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Larry Norman: Saying Good-bye to the Rebel with a Cross 
By psychologist, Dr. Bruce L. Thiessen, aka Dr BLT 

To prepare to say good-bye to Larry Norman, please feel free to listen to my tribute admittedly limited interpretation of his classic song, 

I Wished We’d All Been Ready 
Dr BLT cover of Larry Norman song 

Christian rock is one of those for-lack-of-a-better-term-terms, but when it comes to describing this man, whom we so recently lost and now mourn, there are clearly certain adjectives that fit well: pioneer, legend, juggernaut, to name a few.  In this song, I call him:

Rebel with a Cross 
(A Tribute to Larry Norman) 
Dr BLT copyright 2008 

In terms of his influence on “Christian rock,” and contemporary “Christian music,” the shoes he leaves behind are simply too big for anybody to fill.   I became acquainted with his music when I was about 12 years of age through an older cousin who constantly played albums of his when me and the rest of my family came to visit----albums like 

Only Visiting This Planet, now regarded by rock critics as one of the most influential “Christian albums” of all time.  This album was chock-full of hits---catchy, folk-rock ballads and blasters that captured the restless spirit of the times and proclaimed a new sort of rock n roll gospel that the world could understand.   

When you listened to his music, you got the sense that he listened to a lot of Bob Dylan.  Then again, years later, if you happened to listen to Dylan’s You Gotta Serve Somebody, you could swear Bob Dylan had listened to him. 

When I think of the music of Larry Norman, the first thing that comes to mind is authenticity.  He was the real deal and he dealt in truth with every passionate word he delivered in his songs.  He told it like it was, and didn’t try to sugar-coat anything, sing only happy songs, or dance around the difficult issues that haunted and plagued his very soul.

His songs were raw, occasionally quirky, witty, boldly confrontational, and, often caustic.  His music was, and is. the oft-irregular heartbeat that keeps “Christian music” alive and thriving to this very day.   On Sunday, February 24, his own heart stopped beating and he went to be with the Lord he served with a passion for so many years.  He was 60 years of age when he was recruited into that Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven the Righteous Brothers used to sing about.   

He wore his hair long, he sang an edgy song, and he always made me feel like I 
Belonged, teaching me that being a Christian didn’t automatically mean you had to be a geek or a nerd.  Larry Norman made it cool to be a Christian, putting the “cool” in Christianity and the “rebel” in righteous rock ‘n’ roll.  

The songs of Larry Norman made a lasting impression on me.  I’ll never forget the sweetness, and optimistic hopefulness of "Sweet, Sweet Song of Salvation.'   I’ll never forget the irony of "I Don’t Believe in Miracles."  And I certainly won’t forget "The Last Supper," and how the song ended with cacophonous banging on the piano.  

But the song I remember most vividly is the hauntingly poignant "I Wish We'd All Been Ready,' passionately delivered with a singular apocalyptic urgency.  

The 1972 end times film A Thief in the Night, which featured that very Norman song,  scared me to death, and I was already a born-again believer at the time, so I had no real reason to be afraid.   Lots of those end time movies back then seemed to be designed to scare people into the kingdom---at least that’s what it felt like when I was a kid.  But though Norman’s song paints a bleak and tragic end-times scenario, it’s the compassion and the longing to spare lost souls that is most prominent in "I Wish We’d All Been Ready."  

Larry Norman suffered a great deal after sustaining severe head injuries in an airplane accident 30 years ago.   The complications that followed had a detrimental impact on his musical career.   He often lived a life of discomfort and pain, even physical torment at times, but he endured and pressed on for the sake of the gospel.  He was eventually forced to give up his career (for the most part), but he never stopped being grateful to God, for the gift of music, and for the gift of suffering.  

Larry Norman passed on this message to all of us through a personal friend right before he died: 

"I feel like a prize in a box of Cracker Jacks with God's hand reaching down to pick me up," Norman said. "I have been under medical care for months. My wounds are getting bigger. I have trouble breathing. I am ready to fly home."

Sometimes our greatest strengths are also our greatest weaknesses.  His determination to persevere through all kinds of weather could have also been his Achilles heel.  

Though he often flashed the one-way sign of the times among members of the Jesus movement of the '70s, some portray Larry as a control freak.  Through the experience of a few fellow artists, it was often Larry’s way or the highway when it came to working as a team player.   According to the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music, Daniel Amos band and Randy Stonehill, both contemporary Christian artists/bands who reached their peak of popularity in the '70s, claimed to have been mistreated by Larry Norman, both financially and personally. 

In my interview with Pat Boone, we discussed Larry Norman, whom Pat Boone had also worked with on a collaborative venture in the past.   Pat Boone harbored no bitterness and seemed to have a forgiving spirit as it pertained to Larry Norman’s Achilles Heel.  In our December 2005 interview, Pat Boone put it this way:

“I started a label called Lamb & Lion.  At the very beginning, Larry Norman and I sort of linked up.  I was funding the whole thing.  It was not going to be a 50-50 situation.  He was a control guy, in a successful way for him I suppose.  He wanted it to be done exactly his way, even though I was funding it, and had my own gospel recordings, it was not going to work out, because we were not going to be equally yoked.   

We were both believers, but he had to go his way, and I went mine.  It was like Paul and Mark, they separated.  So I kept Lamb & Lion records going, and we introduced people like Steven Chapman and DiGarmo & Key and Dogwood and I did my own recording, and there was Debbie, with her gospel recordings, and I did TV specials.” 

I don’t want to pretend to be confident that Larry Norman was loved by all, or by all who were closest to him.  I don’t want to suggest that he consistently knew how to communicate the love of Christ with those whom he worked with.  Furthermore, I was not in the midst of those encounters, and he is no longer alive to defend against the assertions of artists whom he may have had a beef with him.  In any case, you don’t kick a man when he’s down and you don’t stomp on his grave either.  He’ll be in heaven, not because of his own righteousness, and not by his own ability to smooth out the rough edges in his life, but by the boundless grace and the blood of Jesus Christ that he so boldly proclaimed throughout the world.

There’s one other thing I can confidently assert about Larry Norman’s life.  Larry Norman’s life was afforded a divine purpose, just like the Apostle Paul, who also suffered from a “thorn in the flesh.”   Larry Norman never allowed his own “thorn in the flesh” to stop him from communicating, with the utmost deftness, the utmost clarity, the highest vision, and utmost passion, the gospel of Jesus Christ.  

As he projected into the future and looked upon the land that surrounded him, he saw incredible suffering and wished we’d all been ready.  He didn’t stop preparing people, with his music and his testimony, for the return of Christ.   Randy Stonehill, whom he had developed a stormy relationship with in the latter years of his career, was among those he led to Christ.  So, a few bumps on the road of their relationship shouldn’t take away from the fact that they both traveled on the road less traveled, the one Larry introduced to Randy.  No, Larry was not Randy’s savior, just a servant who led him to the savior.  

So here’s to Larry, not Larry the saint, or Larry the savior, but Larry the servant.  I have no doubt that as he entered the gates of heaven, Jesus said, “Well done, thy good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of the Lord.”  The choir in heaven may even invite him to lead them in a concert featuring some of his greatest hits.  

Larry’s Sweet, Sweet Song of Salvation will remain in my heart, and in the hearts of the multitudes he influenced and moved, for years to come.  Larry Norman: Rest in peace, and may your music go on!


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