Larry Norman: the undisputed father of contemporary Christian music. Decades before Chris Tomlin, Michael W. Smith, Downhere, and Hillsong, a guitar player with long, blonde hair was singing about Jesus on a major secular music label. The Beatles’ Paul McCartney told Larry Norman, “You could be famous if you’d just drop the God stuff.”
I was a teenager in the late 1970s, when I went over to a friend’s house, to listen to a 1972 vinyl record, Only Visiting This Planet. It blew me away. I had only recently made a decision to follow Jesus, but I had invested a lot of lawn-mowing dollars previously to buy albums recorded by Led Zeppelin, Rush, and The Who. Larry Norman, though, was different. He sang about Jesus. But he simply did not fit into the “churchy” box.
I can still remember that first time I heard the song, “Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus?,” as the needle passed along the record grooves, about the life of Janis Joplin. Larry Norman and Janis Joplin both performed their separate acts, at a number of the same concert events during the “Summer of Love,” in the late 1960s. Joplin died an early death, due to a heroin overdose:
- Sipping whiskey from a paper cup,
You drown your sorrows till you can’t stand up,
Take a look at what you’ve done to yourself,
Why don’t you put the bottle back on the shelf,
Yellow fingers from your cigarettes,
Your hands are shaking while your body sweats,
Why don’t you look into Jesus, He’s got the answer.
You will have to listen to the rest of the song, as displaying the lyrics for the next verse may or may not pass your Internet content filter.
This is was a Christian singer? I was shocked, but believe me, I was hooked. Larry Norman seemed like a real person, with whom I could relate. Though I did not use drugs, a number of my high school friends did. But when I started my journey with Christ, I got the distinct impression that Christians should avoid people like that. I was fearful, and I had no clue how to relate the Gospel to my “druggie” friends.
Hearing Larry Norman, on the other hand, singing about loving drug addicts, with the love of Jesus, gave me the courage to witness to my friends. Along with the two other albums in the Norman famous trilogy, So Long Ago The Garden and In Another Land, I ended up listening to Only Visiting This Planet dozens and dozens of times. Pure classic rock.
Larry Norman was a “Jesus Freak,” but that designation never seemed to bother him.
Sure, there were rumors, some harder to substantiate than others, but much of it all true: Larry Norman knew just about everyone in the 1960s/1970s music industry. He got his start opening for acts like The Doors and Jimi Hendrix. Larry Norman had hired one of Led Zeppelin’s sound engineers to record his albums. Bob Dylan made a commitment to Christ after attending a Bible study, first led by Larry Norman.
What I did know for sure is that Larry Norman was despised by the conservative Christian mainstream. The folk music of Nancy Honeytree was tolerable, Amy Grant was cute and sweet, but Larry Norman’s “rock and roll” was a bridge too far. Tele-evangelist Jimmy Swaggart considered his music to be “spiritual fornication.” But I could not trust Swaggart with a ten-foot pole, so that only added to Larry Norman’s reputation. Some rural preachers made headlines, dismissing all rock and roll music because of claims of “backwards-masking.” Yet Larry Norman, in his concerts, would mock that mentality, by noting, who cares what they were saying backwards, when what they were saying forwards was bad enough?…. And that old claim that the beat used by rock drummers came from Satanic cults in Africa? Larry Norman exposed that canard for what it really was: RACISM.
Norman’s songs were quite radical at the time. His lyrics addressed topics that you rarely hear talked about in many Christian circles, even today. He spoke out against racism and war mongering among Christians, and he criticized America’s efforts to land a man on the moon, at the expense of allowing hungry children to starve to death. I could not agree with all of his views, but that was not the point. The fact was this: Larry Norman, was different from your stereotypical evangelical Christian, and he got my attention.
I really was inspired by Larry Norman. I considered him a hero.
And that became a problem.
But it is more than just my personal problem. It is also about the very identity of the evangelical church, particularly in America. Larry Norman’s story gives us a bird’s eye view into why the contemporary church now finds itself so much at odds with the dominant, secularizing culture.
As Russell Moore, a leading Baptist thinker and theologian puts it, in his review of Gregory Alan Thornbury’s masterful, Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock, there is a “dark side of Larry Norman.” This dark side tells us a lot about contemporary, evangelical Christianity’s obsession with celebrity personalities, exposing the blindspots of Christians, including myself.