Monday, October 31, 2011

desperation, rich mullins...and a million years ago

My friend Beth Lutz sent me a couple of photos from what seems like a million years ago. Beth was Beth Snell before she married my buddy and co-pastor Mark. She sang with an acoustic Christian group way back in the late seventies/early eighties (sorry, Beth) named Zion. Zion was centered around an unknown, piano-hammering young singer-songwriter named Rich Mullins. I was working a minimum wage job downtown in the catacombs of the Public Library and Rich worked a few blocks away in the ticket booth in the Shillito’s parking garage. We’d get together and argue theology—neither one of us really knew much—and wonder why the church had a problem with long hair at the time. He was raised in a conservative religious home, I was raised in a pagan home. Rich was slightly wacky. Maybe that’s what religion does to you, I don’t know. But I think that’s why I liked him.

I had just become a Christian, gotten a civilian job, and had started playing guitar more seriously after being a drummer in bar bands from the time I was fourteen. Remind me to tell you the story sometime of an expletive-ranting bar owner in Kentucky that kept a beer-guzzling live bear in a cage that bit his finger off one night between sets. At the time it seemed, uh, justified somehow. But I digress.

I met another Christian named Paul Niehaus who had a TEAC four-track reel-to-reel tape recorder (I told you this was a long time ago) in his basement with an old upright piano. He and I played guitars together and had started gigging in local coffeehouses in the mid-seventies. At night Rich would come to Paul’s basement and bang furiously on the upright, I’d play my black-oyster pearl Ludwig drums and Paul thumped bass. Paul and I eventually formed an acoustic group with a female singer and female violinist. And then married them. Is music great or what?

Rich formed Zion and then a relative loaned him the money to go to 5th Floor Studios in Cincinnati and record a self-produced album. Rich called and asked if I would play drums on the sessions and of course I said yes. A friend named Tony Ross played bass. Greg McNeilly engineered and went on to engineer all three albums for a band called Prodigal that I had the pleasure of playing with in the early-to-mid-eighties (for some of that retro-80's-blast-from-the-past-rock-goodness, click below...)

Anyway, it was a song from that Zion session called Sing Your Praise to the Lord that made its way to the ears of rising CCM pop star Amy Grant. The rest is early Christian music history.

Rich was signed as songwriter, moved to Nashville and eventually released his own music, later forming and traveling with A Ragamuffin Band. By the early nineties, his songs were picked up by other artists by the boatloads. Awesome God became a signature worship chorus. Rich could have been fairly wealthy, but instead he arranged for a small church he had attended to receive all his money and had them pay him whatever the average income was in America—about $25,000 then. The church gave the rest of the money out to various ministries and needs. Rich never married and started a quasi-monastic order called the “Kid Brothers of St. Frank.” He said he would have been a Catholic monk but was too much of a wimp. When an executive from a record label once asked him if he knew how much money was pouring in from royalties, he simply said, “No…it would just make it that much harder to give away.”

Like most of us, Rich was a complex personality. Deeply desperate for God, a strong sense of justice, more than a little quirky, critically honest and opinionated. Years passed before I saw him again. The last couple of times were at a Bruce Cockburn concert at Bogart’s and then bringing him in to play at the Vineyard on a weekend in the mid-nineties. He died shortly afterward in a tragic car accident on the way to a benefit concert.

In the end, I think it works like this: the more we’re aware of how screwed up we really are, the more desperate we become for Jesus. Maybe it’s the implied message when Jesus forgave the prostitute who washed his feet with her tears: the one who is forgiven much loves much. It certainly creates a desperation for God. We really, really need Him. I mean, who do we think we’re kidding? Perhaps that’s why the Bible says, “The fool has said in his heart: there is no God.” (Ps 14:1)

I think that’s why I absolutely loved Joe Boyd’s message this weekend in the Strong Challenge series. The angle he took with the “Strong Training” segment was the desperation factor: it’s only when we’re really desperate that we get serious about doing anything we can to be near Jesus.

I could use some more of that in my bones.

And I hope there’s a funky old upright piano in the Kingdom Come; it would be good to hear Rich again. He was a desperate man.


  1. Dave. I this summethis'll read about you on this blog about the Jesus House
    And read a lot about how the Lord was moving amongst you, Rich, the JH, and other artists in Cincinnati in the late 70's early 80's. I searched for the blog after being really encouraged by reading the book about Rich "An Arrow Pointing Toward Heaven" I grew up right around the corner from the Jesus House & never knew all the histpry behind it it was cool to find out that you & Rich played there frequently, and later on your work at the vineyard would play an important role in my life.

    Thanks for sharing more of this history, and encouragement!

    -Matthew Ronan

  2. I was working downtown at Cheese Villa on Fountain Square at the time. I use to take lunch to Rich over at the parking garage, and we'd talk philosophy and music. Good times!

    The man had such capacity for joy! He came running in one day when I was working alone and said, "You've got to close the shop for just a minute." At the risk of losing my job, I did so. He took me out to Fountain Square, where someone had dumped a box of soap into the fountain. Suds were about 3 feet deep all over the square, and we played in them like it was a first snowfall. :o)

    Loved Rich. Looking forward to seeing him, again. Thanks for the memories! Cheri Eresman

  3. It's always inspiring to me to hear about Rich Mullins. You're right, that desperation in him always came through in his music and in his story.

