Outlaw: Remembering Larry Norman

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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

Youtube clips:
Great American Novel

The Tune

The Outlaw

Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus?


14 Comments

  1. Chris Hubbs

    To date, my only familiarity with Larry Norman (save just knowing the name) was Geoff Moore’s cover of Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?. Thanks for your story, synopsis, and links, Jason. I’ll have to follow up on them. My own musical path started with Rich Mullins, so now I’m having to trace my way back through his musical roots.

  2. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Hey Chris, glad to have sparked your curiousity! I think the best way to get a sense of Larry’s legacy is to get his first record, Upon This Rock, and also Only Visiting This Planet, which features the song “The Great American Novel” which manages to address social justice, empty religiosity, racism, Big Brother politics, and even includes a jab at the space program! It’s articulate and smart and is still covered by artist’s today.

    If you’ve got enough money for it, I’d add So Long Ago The Garden and In Another Land to the list and complete the trilogy of albums that begins with Only Visiting This Planet. All of them sound like legit rock and roll from that era, and yet are uniquely his.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. Bryan Hardwick

    Thanks Jason for remembering this man who has had such a profound impact on the CCM industry. As a young believer in Jesus, I remember listening to Larry’s music. His popular songs, Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music, UFO, The Rock That Doesn’t Roll, I Wish We Had All Been Ready and I Am A Servant shaped my new faith in God and my understanding of who I am in relationship to him. In the early 1980’s, I attended a Larry Norman concert and I still have the picture I took with his signature stance of pointing his index finger toward heaven… indicating One Way!

  4. Billy Marsh

    Wow, I’m glad you posted this because I had no idea that Norman had passed away. The pastor that I grew up under tried to keep in touch with his past experiences in the “Jesus Movement” and thus exposed me to a lot of the early Christian music of the 60s and 70s. In fact, guys such as Phil Keaggy, Randy Stonehill, and Keith Green were some of my first serious exposures to “Christian” music.

    Once I began to do my own musical research, I of course stumbled upon Larry Norman. I couldn’t believe just how foundational he was for the entire CCM movement and how just about every other Christian musician or artist is in some way standing on his shoulders. Since then, I have listened to a lot of Norman’s music as well as many others from that time period. When I got a record player, I started sifting through the local used book/music stores and have found many old “Jesus Movement” records, which were still in pretty good condition. I have a solid collection now of original vinyls from Stonehill, Norman, Petra, Keaggy, Daniel Amos Band, and so on.

    I’m glad you honored him and we all must realize that despite his oddities, his ministry was one that spanned beyond just the music scene. We should give thanks for his life, one that was so bent on bringing lost souls to Jesus.

  5. Jeff Lane

    Great Post Jason, I was introduced to Larry Normans stuff in the early 80’s, at the time felt it was to late 60’s early 70’s ish for me, but come to appreciate some of his work and much like you it led me to other fantastic artists associated, so many artists from that era 70’s and 80’s Randy StoneHill, Keaggy etc. I feel really have paved the road for the music I appreciate and listen to most.

  6. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    I was reading Billy’s post above and remembered a detail I forgot to include here – which may only be interesting to me, but I’ll share it nonetheless.

    My FIRST exposure to Larry Norman was actually in choir in grade-school. I grew up in a small Midwestern town of about 280 people (that explains my parochial worldview that I’m always trying to overcome). I had 8 people in my class! Anyway, our choir teacher, Mrs. Boreson, must have been a believer because one of the songs we would sing was Larry Norman’s song about the second coming of Christ, I Wish We’d All Been Ready, along with other folk songs of the era like One Tin Soldier, Pass It On, etc.

    Imagine my surprise when I got older and discovered that this song I sang in public school was the anthem for a generation who was preparing for Christ’s return! It gave me a whole new respect for Mrs. Boreson.

    And this is indicative of Norman’s work during his time – it had a way of seeping into the larger culture. The church couldn’t contain it (I don’t think they even wanted it around!)

  7. Tony Heringer

    Jason…thanks for the post. I’ve been inspired by Mullins and Green. Looks like Norman is one I should check out too. But, it will have to be next week as it is time for me to depart. Y’all have a good one!

  8. Staci Frenes

    Jason

    I was a HUGE Larry Norman fan…met him when he did a show in CA with Randy Stonehill. I was sat at the after show dinner table with both of them! I used to cover “The Outlaw” back in high school when I first learned to play guitar….I loved that he called Jesus’ disciples “a band of unschooled ruffians..”

    I consider him my gateway drug into CCM. Truly. Like you, through him I found Randy Stonehill, Second Chapter of Acts, and the list goes on and on. Looking back on his music, I know now why it was his music that drew me in more than any other Christian artist. It was literate, poetic, ironic, passionate and oh-so-catchy 🙂

    Thanks for the homage. It was well deserved and well written!

  9. Peter Eason

    Thanks Jason , I too really appreciate your passionate and articulate tribute to Larry Norman. I must say that though I ‘ve been aware of Larry’s life and music for alot of years , it’s been more on the periphery ( did I spell that right ?! ). However , I have been deeply and profoundly influenced , blessed and challenged by artists that Larry had an impact on ( to a greater or lesser degree ) ; notably , Keith Green , Mark Heard , and of course Rich Mullins. In my opinion ( for whatever that’s worth ! ) Larry’s impact would be hard to over – state , mostly because he had the courage and faith to act on his convictions – whether or not others approved or understood , and even when his commercial viability was adversely affected. God bless and keep you His , Jason. I’m very eager to read your piece on Mark Heard.

    Peter Eason
    Meadow Lake , Saskatchewan
    Canada

  10. Peter Eason

    P.S. Any thoughts on the recent “Promotion to Glory” ( Salvation Army venacular !! ) of another great artist who loved Jesus , Roby Duke ?

    Peter

  11. Paul Brumley

    Great tribute. I first discovered Larry Norman because a couple of artists I liked appeared on a Larry Norman Tribute album back in the 80’s. I can’t tell you where that album is today (yes it was a record) but “Only Visiting This Planet” can be found on my iPod.

  12. Dan

    Hey Jason, Dan from Illinois, now moved to Missouri. Just found you from listening to Radio. I saw your name Jason Gray and wondered if that was the same guy Jason Gay that was an CCM collector like me. I was one of the avid collector of Music that sold you a few larry norman, randy stonehill and Mark Heard items. (Still one of my faves).

    Good luck on your career.

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