Larry Norman died early last Sunday morning. He's been ill for a long time, and the news of his passing is no surprise. I think I'm saddest mostly because if I hadn't happened to be browsing the iMonk, I wouldn't have known. I wonder how long it would have taken to find out. It pains me to think of how much he meant to so many, and how little he is known now.
Larry virtually single-handedly invented what he called "Jesus music," which later morphed into "Christian rock" and then "Contemporary Christian music," in the late '60s and early '70s. His aim was to reach out to a disaffected generation in terms that they would understand, without worrying about whether those terms would be acceptable to established believers. They weren't. Norman's music was banned from Christian bookstores and vilified from pulpits. He was thought to be trying to bring the devil into the Church, when what he was doing was trying to bring Jesus into the world.
He chose a hard road. He could have soft-pedaled his message and sought acceptance in the secular recording industry. His talent was easily among the greatest of his generation, not merely among Christian artists. In Another Land, the final recording of the "Trilogy" that began with Only Visiting This Planet, deserves a place among the great recordings of the 1970s, containing everything from driving rock to blues to lush orchestral pieces, and even a piano jazz song ("The Sun Began to Rain"). Yet Larry had ongoing struggles with his record companies from the time that Capital Records censored the intended title of his album with the band People!: "We Need a Whole Lot More of Jesus (And a Lot Less Rock and Roll)."
Or Larry could have soft-pedaled his music to seek acceptance within the church. His label, Solid Rock Records, had produced many of the early Jesus Music pioneers: Randy Stonehill, Tom Howard, Mark Heard, Daniel Amos (psst--that last is a band, not a person). And the venture fell apart, partly due to Larry's disappointment that this younger generation of artists were becoming complaisant in the Christian world, refusing to play to secular venues on the one hand, and neglecting to give the gospel in confrontational terms in between songs. Larry simply wasn't content to lapse into Christian celebrity, and so he kept to an iconoclastic path, one that left him in relative obscurity (apart from the following he had made in his early days) and relative poverty.
Larry's music, and that of other Jesus Music pioneers, was a tremendous influence on me in my youth. I am saddened by our loss, but glad to know that he is finally in the presence of our Lord. I look forward to the day when I'm there, too. It'll be nice to meet him.