In 2014, John Darnielle, of the band The Mountain Goats, gave his first novel an obscure title – Wolf in White Van. In the book, the protagonist described watching TV many years ago on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. Televangelists Paul and Jan Crouch were discussing Satanism in rock music with an "expert" guest. The hosts were shocked to learn that demonic messages were hidden everywhere—even in albums from so-called Christian artists. To prove his point, the guest produced a vinyl LP, which was placed on a turntable and played backwards. Supposedly the following mysterious phrase could be heard: "Wolf in White Van." It was unclear exactly why this phase was nefarious, but the speculation no doubt had something to do with the Christian rocker being a wolf in sheep's clothing.
That “wolf” whom the Crouches and their special guest feared was none other than Larry Norman (1947-2008), and the song that he was singing played forwards was a song about the Antichrist, “666." Such arrows of suspicion dogged the career of the man who was called the "Father of Christian Rock.” For decades, evangelical Christians have been obsessed with the prospect of hidden messages, both in the Bible and outside it. I confess I spent considerable time in my teenage years listening for backward masking on Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Rush records to ascertain if anything diabolical was going on.
What possessed once-upon-a-time evangelicals to spend so much energy on conspiracy theories; to focus on what is being said in reverse more than what is being said played forwards? I also wondered, why did the vast majority of Christians assume, just a little over a half century ago, that Rock and Roll music was the Devil’s handiwork? My lifelong curiosity into such questions led me to a man who, once upon a time, seemed to be the source of a lot of the trouble surrounding these questions. Through a series of serendipities, I was granted access to Larry Norman’s considerable archives. Because he was maybe OCD (he kept, well, everything), I read mountains of correspondence with both friends and foes, diaries, thousands of photos, film, and even audio cassettes documenting virtually every moment of his incredible life in the crosshairs of both the secular music world (who thought he was crazy to throw away his talent on religion) and an evangelical church (who thought Rock and Roll was of the Devil). It was a biographer’s dream: one of the most controversial lives in recent memory in American Christianity could be reconstructed – not from the faulty memories of former associates forty years after the fact – but from real time documentary evidence.
Larry Norman was born the same year that Howard Hughes flew his maiden voyage on the Spruce Goose, and came of age as the cultural and sexual revolution of the Sixties had Christian pastors and leaders reeling back on their heels. Spanked for dancing in the aisles of his Southern Baptist church in Corpus Christi, Texas when he was five years old, Larry developed a negative impression of church authorities early on. He concluded that the Jesus he read about in the Gospels would probably not want to keep company with the grim-faced preachers he encountered throughout his childhood. In one performance at The Way Inn in Hollywood (1970), Larry recalled being terrified about being taught about the “age of responsibility” – that moment when you’re no longer a child, and are required either make a decision for Christ or risk eternal separation from God with Satan and his demons in the Lake of Fire. In between songs he mused:
I was exposed to church when I was little, and so that ruined a lot of things for me. I was brought up in judgment and I was scared most of the time. Now I was from Texas, so that’s one strike against me. I won’t mention the name, but there’s only one kind of church in Texas that I know of, so that’s two strikes against me. And I almost didn’t grow up, because when you grow up the preacher says you gotta become responsible. You know what you’re doing. Now you know right from wrong. So I wasn’t sure I even wanted to be an adult, if you had to go to hell after you got there. It seemed to me that you had to go through adulthood only to get to hell.
Larry claimed he accepted Jesus as a little boy, “without the help of clergy.” He viewed his relationship with Jesus as something intensely personal, intimate, even ecstatic. The second person of the Trinity was, in his mind, his best friend. After moving from Texas to the San Francisco Bay Area for the rest of his childhood and adolescence, he wrote songs from the time he was nine. With his father’s words, “No son of mine is going to grow up to be Elvis Presley,” still ringing in his ears, Larry broke the fifth commandment in perhaps the most decisive way possible: he left home and joined a rock and roll band. That group, People!, placed Larry on bills with Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, and The Doors. People! got the interest of Capitol Records (the same label as The Beatles and The Beach Boys), and scored a top 20 Billboard hit with “I Love You” in June, 1968.
