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Remembering Christian rock maverick Larry Norman

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Larrynorman_lLarry Norman, the singer/songwriter often referred to as “the father of Christian rock,” died Sunday at age 60 after years of declining health. His first two solo albums, Upon This Rock (originally released on Capitol in 1969) and Only Visiting This Planet (issued by Verve in 1972), are widely considered the first Christian rock albums of any real significance. All these decades later, they’re probably still the two best. Fans of contemporary Christian music (or CCM, as it’s come to be known) often claim that their heroes could be mainstream stars if only they didn’t sing about Jesus. Usually, that’s a lot of malarkey, but in Norman’s case, it happened to be true: A lot of his early work wouldn’t sound at all out of place between Wings and the Stones on a classic rock station, if not for his (usually) righteous lyrical concerns.  How far his influence really extended is up for debate, given the relatively few records he sold — although as unlikely an acolyte as Frank Black of the Pixies has cited him as a hero and even recorded his songs. “Larry was my door into the music business, and he was the most Christlike person I ever met,” Black said in a statement Monday.

For quite a few years, the sum total of the Christian rock genre was pretty much Larry Norman. It may be difficult now — at a time when bands like Paramore find wide acceptance in both the Christian and mainstream worlds (and almost a quarter-century on from the advent of Stryper) — to remember a time when there was no such thing as CCM, and when, if any such thing did pop up, it was greeted with distrust and scorn on either side of the evangelical/pop divide. The Beatles were about to break up, yet the cutting edge of Christian music was still represented by the folksy/choral records made by Ralph Carmichael, better known as Billy Graham’s musical director. Then along came an unsmiling, almost sneering guy who, like Johnny Cash, usually dressed all in black, though, unlike Cash, he had whiteish blond hair down past his chest. And he was singing about salvation and the rapture, with humor and sass, in a voice that clearly owed a lot to Mick Jagger’s cocky intonation. In the church vs. counterculture world of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, this officially counted as cognitive dissonance, and maybe it still does.

Norman initially appeared on the rock scene as part of the San Jose-based group People, which had a No. 7 hit on the Billboardchart in 1968 with “I Love You,” a remake of a Zombies tune. Though hewas the principal songwriter, he quit the band about the time theirfirst album came out. (Reportedly, the other members wanted to convert himto Scientology; also they and/or Capitol had managed to overrideNorman’s choice for the debut album’s title, which was originally setto be We Need a Whole Lot More of Jesus and a Lot Less Rock ‘N’ Roll.) Capitol kept him on for one solo album, Upon This Rock, which introduced a venerable end-times anthem, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” He moved over to Verve for a follow-up, Only Visiting This Planet, which has been voted the best Christian album of all time by CCMmagazine, the longtime bible — if you will — of the business. It didn’tsell much, but whatever born-again kids there were out there withFender guitars all had a copy and wore out the grooves. Beatlesproducer George Martin got a credit for production assistance (it wasrecorded at Martin’s London studio), and you can feel Martin’sinfluence, if not his direct touch, in some of the LP’s fullyorchestrated rockers. Here, Norman was taking a more holistic approach,lyrically: The album opener and first single, “I’ve Got to Learn toLive Without You,” was a lost-love lament that used the word “baby,”which didn’t necessarily endear him to rock-hating fundamentalists.Social commentary tracks like the Vietnam-themed “Six O’Clock News”confounded some of the faithful, too. Even signature God-rock tuneslike “Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus” didn’t quite make it onto thefolk-mass circuit; maybe it was lines like “Gonorrhea on Valentine’sDay/And you’re still looking for the perfect lay.”

Norman made one last album for a secular label, So Long Ago the Garden(on Verve’s sister imprint, MGM), in 1973. It marked the only time herecorded an entire album free of explicit Christian content, andbesides some love-and-loneliness tracks, it included novel standoutslike “Christmas Time,” a rocking condemnation of Xmas commercialism,and the tune I’d consider his masterpiece, “Nightmare #71,” a funny,rambling, overtly Dylan-influenced dreamscape that wittily invoked thenames of deceased silent-screen stars amid allusions to the Book ofRevelation. But even a less Jesus-y Norman couldn’t sell records.

