It was October 1978 -- I was devouring the Bible and meeting with a diverse group of young believers. My girlfriend was away at James Madison University and I was going to school at George Mason.
I was really into music -- Neil Young, Bob Dylan, the Who, Springsteen, the Rolling Stones. Dylan was just about to break into his "Gospel Phase" and I had never heard of "Christian Music."
I mean, I really dug the Bible and Jesus and even Moses and all the books of the Old Testament. But Christian Music. Forget it. It was musty sounding hymns.
(Yeah, when I was younger we had folk mass -- the songs of Ray Repp -- but I hadn't connected that with "Christian Music.")
My girlfriend's brother, Ken (a fellow believer) and I drove down to JMU to visit her and some friends. While there, she brought me to see this gnarlly old 5th or 6th year student, Robbie Pitts. (at that time he seemed old -- I was 19.) Anyway, we were all hanging around and my girlfriend begged him to play "that guy." He asked me if I'd ever heard of Larry Norman. Larry Norman, I thought -- it sounds like an accountant. That's not the name of a rocker...
And then he put on a record - "So Long Ago...the Garden" and b.l.e.w..m.e..a.w.a.y....
I remember it was "Garden" because of the painting on the back of the snake skin boots and the apple. (to this day I've wanted snake skin boots) I asked Robbie where he found this album -- it was great. Then he put on "In another Land." Awesome...
It was Neil Young, the Rolling Stones and Leon Russell all rolled into one. And singing a true song about God and life and Christ. I had to get me a copy.
The next week, I looked up "Bible bookstore" in the yellow pages and found "Words of Wisdom" in Annandale. They had about 100 to 150 albums and none of them looked promising. But there in the bin was one album with that guy with the blond hair on the cover (the picture on the left) wearing something that looked like Capt. America, so I snatched it up.
This one was much rougher -- it was Street Level -- intentionally produced to sound like a demo or bootleg album. And that gave it even more cache. But LN albums were hard to find and so we swapped cassettes until we could find one here or there. And in time, from reading the liner notes of the albums, I learned about G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, C.S. Lewis, Flannery O'Connor, Malcolm Muggeridge, Francis Schaeffer and others.
In short, Larry Norman helped keep me sane in a world of tvpreachers and intellectual-hating pentecostals and Bible-hating mainliners and the Religious Right and the Religious Left.
He had a great background in roots music. There was a great used record store in Georgetown a long time ago and the owner said Larry would come in and clean out all kinds of great blues records that no one was listening to anymore.
He was incredibly paranoid and delusional -- even a devoted fan such as I could recognize that. I later heard that he was bi-polar, that he had suffered a brain injury. Even so, there was something about this that gave me the courage to stand up in church and say, the bishop has no clothes.
He was a goofball -- funny and witty. Very self-deprecating. But on the other hand, he was an incredible self-promoter. You always knew he was "the Father of Jesus Rock."
He was creative and inspired and had a great knack for finding and promoting talent. Look at the "stable" of Solid Rock musicians: Randy Stonehill, Mark Heard, Steve Camp, the group Daniel Amos. Then Malcolm and Allwyn, Sheila Walsh, the Barrett Band. There were others I'm sure I'm leaving out (Lyrix?)
And the few times I saw him in concert, he was incredible. Not necessarily the performances, although these were good. What really set him apart is that he would spend hours after a show meeting with people and talking to them about Christ and their problems and praying for them. Hours -- until the early hours of the morning. If you could wait to see him, he would stop and take time with you.
In time, Larry Norman even led me back to the Hymns.
But knowing Robbie, I'm sure these were the first lines of Larry Norman I heard:
it rocked me in my sleep
and left me the impression
that the sandman plays for keeps...