EDITOR'S NOTE: First of two columns about Larry Norman and "Christian" rock.
When Larry Norman released "Upon This Rock" in 1969, its rock-star sizzle and blunt faith put the album in the soundtrack for millions of lives as the "Jesus Movement" revival surged onto the cover of Time magazine.
Music industry pros were used to hearing The Beatles on Capitol Records. Now there was a longhaired guy on the same label belting out: "Sing that sweet, sweet song of salvation to every man and every nation. Sing that sweet, sweet song of salvation and let the people know that Jesus cares."
Norman's work did more than shake up church youth meetings. His early success convinced some Gospel music executives to turn up the drums and guitar solos. Soon, "Contemporary Christian Music" grew into a billion-dollar industry with its own written and unwritten rules.
Now it was time for Norman to freak out Christians as much as he did secular-music people in the early years when he shared concert bills with Janis Joplin, The Doors, The Who and others. What were Christian radio stations supposed to do with "The Great American Novel," a song that addressed racism, war, poverty and other hot-button topics?
"You kill a black man at midnight just for talking to your daughter, then you make his wife your mistress and you leave her without water," sang Norman. "And the sheet you wear upon your face is the sheet your children sleep on, at every meal you say a prayer; you don't believe but still you keep on."
Norman "overloaded lots of people's circuits" and, eventually, even his own, according to philosopher Gregory Alan Thornbury, author of a new biography named after one of Norman's most famous tunes -- "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?" The subtitle hints at future darkness: "Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock." Norman died in 2008 at the age of 60.
Thornbury calls Norman the "Forrest Gump," a true "holy fool," of American evangelicalism. The scholar -- and guitar player -- doesn't hide Norman's struggles in business and his private life, adding a painful backstory to a career that put the singer shoulder to shoulder with everyone from the Rev. Billy Graham to President Jimmy Carter, and lots of colorful people in between. As a young man, Vice President Mike Pence was born again at a Christian rock festival -- headlined by Norman.
"Larry thought he could sing about whatever he wanted to sing about," said Thornbury, best known as chancellor of The King's College in New York City (where I teach journalism).
"But a song like 'Sweet, Sweet Song of Salvation' was not written as a campfire song for church youth groups. Larry Norman would stand on the corner of Sunset Boulevard with a guitar and sing that song to hippies, hookers, drug dealers and homeless guys. … He was as comfortable there as anywhere else."
This created a cultural and commercial wall into which Norman crashed, time after time. Early on, Paul McCartney advised Norman, "You could be famous if you'd just drop the God stuff." Later, noted Thornbury, even Billy Graham advised Norman that there might be too much Christian content in his music. Perhaps he could be a bit subtler, in an attempt to attract unbelievers?
During a time of deep discouragement, Norman reached out to the famous Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer, describing his artistic struggles. Among the mountains of private journals and correspondence examined by Thornbury -- with the blessings of the singer's family -- there was this reply to Norman.
"I am sorry that you have had a hard time with the Christian music world," wrote Schaeffer. "I understand the walls that have to be smashed and that sometimes it is a lonely walk. … I feel we have a double responsibility. We must say that Christ is the Lord of the whole world and therefore we do not have to make everything into a tract, and yet looking at the wounded world we do have a responsibility, that each of us is a 'teller' in our own place."
Norman kept straining at that leash. At one point, he told rock journalist Robert Thoreaux: "The sad irony of almost all Christian music is that it preaches salvation to people who already have it, while the people who need the message usually don't hear it."
NEXT WEEK: What is "Christian" art, anyway? The debate rages on.