>Larry Norman: Rest In Peace

>Larry Norman has died.

Maybe you don’t know who he was. Sometimes called the father (and later grandfather) of Christian rock music, and inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame in 2001, Larry Norman was a seminal figure in many people’s lives for nearly 4-plus decades. You can read about him on Wikipedia and elsewhere. For me, his passing draws me back to my childhood when I was looking for artistic expressions of the ideas and passions within me.

The first “rock” album I ever bought was Only Visiting This Planet, released in 1972.

I’m guessing I got it in 1975 or 1976. When I first put it on I was a little concerned. The first song, Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus, shocked me. Here are the opening lyrics:

Sippin’ whiskey from a paper cup.
You drown your sorrows till 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.
Yellow fingered from your cigarettes.
Your hands are shakin’ while your body sweats.

Why don’t you look into Jesus,
He’s got the answer.

As a kid I didn’t quite know what to do with this album. Funny, but I was worried my parents would hear it and make me turn it off because of the “offensive” lyrics. But I kept listening, and soon it took hold of me. Because of that album, with its Christian lyrics that didn’t fit into the Christian sub-culture I grew up in, and with its sometimes driving, sometimes beautiful melodies, my perspectives on what it meant to be human and to engage with the world developed and matured.

Here is Norman performing Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus. The clip begins with some early/mid-seventies studio version and then cuts to a live performance, probably from the eighties:

One of the best songs from that album is The Great American Novel. There was nothing typically “Christian” about this song, and yet I can help but think this is one of the truest Christian songs I ever heard. Here are the lyrics:

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

and when i was ten you murdered law
with courtroom politics
and you learned to make a lie sound just like truth
but i know you better now
and i don’t fall for all your tricks
and you’ve lost the one advantage of my youth

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

and your money says in God we trust
but it’s against the law to pray in school
you say we beat the russians to the moon
and i say you starved your children to do it

you are far across the ocean
but the war is not your own
and while you’re winning theirs
you’re gonna lose the one at home
do you really think the only way
to bring about the peace
is to sacrifice your children
and kill all your enemies

the politicians all make speeches
while the news men all take note
and they exagerate the issues
as they shove them down our throats
is it really up to them
whether this country sinks or floats
well i wonder who would lead us
if none of us would vote

well my phone is tapped and my lips are chapped
from whispering through the fence
you know every move i make
or is that just coincidence
well you try to make my way of life
a little less like jail
if i promise to make tapes and slides
and send them through the mail

and your money says in God we trust
but it’s against the law to pray in school
you say we beat the russians to the moon
and i say you starved your children to do it
you say all men are equal all men are brothers
then why are the rich more equal than others
don’t ask me for the answer i’ve only got one
that a man leaves his darkness when he follows the Son

It is likely that I can trace my own cultural and political leanings, not to mention spiritual understanding, in part to this song, which I listened to, and pondered over, as a child. Needless to say, songs like this put Norman outside the conventional Christian culture. It is amazing how applicable this song still is today.

This clip of Let That Tape Keep Rolling shows how Norman could really rock back in the day:

Finally, I have to say that Larry Norman was not a perfect man. He had his troubles and failings like all of us. So often we look to religious figures (artists, preachers, gurus) to somehow be exemplary in their behavior. We want to believe it is possible for a human to achieve true holiness or moral perfection, but this never really happens this side of eternity. Norman was exemplary, though, as an honest musician who held on to his faith in the midst of this often messy and ugly thing we call life. And in that one can find encouragement and hope.

Rest in peace.

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