From that point on, he tended to preach to the converted, despitedeclared intentions otherwise, and the songs he wrote in the laterparts of his career tended to be explicitly evangelical, if notevangelistic,  often to their needlessly preachy detriment. He made onemore terrific-sounding LP, 1976’s In Another Land, whichsounded like it had a major-label budget, even though he released it onhis own imprint through Word, the Christian conglomerate. Soon after,at the height of his popularity in the evangelical world, Norman sangat the White House at the invitation of President Carter. But from 1980on, his discography becomes difficult to track, as he self-releasedliterally dozens of projects, mostly live albums and outtakescollections. His shot at making it in the mainstream had passed, butNorman was too much of a maverick to really make nice with theburgeoning Christian music community, still paranoid over the rejectionhe suffered when he was the lone long-haired born-again on thelandscape. Norman built a confusing mythology around himself, laid outin copious liner notes that accompanied most of the LPs — with claimsthat Pete Townshend had been inspired by one of Norman’s early rockoperas to write Tommy, or that he was somehow indirectlyresponsible for Dylan’s conversion or baptism, or that he’d influencedor even become pals with U2. Was it all true? Which of his myriadrecords were official releases and which were bootlegs? Norman’sweirdnesses finally got too tiring to sort out, even for most fans, andhis profile shrank. (Eventually, the singer blamed his erratic lateroutput on a head injury suffered in a plane mishap in 1978.)

But though he remained the eternal misfit in and out of Christianmusic, there were acknowledgments, as well, in the later part of hislife. Norman was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2001,along with his first hero, Elvis Presley. A tribute album with actslike DC Talk was produced in the ‘90s. And support came from unlikelyquarters. Frank Black recorded one of his apocalyptic ballads,“Six-Sixty-Six,” on his first solo album, and a biography reported thatBlack and producer Steve Albini bonded over their Larry Norman fandomin the studio while making the first Pixies album, which was namedafter a Norman lyric. When the ailing Norman did his “farewell concert”in Oregon a few years ago, Black even showed up to duet with him on“Watch What You’re Doing” — the song that was the source of the “Comeon, pilgrim!” line that became the title of the Pixies’ debut.

A press release issued by Norman’s brother says that “at the time ofhis death, he was working on an album with Frank Black and Isaac Brockof Modest Mouse, which will be released later this year.” A message thesinger dictated from his hospital bed the day before his death, posted on his website,reads in part: “I feel like a prize in a box of cracker jacks withGod’s hand reaching down to pick me up… My wounds are getting bigger.I have trouble breathing. I am ready to fly home… Goodbye, farewell,we will meet again.”

Personal aside: I grew up in a suburban environment where parentswere thrusting nascent Christian rock albums on their kids, hoping toprovide a theologically sound or wholesome alternative to Bowie, AliceCooper, the Stones, et al. Most of the records were mediocre and achore to sit through, but Larry Norman’s were the ones you actuallylooked forward to — not just because the finest ones were of the samequality as anything on FM radio, but because he was just strange enoughthat you felt like he might be capable of throwing your parents as wellas you for a loop. One of my favorite memories of Norman involvesattending a concert in the ‘70s in Akron, Ohio. I was sitting next to ayouth pastor who was glowing with the thought that the boys he’dbrought along were being exposed to positive religious values in songslike “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” Then, somebodyshouted out a request for one of Norman’s least explicable songs,“Pardon Me,” a haunting ballad about an attempted seduction thathappens to be entirely free of recognizable Christian content but hasits share of worldly sensuality and loneliness. I remember looking overand watching the grin on the youth leader’s face turn into a puzzledgrimace as Norman sang lines like “Pardon me, kissing you like I’mafraid/But I feel I’m being played…/Close your eyes, and pretend thatyou are me/See how empty it can be/Making love if love’s not reallythere/Watch me go, watch me walk away alone/As your clothing comesundone/And you pull the ribbon from your hair.” Of course, I got a bigsmile on my face as the youth pastor’s disappeared, because, as a rockkid, I lived for status quo-breaking moments like that one, when a”Christian concert” could turn into something altogether lesspredictable. He didn’t always follow through on his early promise, butthat’s the Larry Norman I’ll remember — the maverick who never deviatedfrom his chosen mission in search of any big brass ring, but who didn’tgive many second thoughts to subverting the expectations of fellowbelievers, either.