Larry Norman, R.I.P.

Dan Gibson | February 26, 2008 8:43 am

Larry Norman, often referred to as “The Father of Christian Rock”, died at age 60 on Sunday. The complimentary title bestowed on Norman sounds like the ultimate left-handed rock compliment, making it seem as if he spawned a parade of goateed chubby guys strumming acoustic guitars and singing about Jesus. But Norman, a renegade in a musical genre that often rejects those with any opinion whatsoever, merits a moment in the mainstream spotlight for a life well-lived and vastly underappreciated–and even more importantly, he deserves a lot more attention from the industry to which he gave birth.

Larry Norman’s brother and frequent musical partner, Charles, distributed a press release yesterday that ran through the highlights of Larry’s career (of which there were many): among them were his 1969 album Upon This Rock, considered the first Christian rock record, and 1972’s Only Visiting This Planet, the title of which will likely be the lede for a number of obituaries in print and online.

Norman’s Wikipedia page is nearly apocryphal in nature, a testament to the nature of his stardom. Yes, he definitely opened for the Doors, the Who and Hendrix, and was an influence on the Pixies’ Frank Black. And he might have been consulted by Paul McCartney… who can say? That it’s even plausible, in the midst of his Beatles heyday, for McCartney to have known the name of some California singer-songwriter deeply into Jesus is evidence of how legendary Norman is in Christian circles. However–and follow me here for a soapboxy second–if someone had been this influential to a more popular genre of music (say, Lou Reed), they’d be lionized with an extensively reissued catalog, allowed to put out whatever their whims brought forth, coasting on whatever brilliant moment flickered once in the past. Instead, Norman’s obituary contained a thanks for “prayer and finance” in the past and a mention of likely future financial difficulties for his survivors. To be frank, that news is bullshit of the highest order.

If you found yourself curious about Norman’s music, good luck finding some to listen to. The iTunes Store features a remix album and a few scattered appearances. Amazon has a number of out-of-print titles for sale used at somewhat exorbitant prices. Thankfully, the Arena Rock Recording Company is releasing a collection of Norman’s music later this year, as well as an album of new material with Black and Isaac Brock, but how the Christian music business has treated Norman isn’t much of a surprise for anyone who’s ever tried to hear any of the seminal work of Christian rock’s pioneers. (The press release mentions that Norman’s music was banned from most Christian retailers due to his bold stance against racism.)

Daniel Amos, the Seventy Sevens, Lifesavers Underground: try to find music by any of the bands that paved the way for there even to be an alternative to mainstream Christian music, and you’re going to have a hard time finding it anywhere, or hear the artists who made it perform outside of one-off shows in depressingly small venues. If you’re Shaun Ryder, you can grab a bunch of ringers and you’ve got the Happy Mondays and an easy paycheck for a reunion show; if you were Larry Norman, you had to struggle financially for decades while bootleggers and resellers reaped whatever profit might be found in your recordings. There’s more money being used to market faith through music than ever, and the major labels are pulling in the profits through their Christian divisions. It’s time to give something back.

Rest in peace, Larry Norman. Your music inspired, challenged and amazed, both in its artistry and content. Let’s hope someone inside the industry that owes everything to you gets a clue and/or a conscience and gives your successors slightly better treatment.

Larry Norman [Official site]