MUSIC MONDAY Christian Rock Pioneer Larry Norman’s Songs Part 7

Christian Rock Pioneer Larry Norman’s Songs Part 11

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.

Larry Norman and ‘Christian art,’ Part II

Terry Mattingly
Terry Mattingly
USA TODAY NETWORK ARCHIVES
TERRY MATTINGLY | COLUMNIST |

This is the second of two columns about Larry Norman and “Christian” rock.

When Larry Norman died in 2008, there was one thing the critics — secular and religious — agreed on: The controversial singer and music maven helped create the “Contemporary Christian Music” industry.

For Norman, that was not good news.

“In China, if you become a Christian, you may be imprisoned,” said Norman, offering a cynical aside during his last concert, in New York City. “In India, your parents may disown you. In the Middle East, they might execute you. But in America, if you become a Christian, you just have a broader selection of Christian CDs to choose from.”

Seven months later, his fragile heart failed one last time.

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Norman lived to see the fiery folk-rock style he pioneered in the early 1970s — part “Jesus Movement” evangelism, part social-justice sermons — evolve into a suburb-friendly genre in which “Christian” was attached to safe versions of old fads in mainstream music.

The album Norman considered his bravest — “So Long Ago the Garden” — infuriated many “CCM” consumers because of its symbolic, mysterious language. Then there was the semi-nude, Edenic cover image of the singer.

While writing his Norman biography, “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” philosopher Gregory Alan Thornbury dug into the singer’s papers and found an impassioned defense of that album, in a letter to angry fans.

“All of the songs I write are Christian songs, because I am a Christian,” wrote Norman. “Is a man any less a Christian because he is a car mechanic instead of an evangelist? … Some people are so conditioned that if a song doesn’t have some religious clues like ‘blood of the lamb’ or ‘the cross,’ they are unsure of its spiritual qualification.”

Part of the problem, said Thornbury, is that Norman had “a glorious way of speaking out of both sides of his mouth. He never wavered from his desire to write Jesus songs. … Yet at the same time, he was constantly blasting Christian music people about making music that was propaganda — with no art, or poetry, or mystery at all. …

“Larry thought you could be very, very clear on Jesus and the Gospel and, at the same time, go way out there on the edge in terms of art.”

Alas, it was hard to be a commercial, secular success while doing both those things. The same thing was true in CCM circles.

This is a topic — battles to define “Christian” art, film and literature — that I have been writing about since the late 1970s. In my own book, “Pop Goes Religion: Faith in Popular Culture,” I concluded that gatekeepers and consumers in the marketplace use six definitions. Thus, “Christian” music is:

1. Hymns — period.

2. Any style of music appropriate for use in worship services.

3. Openly Christian music in all genres — except rock ‘n’ roll.

4. Any music — even hip-hop or heavy metal — built on evangelistic lyrics.

5. Music with sufficient “God-talk” (CCM’s “Jesus-per-minute rule”).

6. Music made by Christians that expresses their Christian worldview.

Norman fit in several camps. He wrote folk music that people sang in church, as well as raging guitar-rock that bashed trends in modern church life, said Thornbury. He attacked some of the niches his own art helped create.

Early in his career, Norman sang in a mainstream band called People! that shared concert bills with major rock acts, including Janis Joplin. Watching the haunted blues singer from off-stage, Norman wrote a song that was openly evangelistic, yet too blunt to perform in any church — unless the pews contained doomed rockers.

Some key lines: “Sipping whiskey from a paper cup, you drown your sorrows ’til 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. … Shooting junk ’til you’re half insane, broken needle in your purple vein. … Why don’t you look into Jesus? He’s got the answer.”

This was not a singalong song for youth group campfires.

“There’s no way around Jesus in that song and that’s how Larry Norman wanted it,” said Thornbury. “But that’s a song he wrote to Janis Joplin. He’s the only person who could have said that to her, because he was the only Christian there. That shaped his music.”

Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge.

1. Only Visiting This Planet – Larry Norman

ONLY VISITING THIS PLANET

Larry Norman

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.

*          *          *          *

UFO, The Sun Began to Rain, Six Sixty Six, One Way and Hymn to the Last generation would continue Norman’s popular “Second Coming” theme complete with Beast, Antichrist and Rapture.The reworked “Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus” edits out the references to sex and sexually transmitted diseases the original included in 1972. “Righteous Rocker #3″ is a very short (chorus only) a capella reworking of the song from “Only Visiting This Planet.” I heard once that a second version was supposedly removed from “So Long Ago the Garden.”

Larry Norman – 1983 – UFO

Six Sixty-Six – Larry Norman

“Shot Down” would prove to be his defense against detractor who believed he had forsaken the Gospel message on the previous album.

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’ve led.
They say they don’t understand me, well I’m not surprised,
Because you can’t see nothing when you close your eyes.

The album does credit Dudley on piano and John Michael Talbot on Banjo. But I wanted to note here that much of Norman and even Stonehill’s early work was greatly enhanced by guitarist Jon Linn. His work is much unheralded and he deserved much more respect. I know little about Jon but did read that he had passed away in the late 80’s or early 90’s.

One last song point out is “Song For a Small Circle of Friends.” The song is a list of artists the Norman counted as acquaintances and friends. It served as an evangelical call to these musicians.

With Clapton on guitar, and Charlie on the drums.
McCartney on the Hoffner bass with blisters on his thumbs.

Dear Bobby watch your fears all hide
And disappear while love inside starts growing,
You’re older but less colder
Than the jokes and folks you spent your childhood snowing.

And someone died for all your friends
But even better yet, he lives again.
And if this song does not make sense to you,
I hope His spirit slips on through, He loves you.

One stinging verse in hindsight is in regards to then good friend Randy Stonehill.

And love to you sir Stonehill,
Armed with your axe full gallop on your amp.
You’re crazy and you know it,
But I love you as we both crawl toward the lamp

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