Christian Rock Pioneer Larry Norman’s Songs Part 14
I posted a lot in the past about my favorite Christian musicians such as Keith Green (I enjoyed reading Green’s monthly publications too), and 2nd Chapter of Acts and others. Today I wanted to talk about one of Larry Norman’s songs. David Rogers introduced me to Larry Norman’s music in the 1970’s and his album IN ANOTHER LAND came out in 1976 and sold an enormous amount of copies for a Christian record back then.
ONLY VISITING THIS PLANET
Prophet…scoundrel…poet…thief…comedian…clown…rock star…fallen star…
A living, breathing contradiction in terms, Larry Norman passed away on February 24th, 2008 at the age of 60. I attended the funeral, arriving late and “listening” to it from outside the doors of a Church near Salem, Or.
Martin had assembled an amazing backing cast and on this song it really shows. Great guitar work drives this tune to a huge finish. And the false ending, instrumental finish just works perfectly.
“Righteous Rocker #1″ also known as “Without Love” predated Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” by nearly a decade but the similarities are shocking. Country blues riff propel a message of the need for God’s love no matter your personal situation.
You can be a righteous rocker, you can be a holy roller
You could be most anything,
You could be a Leon Russell, or a super muscle,
You could be a corporate king,
You could be a wealthy man from Texas, or a witch with heavy hexes,
But without love, you ain’t nothing without love
Without love you ain’t nothing, without love.
You could be a brilliant surgeon, or a sweet young virgin,
or a harlot out to sell,
You could learn to play the blues, or be Howard Hughes
or the scarlet pimpernel,
Or you could be a French provincial midwife,
or go from door to door with a death-knife,
But without love you ain’t nothing, without love,
Without love you ain’t nothing, without love.
The full length and most recognized version of “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” closes side one on the album. This post-apocalyptic ballad borrows directly from Matthew 24 and has the obviously distinct “Left Behind” theology at its core.
a man and wife asleep in bed
she hears a noise and turns her head
I wish we’d all been ready
two men walking up a hill
one disappears and one’s left standing still
I wish we’d all been ready
there’s no time to change your mind
the son has come and you’ve been left behind
The song would not only catapult Norman to the forefront of the Jesus Movement (a movement he never claimed nor felt any attachment to), it was featured in the movie “A Thief in the Night” and has even made its way into many hymnals. In fact, once a month at the Baptist Church I was raised in the would have a “Hymn Sing” in which congregant could request to sing a favorite hymn. I discovered that the Norman classic was included in the Churches new hymnal and would routinely ask to sing the song.
It wasn’t long before my raised hand was ignored.
Side two kicked off with “I Am the Six O’clock News,” which served a both an anti-war protest song as well as a critique of the modern media, especially television news broadcast that would routinely edit what would be discussed to meet political agendas. This was years Rush Limbaugh would lodge similar complaints, but from a distinctly different point of view.
I’m taking pictures of burning houses
Colored movies of misery.
I see the flash of guns, how red the mud becomes,
I’ve got a close-up view.
I’m the six o’clock news – what can I do?
All those kids without shoes – what can I do?
Military coups – what can I do?
I’m just the six o’clock news.
The song would fade out with a recording of an airline stewardess giving flight instructions over the roaring of a jet engine. As the roaring engine fades the early quiet strains of an acoustic guitar would fade in. This fed right into one of Norman’s finest lyrical accomplishments. “The Great American Novel” is comparable to the best Bob Dylan of Neil Young would write. +
This indictment against American politics would not sit well with mainline Christianity that would label him a liberal and communist and place him firmly amongst the atheist “hippy” left. The song would also feature some of Norman’s most indicting and creative lyrical content.
