Larry Norman’s Street Fighting Gospel
Believe it or not, there was a time when “Christian music” wasn’t a slick marketing tool or a billion dollar industry. As recently as the late 60’s, it barely even existed. The only Christian music to be found were either Mahalia Jackson records or any number of look alike, sound alike Southern Gospel Quartets.
That was until Larry Norman came along with Upon This Rock. But that’s jumping ahead. Norman, who passed away in late February at the age of 60 due to heart failure, recorded his first album when he was with the band People! in 1966. He had wanted the record to be called “We need a whole lot more of Jesus and a lot less Rock and Roll” but Capitol Records didn’t see it his way; instead, when the album was released, the album was called I Love You, which was a cover of a Zombies tune.
Norman has been called the Father of Christian Rock, a burden he refused to carry. “I think the blacks invented it about 200 years ago,” he told Contemporary Christian Music magazine in the early ‘80s.
Nevertheless, his first solo album, Upon This Rock, was the first real collection of rock and roll songs that spoke of faith without apology or compromise but did it in a radio-friendly way. On songs like Forget Your Hexagram, Moses in the Wilderness, I Don’t Believe in Miracles, Sweet Sweet Song of Salvation… his voice was like a well-stirred cocktail of Jagger, Dylan and with a generous twist of McCartney. Billboard magazine compared him to Paul Simon.
“Upon This Rock was not a Christian album for those believers who wanted everything spelled out. It was more like a street fight. I was saying to Christians, “I’m going to present the gospel, and I’m not going to say it like you want. This album is not for you.” Some critics called it “the Sgt. Pepper’s of Christianity,” which could be considered either a compliment or a suggestion that the production was self-indulgent and overblown.
A little historical context would be helpful here. The fallout from Altamont and assassinations of King and Kennedy made way for the birth of the Jesus Movement in California in the early ‘70s. The walking wounded from Haight Ashbury were finding solace and salvation in the words of Jesus, but they found little in the church that reflected their culture.
Unfortunately, the church just wasn’t ready for the long-haired, freaky people. And it certainly wasn’t prepared for Larry Norman with his long blonde hair singing about “gonorrhea on Valentine’s Day and you’re still looking for the perfect lay.” (Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus?)
But he wasn’t the only musician singing about Jesus. Others were finding their way home as well. Barry McGuire who recorded Eve of Destruction in the mid-sixties became a Christian. Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul & Mary changed his name to Noel, left the group and recorded Paul And. While these artists were recording for major labels – Norman on Capitol and then MGM-Verve, Stookey on Warner Brothers – Word Records started its own imprint, Myrhh Records, as a home for Christian artists who were trying to get the message out.
But Norman would have none of it. He had little time for the Christian music industry, saying that “maybe the majority of Christian lyrics are just bad poetry…The songs manage to rhyme but they don’t manage to say much in between the lines.”
To be sure, his lyrics were anything but trite. He was considered too secular for the church and too church for the secularists. Case in point—the lyrics to The Great American Novel from Only Visiting this Planet. Written 35 years ago, the words still ring true, only the war is against terror and homeland security is today’s reality.
you are far across the ocean
but the war is not your own
and while you’re winning theirs
you’re gonna lose the one at home
do you really think the only way
to bring about the peace
is to sacrifice your children
and kill all your enemies
the politicians all make speeches
while the news men all take note
and they exaggerate the issues
as they shove them down our throats
is it really up to them
whether this country sinks or floats
well i wonder who would lead us
if none of us would vote
and your money says in God we trust
but it’s against the law to pray in school
you say we beat the russians to the moon
and i say you starved your children to do it
you say all men are equal all men are brothers
then why are the rich more equal than others
don’t ask me for the answer i’ve only got one
that a man leaves his darkness when he follows the Son
And for a kid like me growing up in the evangelical church, trying to find my way and still follow Jesus but not be boring… well, there was no one like him. He breathed new life into what could have been a miserable existence. I wasn’t the only one. Frank Black of the Pixies said “Larry was my door into the music business and he was the most Christ-like person I ever met.”
His recording career includes at least 30 albums to his credit. A lot of those are either compilations, live recordings or recycled alternative takes that draw from his best work – a trilogy – Only Visiting this Planet, So Long Ago the Garden, and In Another Land. These came out in quick succession after Upon This Rock. He followed those up with Something New Under the Son and Stranded in Babylon in the ‘80s.
