Before starting another round of our musical Alphabet Game, I thought I’d delve a bit deeper into explaining some of the subcultural content of my music collection. By that I mean the “Christian rock” that takes up a big chunk of my iTunes library.
I used to have much more of this music and it used to constitute a much bigger share of my collection, and thus of what I listened to. A lot of that music, alas, did not age well and I sold or traded or gave away much of it long before iTunes was invented or before I got that awesome USP turntable that let me convert vinyl into mp3s.
What’s left is the good stuff — or, at least, a mix of the good stuff and the stuff I may be too attached to sentimentally or otherwise to let go. (Those two categories get a bit fuzzy for me sometimes.)
So I thought it might be fun and/or worthwhile to take a closer look at these artifacts from inside the American evangelical subculture by introducing or reviewing some of the sectarian “Christian rock” artists and bands who inhabit my my iTunes library.
This collection of artists marks me not just as a member of that subculture, but as a middle-aged evangelical as well. Back in college I worked at the campus radio station, helping to shape its Christian rock format. For years after that I wrote reviews and features for the late great Christian music ‘zine Notebored, and then I became a regular at Cornerstone and several other Christian music festivals promoting Prism magazine. At Prism, I worked with Dwight Ozard — the best guide I’ve ever known to the good and the bad, the awesome and the abominable, of the little realm of Christian rock.
But that was all a long time ago, and these days I’m completely out of the loop in that musical world. Whoever the next Steve Taylor might be, I haven’t heard him. If there’s a contemporary heir to Mark Heard or some new act as good as the geezers in the Lost Dogs, then they remain undiscovered by me.
I’m 43 and thus reaching the point where my musical preferences threaten to become like that old guy I used to know who still wore his hair like Bowser from Sha Na Na — comfortably settled on something I found and liked decades ago. So maybe my reviewing and reintroducing this old stuff will also enable others to point me to the new stuff — to worthwhile music, “Christian” branded or otherwise — that’s appeared in the years since Bill Clinton left the White House.
Here, though, I figured I might as well start at the beginning, with the long-haired hippy freak usually credited or blamed for creating what came to be called “Christian rock.”
Larry Norman first made a splash as a one-hit wonder with the band People — a groovy California band that charted in 1968 with a cover of The Zombies’ “I Love You.” They even made a video, which is pretty fantastic in a “Listen to the Flower People” kind of way.
Norman became a born-again Christian and then a street preacher and evangelist, but he never put down his guitar and he never cut his hair. He went on to write and record several strange and wonderful albums of 1970s Jesus music, inadvertently inventing a new genre of evangelical pop.
Norman was a very, very odd man. He was half brilliant and half crazy, half saint and half self-serving sinner. And he never seemed able to recognize which half was which. Norman created the template for the “Christian music industry” when he founded his own record label. Solid Rock Records brought together a remarkable collection of gifted artists, proving Norman had a keen eye for talent. He then systematically alienated all of those artists through a combination of mismanagement, duplicity, dishonesty and adultery — thus creating the model for the many Christian music labels operating today in Nashvegas.
I saw Larry Norman in concert twice, both times long after the accident in which he received the blow to the head for which he blamed his later erratic behavior and artistic decline. His concerts by then featured more preaching than singing — long, rambling monologues that seemed like Steven Adler’s outtakes from an episode of Celebrity Rehab, but interspersed with brief flashes of real insight. It was worth sitting through all that talk, though, because after babbling for 10 or 15 minutes, he would play a song. And whatever else was true of him, Larry Norman had some really good songs.
Here’s my Top 10 Larry Norman songs.
The first, and I’m pretty sure the only, Christian rock song to discuss gonorrhea and heroin.
9. “The Tune”
A goofy, 8-minute, anviliciously allegorical epic that captures the best and worst of Norman’s oddball genius, his strange mixture of Hollywood and L’Abri, of hippie idealism and conservative piety.
8. “Six O’Clock News”
Norman’s song about Vietnam. “What can I do?”
With Dudley Moore on piano (!) and classic Tin Pan Alley flair, even premillennial dispensationalist eschatology sounds good. Norman’s idea of the “Glorious Appearing” doesn’t involve blood and death, but something more like Jesus descending the Mount of Olives like Fred Astaire tap-dancing down a staircase:
Water swelled from fountains and then turned to wine,
Rocks fell from the mountains in a chorus line;
He came in tails and top hat and He looked so fine,
And the Son began to reign.
6. “Great American Novel”
A protest song, in which Norman condemns poverty, racism and the Apollo mission while calling for a return of school prayer. It’s actually better than that sounds.
Follow the link above to the YouTube audio at your own peril. This hippie-Jesus sing-along anthem is an earworm.
This is the classic pop-culture artifact of PMD Rapture/Antichrist/prophecy mania. It influenced Hal Lindsay, Tim LaHaye and countless others, providing both the title for the World’s Worst Books, and the soundtrack for the opening credits of the Rapture movie A Thief in the Night. The big difference between Norman and LaHaye here is that when Larry sang, “you’ve been left behind,” it was a mournful, minor-key lament, not a triumphant, trash-talking, end-zone celebration.
3. “Diamonds/One Way”
Simple lyrics, simple melody, simply a lovely song.
When preacher-hucksters like Bob Larson began criticizing Christians who played or listened to rock and roll, condemning it as “the devil’s music,” this was Larry Norman’s response. Not bad.
1. “The Outlaw”
When I first heard this song, I had never thought of Jesus as an outlaw or a poet or a political figure. This song, for me, arrived at just the right time to help nudge me toward seeing what I hadn’t been able to see before. Here’s a second video of this song, just because it’s from Cornerstone 2000 and I was somewhere in that tent.