Incredibly Strange Christian Music: What the Pixies learned from Larry Norman

Proof that the Devil doesn't have all the good music

At the time of his death, on February 24 at the age of 60, Christian freak-folk luminary Larry Norman was working on an album with guests including Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock and the Pixies' Frank Black, the latter of whom said, upon Norman's passing, "Larry was my door into the music business and the most Christ-like person I ever met." If you read that quote and find yourself re-assesing what kind of a band the Pixies really were, you might want to have a click at the video above: whatever your notions of Christian rock, Norman doesn't fit it. In his prime, he looked like an Allman Brother, sang with voice as piercingly nasal as Axl Rose's, made birdcalls and nonsense words a part of his signature style, and wrote songs that compared Jesus to a UFO. (Before "Come on, Pilgrim" was the name of a Pixies EP, it was one of Norman's catchphrases.) Far closer to Roky Erikson than to politely pious souls like Amy Grant, Norman was among the first to complete a circle that reconnected rock and roll's sanctified, unruly spirit -- which had emerged, in part, from black spirituals and the rhythm-and-blues they spawned in the 1940s and '50s -- with the strain of psychedelic Christianity that emerged in California in the early 1970s. According to Josh Frank's oral history of the Pixies, Fool the World, Norman figured prominently in Frank Black's musical coming-of-age, which for Black transpired in a specific context: the death of the hippie dream. "A lot of people who were older, coming out of the ’60s, ’70s, hedonistic lifestyles, sexually promiscuous or involved in a lot of drugs," Black says in Fool the World, "people that had destroyed their lives, they came out of it clinging onto Jesus Christ." He continued:

Southern California Pentecostal culture, it’s fire and brimstone but it’s more like, success, like, "God wants you to be successful!" I probably discovered Larry Norman when I was 13 because my family had taken up this religious experience, whatever you want to call it. I was going along with it, as my whole family was. I think when you’re 13 or 14 you’re open to a lot of stuff, and if people say, "Hey, Jesus!" you don't go, "Ooh, I’m cynical!" You just kind of go, "Yeah, Jesus, cool!" Larry Norman is a real oddball guy. He's not like what people would think of him. "Ooh, a Christian, what’s that going to be about?" He's totally his own thing.

Larry Norman was born in Texas in 1948, moved with his family to San Francisco a few years later, and performed publicly before the age of 10, often accompanying his father on Christian missions to prisons and hospitals. His band People! recorded two albums for Capitol in the mid-'60s, and performed on bills with the Doors, the Who, and Hendrix. His 1969 solo album Upon This Rock is often mentioned as the first Christian rock album, although Norman bore little resemblance to the genre that followed him. As an outspoken opponent of racism and poverty, he clashed often with conservatives and his music was banned from Christian retailers. In a career spanning 40 years, he released scores of albums and performed to stadium-sized crowds. Norman knew he was near the end on February 23 when he wrote an emotional farewell letter to his fans. "We are not sure of the date when I will die," he wrote, noting that he hoped "to be buried in a simple pine box with some flowers inside." Although he hoped to "push back the darkness with my bravest effort," he was resigned to meet his maker. "I feel like a prize in a box of cracker jacks with God's hand reaching down to pick me up," he said. 

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