In April of 1974 I prayed the Sinner’s Prayer and asked Jesus Christ to be my Personal Lord and Savior. About a week later several new and still somewhat dubious friends who called themselves “brothers” and “sisters” started badgering me to stop listening to Pink Floyd. “Listen to Larry Norman,” they told me.
So I took them up on the advice. Athens, Ohio, where I was living at the time, had a Christian bookstore on Court Street that was full of the usual kitsch; coffee mugs with Bible verses, puppy and kitty posters, a couple shelves of books, and, at the back, one sparsely populated shelf of “Christian” albums. I flipped through them. Most of them appeared to be made by Christian families at an Appalachian wedding; ma, pa, and the kids all wearing goofy grins and ill-fitting suits. At the very back of the stack was Larry Norman, who looked like a hippie. I bought his album, which was called Only Visiting This Planet.
Decades later, at the height of a multi-billion dollar industry, Contemporary Christian Magazine, which covered this sort of stuff, named Only Visiting This Planet as “the best Contemporary Christian album of all time.” All I knew in 1974 was that it had to be better than the grinning Blackburn Family. So I took it back to my dorm room and played it. I liked it. And I played it a couple months ago as well, pulled out that old, scratchy vinyl copy and cleaned it up, and listened thirty-four years down the line. I winced a few times, but I still liked it.
Larry, who died yesterday, was a friend I never knew, and a frustratingly untrustworthy witness to the faith. He was talented, insecure, prone to fanciful tales that bore little or no relationship to the truth, possibly mad as a hatter, and utterly, fearlessly in love with Jesus. The truth is that he made about three good albums over the course of thirty five years and dozens of releases. He repackaged his thirty great songs over and over again, made ridiculous claims about his role in the music industry (the founder of rap was my favorite), and claimed to be the spiritual mentor to everyone from Paul McCartney to Bob Dylan. He was also the self-proclaimed Father of Christian Rock, and for once he got it right.
Those who are familiar with the safe, sanitized world of Contemporary Christian Music might be startled if they listened to those thirty songs. There was nothing safe and sanitized about Larry Norman’s music. He sang about gonorrhea, drug addiction, NASA’s foibles, the death of Janis Joplin, and Jesus. Always about Jesus. Larry was wrong about some of those things. The devil never ever had all the good music. Larry Norman had some of it, too, and so did all the lost pagans Larry both excoriated and loved. But there was an emotional directness and honesty and prophetic tenacity about those songs that anyone – CCM musician or otherwise – would do well to recapture:
You kill a black man at midnight
Just for talking to your daughter
Then you make his wife your mistress
And you leave her without water
And the sheet you wear upon your face
Is the sheet your children sleep on
At every meal you say a prayer
You don't believe but still you keep on
That’s from a song on Only Visiting This Planet, and you can bet your glow-in-the-dark Bible verse keychain that the Blackburn Family wasn’t singing anything like that. So when I read about his death this morning I was more than a little surprised to find tears welling up. Larry Norman is dead. Damn. On that first album of Larry’s I ever bought he sang, “You think it’s such a sad thing when you see a fallen king/Then you find out they’re only princes to begin with.” He could have been describing his own life. For a while I viewed him as the great Christian musical hope. Eventually I figured out that he was a screwup, just like me. He was the imperfect brother I never knew. He was the king of Christian rock, and I will miss his imperfect, maddening greatness.