Music: February 2008 Archives

Larry Norman has died. Some called him the grandfather of Christian rock music. He helped develop it before it got all commercialized and processed, and many of the earliest Christian rock musicians (Phil Keaggy, Randy Stonehill, Keith Green, The Second Chapter of Acts) were at least at some time all within his circle. His music was often cheesy but in a fun way, and it clearly challenged the status quo in evangelicalism in many good ways.

It was funny when I walked into my department a number of years ago and heard "Why Don't You Look Into Jesus?" playing very loudly through the hall, expecting that maybe our one evangelical professor had it playing (although he's not the type to play Christian music loudly so the whole department can hear). But it turned out to be a different professor, one who grew up in an evangelical home but is in fact an atheist. He had rediscovered Larry Norman on Napster and downloaded a whole bunch of his albums, and he was playing them loudly to illustrate the excellent music he'd grown up with. He wasn't in the least shy about proclaiming his appreciation for this outspoken evangelical rock musician whose lyrics were quite explicitly evangelistic.

Larry Norman had a hard life in many ways. Despite his significant influence, he never had much commercial success compared with the next generation of Christian rock (e.g. Amy Grant, Petra, Michael W. Smith, White Heart, Steve Taylor). He never became a mainstream artist or even a mainstream CCM artist in many ways, even though most early CCM musicians saw him as an important influence and owed him a great debt for helping get Christian rock going in the first place. He had heart trouble for decades, and to top it all off he had serious relational difficulties with several people close to him, the details of which too often made the rumor rounds in the public domain. His heart problems finally caught up with him on Sunday.

But whatever else is true of Larry Norman, he had a big impact on a lot of people, and I've probably been influenced by him indirectly in ways I don't even know about. I never listened to him much as one of my own favorites, but my brother Joel absolutely loved his stuff, so I have some familiarity with his music, and some of the people I did listen to growing up were directly influenced by him.

Larry was very nice to my brother, and I appreciate that a lot. Joel was in a college band called Mustard Seed that some people thought had all the signs of having a decent chance of becoming a hot new CCM act, just as Jars of Clay had done a few years earlier from the same school. (I won't comment on how Jars of Clay treated Mustard Seed when they had a chance to meet them, however.) My brother had put together a bootleg called We Wish You A Larry Christmas. Many people would have been upset, but Larry thought it was great, and he adopted the bootleg and began to produce it officially himself.

When my brother died in 1997, Larry did a free concert at his college as a tribute and performed one of my brother's own songs (Friendship's End) on a tribute CD some of Joel's college friends made after he died. His version isn't as good as Mustard Seed's, but it was a nice gesture. [I can't sing Larry's praises fully on this score, however. He later put that song on one of his own albums, and I have to think an administrative error took place, because he didn't give Joel any credit for it. Given how he'd previously treated him, this couldn't have been a deliberate attempt to take credit for my brother's work, even if it was disappointing to find out about.]

I've already seen several good tributes to Larry's life by people who know and appreciate a lot more about Larry's music than I can do justice to, so I'll refer you to those:

Charles Norman, Larry's brother
Internet Monk
my friend Gnu at Wildebeest's Wardrobe
Mark Joseph (at, of all places, the Huffington Post)
Steve Camp Jeff Smith posts Randy Stonehill's response
Michael Longinow, journalism professor at Biola University (guest-posting at GetReligion)
Chris Willman has a nice retrospective at Entertainment Weekly
Dennis Hevisi, New York Times
Rupert M. Loydell

I may add more as I discover them.

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