Monday, February 25, 2008

Larry Norman

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.


John McCollum said...

RIP Larry.

Denise said...

Thank you. I'm just bumping into news of Larry Norman's death, and I'm glad to have an excuse to find you. I attended a Larry Norman concert instead of my senior prom... the concert was a doozy, and the prom was a dud.

I love Paste, graduated from the bucolic Taylor (long ago and far away), and am curious to read more of your blog.

Anonymous said...

A terrific column, as always-really enjoy reading you in Paste. This might be the only tribute that really captures Larry as he really was, not some sanitized version. He was a real human being, with real flaws, and yet God really used him. Give you hope..

It's a little frustrating to see those same 30 songs reissued over and over, but what an important batch of songs they were...

I hope this one runs in Paste, I'd love to see the magazine run it as an small acknowledgement of this man and his accomplishments.

richter wade

Anonymous said...

I didn't know that he had died. This is a fine tribute, Andy.

axegrinder said...

What are the 30 songs, or what are the 3 albums?

Listened to Norman at the behest of my youth pastor in high school, who was also a Campolo fan.

I was always more of a Keith Green guy when it came to Xn music, but I definitely liked some of Norman's bravado, if that is the right word.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for mentioning his death. I hadn't heard reports of it elsewhere.

His songs had had an impact on me decades ago.

Thanks for your tribute!

Mark (aka pastor guy) said...

J. Overstreet sent me here - well said. Thanks for remembering ALL of Larry Norman & not just the good stuff... or ALL of Larry Norman & not just the bad stuff.

Living the Biblios said...

I was once was a DJ on Athens' WXTQ "The Sunday Offering Show." Larry got a lot of spins. He was an innovator who opened doors for the Christian music industry, who like Larry, make a lot of bad music, but then some great and excellent tunes. Larry WAS crazy (his health claims always intrigued me), but crazy too for Jesus. RIP Larry. I'm glad you're with your Heavenly Father.

St. Izzy said...

Without a doubt, Only Visiting This Planet was a seminal album. Not only did it have "The Great American Novel" (which you quote), but also indictments of casual sex and the uninvolved/objective media.

The homily on Sunday was primarily about trying to fill that God-shaped hole in our hearts with other, ultimately unfulfilling crap. I got home singing "Why Don't You Look into Jesus" and then learned that Larry had stopped visiting.

I think I'll go look up God, part III on YouTube.

Anonymous said...

That was a great obituary to Larry. Without doubt, he was a mixed-up eccentric - probably like many of us - but all the way through there was that commitment to being a radical for Jesus and not compromising with any of the sacred cows of contemporary Christianity. However, I think you you also mis-portray him as a man who loved to promote himself, without making sure of the facts. He certainly never claimed to have mentored Paul McCartney, although he did have a discussion with Paul about his spiritual search. And he never proclaimed himself to be the Father of Christian Rock either. These were all said about him by others, including exaggerations by over-enthusiastic fans - an irony, since he wasn't into the idea of having fans for anyone other than Jesus in the first place! As most everyone who ever talked much to Larry will testify, he was indeed very humble and brutally sincere, and on the subject of his seminal place in the history of CCM simply said, "I'm happy if I've been an encouragement to other artists". For anyone, who's interested, there's an excellent biography on Wikipedia, including the questions axegrinder asked. FYI Larry was also instrumental in Keith Green's life, and both those guys lived out a very similar radical Christian life style.

We just lost a gentle giant. I hope to meet up with Larry "In Another Land".


PS: I sure hope you started listening to Pink Floyd again.

Andy Whitman said...

Philip, thanks for your comments. For what it's worth, my "CCM phase" was fairly shortlived. Although Christian musicians continue to make some of my most treasured music, the Christian music industry lost whatever allure it had for me decades ago. I went through my own counter-reformation (throwing out a bunch of crappy CCM albums and repurchasing a lot of the great rock albums I had thrown away in my early zeal) a long, long time ago.

So yes, I started relistening to Pink Floyd, and several thousand other musicians/bands who wouldn't identify themselves as Christians.

I do still like some of that early CCM music, though -- particularly the albums made by Mark Heard, Daniel Amos, and yes, Larry Norman. I'm saddened by his (and our) loss.

Anonymous said...


Great job on Larry Norman! I sometimes have trouble seperating the man -- especially based upon his sometimes rocky relationships with other artists like Randy Stonehill and Daniel Amos -- and the music. And the music has always moved me. The first songs I learned on the guitar were Norman songs; many of which I still play today. I discovered Norman shortly after trashing my Kansas and Styx 8-tracks for Elvis Costello albums, and like you, I found it hard to find Christians musicans with an edge. Norman certainly had an edge. But at the same time, he was in love with Jesus just like me. I too hope your obit makes it to Paste because I haven't seen too much in the mainstream media about Norman's death. And that's a shame because Larry was a true original.

Magnus said...

Only visiting this planet, indeed.
I was never all that crazy about the music of his music, but he will be missed in this life down here. I really wish that more Christians had taken a shine to Larry's musical and lyrical integrity, maybe we would taken more seriously that way.
RIP Mr. Norman, see you again sometime.

Michael said...

That's about as good as anyone is gonna be able to say it, I think, when describing this madman who also happened to be our brother in Christ and someone God chose to use in a very profound way despite his madness and human tendencies. I don't know that I would be doing what I'm doing if it weren't for him, that's for sure.

