Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Solid Rocker Leaves the Stage

[This is the first of several installments that are part of a lengthy essay I’ve written about Larry Norman, Christian musician, street preacher, and someone who influenced the way I saw the world at the time, and still helps define my current worldview.—JB]

A Solid Rocker Leaves the Stage

Larry Norman was a righteous rocker. He was a pioneer. Like others who come first and open up a brand new channel, the fruits and spoils of fame often end up in the laps of those who come after, and more times than not, pay little or any price, or make little in the way of sacrifice.

Norman passed away back in February 2008, an event that unfortunately slipped by me. I only recently found out about it, as I sorted through my CD collection, looking for music to assuage the grief of losing a dog that I loved dearly. I happened to grab Norman’s CD, “In Another Land,” to hear a couple of songs that had personal meaning to me, and seemed to connect with my sense of loss at that moment.

My own history with the “father of Contemporary Christian (Xian) Music,” has been varied. I first came to know his music back in 1981, right after I had become “born again,” to a new life in Jesus (or so I thought). A friend (and fellow believer) gave me some of his cassettes of a new kind of music I was unfamiliar with—Christian rock. There were a variety of artists I’d never heard of before—Phil Keaggy, Degarmo & Key—and some guy named Larry Norman.

Norman’s music spoke to me. It was raw, passionate, and his language was both familiar and strange to my ears. When he sang a song about the church (and society) being messed up (“The Great American Novel”), it made sense to me. As a new believer, I was aware of the cosmetic quality of faux kindness, and that measured piety that later would drive me away from the fold. I was also cynical about politics and the world around me. When he sang, “Why don’t you look into Jesus, he got the answer,” it made theological sense to me, at the time, and also seemed immediate, in a way that most church practices weren’t.

The life of Larry Norman never did fit the churches of his time (and probably not any other time). A child of the 1960s (actually, he was born in 1947), so technically, he was a teenager of the 60s, but let’s not quibble. Norman’s cred came from the streets and clubs, not the manicured suburban enclave characteristic of American Xianity, the kind that required you had to wear a three-piece suit, a fancy dress, and drive a certain kind of car, to attend.

His song, “Why Should the Devil Have All The Good Music,” Norman offers listeners an autobiographical sketch of how he was being treated at the time by so-called Xians that had issues with his long hair, his rock and roll, and his supposed “wicked” lifestyle that allowed him to interact with those who might never set foot inside their “perfect” sanctuaries (more often resembling mausoleums).

It’s hard to imagine in 2009 how controversial and polarizing Norman was for the church in the early 1970s, but he was. His flowing mane of long blond hair was one of the issues, and as a result, lies were circulated about Norman; that he was a “fallen Christian,” a homosexual, a tool of the devil, etc.

For those readers who don’t know the inner workings of the Church, all Christianity is viewed as basically the same, and the thought is that all Christians (or my preferred styling, of Xians) merge together into one big family. The reality is that if Xians are all part of “one big family,” then it is one really fucked up one. In fact, my experience with Xianity is that rather than “one big family,” Xians are more often than not, engaged in one big internecine battle of doctrine, practice, and shades thereof.

NPR ran a brief clip about Norman's death, with clips of a couple of songs, and some commentary from his brother, Charles.

Here is a tribute to Norman that was posted at YouTube.

[Coming soon; The night I met Larry Norman]

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