Rich Music, Rich Memories
Rich's career-long producer shares 10 years and 7 albums worth of friendship and music making memories
Secrets. That's what has drawn me to Rich's music, and it's what holds me there. Rich tells us his secrets, and in so doing he tells all of ours. He speaks the unspoken. He gives the silence a shape. Out of thin air, words come that touch us in places that we have kept hidden, even from ourselves. For seven years and seven records Rich has been telling us his secrets, fighting with God and friends and the devil right out loud in the harsh light of day while we looked on, safe but mesmerized. We were made a little braver while we watched.
Sometimes I had to look away, locked in a recording studio with this impish, damaged, terribly brave man while he put on his gloves and battled with his faith. Sometimes it was just too close to home, watching him try to let his passion out and control it at the same time. I could see it was like trying to let the air out of a balloon a little at a timeit's possible, but it takes a lot of concentration and it tends to get away from you and end up flying all over the room in a frantic burst. That's why there is never anyone in the studio when Rich sings except the two of us, and if he could figure out how to get me out of there he would do it. It's a private thing, and even while recording I feel like I'm eavesdropping. But safe on the other side of the glass, secure in my easy Christianity, I listened. For seventy-two songs I listened. I heard the fury of a pheasant's wings. I believed that the wind would stir. I laughed at Beaker's bike. I worshipped an awesome God. I saw the wood shavings on the floor of a Carpenter's shop. I went to the land of his sojourn. I heard him singing, and I knew that he was telling my secrets, our secrets, pushing us and prodding us to finally admit with him that we can't get along without God, to just stop pretending, and get on our knees.
Anyone who has ever listened to a Rich Mullins album will perhaps not be surprised that they are not made in the way that most records are. They come to life in travail, like a human child. Only one of them was easy, and that was the first; but perhaps the passage of time has only made it seem so. The records are terribly flawed and terribly glorious. They are full of painful imperfections and surprising joy. Like Rich, they are not safe.
It began in 1986 when we were shoved together by fate to work on his first album. I had only seen Rich once before then. He was standing backstage at an Amy Grant concert, wearing a big overcoat (it wasn't cold) and looking on bemused while I was onstage playing keyboards. I remember that I stared at him. Afterwards, we didn't speak. It would have been a remarkable thing to have known then how many roads we would eventually travel together.
The first record we made at Gary and Amy's house, and they effectively let us move in. Gary was building a home studio and we were the lucky guinea pigs to try it out. Amy made soup, and Rich and I made a record. We had absolutely no idea what we we re doing, and listening to the final product is now a little painful. We cut all the lead vocals in three days, because we didn't know any better. All the same, you can hear Rich boxing with God, and you can hear him sing:
When I leave I want to go out like Elijah With a whirlwind to fuel my chariot of fire And when I look back on the stars It'll be like candlelight in Central Park And it won't break my heart to say goodbye
Pictures in the Sky is my favorite Rich Mullins album. It's not the bestthat title easily belongs to The Ragamuffin Bandbut it's still my favorite. We knew little more than we did the first time, but again it didn't really matter. It was enough to be there in the studio when he sang the words,
When the sky is crossed with the tears Of a thousand falling suns As they crash into the sea Can I be with you Can I be with you
Pictures is the album where Rich first shows us his elfish sense of humor. "What Trouble Are Giants," "Screen Door," even the title songthey all refused to take themselves seriously, which is a bit of an art form in this business.
Little did we know that our lives were about to change. A sturdy few had managed to wander out of bookstores with the first two records, but not enough even to ensure that another Rich Mullins album would ever be made. I sometimes think about how different my life would be if Rich hadn't played me a certain rough cassette tape in 1988. It was recorded on a boombox in a church service somewhere, and on it was the song "Awesome God." I don't know if the hair on the back of my neck actually stood on end, but I do know that I wanted to record that song more than anything else in the world. The rest, as they say, is history. But it still sobers me a bit to think how close it was to never being made at all.
Never Picture Perfect was the first record we fought over, so it's the first time our friendship made any difference. Rich was still telling his secrets:
I can still hear my dad cussin' He's working late out in the barn... Now they've stayed together Through the pain and the strain of those times
He was still being funny, too: who else would name a song "Alrightokuhhuhamen"? It looks vaguely Egyptianas in the 'tomb of alrightokuhhuhamen.' And he made a prophecy, as much for him as for us:
Set aside your pride and your anger too... You can argue with your maker But you know you just can't win
In 1990 I went to hear Rich live. I had heard him many times in concert, and each was as different and unpredictable as he was. This time I had the hair raised on the back of my neck again. I heard a thousand people singing at the tops of their lungs:
And the eagle flies, and the rivers run I look through the night And I can see the rising sun And everywhere I go I see You
I knew my life was going to be changed again. For five months I looked at the world as best as Rich could remember it. It was the hardest thing I've ever done. It seemed like it would never end, recording two albums at the same time. But who else could take us from the whimsy of "Boy Like Me/Man Like You" to the passion of "The Howling" to the worship of "Sometimes By Step." I heard what became my favorite Rich line:
And oh I could play these songs 'til I was dead And never approach the sound that I once heard
I understood then, after six records and sixty songs, that that was what it all came down to: Rich is always looking for the sound he once heard, the music of the spheres that is still hidden. It lives just on the edge of his mind, and so he keeps on digging, rolling all the dice on every song and sometimes watching the dice roll right off the edge of the table. He flinches a little with pain, and then he's ready to dig more and share harder. It's not that it's not scary for him to be so real. It's just that he is haunted by that sound, that music that refuses to reveal itself, flirting like a woman who refuses to be captured.
Then came The Ragamuffin Band. It was recorded in a different mannereveryone playing at once, with all the musicians almost becoming co-artists with Richand it was made hundreds of miles away from home, in Indiana. While we're telling secrets, I might as well say that I didn't want to do a record that way, and neither did the record label. Nobody wanted to do it but Rich, and after a good deal of arguing he got his way. He was right, and we were wrong. It represents the collaboration of some very talented people, and it's music made the old fashioned way. It's funny and noble and penetrating. It's the best thing I've ever been lucky enough to be a part of. It's classic Rich:
Surrender don't come natural to me I'd rather fight You for something I don't really want Than to take what You give that I need
Ragamuffin is the best lyric writing Rich has ever done, which is like saying it's the finest diamond in a deep, fruitful mine. Every new record gives me my new favorite Rich Mullins song, and for now it's "Here In America," but only until he records again and writes something even better.
So we come to today. As I write this, I can't help thinking that a good bit of my life is scattered around me here on my desk in the shape of seven Rich Mullins albums. I can hold them all in my hand quite easily, and they seem small to have traded so much of myself for. But then I remember:
I'll carry the songs I learned when we were kids I'll carry the scars of generations gone by I'll pray for you always and I promise you this I'll carry on, I'll carry on
Carry on, Rich. Carry on for all of us who don't have quite enough courage or quite enough art to say what you say and dream what you dream. Stay caught in the reckless, raging fury that they call the love of God.