Remembering Christian rock maverick Larry Norman

Larrynorman_lLarry Norman, the singer/songwriter often referred to as “the father of Christian rock,” died Sunday at age 60 after years of declining health. His first two solo albums, Upon This Rock (originally released on Capitol in 1969) and Only Visiting This Planet (issued by Verve in 1972), are widely considered the first Christian rock albums of any real significance. All these decades later, they’re probably still the two best. Fans of contemporary Christian music (or CCM, as it’s come to be known) often claim that their heroes could be mainstream stars if only they didn’t sing about Jesus. Usually, that’s a lot of malarkey, but in Norman’s case, it happened to be true: A lot of his early work wouldn’t sound at all out of place between Wings and the Stones on a classic rock station, if not for his (usually) righteous lyrical concerns.  How far his influence really extended is up for debate, given the relatively few records he sold — although as unlikely an acolyte as Frank Black of the Pixies has cited him as a hero and even recorded his songs. "Larry was my door into the music business, and he was the most Christlike person I ever met," Black said in a statement Monday.

For quite a few years, the sum total of the Christian rock genre was pretty much Larry Norman. It may be difficult now — at a time when bands like Paramore find wide acceptance in both the Christian and mainstream worlds (and almost a quarter-century on from the advent of Stryper) — to remember a time when there was no such thing as CCM, and when, if any such thing did pop up, it was greeted with distrust and scorn on either side of the evangelical/pop divide. The Beatles were about to break up, yet the cutting edge of Christian music was still represented by the folksy/choral records made by Ralph Carmichael, better known as Billy Graham’s musical director. Then along came an unsmiling, almost sneering guy who, like Johnny Cash, usually dressed all in black, though, unlike Cash, he had whiteish blond hair down past his chest. And he was singing about salvation and the rapture, with humor and sass, in a voice that clearly owed a lot to Mick Jagger’s cocky intonation. In the church vs. counterculture world of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, this officially counted as cognitive dissonance, and maybe it still does.

Norman initially appeared on the rock scene as part of the San Jose-based group People, which had a No. 7 hit on the Billboardchart in 1968 with “I Love You,” a remake of a Zombies tune. Though hewas the principal songwriter, he quit the band about the time theirfirst album came out. (Reportedly, the other members wanted to convert himto Scientology; also they and/or Capitol had managed to overrideNorman’s choice for the debut album’s title, which was originally setto be We Need a Whole Lot More of Jesus and a Lot Less Rock ‘N’ Roll.) Capitol kept him on for one solo album, Upon This Rock, which introduced a venerable end-times anthem, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” He moved over to Verve for a follow-up, Only Visiting This Planet, which has been voted the best Christian album of all time by CCMmagazine, the longtime bible — if you will — of the business. It didn’tsell much, but whatever born-again kids there were out there withFender guitars all had a copy and wore out the grooves. Beatlesproducer George Martin got a credit for production assistance (it wasrecorded at Martin’s London studio), and you can feel Martin’sinfluence, if not his direct touch, in some of the LP’s fullyorchestrated rockers. Here, Norman was taking a more holistic approach,lyrically: The album opener and first single, “I’ve Got to Learn toLive Without You,” was a lost-love lament that used the word “baby,”which didn’t necessarily endear him to rock-hating fundamentalists.Social commentary tracks like the Vietnam-themed “Six O’Clock News”confounded some of the faithful, too. Even signature God-rock tuneslike “Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus” didn’t quite make it onto thefolk-mass circuit; maybe it was lines like “Gonorrhea on Valentine’sDay/And you’re still looking for the perfect lay.”

Norman made one last album for a secular label, So Long Ago the Garden(on Verve’s sister imprint, MGM), in 1973. It marked the only time herecorded an entire album free of explicit Christian content, andbesides some love-and-loneliness tracks, it included novel standoutslike “Christmas Time,” a rocking condemnation of Xmas commercialism,and the tune I’d consider his masterpiece, “Nightmare #71,” a funny,rambling, overtly Dylan-influenced dreamscape that wittily invoked thenames of deceased silent-screen stars amid allusions to the Book ofRevelation. But even a less Jesus-y Norman couldn’t sell records.

