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Jesus music pioneer Larry Norman dies in Oregon aged 60
THE PIONEER of Christian rock music, Larry Norman, died early Sunday morning, 24th February 2008, at his home in Salem, Oregon. Larry wrote a farewell letter telling his close family and friends that he loved them. He died of heart failure at 2.45am in the arms of his brother Charles and Charles' wife Kristin.
With shoulder length blonde hair and a talent for creating music that was at once rooted in popular culture and expressed the strong conviction of his faith, the passing of Larry Norman brings to a quiet dignified close a songwriting career that spanned 52 years. Larry Norman's initial foray into the music scene was as one of two vocalists with the West Coast band People!. The day their debut album was released by Capitol Records in 1968, Norman quit the band citing his unhappiness with label interference with the band's artistry. It would be a complaint that he would continue as a solo artist with subsequent labels who signed him.
He was often cited as the "father of Contemporary Christian Music" which was a tag he didn't enjoy and joked that he liked even less late in his life when it was changed to "Grandfather of Contemporary Christian Music". The problem is that Norman's music stood in a unique place as he toiled in mainstream culture to communicate his faith in a fashion that also stood in direct conflict with the approaches of the church. He was an outsider, largely ignored by the mainstream rock press but also denigrated by the church for his long hair, his earthy lyrics and choosing to write about subjects that were a long way outside the safe environment of the church. It would be another issue that would define his career.
Norman became a Christian at the age of five and was raised in a black Pentecostal church. In 1956 he heard Elvis Presley's music and would later say that he felt Elvis had stolen rock'n'roll from the church and he was determined to steal it back. The roots of the idea of marrying a spiritual message with rock'n'roll music began there and then in his childhood even though it would be more than a decade before he would have the opportunity to begin fulfilling that vision.
'Upon This Rock', his solo debut from 1969, was also recorded for Capitol Records and featured songs that sounded more like letters to the hippie counterculture than anything the church might enjoy. It emerged at a time when the world's media began taking an interest in the emerging Jesus movement and the plethora of music birthed by newly converted hippie Christians. Whether he liked it or not Norman became an unofficial spokesperson for the movement.
The roots of the emerging Contemporary Christian Music scene are found here which is ironic since Norman's desire was always to make his music in the mainstream. A trilogy of albums in the mid seventies marked the highest peak for his creativity. 'Only Visiting This Planet' (1972) is often referenced as the greatest Christian album ever recorded featuring some of the songs that are his most famous like "I Wish We'd All Been Ready", "Why Don't You Look Into Jesus" and "Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music". Recorded in London, it was released on MGM Records along with its follow up 'So Long Ago The Garden' (1974).
Never far from controversy, it was the latter album, that caused people to wonder whether he had walked away from his faith. Its subject matter examined life at a distance from God and many thought the songs were autobiographical. The third part of the trilogy saw his popularity soar as 'In Another Land' was packed with songs that happened to be more church friendly. In the mid seventies, Norman signed to the mainstream label ABC Records who subsequently bought the Word Record label and they switched him to Word. It was the first of his albums to be released on a Christian label.
During the next period of his life, he established his own Solid Rock label, nurturing other music talent including Randy Stonehill, Daniel Amos, Pantano-Salsbury and Tom Howard. He also recorded the concept album 'Something New Under The Son' in 1977 but only saw it released in the UK in 1981. The Solid Rock label dissolved with a number of broken relationships and label artists unhappy with the way things worked out. However it's a testimony to Norman's ability to spot talent that his artists became some of the most prominent in the Christian music scene.
After the Solid Rock label was wound up, Norman spent the early eighties working with the newly founded Chapel Lane Records producing albums and touring with artists. However it was a number of years before he would come close to recreating the creativity of the seventies and release an album that would match the high point of his music.
He would later explain that in 1978 when landing at Los Angeles airport at the end of a world tour, a piece of the roof of the aircraft cabin was dislodged and landed on his head. The subsequent damage to his brain left him unable to complete projects and focus artistically. The effect on his music was that fans were offered a number of live albums, compilations and albums made up of previous recordings and it wouldn't be until the nineties when he would hit a new creative patch.
In a miraculous incident, after receiving prayer from church leader John Barr, Norman maintained that God repaired the damage to his brain and he was able to function again. The creative rush that followed was expressed on 'Stranded In Babylon' which saw him collaborate with his younger brother Charles Norman.
Unfortunately the nineties saw Norman's health deteriorate after two heart attacks and he struggled to perform live though he continued to record from time to time when his strength allowed. The creative collaboration with his brother bore more fruit in 2001 on what is considered to be Norman's last great album, 'Tourniquet'. In the last years whenever he made rare live performances, it would often be accompanied by his brother's band Guards Of Metropolis.
His personal life was less successful. As we've seen, his business relationships were often fraught with difficulty and his love life wasn't any easier. Norman was married twice. His first wife Pamela Norman was a model but sadly they divorced in 1980. Anyone who witnessed his broken performance at Greenbelt that year will remember the emotional toll of the break up. His second wife Sarah had been the wife of his best friend Randy Stonehill and the marriage contributed to the breakdown in relationship between the two men. She bore him one child, Michael, before they too divorced.
In the last years of his life, Norman and Stonehill were reconciled, performed and recorded together for a final time. For the final years, Norman resided in Oregon surrounded by his family who were with him when he finally slipped away to the eternity he'd spent a lifetime with one finger lifted high pointing his audiences towards.
Larry Norman clearly loved Jesus and beyond his music, the passion to introduce those he met to Jesus underpinned everything he did. As a performer, his ability to hold an audience with deadpan humour, clever political commentary and general wit, made him a mesmerising performer. In his later years, he struggled on with occasional performances here in the UK. There had been recent talks of him playing some European dates this summer but sadly his death brings down the curtain on any concerts this side of eternity.