Don't Let Go Of My Heart

It was a bad trip, followed by worse news. And yet, within days Phil Keaggy found himself in

Now, after 25 years of faith, he reflects on what it means to be

Interview by James Long
Photographs by Ron Keith

Cover article from CCM Magazine, July 1995, pp. 34 - 39
Cover title: Phil Keaggy---The Road to True Belief

Reprinted by permission of CCM Communications, copyright 1995---all rights reserved.

It could have been any one of a hundred different hotel rooms, on any one of a hundred different nights, all lost to memory in the blur of life on the road. Except on that night, at 6 p.m. St. Valentine's Day, 1970, something happened that stopped the clock and froze the moment. Was it a heart attack? There in that nondescript hotel room, as Phil Keaggy waited for his ride to the evening's gig, he felt the suffocating crush of a bad trip. It was LSD. And it was frightening.

"I couldn't move," Phil says, recalling the scene as if it were an instant replay. "My head... I couldn't turn my head. Something was paralyzing my body, and I had the most attrocious headache. Pain and tightness gripped my chest. I could scarcely breathe.:

Miles away in Ohio, at that very hour, Phil's mom was in a head-on collision. A week later she was dead.

To understand something of the emptiness Phil endured, you'd have to trace his winding memories back to the beginning. Just beyond that place of clear and vivid recall, Phil holds a certain though cloudy recollection. "I was being held, cradled, if not as a baby, then as a toddler, hearing my mother's voice and being gently rocked... hearing voices all around me, without understanding the words.

I think that is why the passing of my mother ushered me into the Kingdom of God. It was only in God that I could find something strong enough to replace the love I knew for her, and she had for me. She was a Roman Catholic woman, full of the Spirit of God. She loved her 10 children, and I was fortunate to be one of them."

When Phil speaks of his mother or sings of her care, he cannot suppress a certain sentiment, a yearning for that woman who, for him, first gave love definition. And so, on the album Way Back Home, Phil sings, "There's a warmth in a mother's love for a child/She smiles/She chases fear away."

As he speaks, Phil's expression reflects the fondness and gratitude he feels. "I remember those times when she did just that."

If Phil seems particularly reminiscent, inclined to see the face of God in the twists and turns of life, perhaps it is because this year marks a sort of Silver Anniversary for him. Twenty-five years ago, in the context of heartbreak and tragedy, Phil Keaggy encountered the love of God, and that encounter has colored his preception of every experience before and after.

Not surprisingly, music fills his early memories. Years later, his mother would relate how he would sit, glued to the hi-fi set listening to singer Johnny Ray. "It was something that just pulled at my heart," Phill says of the inarticulate memory. His recolection of Elvis Presley is more tangible. His brother Dave brought home the 45 rpm single "Too Much" with "Playin' for Keeps" on the flip side. For some reason, the RCA phonograph was set up in the laundry room that day, and as the needle settled into the grooves, the young Phil Keaggy, age four, was hooked. Search the Keaggy archives, and you'll find home movies of a preschool Phil with his plastic guitar, shaking his tail, strutting his stuff, imitating the King.

But with five brothers, four sisters, Mom and Dad, it's not surprising that a diversity of musical styles would fill the Keaggy household. And so the impressinable Phil, second to the youngest, grew up with the music of Debussy, Ravel, Vaughn-Williams, and Nontovani filling his ears, as well as Elvis, the Everly Brothers and their contemporaries.

The brother who introduced him to Elvis, also formally introduced him to the guitar, the instrument that became his diversion, to some degree his identity, and years later, at times, his comfort. Dave played a Gretsch Anniversary Model, circa 1959, a guitar he later gave to his little brother. At age 10, Phil's dad plunked down $19 for a Sears Silvertone, and Phil started picking out melodies, a string at a time on his own guitar. By the end of his fifth-grade year, Phil had played before his entire student body---his first paying gig. (He got a second ice cream bar for his efforts.)

By eighth grade, he was playing nightclubs, the youngest member of a band called the Squires. "My mom would take the bass player aside and tell him, `You take good care of my boy. Don't let him get in trouble. You watch over him.'" By eleventh grade, Phil was a member of Glass Harp, a band signed to Decca Records, playing on the same bill with such well known late-'60s groups as Yes, Humble Pie, Traffic, Chicago, and Iron Butterfly.

Even though Phil came along at the end of the psychedelic '60s hippie movement, the circles he traveled in were not at a loss for drugs. So much so that Phil spent 1969, his late junior and senior years of high school, living in a cloud. "My mom knew what was going on, and she just kept praying for me. We'd have these conversations, but I was so naive. I didn't understand the potential of spiritual danger. I was a blind kid, being led around by other blind kids, until one terrifying experience on Valentine's Day, 1970.

For me, experimenting with LSD was like playing with death. It wasn't, `Isn't this beautiful? Isn't this wonderful? Look at the flowers and pretty colors.'" As Phil lay there in his hotel room, paralyzed by the power of the drug, fear flowed through him just as certainly as that hallucinogenic had.

Later, Phil returned to his home town with the rest of the band. He was at the drummer's house when the call came. It was his older brother Bill who broke the news. When that car strayed into his lane, Phil's dad had neither the time nore the maneuverability to avoid impact. The Corvair, with its engine in the rear, offered little protection as the metal crinkled like foil. There were no safety belts. Phil's dad and little sister lived; his mom lingered for a week, suspended between this world and the next, before life left her body.

