Larry Norman, the singer/songwriter often referred to as â€œthe father of Christian rock,â€ 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, theyâ€™re probably still the two best. Fans of contemporary Christian music (or CCM, as itâ€™s come to be known) often claim that their heroes could be mainstream stars if only they didnâ€™t sing about Jesus. Usually, thatâ€™s a lot of malarkey, but in Normanâ€™s case, it happened to be true. . . .
Perhaps it’s the plight of artistic pioneers, but Norman’s albums received lots of flack. He pushed the envelop of what Christian music should be, tackling themes of racism, drugs, and homelessness when Christian music was still a musically-challenged, antiseptic sing-along. For instance, lyrics from “Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus,” while spot on with the survivors of the 60’s counter-culture, needled the sensibilities of the religious status quo:
Sipping whiskey from a paper cup / You drown your sorrows till you can’t get up / Take a look at what you 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?
Gonorrhea on Valentine’s Day / And you’re still looking for the perfect lay / You think rock and roll will set you free / Honey, you’ll be deaf before you’re thirty-three / Shooting junk until you’re half insane / A broken needle in your purple vein / Why don’t you look into Jesus, He’s got the answer?
Whiskey? Cigarettes? Gonorrhea? The perfect lay?!!! Gospel music had turned the corner with some raggedy, out-spoken, long-haired prophet at the wheel. Needless to say, Norman had a hard time fitting. While developing a small, but loyal following, he eschewed the mainstream of Christian artists, opting instead to speak more frankly to the culture. In an interview with CCM:
CCM: Larry, think back to 1969 and the release of your “Upon This Rock” on Capitol. Was that a “Christian” album as we think of them today? If not, what was it?
NORMAN: “Upon This Rock” was written to stand outside the Christian culture. I tried to create songs for which there was no anticipated acceptance. I wanted to display the flexibility of the gospel and that there was no limitation to how God could be resented. I used abrasive humor and sarcasm as much as possible, which was also not a traditional aspect of Christian music. I chose negative imagery to attempt to deliver a positive message, like “I Don’t Believe in Miracles” is actually about faith. “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” talked about something I had never heard preached from a pulpit as I grew up. “The Last Supper” and “Ha Ha World” used very surreal imagery which drug users could assimilate. My songs weren’t written for Christians. No, it 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.”
But amidst the controversy, pressure from the musical/religious establishment, and his own particular quirks, Larry Norman never lost his zeal for Jesus. From the song, Shot Down:
I’ve been shot down, talked about / Some people scandalize my name / But here I am talkin’ bout Jesus just the same
I’ve been knocked down / Kicked around / But like a moth drawn to the flame / Here I am talkin’ bout Jesus just the same
I’ve been rebuked for the things I’ve said / For the songs I’ve written and the life I led / They say they don’t understand but I’m not surprised / Because you can’t see nothin’ when you close your eyes.
His concerts and interviews always seemed to bear that out — Larry Norman genuinely loved Jesus.
In March, 1980, I went forward at a Darrell Mansfield concert in Riverside, CA. and accepted Christ. It began a great journey, through deserts and gardens and vast swamps of the heart. And along the way, there have been people that have come alongside, lightened my load, and made that journey easier. Only Visiting this Planet was one of the first “Christian albums” I ever purchased. I wore the grooves off it, and eventually had to buy a second. But it holds a special place in my heart.
So next week is my anniversary; it will mark the beginning of my 28th year as a believer. And though I never met him, somehow, Larry Norman helped me along the way.