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Remembering Larry

Larry was one of those people who had deep, penetrating eyes that seemed to look right through your outside – the mask that you would wear everyday – and directly into your soul. You had no place to hide at that moment: you were in The Larry Norman Reality, and you knew that it was not a place to play games in. This, no doubt, made the prospect of a face-to-face encounter with Larry an intimidating and even frightening event – of course, until you actually did meet Larry up close there was no way of knowing how welcoming and warm he would actually be. I remember vividly (and this was another aspect of Larry’s personality: once you met him, the event was etched indelibly on your soul) meeting Larry backstage after a concert. My wife, Carina, and I were both fairly nervous about approaching this man who, to us, was a legendary and enigmatic figure. Even from our seats, we both felt that penetrating gaze, that moment of eye-contact that seemed to momentarily transform us from concertgoer to brother/sister/friend, as Larry entertained, challenged and – most of all – touched us through his art – and his art, it turns out, was his life. When we finally did meet him, hoping simply to say, ‘Hello, Larry – your music has really meant a lot to us,’ and to get away with our dignity relatively unscathed, we encountered a man devoid of the ‘rock star’ ego, an icon of the Christian music scene who didn’t see himself on a higher level than his audience. Within a few minutes, Larry Norman – Larry Norman – had his arm around our shoulders, introducing us to fellow-performer James Sundquist as his friends, Bert and Carina. 

Some say he was an outlaw…. Larry was the ultimate outsider: Unwilling to dance to the tune of the industry moguls, Larry Norman seemed ultimately estranged from the Christian Music Establishment that largely owed their very existence to him. What better figure, then, to become a role model and hero to so many of the optimistic but disenfranchised artistic souls that blossomed in the sixties? Norman was the free spirit, the poet, the troubadour, the artist, the rebel, and – yes – the man of God that so many of us suburban-bred church boys lived vicariously through. I remember, after discovering that at last there were Christian artists creating rock music, arranging to sell ‘Jesus Music’ albums in the lobby of my church after Sunday morning service. It all ended after a deacon listened to all of the lyrics in “Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus?” Larry got me into big trouble – cool. Being the outsider wasn’t always cool for Larry, though. Eschewing the politics of the music industry drove Larry from the mainstream to an increasingly smaller circle of friends. Years of unfortunate situations and illness plagued Larry’s later years, ultimately ending ten days after Valentine’s Day (yes, ‘VD’), as his heart slowed to a stop and his life’s momentum propelled him to the home he often sang about.

No doubt, the tributes will come, perhaps with a sense of awkward recognition – like having to say nice things about the deceased relative that you never really got along with. Larry Norman’s special genius and pioneering spirit will, however, be recognized – perhaps more so now than when he was alive, since he’s no longer around to make the CCM establishment nervous. Larry was real, and didn’t play games with his Christianity. I remember one concert in particular, when some well-meaning but misguided audience members were asking Larry why he didn’t smile more. Later in the show, in a very impromptu encore moment, Larry had great fun playing a Beatle song, for which he was promptly chastised by the same audience that, earlier in the evening, demanded a smile. The irony wasn’t lost on Larry, who wasn’t the type to let that kind of audience behavior go by without expressing his own hurt and confusion at a community of believers that required a puppet-like performance to appease their own idea of what a Christian artist was supposed to act like.

I hope Larry’s smiling now.

A friend – Bert Saraco

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