Jesus and Larry and Me
By Bob Gersztyn
Larry Norman, the godfather of Jesus Rock, always said he was just putting Jesus back into the music that Elvis Presley had taken out of the black churches. "Why should the devil have all the good music?" Larry would shout while pounding his piano, Jerry-Lee-Lewis style, searing guitars screaming behind him.
Larry was a critic and a poet and a rebel, the Christian equivalent of Bob Dylan. Banned in Christian bookstores—because so many of his songs were about hypocrisy in the church—he seemed to thrive on being the outsider. He was at his best when he was alone on stage, with only an acoustic guitar or a piano. It was all he needed: his melodies were haunting and his probing theology cut right to the heart. Because he was never quite accepted by the Christian establishment, he was one of the early pioneers of the art of running a career from a direct-mail fan base. He often performed in"New Paradigm" churches, like Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, or whoever else would have him.
The first time I heard about Larry was in the late summer of 1971, shortly after I moved to Los Angeles and accepted Jesus into my heart. My wife and I had our pastor and his wife over for dinner, and I played the Woodstock soundtrack for them while we ate. The next day he invited me over to hear Larry's first solo album, Upon This Rock (1969). The most memorable cut was "I Wish We'd All Been Ready," which became the anthem of the new interest in "rapture" theology, as the "End Times" dominated sermons, books and even movies, like Billy Graham''s A Thief In the Night, which used Norman's song.
After I heard Upon This Rock I realized that there was a Christian alternative to the negativity of rock and roll that now made up my collection of over 300 albums. Shortly after that, I felt that the Lord wanted me to clean house. So I went through my record collection and made three piles. One to keep, made up of about thirty albums by artists like Perry Como, Mitch Miller and the Supremes. A second pile, containing about a hundred albums, that I considered “questionable,” like The Mamas and the Papas, Bob Dylan and Cream, that I traded at a used record store for some classical and gospel albums and about twenty dollars. The third pile, made up of almost 200 albums by artists like the Fugs, Alice Cooper and the Mothers of Invention, I took in the back yard, busted them up with a hammer and filled my trash can. It wasn’t that the albums were evil, but I felt at that moment that they were all more important to me than Jesus, so I destroyed them as any iconoclast would.
Larry was the impetus for that decision and, long before I ever met him personally, he would become the golden boy of Jesus Rock in its golden age. He was at his creative peak at a time when no category had yet been invented for his kind of music. When he formed One Way Records, he used the famous extended index finger (his "one way" sign) as the company logo, and soon the signal became the 20th-century equivalent of the first-century Ichthus. Instead of clapping for a performer in church, the "one way" sign was given, flashing the index finger to identify yourself to fellow Christians, as sort of a counterpart to the secular "peace sign" (the two-finger V) in the late 1960s.
I'll never forget a concert in the fall of 1976, at one of Disneyland's first "Night of Joy" events, when Larry came out with an acoustic guitar for his first set, singing folky songs like “The Outlaw” and “I Love You,” then a full band emerged from a stage elevator as he performed “Righteous Rocker” and “The Six O'clock News,” written a decade before Don Henley's “Dirty Laundry,” while a fog machine and strobe lights did their thing. By this time Larry's music was part of my new collection of Christian albums, and I was awed to see him perform his work as flawlessly as the secular artists that I used to idolize. Tears ran down my cheeks as I drank his performance in, and gave praise to Jesus for his talent.
Then there was his 1979 concert at the Performing Arts Center in Pasadena. With only his guitar he came out on stage and held the audience in a mesmerizing grip. Sometimes he would move to the piano, and plaintively sing “I Am A Servant,” or “I Wish We'd All Been Ready.” Jesus was present, and a couple thousand people knew it. As he concluded his performance, he invited anyone who wanted to talk to him to come forward. "I'll stay until everyone who wants to talk to me gets to," he said, and continued, "but I don't want to talk about guitars or song writing, just Jesus."
Larry would come to be known as “difficult” among his fellow performers, but the reputation was not entirely deserved. For example, he was the founder of Solid Rock Records and Street Level Agency, where he groomed young Christian recording artists like Daniel Amos, Mark Heard and Randy Stonehill. Larry said that the late Keith Green approached him about joining Solid Rock once, but they decided it wasn't a good fit. Larry said that Green's intense personality and high energy drove him crazy. Ironically, both Norman and Green were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2001, along with Elvis Presley.
Although commercial success eluded him, in 1990 CCM magazine voted Only Visiting This Planet (1972) as "the greatest Christian album ever recorded." One time when I asked him if not ever winning a Grammy or Dove award bothered him, he told me that they were worldly prizes and they meant nothing to him. His influence extended well beyond the church, with his songs being recorded more than 300 times by artists as diverse as Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Black of the Pixies.