From that point on, he tended to preach to the converted, despitedeclared intentions otherwise, and the songs he wrote in the laterparts of his career tended to be explicitly evangelical, if notevangelistic,  often to their needlessly preachy detriment. He made onemore terrific-sounding LP, 1976’s In Another Land, whichsounded like it had a major-label budget, even though he released it onhis own imprint through Word, the Christian conglomerate. Soon after,at the height of his popularity in the evangelical world, Norman sangat the White House at the invitation of President Carter. But from 1980on, his discography becomes difficult to track, as he self-releasedliterally dozens of projects, mostly live albums and outtakescollections. His shot at making it in the mainstream had passed, butNorman was too much of a maverick to really make nice with theburgeoning Christian music community, still paranoid over the rejectionhe suffered when he was the lone long-haired born-again on thelandscape. Norman built a confusing mythology around himself, laid outin copious liner notes that accompanied most of the LPs — with claimsthat Pete Townshend had been inspired by one of Norman’s early rockoperas to write Tommy, or that he was somehow indirectlyresponsible for Dylan’s conversion or baptism, or that he’d influencedor even become pals with U2. Was it all true? Which of his myriadrecords were official releases and which were bootlegs? Norman’sweirdnesses finally got too tiring to sort out, even for most fans, andhis profile shrank. (Eventually, the singer blamed his erratic lateroutput on a head injury suffered in a plane mishap in 1978.)

But though he remained the eternal misfit in and out of Christianmusic, there were acknowledgments, as well, in the later part of hislife. Norman was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2001,along with his first hero, Elvis Presley. A tribute album with actslike DC Talk was produced in the ‘90s. And support came from unlikelyquarters. Frank Black recorded one of his apocalyptic ballads,“Six-Sixty-Six,” on his first solo album, and a biography reported thatBlack and producer Steve Albini bonded over their Larry Norman fandomin the studio while making the first Pixies album, which was namedafter a Norman lyric. When the ailing Norman did his “farewell concert”in Oregon a few years ago, Black even showed up to duet with him on“Watch What You’re Doing” — the song that was the source of the “Comeon, pilgrim!” line that became the title of the Pixies’ debut.

A press release issued by Norman’s brother says that “at the time ofhis death, he was working on an album with Frank Black and Isaac Brockof Modest Mouse, which will be released later this year.” A message thesinger dictated from his hospital bed the day before his death, posted on his website,reads in part: “I feel like a prize in a box of cracker jacks withGod’s hand reaching down to pick me up… My wounds are getting bigger.I have trouble breathing. I am ready to fly home… Goodbye, farewell,we will meet again.”

Personal aside: I grew up in a suburban environment where parentswere thrusting nascent Christian rock albums on their kids, hoping toprovide a theologically sound or wholesome alternative to Bowie, AliceCooper, the Stones, et al. Most of the records were mediocre and achore to sit through, but Larry Norman’s were the ones you actuallylooked forward to — not just because the finest ones were of the samequality as anything on FM radio, but because he was just strange enoughthat you felt like he might be capable of throwing your parents as wellas you for a loop. One of my favorite memories of Norman involvesattending a concert in the ‘70s in Akron, Ohio. I was sitting next to ayouth pastor who was glowing with the thought that the boys he’dbrought along were being exposed to positive religious values in songslike “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” Then, somebodyshouted out a request for one of Norman’s least explicable songs,“Pardon Me,” a haunting ballad about an attempted seduction thathappens to be entirely free of recognizable Christian content but hasits share of worldly sensuality and loneliness. I remember looking overand watching the grin on the youth leader’s face turn into a puzzledgrimace as Norman sang lines like “Pardon me, kissing you like I’mafraid/But I feel I’m being played…/Close your eyes, and pretend thatyou are me/See how empty it can be/Making love if love’s not reallythere/Watch me go, watch me walk away alone/As your clothing comesundone/And you pull the ribbon from your hair.” Of course, I got a bigsmile on my face as the youth pastor’s disappeared, because, as a rockkid, I lived for status quo-breaking moments like that one, when a"Christian concert" could turn into something altogether lesspredictable. He didn’t always follow through on his early promise, butthat’s the Larry Norman I’ll remember — the maverick who never deviatedfrom his chosen mission in search of any big brass ring, but who didn’tgive many second thoughts to subverting the expectations of fellowbelievers, either.

Comments (46 total) Add your comment
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  • Mark Kelly Hall

    Thanks for this loving and balanced review of Larry Norman’s life’s work. He was a unique individual and a visionary artist. He was an example of why it’s more important to be true to oneself (even if it causes friction at times) than to conform to what others tell you to be. I don’t doubt he got plenty of advice that would’ve made him fit into the system better…and that would have rendered him utterly forgettable as well.

