. His was the first concert I went to, in the spring of 1984, beating out the Kinks by a few months. He was with a full band, and he rocked hard.

He also served as my introduction to that strange, fascinating early-’80s world of Christian rock, which was being transformed even then into an “industry” called Contemporary Christian Music.

One reason you’ve probably never heard of Keaggy is that the only place you could get his records back then was in Christian bookstores. These were very intimidating places for people outside the tiny sliver of evangelical Christendom to whom these stores marketed themselves. I remember walking by a Christian bookstore in a strip shopping center with my friend Jason, to whom I had raved about the Keaggy concert. “Let’s go in here and see if they have any Keaggy albums.”

Jason took a few steps inside the store—and you would think he was a vampire exposed to the sunlight. He ran outside. “That was too creepy,” he said. I’m sure he was right. These stores often had a strange, unwelcoming, almost cult-like vibe.

Unlike some of my Christian friends from youth group, I never tried to abandon “secular” music. (Ask me now if I even believe in the category!) But I did become a regular customer of these bookstores. And I purchased many great albums by bands and artists like the 77’s, Daniel Amos, Keaggy, Randy Stonehill, and early Resurrection Band. If I could go back in time, I would buy many more—before they went out of print forever.

That’s the problem: the great stuff is often out of print. I did a check on Amazon and iTunes: you can no longer buy or download some essential albums by Keaggy from the ’70s, such as What a Day or Love Broke Thru. (I scored both in a bargain-basement sale at a used record store many years ago.) I guess that’s what eBay is for. And YouTube…

Another essential Keaggy album is Sunday’s Child, 1988’s homage to Rubber Soul-era Beatles and glorious mid-’60s rock, which is still in print, at least for download.

There is an interesting urban legend about Jimi Hendrix’s calling Phil Keaggy “the greatest guitarist ever,” which Snopes covers at length here.

“And I’m dreaming about how my life could have been/ If only, if only, if only…”

December 24, 2012
Back in the mid-'70s, when Stonehill was a pioneer of Christian rock.

From a mid-’70s album cover, back when Stonehill was a pioneer of Christian rock.

As if to balance my cheerful last post, here’s the saddest Christmas song you’ll ever hear: Randy Stonehill’s wonderfully bleak “Christmas at Denny’s,” from his 1989 album, Return to Paradise. The song has always been a favorite of mine. “I don’t need no miracle, sweet baby Jesus/ Just help me find some kind of hope in my heart.”

(I’m not a fan of this homemade video montage, but it’s the only YouTube video of the song I found. Plus the sound quality is good. Purchase the song here.)