Because the only place you could purchase so-called Christian Rock was the local Bible Book store, it was difficult to find his records because they would inevitably be banned. The cover of OVTP shows him walking down Hollywood Boulevard looking like a guy who just got off work at the car wash. On SLATG, critics said you could see his belly button so that must mean he was naked. Inevitably his records would be tucked at the back of the rack so as not to offend.
In concert, Norman was equal parts dead-pan comic, rocker, preacher and counselor. He would stand center-stage, pigeon-toed and bash away at a battered Epiphone classical guitar. He would mimic the electric guitar lead breaks with his mouth or maybe a sad viola part or a plucky banjo sound. Concerts could go for three hours. He encouraged people to talk with him after the show about their faith but he didn’t like talking about music or giving autographs.
Looking back, Larry Norman was a kind of proto punk like Patti Smith, adapting the Do It Yourself ethos that let him make his records the way he wanted them made without some record exec deciding the song order or what the cover art should be.
“I view my albums as literature to begin with and not just a vehicle for my latest ten songs,” he would say. “And I view my albums, working together as a body of literature, making an even larger statement from all the smaller statements.”
He constantly played with the conventions of rock and roll, poking fun and exposing their façades. He kept telling people “Don’t look at me, look to Jesus.” He would mimic guitar breaks with his mouth. When he started his own record label, Solid Rock, he subverted the infamous Rolling Stones tongue logo and made it his own. An open mouth with three crosses, it was the visual equivalent of the Great Commission – go into the world and preach the gospel and as St. Francis, said “if necessary, use words.”
“I’ve been writing my songs for anyone who is listening. My message has never been to the church. It’s to individuals, some of whom might even be Christian. But it’s to the alienated, the losers, the outsiders. I write music for the minority; for the people who can’t make their minds stop questioning their own lifestyle; for the people who are messed up and know it. I’m not addressing people who have stopped looking for the answers and have traded in their search for a raise and a promotion.”
But when asked about the music he listened to, he said his two favorite singers were “Malcolm Muggeridge and G.K. Chesterton. I’m sorry to say that I’m not a big fan of most gospel albums. I would rather read books by Chesterton and Muggeridge and C.S. Lewis and others. Their books are the equivalent of the music of my soul. Their ideas dance around in my head just like melodies do with other people.”
In a 2005 interview with Dale Ahlquist, former brother-in-law and publisher of Gilbert! Magazine, Norman talked about the connection between Muggeridge and Chesterton:
“It was the year before I had chanced upon my first copy of Father Brown that I became friends with… Malcolm Muggeridge. He was in America to speak and we fell in together and had a lively conversation, even though I knew nothing about him. But his inner-workings reminded me of Chesterton and I found myself embracing Malcolm, and his wife Kitty, and hoping I would again see them in the future.
“Ineluctably, I found myself the next year sitting next to him on a platform waiting to speak to 15,000 people at Trafalgar Square in London. We were representing a Christian perspective on morality, always a dangerous proposition. But Malcolm and I spoke about other issues which were more specific to the gospel than to the manifest detritus of observable behavior. After all, sin surrounds us. But it is the light of truth that is more penetrating.
“He appreciated the life of St. Francis and the thought of Aquinas, but also he identified with the darker observations of Evelyn Waugh and Mauriac and the tangential devotion of Gustave Flaubert. He accepted spiritual ecstasy as a logical arrival. And he identified with the righteous fixation of Fyodor Dostoevsky, within the Russian Orthodox church. Muggeridge considered any Christian believer who was not expressly Anglican to be ‘catholic’ and thereby Catholic. I think Muggeridge respected the self-inquisition of a man’s own soul, and the struggle toward a holy light. And he felt that Protestant literary works were anemic in this aspect. For there is very little coarse texture in the thoughts of a modern proselyte; more often smooth, bland curiosity – when tortuous passion would better serve in seeking spiritual enlightenment.
“I think Chesterton admired this instinct, too. Although it is hardly an instinct, or else many more would be experiencing God more fully. It’s really a commitment. To die daily to self and live unto God. G.K. was an instigator. An accuser of the indifferent. A prodder of the lazy. He wanted people to wake up and be alive. He knew that God must excavate the center of a person. And that Protestantism seemed content to add on, from the outside, good deeds and polite manners. Chesterton didn’t mind being a contradictory man of faith. As absent minded as he might have appeared and as aleatory as his interests seemed to be, he was always heading home. Always trying to find the cross in every situation.”
Norman identified with Chesterton because he too was an instigator. An accuser of the indifferent. A prodder of the lazy; someone trying to find the cross in every situation, always heading home.