But there was a problem within the ranks of People! Larry, the band’s principal songwriter, wanted to talk about Jesus with his music. He haggled with Capitol over the title of the band’s first LP, which he wanted to call, “We Need a Whole Lot More of Jesus, and a Lot Less Rock and Roll,” an old Wayne Raney Christian revival number. Capitol resisted, opting to name the record after People’s hit tune. But there was yet another rift. Several members of the band, including founding brothers Geoff and Robb Levin, began exploring Scientology. When Larry refused to be audited (an initiatory assessment technique), he became targeted as a “suppressive person.” When a freak stage collapse occurred in which Larry nearly lost his right index finger, the long haired blonde singer took it as a sign from God to move on.
After “feeling no peace” about taking a position working for Youth for Christ, he got a call that he did like – from Hollywood. Capitol Records surprised Larry by asking him to return to work for them as a staff writer for a new musical genre for which he would be a pioneer: the rock musical, working with famed record producer Herb Hendler. Still, Larry was restless, because he wasn’t doing anything for Jesus. Maybe rock did lead to ruin, after all. He locked his guitar away in a closet, and redoubled his efforts for street evangelism in Hollywood, talking to drug addicts, prostitutes, transvestites, and other “unacceptable” persons – about Jesus. Then one night, he heard a song in a dream. It was so vivid that he retrieved his cheap nylon string guitar from the closet, and captured it on his tape recorder. The song turned out to be “Sweet Song of Salvation,” and he was convinced that it was a special communique from God.
Providentially, Capitol invited Larry back – this time to record a solo album. Larry agreed, but with one condition: he would have editorial control, and he would be free to sing about Jesus. Ten songs later, he had something unique. Upon This Rock (1969) would be remembered as “The Sergeant Pepper’s of Christianity,” and contained a song immortalized by a thousand youth group sing alongs and HBO’s current apocalyptic TV series The Leftovers: “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.”
Despite positive reviews and the fact that the record eventually became ubiquitous among Christian teenagers when it was re-released, Capitol didn’t know what to do with it. Sam Goody and Tower records didn’t exactly have a category for Larry Norman, despite the fact that – as Elvis would himself have quickly told you – Rock and Roll came from straight from Gospel music played by Black churches in the Deep South. Larry Norman just decided to steal the music back from the secular record labels who profited handsomely from Gospel. Still, Bible bookstores wouldn’t touch “strange fire” from this Jesus Freak, either. Larry Norman was as banned from their shelves as John and Yoko.
Meanwhile, something strange was stirring in Southern California. Larry Norman’s music became the soundtrack to the burgeoning Jesus Movement — led by ministries such as Pastor Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, Arthur Blessitt’s ministry to hippies on the Sunset Strip, and Duane Peterson’s Hollywood Free Paper, whose circulation peaked at a half a million in its halcyon days. Other artists followed quickly in Larry’s wake, such as Lovesong, Andre Crouch, Sweet Comfort Band, and The Second Chapter of Acts. But it was Norman himself who captured the zeitgeist of the era with one of his own concert innovations. After each song, Larry discouraged applause. As the throng started clapping, he would stand silently and raise his right index finger aloft. The message? Only Jesus deserved praise. After all, he was the only path to heaven. Crowds caught on, and they imitated Larry, giving off an eery effect – hundreds of kids quietly pointing skyward. The gesture came to be known as the “One Way” sign. Secular rock shows were loud. Jesus Rock shows were quiet.
The Jesus Movement soon became a national phenomenon, and Larry Norman was its poet laureate. Instead of violent protests, they held massive “Marches for Jesus.” Standing on the state capitol steps in Sacramento with his guitar strapped to his back, Larry Norman addressed the thousands assembled before him. “Peace is not the absence of war, it’s the presence of happiness. You radicals want an all-out revolution?” Larry queried, holding his well-worn leather Bible out toward the audience, “You’ve got it!”
Even Billy Graham got in on the act. Staging the massive “Explo ’72” at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas , Bill Bright and Campus Crusade assembled the “Who’s Who” of born again star power. Graham preached six times. Interspersed between were performances from Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Andre Crouch, and of course, Larry Norman, in front of crowds that swelled well past 100,000. Time ran a cover story on “The Jesus Revolution,” and called Larry “the top solo artist in his field.” Life magazine dedicated a whole issue to the drug free, non-free love, squeaky clean version of the hippies that was sweeping the nation.
Once deemed uncommercial, religious rock became the craze in the early 1970’s. Songs like George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” and Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” climbed the charts. Both Elektra and MGM/Verve records were suddenly hot to trot to sign Larry to his third major record label deal – a feat for any artist of the era.
