Monday, February 25, 2008

No longer visiting this planet

Larry Norman has gone home.

Larry is often called the "father of Christian Rock," having written songs like I Wish We'd All Been Ready and Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music, but there was more to it than that. By the time I came of age, Christian rock was well established, and there was even a thriving punk/wave scene going. (Self-important teenagers that we were, we fancied ourselves an "underground.")

But so much of that music, particularly the mainstream CCM) was loaded with easy answers and simplistic reductions. All of life's problems could be solved by just getting on your knees and reciting a "sinner's prayer." In their zeal to sell salvation, the musicians had reduced the complexity of the human condition into a sitcom-sized problem, and the saving grace of Christ into a spiritual band-aid.

Larry didn't try to pretend it was that simple. His songs were filled with confusion, fear and – peeking through from the background – hope. The world was a screwed-up place, man is a screwed-up creature. Jesus may be the answer, but He's the sort of answer that begets a hundred more questions. His decidedly weird takes on the prodigal son and apocalyptic visions leave the listener simultaneously saying "What the hell?" and "Aha!"

Larry also wasn't afraid of tackling social issues, without toeing the political line as Christians are expected to do in public today. Can you imagine any of today's CCM artists writing a song like The Great American Novel or I am the Six-o'Clock News (listen to it here)? Not if they wanted a shot at next year's Dove awards, they wouldn't. And Larry paid the price for that. Lots of Christian bookstores wouldn't carry him even today.

At the same time, he wasn't hesitant to serve up the sacred cows of popular culture, medium rare with potatoes. His song Reader's Digest, delivered in a fast-paced near-rap (in 1973!), is just loaded with satirical gems.
The Rolling Stones are millionaires, the flower children pallbearers
TheBeatles said All you need is love, and then they broke up.
Jimi took an overdose, Janis followed so close
The whole music scene and all the bands are pretty comatose.
This time last year, people didn't wanna hear.
They looked at Jesus from afar
This year he's a superstar.
spoken: Dear John, who's more popular now? I've been listening to some of Paul's new records. Sometimes I think he really is dead.

If you think Larry Norman had a profound impact on me, I won't argue with you. I never met him, nor even saw him perform, but in his songs he spoke for me more times than not. And in the banter on one of his live recordings, he gave the most succinct explanation of saving grace I've ever heard: "You go to heaven because you asked to. You go to hell because you didn't want to go to heaven." I'll never forget that.

Now he's healthy. His questions have all been answered. He doesn't hurt anymore, in body or spirit. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.

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