  • John

    Thanks for this article; I’m quite surprised to find it here. I got to see Larry Norman in concert in 1998 at Cornerstone Festival; it was just him on a slightly out of tune classical guitar, and yet somehow, it was awesome. I know that today Larry is healed, whole, and fulfilled, making music with his King.

  • Matthew

    This is why I enjoy EW so much. Thanks for the kind words regarding Larry Norman.

  • Stephanie T.

    There are some people who really don’t like Christian Rock because it’s all about Jesus, but it’s also about positive thinking. I am a Jew and I admit that groups like Jars of Clay and DC Talk are not that bad. I am glad that Norman was their inspiration.

  • Nick

    Looooooooove Larry Norman’s music. Particularly “Watch What You’re Doing”, “Righteous Rocker”, and the one where he sings “I’ve been listening to some of Paul’s records / I’m beginning to think he really is dead.”
    From that same song: “This world is not my home… I’m just paaaasssing thru….”

  • Manny

    Randy Stonehill, his closest collaborator for many years, later estranged, has issued a statement:
    http://blog.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendID=72549251&blogID=361597764

  • Ann

    I just want to thank you for even acknowledging Norman’s passing. I don’t know when I would have heard about it if it hadn’t been posted here. I grew up in the 90s listening to dc talk, charlie peacock, steve taylor, etc and grew to have a deep respect for Larry Norman and his music. As I got older and the artists I respected either disappeared or were pushed even further to the fringes to make way for the generic, cookie cutter knock-offs popular today I totally lost interest in the CCM scene. If only all Christians working in the arts could allow themselves to be as authentic and honest as Norman, then they would be able to produce work that is well crafted, provocative, and relevant to an audience so much larger than the evangelical ghetto to which they seem forever relegated to. To those lucky enough to be aware of Larry Norman, he will always serve as an inspiration. May he never be forgotten.

  • Amy

    I appreciate this article and the reflection of the life’s work of Larry Norman. Christian music is an often overlooked genre, and I’m glad that you took the time to pay tribute to this great artist.

  • Richard

    One of my favorite songs is Larry Norman’s “I Wished We’d all Been Ready.” Without the impact he had on music, I would not be who I am today. Thank you for your article.

  • Heather B.

    Like everyone else I just want to thank you for writing this and EW for publishing it. Larry Norman was a total treasure – talented, weird, funny, and devoted – and he will definitely be missed.

  • josh

    i appreciate the tribute, but certainly don’t appreciate the degrading tone with which you refer to the rest of the entire genre of CCM. while CCM has released it’s share of mediocre music (which never happens in the mainstream world with great artists like nickelback and fergie ruling the radio)there are endless number of artists who have incorporated their christian faith into their music with amazing results. many are direectly invovlved with ccm, while others are not, but i didn’t appreciate the condescending nature with which the entire genre was dismissed. it showed quite a lot of ignorance and arrogance on the author’s part.
    that being said, larry norman was not a “man-pleaser”. he wrote challenging lyrics that offended christians, non christians, and everyone in between. he was devoted to looking towards God while also singing about true cultural issues that could sometimes make people uncomfortable. his great talent and his boldness is inspiration to many great musicians.

  • Sharon

    I had the opportunity to meet Larry Norman when I was about 8 years old. My dad was a pastor in southern MN and we had a “woodstock” type festival with a bunch of CCM artists. I remember his as very quiet and very pale. He was very kind to a star struck little girl who could sing all of his songs along with him. Thanks, EW, for the lovely tribute.

  • To Josh

    I wish there were good CCM artists now, but there really aren’t many. As a Christian teen, I don’t think that it is bad to want to really rock and we are lacking that BIG TIME

  • Scott

    Larry never wanted to be a Christian entertainer, rather it was his desire to reach non-Christians with the gospel message. I spent a few weeks with him in 1999 and he was fun to be with. I am glad he no longer has to put up with the things of this world. I look forward to seeing him in heaven with a strong heart and a full head of blonde hair (and some new songs).

  • Jael

    Thank you so much for writing this! I found Larry Norman when I was a teen in the late 90s, and loved his honesty. I wish the CCM scene had more people like him, but most of my favorite artists (Dime Store Prophets, Five Iron Frenzy, Viva Voce, 5 o’clock People) were driven out during corporate mergers. Now I need to listen to some old, good stuff by Larry and some other passed CCM artists like Rich Mullins and Keith Green.

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