Larry Norman (I Don't Want To Know)
My wife and I went to see “Knives Out” this past weekend. (Spoiler Alert: It’s REALLY Good.) At one point two of the main characters were sitting in a diner and I heard familiar music playing in the background – music I’d never have expected to hear anywhere outside of my personal collection.
You can be a righteous rocker, or a holy roller, you can be most anything.
You can be a child of the slums, or a skid row bum, you can be a corporate king.
But without love, you ain’t nothin’ – you ain’t nothin’ without love...
It was “Righteous Rocker” by Larry Norman. Larry FREAKIN’ Norman in a mainstream movie full of name brand talent 40 some years after his musical peak.
Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of him – most people in this century haven’t. He was a major influence in some very specific circles and a minor figure in rock’n’roll in the late 1960s and 1970s, but hardly a household name outside of those worlds. Norman was the original “Christian Rock” guy. Long hair, leather jacket, steeped in the blues and psychedelia, he was horrifying parents and confusing pastors long before Stryper, Steve Taylor, or Daniel Amos were old enough to tour.
Gonorrhea on Valentine’s Day – and you’re still looking for the perfect lay.
You think rock’n’roll will set you free, but you’ll be deaf before you’re thirty-three.
Shootin’ junk ‘til you’re half-insane; broken needle in your purple vein.
Why don’t you look into Jesus? He’s got the answer....
I came across my first Larry Normal album – on vinyl, of course – in a small Christian music shop and book store in Tulsa back in the late 70s or early 80s. It was a live album called “Roll Away the Stone (And Listen to the Rock),” and I couldn’t resist. He looked completely unhinged, and I’d never seen anything like that in Jesus music before. Upon taking it home and playing it, my world was shaken even further. The mix was raw, like it had been fed from a few mics straight into grooves with little concern for revision or refinement. I was in rock’n’roll heaven.
Er... as it were.
Eldridge was a bad man – at least that’s what the people said.
But Eldridge, he was only working out all the things they put inside his head.
Just a little peace and quiet was his one desire –
But it never came, ‘til something set his soul on fire...
Over the years I bought more Larry Norman albums, and later CDs. I never had everything, but I had plenty. Eventually he fell off my regular playlist and I lost track of his career until I read somewhere that he’d been in medical treatment and wasn’t entirely healthy. In February of 2008, he died of something heart-related. When I read about it, I cried.
That’s only happened with a handful of people I’ve never actually met. It doesn't always happen even with those I have. He was a big deal to me.
See, Norman’s music in many ways got me through high school and some really weird years afterwards. He was a big part of surviving my divorce and navigating my subsequent religious disillusionment. His songs remained a consistent reference during various outbreaks of crashing and burning throughout the years. He impacted my musical tastes more than I realized; my current love of Sirius/XM’s “Underground Garage” station still reveals tracks to me which clearly influenced songs he’d written or musical devices he employed.
In some cases, I suppose, it’s possible that they borrowed from him.
Mama killed a chicken – she thought it was a duck. She put it on the table with it’s legs stickin’ up.
Papa broke his glasses when he fell down drunk – tried to drown the kitty cat, turned out to be a skunk.
You gotta watch what you’re doing, don’t you know? You gotta know where you’re going...
Do you know?
Here’s the messy part.
I’d picked up from various interviews with other artists here and there that Norman was apparently a rather difficult person to work with. I had a few friends much more plugged into that world than I was, and they indicated on different occasions that he had a reputation as unreliable and a tad bit deranged at best and hypocritical and manipulative at worst. I learned that he’d divorced his first wife and that his second had originally been married to his close friend, Randy Stonehill (another successful Christian music guy from back in the day).
Apparently, pretty much everyone else at the collective “Contemporary Christian Music” slumber party either didn't invite him at all or stayed on the other side of the room and whispered when he went into the kitchen for more dip.
I wasn’t certain that he was actually evil, but perhaps it was just as well I’d never actually met him or been otherwise connected. There’s a reason we avoid getting close to our heroes, after all.
I’ve been shot down, talked about, some people scandalize my name...
But here I am, talking ‘bout Jesus just the same.
