Larry Norman's funeral wasn't a sad affair. Sitting in the last lonely pew in the crowded suburban Salem church, I found his memorial celebration to be an uneven balance of a rock montage tribute—he was, after all, saddled with the hefty title of "Father of Christian Music"—with a surreal dose of religious chest-pounding and slightly overly righteous dogmatic zeal. It was touching, it was awkward, and basically, it was like all 60 years of Norman's life.
I know, you've probably never heard of Larry Norman. That is, unless your parents became born-agains and purchased all your music at the local Christian bookstore using those handy conversion charts ("If your child likes the Beatles, they'll love Larry Norman"), or you grew up with Sunday mass as a weekly ritual. But odds are, if you are reading this sin-soaked rag, you have never heard of the man. You know he lived close by, right? Right down in Salem. And if there is anything you can say about Norman—and as someone who is downright obsessed with his bizarre legacy, I can attest there is a lot to say about the man—it is that he was conflicted. He was an honest-to-God—in more ways than one—rock icon whose beliefs dangled like an albatross around his neck. Cursed by his blessings, Norman struggled his whole life as a performer with a stellar catalog of music that was fraught with bad luck, bad breaks, and a bad reputation—or possibly all three.
Larry Norman wasn't just a Christian rocker, he was the Christian rocker. Cutting his teeth in '60s pop band People! (their lone hit, "I Love You," was a Zombies cover that became a staple of Norman's solo work, and the closest thing he had to a hit outside the church), Norman's devotion wasn't a passing phase. He wasn't like Dylan, who got in and got out, or Bono, whose spiritual relationship seems to have more to do with his swelling God complex and token photo ops with the pope. Norman dove in head first, for better or worse, and in doing so, bid farewell to a possible career atop the pop charts.
The ultimate Jesus freak, Norman was a post-hippie peacenik whose devoted beliefs scared away the secular masses. And rightfully so, because what followed Norman was a shameful march of hokey spiritual music that consisted of church pop stars like DC Talk, Michael W. Smith, and the most comical of them all, the yellow-and-black hair-metal attack of Stryper. Secular music had never seemed more appealing, or realistic, while Christians music was for devoted clowns that preferred message over music. Of course, for Norman, it wasn't so easy. While his spiritual peers raked it in—and they did just that; from Amy Grant to the mosh-for-Christ anthems of Underoath, the Christian music scene is all about the money—Norman was left out in the cold. His views might have been aligned with scripture, but they never seemed to mesh with the modern church. He was outspoken in his opposition to the Vietnam War, he despised the media, and he was often at odds with the church itself.
Pity the poor Christian rocker who doesn't have a church to pray inside.
Norman's devotion fell between the cracks, which might not have helped his bottom line, but it did wonders for those who, supposedly at one time, fell under his influence—from Dylan to Townshend, Bono to Frank Black. Norman was able to seamlessly teeter on that ever-so fine line between long-haired rock rebel and Bible-thumping churchgoer without the slightest bit of irony.
Essentially, the man's gift for drawing in the unwashed sinning rock 'n' roll masses was also his curse. At a time before extreme rollerblading, tattoos, and MxPx hoodies were a part of the church's outreach ministries, Norman did the dirty work. Need proof that the cool kids like Christ? See Larry Norman. He looked the part of rock 'n' roll frontman, and his records—especially the cover of 1972's Only Visiting This Planet, where a gritty Norman is photographed, looking haggard, if not hungover, in the heart of Times Square, far from the pristine Wonder Bread perfection of the church—were like a beacon of truth when perched on the racks of the local Christian bookstore, or borrowed from some older, cooler sibling.
For kids indoctrinated in the way of the Lord, Norman was both an in, and an out, to spirituality. It all depends on your moral needs, I suppose, but for some Norman was the bridge to the sinful licks of hell's sweet flames and the rock 'n' roll that came with it. From Norman, to Slow Train Coming Dylan, to secular Dylan, to political folk songs... and next thing you know you are licking the cloven hoofs of Satan himself as you reach for the bottle and that Robert Johnson LP. But for others, Norman was proof that the Lord cared not for your looks, and heaven's dress code didn't omit the token long-haired skuzzy rocker if his heart was true.
At a time when the annals of rock music have been raked with a fine-toothed comb, Norman might just be the last hidden gem that remains. The shadow of his influence stretches far from the dogmatic hymns of the pulpit, as he became one of the few performers whose devoted beliefs and lyrics were secondary to the stunning quality of music he created. He will be missed.