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.

Album: In Another Land

Album: Only Visiting This Planet

Larry Norman

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.


Comments(33)

Tim | 04:54 pm on 2/29/2008

Thanks for your great reflections. Larry was and is an inspiration to many of us who came of age, spiritually and physically, during those early years of Christian Rock. I would like to make a small correction in one thing that you mentioned. In referring to the song "I Wish We'd All Been Ready and the Film 'Thief In The Night', you have the right song and the right movie, but I am pretty sure Billy Graham had nothing to do with it. That film and its three sequels were made by a company called Mark IV Pictures and a gentlemen named Russ Doughten. 'Thief In The Night' had an enormous evangelistic impact on many people so I understand the possible confusion.

Thanks again, I truly enjoyed your thoughts.

Bob | 12:20 am on 3/06/2008

Thanks Tim. I relied on my memory, to write the article, which like all memories, is subject to error. Thanks for the correction.

Bob

ed Martinez | 10:00 pm on 2/29/2008

hey bob,
it was a long time ago but I can see the profound affect the man and the Lord had on your life. What an awesome privledge your were provided to actually intersect your life with his on a personal level. How many others were fortunate to have had his influence? I was able to listen to his music, think about his lyrics and be grateful to have been around when artist like Larry Norman burst upon the scene,

Bob | 12:26 am on 3/06/2008

Hi Ed:

It was three decades ago that we were part of the Jesus Revolution in Los Angeles. People like Larry were our leaders and prophets, and we drank in their music.

Oyvind | 11:52 am on 3/03/2008

Thanks a lot for your honest and interesting words1

Bob | 12:27 am on 3/06/2008

Thank you.

A1 | 02:33 pm on 3/03/2008

Bob,
Thanxs for sharing about Larry. I wish I'd known him.
When I became a Christian I listened to Keith Green and regretted never seeing him in concert.
Some day ...
Keep up the good work, I always enjoy your interviews in TWD.
A1

Bob | 12:29 am on 3/06/2008

I booked Keith Green at our church in September 1976. Chuck Girard told me about him and gave me his number. He turned the church upside down and pissed off a lot of people. He was a modern day prophet.

Ken | 01:08 pm on 4/15/2009

I saw Keith Green 4 times and thought he was amazing! He was a profit. I saw Larry Norman at least 3 times and both of those were guys who I didn't mind when they took breaks in their performances to talk. The things they had to say were so engaging and challenging.

Anonymous | 08:57 am on 3/04/2008

Bob,
Great thoughts about someone who changed my life. Thanks for being honest and thank God that Larry is with the Lord and his mind and soul are perfect now.

Bob | 12:30 am on 3/06/2008

Amen.

Anonymous | 11:20 am on 3/05/2008

Larry Norman was an amazing songwriter whose music had a monumental effect on my life as a teenager in the 70s. As with many creative people, he also had a tortured soul that resulted in bad relationships and business dealings. I'm grateful that God, in His grace and mercy, can use imperfect people to lead others to His kingdom. May God continue to use Larry's music to point people to Jesus.

Bob | 12:33 am on 3/06/2008

His music impacted my life during the 1970's as well, as I learned what it meant to be a husband and father following Jesus.

Eric | 12:36 pm on 3/05/2008

Bob,

Thanks for those words. I've been waiting for you to write them. It always seemed to me that Larry was the real deal...a saved sinner. Ups and down, good and bad.

Eric

Bob | 12:34 am on 3/06/2008

Eric, thanks for coming out of the closet to say that.

DAN UNGER | 10:57 am on 3/10/2008

ROCK AND ROLL!!!!!!!!!
LARRY WAS ALWAYS LIKE THAT
FOR HIM THAT WAS HIS NORMAL BEHAVIOR
LOOK.......THIS AIN'T HOLLYWOOD
LARRY HAD HIS RELATIONSHIPS WITH OTHERS
AND IT HAD AN IMPACT ON OTHERS
" NOT EVEN INVOLVED"
WHO DIDN'T KNOW THE TRUTH
THE WHOLE TRUTH OR ANYTHING CLOSE TO
WHAT THE TRUE TRUTH WAS IN THE FIRST PLACE
FINGER POINTERS

CHRISTIANS LIKE TO JUDGE
I JUST WISH WE HAD BEEN READY

LARRY NORMAN WAS A MUSICIAN
AND YOU THINK MUSICIANS ARE NORMAL
GET WITH THE PROGRAM
WE'RE NOT NORMAL
WE DON'T WANT TO BE
AND GOD HAS A PLAN FOR US
AND WHEN WE WALK IN THAT PLAN
WE KNOW ALL TO WELL WE'RE ONLY VISITING
THIS PLANET
CAN YOU DIG THAT

IT'S LIKE ROBIN LANE FROM THE
GREENBELT DAYS IN THE 80'S
SHE TOLD A REPORTER,
"I'M A CHRISTIAN, AND I STILL SMOKE!"

SEND ME AN ANGEL!

dcalyn | 06:11 am on 5/10/2009

On the topic of normal behavior musicians and art.