I was born and raised an orphan
in a land that once was free
in a land that poured its love out on the moon
and I grew up in the shadows
of your silos filled with grain
but you never helped to fill my empty spoon
The Church in the South that was still holding on to prejudice ways receives a very strong blow from Norman’s pen a well. Here though he also deals with the long ramifications and the impact on coming generations.
you kill a black man at midnight
just for talking to your daughter
then you make his wife your mistress
and you leave her without water
and the sheet you wear upon your face
is the sheet your children sleep on
at every meal you say a prayer
you don’t believe but still you keep on
This was obviously unexpected content from a Christian artists and deemed immoral, un-American and clearly unacceptable.
Larry Norman “The Great American Novel”
“Pardon Me” follows with the most odd and unique song in Norman’s catalog. After a string arrangement introduces the song Norman is accompanied by a very simple acoustic guitar. Dark, haunting and sad, the song deals with the understanding of “free loves” great cost and the moral decision to walk away despite the internal struggle for physical attachment.
Close your eyes, and pretend that you are me.
See how empty it can be
Making love if love’s not really there.
Watch me go, watch me walk away alone,
As your clothing comes undone,
And you pull the ribbon from your hair
If “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” is not the most covered Larry Norman song, then most definitely it must be “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music.” Norman’s defense of using contemporary music for the Gospel message. Many readers under 30 may have no idea that using contemporary music was not always acceptable. Norman and other have attributed the quote to Martin Luther though it has never been actually established.
This most likely came from possible comment Luther made regarding the use of certain instrumentation in Church music. Luther also said something to the effect that “Music is from God and that Satan hates.” But applying the actual quote to Luther isdoesn’t change the fact that the song is fun, rollicking rocker with a 50’s twist.
They say to cut my hair, they’re driving me insane,
I grew it out long to make room for my brain.
But sometimes people don’t understand,
What’s a good boy doing in a rock ‘n’ roll band?
There’s nothing wrong with playing blues licks,
But if you got a reason tell me to my face
Why should the devil have all the good music.
There’s nothing wrong with what I play
‘Cause Jesus is the rock and he rolled my blues away
Larry Norman – “Why Should the Devil…” [Cornerstone 2001]
Interestingly there is a line in the song that appears to be a knock on hymns and the tradition of hymns. Norman would later argue that he loved hymns, especially older hymns with deep theological content, but his complaint more against the modern church music of the time being dry and empty.
The album closes with “Readers Digest,” another lyrically heavy song that pre-dated rap by almost a decade and can be closely compared to Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” A fast-moving, groove oriented music serves as a backdrop for Norman to critique everything from the moon landing to The Beatles. Often caustic and humorous there are few sacred cows left standing at the end of the much too short song.
Rolling Stones are millionaires, flower children pallbearers,
Beatles said All you need is love, and then they broke up.
Jimi took an overdose, Janis followed so close,
The whole music scene and all the bands are pretty comatose.
This time last year, people didn’t wanna hear.
They looked at Jesus from afar, this year he’s a superstar.
Dear John, who’s more popular now?
I’ve been listening to some of Paul’s new records.
Sometimes I think he really is dead.
Norman would actually later remove the comments regarding Lennon and McCartney out of respect to the artists and even apologized for including the words originally. The song closes with the lyric in which the album derives its name.
You think it’s such a sad thing when you see a fallen king
Then you find out they’re only princes to begin with
And everybody has to choose whether they will win or lose
Follow God or sing the blues, and who they’re gonna sin with.
What a mess the world is in, I wonder who began it.
Don’t ask me, I’m only visiting this planet
Larry Norman and Mike Roe
Despite the controversy, rejection and vitriol spilled out over this album it has endured and more than one generation has been impressed and blessed by it. As stated above it was important on so many levels that a book would be required to discuss it all.
The same can be said for Larry Norman himself. Perhaps someday, like William Wallace, the legend will supersede the history and what is important will not be the failed marriages, failed friendship and finances, but rather the “legend” that will inspire future generation to create art as honestly, profoundly and professionally as is found on “Only Visiting This Planet.”