The Night I Met Larry Norman
During the winter of 1985-1986, my charade as a Bible school student was finished. Three semesters of fundamentalist Baptist legalism was all I could take. Just shy of my 24th birthday, I was stranded in the middle of the country, another Hyles-Anderson washout, with a wife and young son.
Stuck in the middle of the country, 1,500 miles from our extended families, my wife and I were struggling to remain connected to any kind of organized practice of faith.
During that time, the only spiritual lifeline at all for me was my own personal study of the Bible. No longer tethered to the wooden, literal dictates of Hyles-Anderson College, which tried to regulate all aspects student life, I now was free to read the scriptures for myself. It was surprising how that freedom opened me up to seeing new things that I’d never considered before. In addition to my time studying the Bible, I also was beginning to read again, something I had no time for when my life was classes from 8:00 am to 1:00, dinner with Mary and Mark, and then off to work in Chicago. Saturdays were taken up with soul-winning, and then Sunday was church in the morning, time for lunch, study time, and then back to church in the evening. Not exactly a schedule that allowed much time to think, or consider much beyond the world of Jack Hyles.
Now that I was no longer in school, I felt like I had a life again. During that time, I was free again to listen to my own choice of music on my commutes to and from work. Most of what was playing in my tape deck was secular, as I was tired of the kind of musical drivel that passed for Christian music at Hyles-Anderson. The was also mixing in some contemporary Christian rock, including Larry Norman.
I don’t recall the exact circumstances, but I learned that Norman was going to be playing at a church in Palatine, Illinois, on a Saturday night in January. I really wanted to see him live, but given the distance—Palatine was about 100 miles northwest of where we were living, in Hobart, Indiana—and the fact that both of my cars were undependable at best, the trip seemed risky to make the trek in the dead of winter.
Mary knew I wanted to go, and she encouraged me to attend the show. Plus, it was my long weekend from my job at Westville Correctional Center, where I was working as a med tech.
I spent Saturday morning going over my ’68 Impala—I checked the tire pressure, made sure my oil was topped off, and had a spare quart on hand. The Impala burned a quart of oil per week, but I was fond of her land yacht qualities on the highway, which is why I chose to take her on my journey, instead of my 1974 Plymouth Scamp.
Saturday night was bitterly cold as I hopped in my Impala and headed to Palatine. I had several Larry Norman cassettes for the ride, and my directions in tow.
The non-descript church in Palatine was one of those contemporary styles, with the cookie-cutter design, surrounded by a sea of asphalt. There were just a few cars parked near the entrance, signifying I was an early arrival.
The mercury was hovering near zero, too cold to sit in my car until more people showed up. Gathering my courage, I headed across the lot and entered the main foyer. I was greeted by a young girl, probably from the church’s youth group. Sweet, and wearing a perpetual smile, she welcomed me to “Palatine Bible Church” (I honestly can’t remember the name of the church, but it was one of those generic non-denominational church names that were just becoming popular). A gracious hostess, she directed me to a table with freshly brewed coffee, and donuts and pastries, with the charge of “make yourself at home.”
Filling a cup with coffee, I was interested to see what was happening in the auditorium, as I could hear the muffled sounds of amplified music leaking into the lobby. I asked if I could head into the auditorium and she said, “sure.”
Cup in hand, I made my way into the darkened auditorium, and sat in the back. I saw Larry Norman and band down front, swathed in stage lighting, working their way through “Why Should the Devil Have All The Good Music?” as part of the band’s sound check.
Alone in the dark, I got my own personal pre-concert lasting about 20 minutes. Norman looked just as I’d seen him on tape cases, album covers (I had once owned several of Norman’s records before unloading my vinyl as part of my fundamentalist purging of the “devil’s music”), and PR photos. Weathered, with a soulful face, and his signature long blond hair—yes, that was Larry Norman down front, on stage, and I was there to see it!
He seemed to be having a good time, long before the show started. He joked with the band members, made some suggestions between stops, and brought a genuine warmth and genuineness to the practice set that I’d again witness later, when he poured his heart and energy into that night’s performance.
When I ventured back out into the light of the church entranceway, people had begun arriving. There was now merchandise, more food, and a mix of mainly young fans, and a smattering of older fans.
The show was phenomenal. Norman’s band, the Young Lions, were tight, with a punk rock look—spiked hair and a Mohawk were on parade—and all about 15 to 20 years younger than Norman, who was pushing 40 at that time.
His guitar player opened the show with a couple of acoustic numbers. Then out came Norman and the crowd went crazy. A duet followed, and then it was time for Norman and Company to crank it up and rock out for Jesus.
I’ve been to many rock shows since, both smaller shows, as well as the arena rock variety. Norman’s show that night stands out as one of the top five I’ve ever attended.
The band rocked for over an hour, mining liberally Norman’s older and better-known material, with a newer song thrown in here and there. The band then broke for an intermission for snacks and for some of the smokers to “fire one up” outside in the parking lot.
Wandering about the lobby, I was shocked when I saw Norman come through the auditorium doors and greet some people he obviously knew. Rather than hide out backstage and chill, here was this Christian rock legend, interacting with his fans. This was not something I’d ever seen, as performers of a certain stature and level of popularity tend to distance themselves from the “little people.”
It wasn’t long before he made his way over to where I was standing. He walked over and said, “hi, I’m Larry Norman.” I told him a little about my background and he was very genuine when he told me that “many of us get burnt by the Church.” This was obviously true for him, as the Church had been shunning him and his music for almost two decades, at that time. We chatted a bit more, and he thanked me for coming.
What impressed me the most was how “real” he was in person. He obviously didn’t have to take the time to talk, and connect with people at his show. It was obvious to me that this was part of who he was.
After the break, Norman was back on stage, this time however, alone at the piano. For 30-40 minutes, he treated us to his quieter material, extensive in its own right. Between songs he talked, and ministered to the crowd. Both storyteller, and street preacher, rolled into one, Norman had a way of making you laugh, reflect, and look deeper into your life. He didn’t do this in the typical preachy, “I’m holy and your not” schtick common with most preachers in three-piece suits common to the Xianity I had come out from.
The show was already approaching the two-hour mark when Norman brought the Young Lions back onstage and they tore through a 45-minute set of material from Norman’s newest album, “Stop This Flight.”
Afterwards, standing in the lobby, towel draped around his neck, Norman shook hands, hugged friends, and posed for photos. He also spent time praying with some people, as his capacity to minister to others was evident to me, watching him interact with others.
The evening was a magical one for me, and something I have not forgotten.
Over the next 20 years, my own faith would fizzle, and was eventually usurped by doubt and skepticism, primarily because for every Larry Norman I’d encounter along life’s highways and byways, I’d find hundreds, if not thousands of so-called believers that had no pulse, warmth, or conviction of sincerity.