From this morning’s sermon: Who is Larry Norman?

April 14, 2013
You gotta admit Norman had a great look back in the day.

You gotta admit Norman had a great look back in the day.

I made reference in today’s sermon to Larry Norman, often assigned the dubious distinction of being the “father of Christian rock.” Regardless, I’ve become a fan of first-generation Christian rock—from back in the ’70s, before anyone figured out what it was—back when it was underground protest music. The deeply eccentric Norman, who died at 60 in 2008, was at the forefront of the early scene.

Norman had credibility as a rocker: he was the leader of a ’60s band called People! (does that sound like the ’60s band or what?), which had a Top 20 hit with a cover of the Zombies’ “I Love You.” Even after he decided to make rock music about Jesus, he recorded on a secular label with some of the best studio musicians. His 1972 album Only Visiting This Planet—named by CCM Magazine years ago as greatest CCM album of all time—was executive-produced by Beatles producer George Martin at Martin’s studio.

I became interested in Norman’s music back in 2008, when one of my musical heroes, Carrie Brownstein, former lead guitarist from Sleater-Kinney, blogged about a posthumously released Norman compilation on her now-defunct NPR blog. (Brownstein is far better known today as as Fred Armisen’s very funny comedy partner on Portlandia.) I was amazed that Brownstein was even aware of Norman, who, before his death, was considered washed-up even in Christian music circles.

On her blog at the time, she wrote:

I’ve spent the last few days immersed in Larry Norman-land, which is a more bizarre and contradictory musical world than maybe even Frank Zappa’s or Bob Dylan’s. For one, there are less filters. His lyrics have the straight-talking appeal of someone like Fred Neil meshed with the child-like sensibility of Brian Wilson. Norman verges on the poetic, the mystical, and the metaphysical; and he was a shrewd observer of political injustices. His ruminations are non-conformist; they are words of an outsider, and of the conflicted.

That was enough of an endorsement for me!

I’m linking to a YouTube video of a Norman concert from 2007. This song, which I referred to this morning, is “Reader’s Digest,” a Dylan-esque talking blues whose references time-stamp it in the early-’70s, as Norman acknowledges in the introduction.

Needless to say, he hardly seems washed up here. Rock and roll!

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