His last major concert was in July 2001, at the Cornerstone Festival in Bushnell, Illinois. He hired me to photograph him and his two bands, since he said that it would probably be the last major performance of his life, and he wanted to do a live album with a booklet of photographs. During that five-day period I was part of Larry's entourage, and went with him everywhere, taking photographs of him eating, greeting, rehearsing, performing and traveling. He took on the role of a movie director, setting up shots on occasion and encouraging me to use both my cameras to shoot as fast as I could. Sometimes his instructions violated my photographer's common sense, but he was the boss. He had me order over a hundred rolls of 36-exposure film, and wanted me to shoot it all. I got through less than half the film. He even stopped me from shooting once, telling me that I was wasting film.
I had first gotten to know Larry as more than a singer the year before, when I photographed him as part of a Door interview that never happened. Although we met countless times, at his house, at my house and at a dozen restaurants, every time I'd mention the interview, he'd change the subject, or tell me that he's already said everything that he wanted to say, and, besides, people always asked him the same questions. Ironically, he was present during my Door interview with Peter Max, after I invited him to come with me, and while we were at the gallery he purchased one of Max's paintings as a gift for his mother.
After Larry had a heart defibrillator implanted in his chest he limited himself to occasional small concert performances, but continued to produce new albums. He was accused of occasionally exaggerating the truth to get attention. For example, he liked to talk about suffering. brain damage from falling luggage on an airplane in the late 1970's. He had another story about touring in Russia in the late 1980's, where he said the KGB tried to poison him. When he first told me the KGB story, I started to doubt that he really had a defibrillator. But when I voiced my concern, he opened his shirt in the middle of the restaurant we were sitting in, to reveal the implant in his chest. I felt like Thomas, in the 20th chapter of John.
His first performance after his surgery was in October 2003. I photographed the event. It was the last time that I saw Larry perform. The images that I made of that event eventually became the focal point of a dispute that resulted in our parting ways, in February 2004.
I'd been working as a part-time freelance photographer since the mid-seventies when I was a youth minister in Los Angeles. I shot weddings, church bulletin covers, wall art and rock concerts. I just did it part-time while I was a paid minister, a solvent salesman and a postal worker. Sure I wanted to be the next Henry Diltz or Elliott Landy, but making it full-time as a music journalist didn't seem to be in the Lord's will for me, so I was still working at the post office, to support my wife and seven kids.
Larry liked my work and paid me for it, but I told him at the beginning that he could use the prints and image scans that I gave him for anything he wanted, as long as I owned all the negatives or positives, in accordance with the existing photography copyright laws. He agreed and there was never a problem, until that one time. For some reason he wanted to keep the negatives from this October 2003 performance. So I told him that he would have to pay $100 per roll, for the thirteen rolls I had shot.
We haggled, we talked about settling it with a mini-van swap, and then we went out to eat. While we were there, his family came in, and sat a few tables away from us. Kristin, his sister-in-law and current business manager, came over and sat down with us. She told me that I was just a postal worker and Larry was a rock star, so I shouldn't expect to get paid like I was a full-time photographer. Words ensued, and Larry finally calmed us down. Afterwards Larry drove me home, and he said that he didn't know how his family happened to come to show up at the same restaurant we happened to choose. Otherwise we didn't speak about the incident.
A couple of days later, I got an email from Larry, telling me he heard that Kristin and I had had some sort of a disagreement, while he was in the bathroom. I thought "What do you mean? You were right there." Did he really have brain damage, I wondered? Did he forget? Did he want me to think he wasn’t there? I told him in an email that he was right there, that he witnessed the disagreement and that he attempted to calm us both down. We exchanged a few more emails, and then he finally said that he didn't care about the negatives anymore—I could keep them.
Troubled by this, I turned things over in my mind and pieces from a puzzle began fitting together. During that Cornerstone concert, I remembered, there had been an important reunion between Larry and Randy Stonehill, who hadn’t seen each other in 20 years. I found out that Larry’s second wife, who he was now divorced from, was Randy’s first wife. Larry had mentored Randy to be a Christian rock star, but obviously they had been torn apart by the fact that she was also the mother of Larry’s only son. There were things that Larry didn’t talk about.
Sometime later, I had a dream about the negatives, and felt prompted to give them to Larry as a present, since they were weighing on my heart like an albatross. I mailed them to him, along with a letter, explaining what I was doing and why. He never responded to say that he received them, so who knows who picked up the mail that day? When I heard that he died this past week, I added another regret to my voluminous list. Larry, I love you.