PrayerMom said...

Greetings from another imperfect one who's in love with Jesus anyway. You may want to know that you've been immortalized on the 77s message board dedicated to reminiscences of Larry Norman at his passing.

If it wasn't obvious from the fact that I'm a member of the 7s board, there's some Christian music to which I can't relate too well, either. Thank God that His imagination is large enough to include all of us somehow.

Coryslave said...

Tremendous tribute. You're a talented writer.

U still enjoy Pink Floyd? I do. Though it sucked having to re-purchase all those albums my old pastor encouraged us to burn.

Thank God for grace.

africanviolet said...

A thoughtful and well-written post - well done!

Earlier this week I wrote about Larry's death in my blog, and later came here to discover that you and I had very similar thoughts about Larry. That he was a real person - sometimes a real embarrassing person - but real as a human and as a musician. I think it was because of his "realness" that he had such a huge impact on so many of us, because he was just as messed up and insecure as we are, yet he was able openly struggle with that and his relationship with God within his music... and many of us are better for it. He was certainly one of a kind.

troll said...

thanx for ur words ...... larry was a confusing man, but his work was deeply influential ....

Hermagoras said...

Thanks for this. Back in the early 80s, when I first became a Christian, I listened to Larry's music all the time. I still have a number of those old vinyl albums.

Which albums are the best? For my money, Only Visiting This Planet, So Long Ago the Garden, and Something New Under the Son are the best. I like Upon this Rock and In Another Land too, but IAL is too polished, in my view -- has some great songs, though. SNUTS has some great blues playing, and SLATG is the weirdest, most "out there" of the bunch. Man what a trip.

I never listened to the later Larry, but that period from UTR to SNUTS produced some pretty fine work.

Thanks for this blog. It gets at all that was great and exasperating about the man while not trading in the salacious details. Good on you.

paulf said...

Great piece.

I was a big fan of Larry's as a kid going to a church where even some of the other kids would argue that rock music was inherently sinful. (Of course, now that church has its own worship band with guitars and drums.)

Anyway, I think Larry was a poster child for the idea that there is a fine line between genius amd madness. Take "Nightmare," which was both a demonstration of fantastic creativeness and a celebration of a disturbed mind.

I would argue that Larry had maybe 2-3 excellent albums such as "Upon This Rock" and "Something New Uuder the Son" in addition to the inspired trinity to which you are probably referring. Although those great albums included embarassing (in retrospect) stuff like the pro-Rapture tune "I Wish We'd All Been Ready."

Still, I think "So Long Ago the Garden" is one of the underrated rock albums ever. His songs of loneliness such as "She's a Dancer" and the one with the cry: "isn't anybody listening? doesn't anybody care?" are among the most beautiful and heart wrenching songs I've ever heard.

His later stuff was so bad it was hard to believe it was by the same artist. And I heard him in concert in the '90s and he just spouted disturbingly crazy talk for hours until I had to walk out. Must be what hanging out with Ollie North does to a person.

Brook said...

though I would disagree with the small number of great albums you attribute to Larry (I would say he made around 10 great albums - and yes, WAY too many repackaged songs), I thought you did a fantastic job of remembering the whole Larry, both the good and the mad, and I really appreciated this little tribute. I never knew what to make of some of the things he claimed, and I suspect that more was true than any of us skeptics gave him credit for. He did, after all, die at the relatively young age of 60, so obviously the health issues were real. who knows how much exaggeration was going on with the stories or the condition itself... I would also have never believed some of the people who he claimed were "fans" of his if I didn't actually hear it verified from other sources (Frank Black of The Pixies comes immediately to mind). so, again, who knows?

I always smile when I hear of others who also went through the whole "get rid of the secular albums" phase. for a while it was one of the main ways I knew I was a Christian, by how much CCM I was listening to and how many secular albums I had gotten rid of. Lord have mercy. I was never a very good Christian no matter the standard I applied to myself though. At some point I simply said to hell with it, and I stopped worrying about such trivialities. At least now I know I'm not a very good Christian by the fact that I don't feed the poor, rather than because I like to listen to "Us and Them" at a demonic volume...

Please get this (or something similar) into Paste. I mean, come on, if Paste can put Michael Jackson's glove on the cover, surely they can recognize the life of someone so monumentally important as Larry Norman!

Unknown said...

Quote from Brook:
'... I would also have never believed some of the people who he claimed were "fans" of his if I didn't actually hear it verified from other sources (Frank Black of The Pixies comes immediately to mind). so, again, who knows?'

Well, Mr Black did perform as a guest at one of Larry's farewell concerts as documented here:

Unknown said...

Wonder full. - Tim Tobin Made me laughcry!

Anonymous said...

I was very sad to hear about the death of Larry Norman who spearheaded alternative Christian music. Larry Norman had the heart of a rock and roller wrapped in a commitment of faith. He loomed large during my college years. While I have not played my Daniel Amos and Phil Keaggy records in a long time, my musical tastes have never swayed from artists immersed in purpose. "Only Visiting This Planet" is still a fantastic album. Larry Norman not only had direct effect on the booming Christian Music empire but seemingly modern genres which include the likes of Daniel Johnston, Black Francis, The Pixies, Sex Clark Five, Collective Soul and U2.