    It's also nice to see that all you guys had crazy dreams back then, too, and to see how all your own stories played out. In my generation I feel like we are just now on the cusp of our own crazy dreams and it's good to know we are not alone: there is a whole tradition of dreamers that have gone before us.

    also, nice chinatown t-shirt, Dave!

  4. Fantastic post, Dave. Rich was a huge influence for many Jesus-lovers who also loved making music, and I'd include myself in that. So many of his songs meant so much to me at various points in life. Thanks for the inside story. :)

  5. Sometimes By Step was the song that introduced me to Rich Mullins. Heard it in the car ride with NKU friends in 93. And it is one of the songs that really helped steer the course of my life. I can't describe the feeling it stirred up in my soul. It sounded like nothing I had ever heard, as I am a child of 80's hair metal. But that dulcimer and that chorus pulled at me and moved me, I can't even express what was going on inside my brain and spirit. I was working at the family bookstore in the Florence Mall when I heard about his passing in that car accident. I was heart broken for his loss but always smiled a little when we played his songs like Elijah, Creed, If I Stand etc etc. Too many to list.

  6. Dave,

    When I was a teenager some of the youth from my church talked about going to Spirit Song (it was '92 or '93) at Kings Island... and I really liked riding roller coasters, so I bought the $40 ticket for entry to KI and the Spirit Song concert. I still remember that it was a group of ladies that I'd never heard of, Rich Mullins, and Petra was the headline act. I had never heard of the ladies singing, had never heard of Rich whomever he was, and knew Petra from my older brothers listening to them when I was just barely out of diapers. Really, I just wanted to ride rides.

    But on the day that we all met and car pooled to KI, they popped in "Ragamuffin" and I was pleasantly intrigued by what I heard. When the concert was coming up later that day, we took our seats in Timberwolf and waited in the sweltering heat for the thing to start. We're bored and hot, and again I was thinking about riding roller coasters, not thinking about the concert, when on the left side of the stage (that's stage right to all you tech geeks like me) the wooden panel door opened and a guy stepped out. All my friends trafficked over, because (as I found out) this guy in a tee shirt and jeans and sandals was Rich Mullins. He was an everyday fellow, like you or me. He talked with us and laughed, and - I'll never forget this - recorded a short video blurb for a few girls whose friend was in the hospital, telling her that he was praying for her and that he hoped she'd get better.

    That was the start of "the change" for me. I sat through Rich's concert, soaking in every word. I'd been a "christian" for years, but I'd never been a Jesus follower. Here I was finding Christ for the first time when he should have been my friend, companion, and savior all along.

    Truthfully, I left the concert when Rich took his final bow. I never saw Petra perform, and they were the only act I knew of. Rich's music had completely overwhelmed me. My mind and heart reeled with conviction. His words made me realize that I was a lukewarm Christian.

    What followed was years of buying up every tape or CD I could find of Rich Mullins' work. I played those things until they wore out, and then I bought more copies. I've had CDs of his stolen from my car only to replace them with new copies. As a camp counselor in southwest Ohio, I played these songs for my campers, hoping it would light in someone the way it lighted in me.

    When Rich was killed and I found out about it, I had to pull my car off the road because I was crying so hard. When The Jesus Record came out, I appreciated what all the other artists had done to try to bring his work to life, but it's the first disk that I love. I have a very special place in my heart for his song "Hard to Get" because I, like many others, often lash out in anger at God even though he's the one that saved me. And sometimes, he really is Hard to Get.

    Rich Mullins revolutionized my walk with God. His music is both simple and complex, honest and fanciful, lighthearted and yet deadly serious. And while I love some of the Christian music that is out today, I've never found anyone that has touched me like Rich did.

    So, from one Ragamuffin to another, I wanted to let you know that your blog entry touched my heart. I found out a few things I didn't know about Rich, and all of it warms my heart.

    Peace to you,

  7. Dave, I have memories of Rich as a college student sometimes banging on a really funky upright piano (the piano tuner gave up on it, and some keys didn't work) at State Avenue Church of Christ sometime around 1975 or 6. Years later I freaked out some Christian teens when they found out I had led worship with Rich Mullins on the piano (only we still called it "leading the singing" back then and there was no band, only that funky piano!) That long ago, State Ave. was probably the only church near the Bible college he attended where he could walk in wearing jeans and a flannel shirt and not get scorched by the "look". (The building was so grungy we had given up on suits a long time before.) My wife and I moved on, lost track of him, then started hearing his name on the radio...

  8. Dave, I don't know how else to reach you (except through paying some money on FB). I've been doing some writing on Mullins and even did an interview with his producer. I thought you might be interested:

  9. Also, my blog can be found here:

  10. Dave - I just stumbled across this blog post and I LOVE IT! I, too, am a Ragamuffin and just went to the Ragamuffin retreat in PA and met the beloved Beth Lutz and Kathy Sprinkle among others. Most of all I met the truth that Jesus Christ is absolutely crazy about me! I attend Vineyard in Pataskala (Brian Burd pastor) so to see the Vineyard connection as well is pretty cool. Just wanted to thank you for your blog....and I think I'll be following it.