Look, Dan
Just because you or anyone are a musician and have some eccentricities, or fault this does not make it right to do anything you want or choose whatever means of lifestyle choice to wed yourself with as a Christian.
Those are our choices; to say that God is in all of our choices is a blatant egocentric lie. We are born in sin, and although when we make that supreme choice to deny the World and follow Jesus, we never leave this World but choose to allow Jesus to make the right choices in our spirit or we choose to please our flesh and our own whims.
With regards to Larry, he made some right choices and wrong choices.
We all do.
I love Larry and the music he helped spawn, Christian Rock. God did with Larry that Elvis could have done! Although I believe the Lord used Elvis too, but the point is Elvis; just like us, had a made his choices and chosen what he believed to be his rights.
If you are a student of the Word, it says that We Have No Rights, but subsequently give those rights up and become 'Bond Servants' of Christ. Our problem as the Christian Church today is that we believe we have rights, under the law of man, Yes, we have rights, should we fight for those rights? Yes, we should cause faith without works is dead. But under the leading of our flesh, we have no rights, but have given those rights to the Author and the Finisher of Our Lives, does it mean we are perfect? No, does it mean we can still choose to do what is right in our eyes? yes.
I write all of this with this is mind, because I am a sinner. I have been bought with a price and a love that I can't begin nor can any human comprehend or understand.
If we believe, than we walk we don't live as Christians, but allow Christ to dwell and live within us.
Our choices are never perfect, nor are our lives, but He is who is perfect when we yield uses us in ways we can only begin to fathom or understand.
Regarding the Artist,
To me an Artist is like a prophet, never understood nor fully comprehended until they are dead. Once dead it's too late to glean all of the knowledge God had placed in them to bring us closer to Him. All we can do is sort through the journals, scripts or songs they penned either searching or leading others to the full knowledge of the master artisan that moved their heart. We can be fortunate to see the full scope of the conflict of their life to breed such a wonderful gift of God, because conflict breeds the greatest art.
Larry was one of those Servants.
At the same time, don't be deceived into believing it is just about our struggle as a human race and we have the answer to bring unity to our planet, we don't. Only He working in us and through us for His glory not ours, only He is the one to be glorified.
We only ask the questions.
He has the answers.

Larry knew this, that's why he was so vulnerable, He asked questions and didn't think he had all the answers.

that calvinist doug | 01:32 pm on 3/12/2008

Ummmm, Dan? You okay man?

SRebbe | 04:56 pm on 3/14/2008

nope, we musicians are not normal people.
excellent homage, Dan the Man.

Dennis Thompson | 06:41 pm on 4/10/2008

I Liked Larry Norman. I like his Lyrics. His music I tolerated. I grew up with him and Keith Green. Randy Stonehill too.

Thank you for the article. In some ways it left me wondering about the real dynamics between him and Randy. No ones perfect. For all the dynamics of Keith Green, I do not think he really ever understood the completed work of Christ.

I did not know of Larry's Passing until today. Yeah, we rejoice for him but at the same time it is sad to me. I really liked him. I wonder what he thought of the Purpose Driven crap and the whore known of as The Word Faith Preachers. Throw in the New Age garbage too.

I miss Larry. To be honest with you, after the 80's,
I have not embraced Christian Music much. I am lost in the 70's and 80's with these guys and the 2nd Chapter of Acts, Twilla Paris etc. Phil Keaggy? Nah

Blessings to you Bob

B.G. | 01:58 pm on 5/10/2008

Great article, Bob. I grew up listening to rock music but since becoming a chsistian and changing my lifestyle a few years ago, I've changed my music also. But I remember a friend having a Larry Norman record back in the 70's, along with Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. I came across "One Way", a Larry Norman tribute put out by Eddie DeGarmo. Some of the artists on that cd did some fairly good versions of his songs but I'd like to someday pick up the originals. Another artist I really love is Phil Keaggy. Anyway, thanks again and God bless.

Lee Schulz | 09:07 am on 7/28/2008

Wow.... On YouTube tonight 5-31-08 I read on the Passing of Larry Norman. My heart was so saddened, as we have truly lost a GREAT LION OF JUDA.

In the 70's I helped with concert productions in Kansas City. I had heard preachers lash out at Larry from everything under the sun. Releasing a "Nude Album" cover, (So Long Ago The Garden), Larry not "Giving Alter Calls" and how he is an agent of the Devil.

Well the concert was a Larry Norman and Randy Stone Hill Gig.. True to form there was no alter call, rather in the back of the stage, stood Larry Norman, receiving each and every person that came back stage to speak to him. I sat and watched how he gave each individual "Special Time". Some he shook hands with and hugged. Others he heard and listened to broken hearts, which he consoled, and prayed with each and every individual. As I watched this, I could not help but notice the joy and tenderness in which Larry took. No one was rushed. He was at ease. He truly was taking on much more than an alter call, as he personally prayed and counseled with each and every person awaiting him.

