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Outlaw: Remembering Larry Norman

Since nobody here has weighed in yet on the passing of Larry Norman, I thought I would post some thoughts. Interestingly (perhaps only to me) I felt reticent about discussing Larry Norman here, wondering if his work would be considered relevant to the rabbit room culture. But as I’ve been slaving over a piece about Mark Heard I hope to post soon, I realized that I only know of Mark Heard because I discovered him through Larry Norman. The same is true of Randy Stonehill, whose records I learned how to play guitar to. I discovered Rich Mullins because I heard he played the hammered dulcimer, an instrument I fell in love with on Mark Heard’s records. Later, I fell in love with Andrew Peterson’s music because he reminded me of Rich Mullin’s. I eventually became friends with Andrew, and there you have it: I’m a part of the rabbit room because of Larry Norman. As I reflect on Larry Norman’s life and work, I’m beginning to realize that I may be deeply indebted to him for so much of what my life looks like now.

For the uninitiated, Larry Norman is widely regarded as the first Christian rock artist. While some like to debate this, it’s undeniable that Norman galvanized and became the poster child of a generation passionate to make their faith relevant to their culture. Leading the charge to “sing a new song” was Larry Norman, who appears to have just made things up as he went along and in the process – without any kind of CCM industry to bully him and censor what he was doing – made compelling, utterly original music, some of which is still scandalous to timid Christian ears more than 30 years later.

He re-imagined Jesus as an outlaw with a group of “unschooled ruffians” as his followers, and later compared him to an UFO in his second coming. He fearlessly addressed the fruitless attempts of 60’s & 70’s culture to fill their God-shaped hole with sex in lyrics like “Gonorrhea on Valentine’s Day, but you’re still looking for the perfect lay…” (from Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus?) His songs intelligently employed social, cultural, and philosophical commentary. And he was really funny. He also looked and acted like a legitimate rock star and his music never sounded “Christian” in the worst sense since he wasn’t making it for a Christian market. It could be said that we haven’t seen a Christian artist since who was as relevant to his culture, perhaps with the exception of Derek Webb.

A mythology grew up around Norman as stories of his adventures seeded and took root, like how he and a friend would solicit prostitutes in order to share the gospel with them (without, of course, taking advantage of their services). He kept company with cultural icons both secular (Paul McCartney) and spiritual (Malcolm Muggeridge), and stories of how he led Randy Stonehill to Christ and nurtured Keith Green further established him as a cultural icon in his own right. And perhaps nobody was better at fostering this mythology than Norman himself with his enigmatic, radical, and compelling persona.

I discovered Larry Norman’s music through my youth pastor and found in him an artist whose work challenged my timorous notions of Christianity. He seemed like a firebrand and inspired me to a more genuine evangelical ideal. His was the music of the street and steered clear of church speak. Norman inspired me to take the gospel beyond the church walls and thus the first concert I ever performed was at the local coffee-shop that was owned by two lesbians and frequented by a decidedly unchurched crowd. In fact, I played “The Outlaw” there that first night. Larry Norman’s work helped to shape my worldview as a young Christian, and much of the way I see ministry today I still owe to him.

The first Christian rock concert I ever saw that I really cared about was when my youth pastor Dave Flavin took me up to The New Union in Minneapolis to see Larry Norman (The opening act was an up and coming local band called PFR!). Norman was already almost unbearably odd by then and rumors of tensions between him and Randy Stonehill, Daniel Amos, and the other artists he worked with had begun to sully the Larry Norman experience. And yet I hung on his every word, mesmerized. And when he sang “Messiah” I was surprised that Jesus hadn’t come back at that very moment.

For years I was an avid collector of Norman’s music, tracking down long out of print records and videos. My biggest score was when I managed to get my hands on Norman’s very rare album, “The Son Worshipers” which at the time was valued at more than $300. I eventually traded it for two items I still have to this day: Mark Heard’s first record (infinity + 3) and one of the only VHS copies of Heard’s last performance at Cornerstone after which he had the heart attack that would eventually take his life.

And this is how my passion for all things Norman began to wane. I felt like I outgrew him and got weary of all the controversy surrounding his personal life. I became suspicious of his quirky antics and my attention turned instead to less sensational artists and thinkers like Mark Heard, The Vigilantes of Love, and Frederick Buechner.

Larry Norman passed away at the age of 60 on February 24th 2008. When I read the news, I was filled with nostalgia for the season of my life where the sun rose and set on this idiosyncratic and mercurial figure. As I revisited some of his music, I was glad to find how well it holds up. Though a bit dated – Norman was a man of his times, to be sure – the songs still strike me as relevant. I think this is because embedded in the DNA of his work is this reckless desire to bring the gospel to bear upon the world as he knew it. Whatever you want to say about Larry Norman, I think it can be argued that he never compromised his convictions of making music from his gut, music that was relevant at the street level.

Though overshadowed by controversy and what looked to some like a slow descent into a kind of theatrical psychosis, (even in his death, one Norman biographer admits that if he heard that Norman had faked his passing and was now living out his final years in Thailand, he wouldn’t be altogether surprised), Larry Norman’s contribution cannot be dismissed. In my own life, it’s clear to me now that it was Larry Norman’s work that first woke me out of the stupor of facile Christianity and stirred an insatiable appetite in me for art, thought, and faith expression that was original, intelligent, and genuinely evangelistic. Larry challenged me to stop playing church and look outward with my faith and he asked me to want more than the status quo from my Christianity, and I haven’t been satisfied since.

For more on Larry Norman: www.larrynorman.com

Recommended: Only Visiting This Planet (produced by the Beatle’s George Martin and consistently listed as one of the most seminal albums in Christian music.) Available at: larrynorman.com

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