A week after the funeral, Phil Keaggy became a Christian through his sister Mary Ellen's urging, but his mother's influence. "I felt like something came in and cleansed my body, cleansed my spirit, cleansed my soul---three parts of me. It just washed through me. I felt a burden lift; I felt different."

Phil Keaggy was at home in the love of God.

In time, faith reshaped every facet of Phil's life; it is not surprising that it would also change his music. Songs that showcased hazy questions and the search for meaning, gave way to exuberant expression sof new-found faith. Phil even began to detect the fingerprints of God on hardship---not so much as something God would cause to happen, but as something God could transform. In his kindness, wisdom and expertise, God could bring god out of even the worst of experiences. He saw this truth as his own mother's death brought him closer to the kingdom---a truth that was severely tested as he and his wife lost five children to miscarriage and premature birth. Over these 25 years, album by album, Phil's music has chronicled this odyssey of growing faith.

Through faith's eyes, Phil has come to see God as the caring Father, holding us up in the most sever of trials. Phil's voice grows softer as he reaches back into his earliest memories, at age five, to paint a picture of his earthly father's compassion and his Heavenly Father's character. One dramatic, sensitive scene captures so much of a father's tenderness.

"We were living on a farm in Hubbard, Ohio, at the time, and I was out in the yard playing on the old water pump. As I was climbing on it, the base caved in, severing my finger. I can't recall the pain, but I remember crying. And I remember the horror of the experience, looking at my hand, feeling so badly shaken. But then I raised my head and saw my father off in the distance. I remember his stride as he came running toward me down the hill. It seemed as though he was running like an antelope. I had never seen my dad run like that before, and it left a huge impression on me. Dad was running to me, running to rescue me."

Years later, Phil Keaggy would hear the story of the Prodigal Son. He would hear of a concerned father, scanning the horizon for the first sight of his returning son. And when he learned how that father ran to meet the son he loved, Phil Keaggy bore in his mind an indelible image---the image of his own father, running to his side.

Is it any wonder, then, that now, 25 years after the death of his mother and the birth of his faith, Phil Keaggy is still a true believer?

True Believer: 25 Years in the Making

[This interview appeared as a sidebar to the main article.]

Phil Keaggy has been doing a lot of reflecting in recent months since 1995 marks something of a milestone for him. This true believer has been 25 years in the making---and so, in a sense, has his new release.

My earliest exposure to Christian music included some of your classics, like What a Day and Love Broke Through. I've followed your work since, through all 15 or so albums. True Believer is a bit of a departure.

Yeh, this is a different work. But different technique aside, we all had a passion to create something with integrity, character and quality. Otherwise you wind up with a very sterile, clincal-sounding album that seems to have the formula, but it's like artificial flavor compared to the real thing. There's a big difference between picking a real cherry off the tree or having somebody in a chemistry lab make it. Some music is like that. That's why if you listen to the music I've done that I have had the biggest hand in---where I've played a more active role in production, it sometimes sounds like music that doesn't care if it's popular---The Wind and the Wheat, Beyond Nature, Way Back Home, What a Day. Even Underground---out for just a little while; done on an old four-track machine. Most of those songs were being written as I was putting them down to tape. There's a different feeling that comes across to me when music is made that way in the studio. In contrast, on this album, every song was really scrutinized. It was a different approach.

Are you saying you had to work harder to make this album feel spontaneous and alive---to be sure each song breathes?

Yes. I was at first concerned that the album would lack that sense of life and vitality. The producer, Alan Shacklock, works primarily with his keyboard and computer and all his samples and modules with these gorgeous sounds in them. I was afraid we'd end up with an album that didn't have the Phil Keaggy that I'm used to. [laughter]

It's not like Crimson and Blue. Not every song has a self-indulgent, go-for-the-jugular guitar solo. But when the songs call for solos, they're there. The guitar goes wild on "Have Mercy," "Be Thou My Vision," "Salvation Army Band" and at the end of "The Survivor." My wife, Bernadette, and 15-year-old daughter, Alicia, both told me this was their favorite album that I've done. I remember before we started the recording, Alan said to me in his English accent, "Phil, the kind of album I'd love to do with you would be the kind of album your daughter would enjoy listening to." Well, that happened.

I've always liked calling them "records," because those various albums over the years do form something of a record of your growth, both as an artist and as a human being.

They're like paintings in a galery. The first Glass Harp album reflected all of us just sort of searching. Musically, it shows the influence of some of our heroes---the Moody Blues, the Beatles, Cream. But we were so young; just kids really. The second Glass Harp album was more of the same, except I was expressing my new-found Christian faith. By the third album, Glass Harp was separating, and you could see it in the music. We had come to a fork in the road; my beliefs were carrying me off in a different direction. I left the group in August 1972 and recorded What a Day in January '73. I did it in six or seven days by myself in the studio on a 16-track machine. That album was childlike expression of a young man who was coming to terms with the Gospel.

After that first solo album, we didn't hear from you for three years, until the release of Love Broke Through.

I was involved with a Christian fellowship in upstate New York. I felt God was working in me to make me into a man of God. It was a hard time for me.

What followed, of course, was almost a dozen other albums. They chronicle your growing faith. In the middle of those years, you and Bernadette lost five children to miscarriage and premature birth. What impact did that experience have on your music?

I went through such a low in terms of singing and songwriting. I ended up with an instrumental album, which was really the voice I had at that point.

Your work since that time seems to reflect an ever-deepening grasp of the mercy and love of God.

It's been a long history now---becoming longer all the time. God has blessed it. He has been merciful to us and has kept us in his grace. But you know, when I was a young Christian, I had all my little answers. Now I have only the essential answers, and many more questions.


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