How Larry Norman Became the Elvis Presley of Christian Rock by Gregory Alan Thornbury

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In 2014, John Darnielle, of the band the Mountain Goats, gave his first novel an obscure title—Wolf in White Van. In the book, the protagonist described watching the Trinity Broadcasting Network many years before. Televangelists Paul and Jan Crouch were discussing Satanism in rock music with an “expert” guest. The hosts were shocked to learn that demonic messages were hidden everywhere—even in albums from so-called Christian artists. To prove his point, the guest produced a vinyl LP, which was placed on a turntable and played backward. Supposedly a mysterious phrase could be heard: “Wolf in White Van.”

Why was this phrase so nefarious? Surely it didn’t help matters that the song it was taken from, “666,” was about the Antichrist. But the larger worry was that the artist, Larry Norman (1947–2008), was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Such suspicion dogged the career of the man who was called the “Father of Christian Rock.”

For decades, Christians have been obsessed with the prospect of hidden messages, both in the Bible and outside it. I confess I spent considerable time in my teenage years listening for purported backward masking on Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Rush records. What possessed earlier generations of evangelicals to spend so much energy on conspiracy theories—to focus less on the songs themselves than what they sound like played in reverse? Why did so many Christians assume that rock ’n’ roll music was the Devil’s handiwork, plain and simple?

My curiosity led me to a man who, once upon a time, seemed to be the source of all the trouble. Thanks to his estate, I was granted access to Larry Norman’s considerable archives. I read mountains of correspondence with both friends and foes, perused diaries, sifted through thousands of photos, watched concert films, and even discovered audiocassettes documenting virtually every period of his incredible life. He lived squarely in the crosshairs of both the secular music world (which warned him that he was crazy to squander his talent on religion) and the evangelical church (which warned him that rock ’n’ roll was of the Devil).

This was a biographer’s dream: One of the most controversial lives in recent American Christianity could be reconstructed—not from the faulty memories of former associates 40 years after the fact but from real-time documentary evidence. I learned why conservative Christian leaders shied away from him, while famous rockers such as Bono, John Mellencamp, and Dizzy Reed of Guns N’ Roses held him up as an inspiration and legend.

‘Brought up in Judgment’

Larry Norman came of age during the cultural and sexual revolution of the 1960s. Spanked for dancing in the aisles of his Southern Baptist church in Corpus Christi, Texas, when he was five years old, Norman soon developed a negative impression of church authorities. He concluded that the Jesus he read about in the Gospels would probably not want to keep company with the grim-faced preachers he encountered throughout his childhood.

In one 1970 performance at The Way Inn in Hollywood, Norman recalled being terrified after learning about the “age of responsibility”—that moment when you’re no longer a child, and you have to make a decision for Christ or risk eternal torment. In between songs he mused:

I was exposed to church when I was little, and so that ruined a lot of things for me. I was brought up in judgment and I was scared most of the time. Now I was from Texas, so that’s one strike against me. I won’t mention the name, but there’s only one kind of church in Texas that I know of, so that’s two strikes against me. And I almost didn’t grow up, because when you grow up the preacher says you gotta become responsible. You know what you’re doing. Now you know right from wrong. So I wasn’t sure I even wanted to be an adult, if you had to go to hell after you got there.

Norman claimed he accepted Jesus as a little boy, “without the help of clergy.” He viewed his relationship with Jesus as something intensely personal and intimate, even ecstatic. The second person of the Trinity was, in his mind, his best friend. After moving from Texas to the San Francisco Bay Area, he wrote songs from the time he was nine. With his father’s words (“No son of mine is going to grow up to be Elvis Presley.”) still ringing in his ears, Norman broke the fifth commandment in decisive fashion: He left home and joined a rock ’n’ roll band. That group, People!, placed Norman on bills with Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, and The Doors. People! captured the interest of Capitol Records (the same label carried The Beatles and The Beach Boys) and scored a top 20 Billboard hit with “I Love You” in 1968.

But there was a problem: Norman, the band’s principal songwriter, wanted to talk about Jesus with his music. He haggled with Capitol over the title of the band’s first LP, which he wanted to call “We Need a Whole Lot More of Jesus, and a Lot Less Rock and Roll,” an old Wayne Raney Christian revival number. Capitol resisted, opting to name the record after the band’s hit tune. But there was yet another rift. Several members, including founding brothers Geoff and Robb Levin, began exploring Scientology. When Norman refused to submit to the Scientology practice of “auditing” (a series of questions by a trained listener intended to lead to spiritual insights), he became targeted as a “suppressive person.” After a freak stage collapse nearly cost Norman his right index finger, he took it as a sign from God to move on.

Youth for Christ offered Norman a job, which he declined. Then Capitol Records surprised him with a request to return to work as a staff writer for a new musical genre he would pioneer: the rock musical. Still, Norman was restless because he wasn’t doing anything for Jesus, and eventually Capitol let him go. Maybe rock did lead to ruin, after all. He locked his guitar away in a closet and redoubled his efforts at street evangelism in Hollywood, sharing the Good News with drug addicts, prostitutes, transvestites, and other “unacceptable” persons. Then one night he heard a song in a dream. It was so vivid that he retrieved his guitar and captured it on his tape recorder. The song turned out to be “Sweet Song of Salvation,” and he was convinced it was a special communiqué from God.

Providentially, Capitol invited Norman back—this time to record a solo album. He agreed, but with one condition: He would be free to sing about the Lord. Ten songs later, he had made something unique. Upon This Rock (1969) would be remembered as “the Sgt. Pepper’s of Christianity,” and it contained a song immortalized by a thousand youth group sing-alongs and HBO’s current apocalyptic TV series The Leftovers: “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.”

Despite positive reviews from critics, Capitol wasn’t sure how to market the album. Sam Goody and Tower Records didn’t exactly have a category for Norman, despite the fact that—as Elvis himself would have told you—rock ’n’ roll came from straight from gospel music played by black churches in the South. Still, Bible bookstores wouldn’t touch such “strange fire” from this Jesus freak. Larry Norman was as untouchable as John and Yoko.

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Source: Christianity Today