They say I’m sinful, and backslidden – that I have left to follow fame...
But here I am, talking ‘bout Jesus just the same.
A year after his death, a documentary was released purporting to fully expose his corruption and deception and the like. “Fallen Angel: The Outlaw Larry Norman” certainly had an impact – it got people across Christendom talking, especially those involved in or attached to the strange world of Christian music. Whatever else he was, he managed to remain a polarizing figure in death as much as he’d apparently been in life.
A few decades ago, I’d have wanted to watch it, even if I found it uncomfortable or disappointing. I’d have researched it a bit to see how much of it was considered accurate by those closer to the situation, or what sorts of responses had come from Norman’s circle of friends and colleagues. Heck, I’d probably have taken an emotional position and projected it passionately into the void for fewer than eleven people to hear.
But I didn’t.
I wasn’t interested in watching it. I didn’t want to know how much of it was true, what was false, which parts were exaggerated or a matter of perspective. It’s not that I don’t care at ALL about the truth – I do. I just don’t need to know this PARTICULAR set of (presumed) facts. They’re secondary to what mattered to ME. Hearing more about who he pissed off or which musicians felt betrayed by him is right up there with knowing his blood type or whether he paid his taxes on time. They probably matter, but they won’t change anything, so why bother?
I chose not to care.
Last night I had that same old dream – it rocked me in my sleep.
And it left me the impression that the Sandman plays for keeps.
I dreamed I was in concert, on the middle of a cloud.
John Wayne and Billy Graham were giving breath mints to the crowd.
Then I fell through a hole in Heaven; I left the stage for good...
But when I landed on the Earth I was back in Hollywood.
I think of this sometimes when I watch people I care about ignore the obvious signs that their marriage is in trouble or that their child is depressed or addicted or violent. It’s not a matter of judging anyone – just an observation at how easily we choose to ignore what we don’t wish to see. Maybe it’s a sign of our affection. Maybe it’s out of fear. Maybe it’s simply a matter of convenience.
I can’t imagine it harms anyone else for me to love Larry Norman whether he was a difficult person to work with or not. Honestly, even his theology is pretty secondary to me – I knew it was pretty out there even when I was 17 and blinded by my fascination and affection for everything he did.
It’s a bigger deal if we refuse to see things or accept them in our relationships. We may have a responsibility to intervene, if not for them, then for those they might hurt in the process. These can be tough calls to make – the balance between unconditional love and accountability.
This sort of willful blindness is dangerous, however, when it comes to educational leadership, or political power, or corporate influence. It’s not essential that I know personal dirt about my superintendent, but it is important that I critically examine his or her claims to legitimacy and whatever track record they bring to the discussion. I don’t really need to know about whether or not a candidate smoked weed in college or cheated on his wife, but it matters whether or not she’s using her position primarily for personal gain and at great harm to her constituents.
I’m still trying to sort out to what extent I care about Chik-Fil-A’s position on blood diamonds or the Salvation Army’s theology regarding marriage. I know those things matter – but I also know I like chicken sandwiches and feeding poor people. Plus, I've been on the receiving end of the WHO-IS-THIS-DEMON-SPAWN-TO-SPEAK-OF-YOUNG-PEOPLE?!? approach, and I didn’t care for it.
But the fact that someone makes me feel good, or that something they’ve said or done gives me warm toasty insides, doesn’t automatically cancel out the potential harm they’ve done or are doing to others. A nice bump in my retirement account or a few positive stories about less federal regulation shouldn’t offset, well... you know.
I still don’t want to know the details of Larry Norman’s personal life or business dealings, but I do worry about the role of confirmation bias in the rest of my choices – politically, socially, even at school. I see others in such blatant avoidance of important, destructive truths, and it seems to be the opposite of everything I believe as an educator.
Then I remember my love for Larry Norman, and I sort of understand.
Backstage, I cross the middle ground – curtains up and house lights down.
I sing my songs, I try to pass my heart around... and sometimes afterwards, people think I tried to put them down.
They feel so bad inside, it doesn’t matter what I say; I hope tomorrow they have a better day.
We’re all so trapped – we need release. We need Your strong love and strange peace...
Bring us Your strong love and strange peace.