Tuesday, February 26, 2008

See You Later, Larry

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.


  1. Hi Keith,

    I heard of Larry Norman's passing at 7 a.m. on Tuesday 2/26/08 on the top-of-the-hour CBS national news that WWJ radio 950AM carries in Detroit. The first thing I did was call you and leave a voicemail.

    Amen to your comments. I believe Larry has reached heaven ahead of most of his harshest critics.

    Of course by now you've also heard of the death of William F. Buckley, Jr. Makes me wonder who else we'll find out has died in the past few days to complete the triangle.

    The celebrity death triangle "phenomenon" is, of course, nothing more than being able to be aware of, out of the thousands of people who die every day, the ones who are fairly well known for one thing or another and picking three of them. The most well known example is probably that of C.S. Lewis, John F. Kennedy, and Aldous Huxley, who died (not on the same day) within a 24 hour period. That coincidence was the basis of J. Peter Kreeft's book "Between Heaven and Hell," which imagines a conversation between the three in the great beyond. A fun read.

    Grace and Peace, Dave Porter

  2. Hi Dave,

    (You know, you can use the "Name/URL" option to post; you don't have to use "Anonymous." And you don't, I believe, have to have a URL.)

    Yes, I checked my messages after I had already written this. I thought about changing the post to reflect that, but making an explanation just seemed awkward, so I let it stand.

    I agree with you: the "stuff happens in threes" idea tells us more about the structure of the human brain than the structure of events.

    The Christian station in Boston used to broadcast "Between Heaven and Hell" as a radio play on November 22 every year.

    See you Saturday.