Well, for all of us with the group helping with the concert were waiting to go to dinner with Larry. I really cannot remember what time we left the theater, but it was well after all the restaurants were closed. The only thing still left open was Denny's.

Interesting enough there were 2 young men last to see Larry. They were from Des Moines Iowa, and had been introduced to a relationship with Jesus at a earlier concert Larry did back in Iowa. Larry greeted these 2 Hippy type guys like long lost friends, and of course invited them to dinner.

Well Dinner with Randy and Larry was a Gas.... Our crowd took up the whole corner of the Denny's. They were both cut up's and just full of fun and laughter. I cannot remember at what time we actually left Denny's but it must have been 3 or 4am. Upon everyone saying good bye, Larry asked the young men where they were going, and they said, headed back to Des Moines.

Larry said NONSENSE.... he said plenty of room in the hotel room, you come spend the night with us... So they left with Randy and Larry for the night.

A night to remember. Seeing Larry in action was so interesting. He surely lived his faith. Down to sharing his food and lodging. Sharing his time. Sharing his heart.

Thanks Larry.....

Your Brother...

Norman "Lee" Schulz II

Life was filled with guns and war,
And everyone got trampled on the floor,
I wish we'd all been ready
Children died, the days grew cold,
A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold,
I wish we'd all been ready,
There's no time to change your mind,
The Son has come and you've been left behind.

A man and wife asleep in bed,
She hears a noise and turns her head, he's gone,
I wish we'd all be ready,
Two men walking up a hill,
One disappears and one's left standing still,
I wish we'd all been ready,
There's no time to change your mind,
The Son has come and you've been left behind.

Life was filled with guns and war,
And everyone got trampled on the floor,
I wish we'd all been ready,
Children died, the days grew cold,
A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold,
I wish we'd all been ready,
There's no time to change your mind,
How could you have been so blind,
The Father spoke, the demons dined,
The Son has come and you've been left behind..

Pastor Lee Stauff | 08:40 pm on 8/23/2008

I was putting the final touches on my sermon which touches on the rapture and for some reason Larry's song came to mind. I looked up the lyrics so i could read them and found out that Larry was in heaven. i did not get the word as I was out of the country during his home coming. I will use those words in tomorrow's sermon. Though he is dead he still speaks. Thanks Pastor lee

Liam | 07:06 am on 2/12/2009

This is so pleasant and nice to see when rockers at firts having been resembling cardboard dwellers, then turn to the Lord and they change their art and still can attract stadiums of fans...

Liam - Cheap Cigarettes | 09:50 am on 3/05/2009

Larry Norman, a singer and songwriter considered by many to be the father of Christian rock despite years of being shunned by more traditional Christians. As his style of music had been controversial for almost 15 years before the Jesus Movement sprang up. I admire him. He is a great singer.

Alexandra - Fishing Shop | 06:44 am on 3/27/2009

I like Larry Norman! I would be so much glad to be friends with him, think I would develop myself so much. I'm glad to learn that stars are tending to the Lord, and so they bring the others this way :)

Taylor - Hoteles De Madrid | 08:43 am on 3/31/2009

I've found his quote. Think it can be interesting for some of you.
"I feel like a prize in a box of cracker jacks with God's hand reaching down to pick me up. I have been under medical care for months. My wounds are getting bigger. I have trouble breathing. I am ready to fly home. I won't be here much longer. I can't do anything about it. My heart is too weak. I want to say goodbye to everyone. In the past you have generously supported me with prayer and finance and we will probably still need financial help. My plan is to be buried in a simple pine box with some flowers inside. I'd like to push back the darkness with my bravest effort. There will be funeral information posted on my website, in case some of you want to attend. We are not sure of the date when I will die. Goodbye, farewell, we will meet again.”

David Dangcil (Campos) | 12:21 am on 6/06/2009

I was there at the 76 "Night of Joy." I was a Christian for 3 years but still had a foot in the world. Myself and another friend took LSD that night and snuck into Disneyland. We thought it was so cool that we got in. We had no idea that it was a Christian function. I got my 1st clue that something was different when Larry came out on the stage. When he sang "Unidentified Flying Object" I cried in my spirit and realize the calling on my life. I still love his music and I am so glad I got to see him perform at least once. Thank you Larry Norman, we will meet in eternity.

beads | 07:30 pm on 11/26/2010

I have not heard of Larry Norman before, but just Googled him and viewed a few of his video's on Youtube. Great lyrics many thanks for bringing him to the readers attention.

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Eviction Letter | 05:08 pm on 2/26/2011

Let us remember what the bible says that chosen are very few. It is true that when someone starts pointing out demerits in the functioning of the church leadership, he is easily considered a revel. And if he happens to be a poet or a musician with an open mind, it is more likely that he would certainly be written off as out cast. But I appreciate Larry Norman's music.

junkyard | 04:15 pm on 3/02/2011

It is said that we should be the fifth and living gospel. Jesus wants us be like him. He says follow me. Our life should be such that others should see Jesus in us, means that others should see all godly nature of Jesus in us. It is an inspiring post. thanks.

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