Art is More Engaging Than Propaganda: An Encounter With Larry Norman
This Piece is featured in the Spring 2012 edition of the Bellwether Review
I met Larry Norman on August 30, 1997. For the many who don’t know, Larry Norman was a central and early figure in the Jesus Movement of the late 1960’s and 1970’s. As a songwriter and performer, he wrote scathing criticisms of both American foreign and domestic policy as well commentaries on the state of the American church and God’s people throughout the world (Not to mention sex and humanity in general). Because of his outspoken nature and tumultuous personal life, Norman was often lambasted both by those in and out of the church. His dissatisfaction with the status quo and his desire to change it is just one of the reasons I admire him and why his legacy endures today. When he passed away from heart failure at his home in Salem, Oregon in 2008, I grieved for him along with many in the church and politics who had formerly despised him. As often happens, those who are spoken ill of during life are found to be perfect and without fault in death.
Norman was very practical and realistic. In his oft covered anthem on American priorities, The Great American Novel, he says “You say we beat the Russians to the moon/But I say you starved your children to do it.” In the same song, he also comments on economic inequality: “You say all men are equal/all men are brothers/Then why are the rich more equal than us?” In an era when it was unheard of for Christians to align themselves with the communists and socialists, lyrics like this often caused these tags to be applied to Norman. He was not afraid to challenge traditional conservative Christian and American values.
Norman asked questions to his fellow musicians in the Christian community in his anthem Why Should the Devil Have all the Good Music? : “They say to cut my hair/they're driving me insane/ I grew it out long to make room for my brain/But sometimes people don't understand/ What's a good boy doing in a Rock n' Roll band?/ There's nothing wrong with playing the blues licks/ If you've got a reason , I want to hear it/ why should the Devil Have all the Good Music?” This is certainly a powerful statement especially within a community--the Christian community—that stresses evangelism and reaching “the lost” and often puts more emphasis on the packaging of the message then the quality of it.
Norman challenged Christian mediocrity. “Art is more engaging then propaganda,” Norman said. This quote should be a battle cry for Christians everywhere who are involved in the arts from films, to books, to music and visual art. As a Christian I am often appalled by the crap produced in the name of Jesus and I’m thankful that Norman was and was not afraid to challenge this. He encouraged Christians to be artistic in their evangelism, and not simply be sign wielding, bumper sticker sticking, slogan t-shirt wearing propagandists. Norman believed that God made us to be excellent, God made us to be good and anything done in His name should follow suit.
This passion for justice and practicality lead him to create some of the best protest music of the late 70’s and 80’s in any market. Classic albums such as Only Visiting the Planet , Upon This Rock and So Long Ago the Garden and songs like I Wish We’d All Been Ready are still popular today, and growing more so among people in my age group (early thirties), attesting to Norman’s refreshing yet challenging messages.
But, the motive behind the message was a motive of justice and love for all. Without these central elements, Norman’s message and music would have been long forgotten. He would likely have been just another long haired hippy writing protest songs, but, Norman loved people and it was this love which prompted my encounter with him to be so memorable.
The setting was the infamous Christian music festival, Tom Fest. The huge festival, featuring as many as 120 bands and launching the careers of artists like Project 86 and Five Iron Frenzy, was held annually in Stevenson,Washington in the Columbia River Gorge from 1995-2004. From 2005 until 2008, it was moved to Camas, Washington before going on indefinite hiatus in 2010. This festival was a huge part of my childhood (and subject of future articles, certainly) and I attended the first ten festivals, twelve total, and played there five times. I made friends with many bands and others who I still hold dear today.
At the festival in 1997, the talk of the festival was Larry Norman.
He wasn't the biggest artist, but he may have been the most popular, if for no other reason then the fact that he was a living legend. Anyone who was familiar with the Jesus People and Christian rock in general knew Larry Norman and wanted to meet him, shake his hand, and have a chat with him. I saw him in the merchandise barn. The unmistakeable;e straight long blonde hair, beard and snake skin boots gave him away. He loomed above the crowd despite his short stature and skinny frame,
I don’t star struck very often. I have met many celebrities, especially in music, but, with Larry, I got giddy. I waited my turn and after a few minutes of listening to him talk with folks young and old and share his wisdom and life experiences, it was finally my turn to shake his hand and greet him and tell him what a big fan I was. Larry, of course, wasn’t into celebrity or fame, though he certainly had a degree of both. I wish I could remember what he said to me, but I can’t. The one thing I do remember is how kind his eyes were and how he asked me questions about me. The love emanating from this man was palpable and I couldn’t help but be impressed by this old hippy. After a few minutes, I relinquished my time with him and went on to mingle and chat with others.