Recorded in London with a team of producers at Air Studios with whom Beatles mastermind George Martin connected him, Larry released Only Visiting This Planet for MGM/Verve in 1972. After Norman, most Christian artists prayed they could eventually “cross over” to a secular contract. Conversely, Larry started with mainstream credibility and experimented as to whether the Christian world would tolerate art, not propaganda, and whether anyone else who remained unconvinced was willing to listen. Larry talked openly about Jesus, but he also criticized the American war machine, the media’s passivity about truth, and the racism of the white evangelical church. In one track, “The Great American Novel,” he wrote:
And the sheet you wear upon your face
is the sheep your children sleep on,
and every meal, you say a prayer.
You don’t believe, but still you keep on.
The album served as a bellwether for other Christian artists to follow. Songs like “Why Don’t You Look into Jesus?” made Larry’s faith commitment clear, but the production values, beautiful writing, and performance on his records proved that mixing faith and art in a secular setting was not only possible; it could be pathbreaking. Only Visiting This Planet was recognized in 2014 by the Library of Congress, and was officially entered into the National Registry. Larry’s anthem, “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” launched the careers of countless imitators. Certain artists – some of whom Larry later went on to discover and produce – followed in Norman’s wake in the 1970’s and 1980’s and made critically viable work: Randy Stonehill, Mark Heard, and the Daniel Amos band. Other musicians such as guitarist Phil Keaggy were so impressive that a kid following Jesus could beam with pride to his non-believing friends that his favorite bands were just as good as anyone’s – even if they were Christians. By the time singers like Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith eventually came onto the scene, a billion dollar industry had already been born.
Eager to press forward with this artistic vision, Larry released So Long Ago the Garden on MGM/Verve a year in 1973. The album shied away from explicit preaching and hid its biblical and spiritual lessons in layers of metaphors and surreal images. No overt references to Jesus or salvation were mentioned. But the bridge too far from the standpoint of his Christian audience came when Larry posed nude on the album cover, his nether regions only artfully covered by photo of a Lion sitting in the grasslands of Zimbabwe.
Outraged Jesus movement leaders concluded that Larry Norman had “fallen away from the Lord.” When Larry announced to a sold out audience at the Royal Albert Hall in London on January 6, 1973 that he didn’t want to perform concerts for mostly Christian audiences anymore, people concluded that it was because he was backslidden. Although Larry’s stated reason was that he wanted his art to speak for itself and didn’t want it to be said that he was “making money off of Jesus,” the rumor mill began to churn: he was taking drugs, he was dabbling in Satanism, and that he had even starred in pornographic films.
This gave fundamentalist leaders the opportunity they were looking for. Preachers and writers such as Bill Gothard, Bob Larson, and David Noebel denounced Christian rock as a tool of the Enemy, with Noebel calling the genre “A Strategm of Mephistopheles.” Jimmy Swaggart famously (not to mention ironically) called the music “spiritual fornication.” Although most churches would eventually go on to say “uncle” to guitars and drums in church, Larry Norman would be destined to remain an outlaw in the evangelical movement, despite the fact that he enjoyed friendships with celebrated Christian writers like Francis Schaeffer and Malcolm Muggeridge, and was invited by President Jimmy Carter to play on the White House South Lawn in 1979.
Norman’s rebel status was well-earned. Although he developed a cult following and toured successfully over decades (especially in the British Isles, Australia, and Europe), a near fatal heart attack in 1992 took him out of the spotlight. Larry’s private life (two divorces and allegations of a child born out of wedlock) kept controversy swirling even after his death in 2008.
As it turns out, his eventual decline turned out serendipitously. He got closer with his family, and counted some of his ardent fans amongst his closest friends. Ironically, he was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2000 with Elvis Presley, even though he was too sick to attend. He felt closer to Jesus than ever. Best of all, he was spared from becoming something he had inveterately opposed from the beginning of his career: a professional God talker, like all of the critics who had denounced him. His attitude was that Christian is the greatest of all nouns, and the lamest of all adjectives. He believed that a believer’s work should stand on its own in the secular marketplace. The worst fate of all was simply to “make money off of Jesus” with Christians talking only to themselves in an echo chamber through a series of institutions of dubious value and overall cultural importance. Life is too short he surmised, and, after all, we’re only visiting this planet.