The New York Times had a fine story the other day about country-music superstar Alan Jackson. No, honest. Read it for yourself. It covers all kinds of territory, including his gospel album that turned into a surprise hit.
Then there is the book that his wife wrote for a major Christian publisher.
Mr. Jackson’s flexibility may have been tested last year when his wife, Denise Jackson, published “It’s All About Him: Finding the Love of My Life” (Thomas Nelson). It’s a graceful book about how their marriage, which began in 1979, was saved by her renewed Christian faith (that “Him” isn’t a “him”), and it found its way to the top of the New York Times best-seller list.
She reduced the juicy parts to a five-word sentence, putting the matter plainly without divulging any details: “Alan had not been faithful.” Asked about the book, Mr. Jackson said, “We’re as happy as we’ve ever been.” But Ms. Jackson’s conclusion in the book, though optimistic, is more bittersweet. The final chapter is called, “Happily Ever After, Even When We’re Not.”
Obviously, Jackson is way too big a star to be a “Christian musician.” One of the implications of the piece is that — to paraphrase Bono — Jackson is a musician who is struggling to be a believer.
So there are musicians who are Christians and then there are contemporary Christian musicians. Those in first group are part of the real music industry and the second are tied to their own niche industry. All of this makes me think about the death of Larry Norman, an edgy rock pioneer. This week, many journalists accurately called him the father or one of the fathers of Christian rock. But some implied that he was linked to the while CCM niche industry. I think you could make a case that he fought the CCM establishment throughout his long and, at times, troubled career.
I was talking about this with a friend of mine, journalism professor Michael Longinow of Biola University, and he said he wanted to write something about the media coverage of Norman. Of course, I said, “Bring it on.”
So take it away, Dr. Longinow:
Death often brings more questions than answers. That was true this week as Christian music legend Larry Norman passed from this life and journalists attempted to unravel what this singer and songwriter really meant to the post-60s generation — and the cash-rich genre that came to be known, toward the end of Norman’s life, as Christian Contemporary Music.
Like many of the angry rebels who Norman set out to bring to Christ, his own musical and life legacy was as much about pain as passion. Randy Stonehill, a friend of Norman’s who came to faith through Norman’s life and music ministry declined an interview request from Christianity Today this week, opting instead to post a statement on his own web site Monday — within hours of Norman’s passing — saying that a tragedy of Norman’s life was his inability to maintain relationships.
“I’m not sure he understood himself completely,” said Stonehill’s site. “This issue
became apparent in the way he consistently seemed to ‘derail’ relationships throughout his life.”
Part of the enigma that was Norman was his tireless pattern of song-writing, music promotion, performing and touring — tied, as it was, to his penchant for not telling the whole truth about where he was going to be next. Perhaps because he’d hurt — or been hurt by — those he trusted, Norman made himself a moving target.
“There’s a possibility that he’s living in Thailand and this is all a ruse. That might offend a lot of people, but that’s how he was,” David DiSabatino told Christianity Today. “I don’t believe that, but then again, if you told me that’s where he was, I wouldn’t bat an eye.”
DiSabatino, who bills himself as an historian of the Jesus rock era, is completing a documentary on Norman. A 2006 documentary by DiSabatino looks at the life of Lonnie Frisby, a conflicted Jesus People musician associated with Calvary Chapel who, with Chuck Smith’s help, is credited with nearly single-handedly launching the Jesus People movement in the 1960s — a movement in which Larry Norman was an influential, if at times reluctant, participant.
Chris Willman, of Entertainment Weekly, had perhaps the most thorough and stylish look-back at Norman (nice photo of Norman in what looks to be Trafalgar Square, being attacked by pigeons) of any written in week after the songwriter’s passing. Willman deftly placed Norman in the paradoxical landscape that was 1969 by noting that when Norman’s “Upon This Rock” hit American turntables, the Christian music scene had little that appealed to the young in evangelical churches who were being mesmerized by the rock-and-roll revolution that had been underway for more a decade. Willman writes:
For quite a few years, the sum total of the Christian rock genre was pretty much Larry Norman. It may be difficult now — at a time when bands like Paramore find wide acceptance in both the Christian and mainstream worlds (and almost a quarter-century on from the advent of Stryper) — to remember a time when there was no such thing as CCM, and when, if any such thing did pop up, it was greeted with distrust and scorn on either side of the evangelical-pop divide. The Beatles were about to break up, yet the cutting edge of Christian music was still represented by the folksy-choral records made by Ralph Carmichael, better known as Billy Graham’s musical director. Then along came an unsmiling, almost sneering guy who, like Johnny Cash, usually dressed all in black, though, unlike Cash, he had whiteish blond hair down past his chest. And he was singing about salvation and the rapture, with humor and sass, in a voice that clearly owed a lot to Mick Jagger’s cocky intonation. In the church vs. counterculture world of the ’60s and early ’70s, this officially counted as cognitive dissonance, and maybe it still does.
Among the earliest to note Norman’s passing was Bullypulpitnews.com, a blog run by media-watcher and producer Mark Joseph (a fervent critic of CCM) in Southern California. Joseph’s obituary for Norman ran on huffingtonpost.com on Tuesday. It took other media a day or two to catch up.
National Public Radio posted an unsmiling photo of Norman on Thursday, from what looks like the 1970s as a teaser to an interview with Charles Norman. In that interview, Norman’s younger brother recalled growing up with a big brother bold enough to grow his hair long and write about sin in ways that transcended metaphor.
Gonorrhea on Valentine’s Day
And you’re still looking for the perfect lay
Why don’t you look into Jesus
He’s got the answers
“Stuff like that that shocked uptight Christians,” said Charles Norman.
And he was right. Many Christian bookstores — primary outlets for tame Christian music in the era when Norman was exploding on the music scene — refused to carry his music. Not that this bothered him, outwardly anyway. Rejection became a kind of ongoing theme of Norman’s life. His style almost invited it.
Veteran mainstream music writer Steve Turner, in a Norman obituary for Reuters that ran in London’s Guardian newspaper, said Norman “ploughed an often lonely furrow as a solo artist who tried to combine the thrill of the Beatles and Rolling Stones with the spiritual insight of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesteron.”
For more mainstream media reports, see Reuters the Oregonian, and the San Jose Mercury News. As a rule, the mainstream played up Norman’s status as a converted secular rocker who put Christian rock on the map in ways that got the attention of such rock pioneers as Bob Dylan, Pete Townshend, Fleetwood Mac, Van Morrison, U2, Petula Clark and (wait for it) Sammy Davis, Jr.