Larry went on to play before a packed crowd on a small stage a few hours later, just him and an acoustic guitar, playing all his hits and impressing everyone with his vigor and love. Had this been my only impression of Larry, it would have been enough, but it wasn’t. The words he spoke later that evening would be the ones that would impact me to this very day.
Larry had written a song called the Six O’Clock News. A recent cover album of Larry’s songs had been released and one of the bands playing the festival, Grammatrain, had covered this song. Grammatrain was the headliner that evening and, when they played News , they invited Larry on stage to sing with them, which he did. Grammatrain’s hard, abrasive grunge rock contrasted nicely with Larry’s upper register whine and the young crowd went crazy for this old man rocking the stage with the youngsters. He banged his head, his long blonde locks dancing wildly around him, and he pranced around the stage as he sang with all the passion he could muster. This was a special performance.
After the song, Larry stood in the center of the stage, quietly; sweat beading off of his face under the red and blue stage lights. The claps began to abate and scatter before dissipating entirely, and Larry’s face changed. We could see him grow somber and serious—this was a far cry from the playful old man we’d seen playing earlier that day during his set, or even minutes before rocking on stage with the band. Something had changed. Larry had something to say, and we would all listen.
“That song,” he began,” Is about the media’s obsession with celebrities. About our culture’s need and desire for gossip. About how the media and the public feels they have the right to intrude in other’s lives. As if they have that right.” He went on. The crowd was hushed. I normally resist being preached too, but my feet were glued where I stood. My ears were wide open. This man, this prophet, had a message for us, but we had no idea where he was going.
This went on for a few moments and then finally Larry dropped his bombshell: “And because of this obsession for gossip, Princess Diana is dead!”
It was August 31,1997 in the UK.
An audible gasp went through the crowd. This was before IPhones and 24 hour mobile access to the news. Most of us had been in this beautiful setting for a few days listening to music and hanging out and had no idea what was going on in the outside world. Cut off from the outside world. Larry brought back the reality of the real world.
I’ll be honest, I’m an American. I didn’t care about Princess Diana. I was sad, certainly, that she died, and when the more details emerged later, I was horrified at the way she died, but, Larry made me care about her death in a way I would not have otherwise. The love and despair in his voice, the look in his eyes, the passion. I suddenly cared and I once again saw this oft misunderstood hippy songwriter as a human being who was full of love and wisdom and a strong sense of justice, and I’ve never forgotten it.
More could and should be said about this great man and I have been toying with writing a book on him (and, with him being a resident of Salem, Oregon, just an hour south of me, this might not be an impossible task.) but I hope that this short little story will honor his memory and inspire others to embrace his message and his music. He was a uniquely gifted man and the world is poorer for his loss.
In a world where people are often afraid to speak up, afraid of what people will think, it's refreshing to have someone like Larry come along. It's also sad that a man was shunned by the people who claim to love the Savior he loved because he had a less then perfect personal life and chose to speak out against the injustices he saw in the church and the world. We need more brave people like him. Before you run your mouth, though, remember what he said in Righteous Rocker #1 , without love, you ain’t nothin. You ain’t nothin without love. This was Larry.
To Learn More About Princess Diana, check out this Hub:
Further tragedy struck the TOM Fest family two days after the festivals ending when we learned that Forthwright, a hardcore band out of Arkansas that I had befriended during the festival, had been in a car accident on the way home and their bass player had been killed. I was seventeen years old at the time and learned more in that week during TOM Fest and after about life and its brevity and love and justice then I ever have since.
Thanks for Reading.
PDXKaraokeGuy, also known as Justin W. Price, is the former managing editor at eHOrror and EPoetry Magazines, as well as for the Bridge Newspaper. He is the author of a POETRY collection, Digging to China, released by the now DEFUNCT Sweatshoppe Publications . BY day he is a business development manager for a car dealership and co-owner of a pet care business.
Husband to andrea, father to two dogs. writer.poet.baseball fan. tattooed. He is am amateur theologian with a rabid sweet tooth.He resides in a suburb of Portland, Oregon.He has a poetry book available for Amazon Kindle, and also maintains a blog, FirstBlog. His work has been featured in the Crisis Chronicles, efiction Magazine, The Hellroaring Review, the Bellwether Review and the Rusty Nail. Please visit his profile page for more information. Thanks!
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