Christian rock is probably the furthest thing from most kids' minds when considering ways to rebel. But Greg Glover—host of KRNK's Sunday night program, the Bottom Forty, and founder of local label Arena Rock Recording Company—was originally attracted to an album by "the father of Christian rock" with parental defiance in mind. "It was around 1980 in Dallas, Texas," recalls Glover. "I used to spend my summers visiting my father, who'd remarried a woman [who] didn't allow 'secular' music in the house—which was odd considering my mom had already taken me to see both Kiss and Alice Cooper by the time I'd reached my 10th birthday. Larry Norman just…looked like he had a clue, whereas most other Christian artists looked like preachers or your third-grade teacher. Larry was radical and I thought it would piss off my stepmom, so I bought it."
Fast-forward about 28 years, and Glover had not only become friends with Norman, but was set to release a 20-track career-spanning collection of Norman's work on Arena Rock. That compilation, Rebel Poet, Jukebox Balladeer: The Anthology, begins with a Zombies cover (Norman's Bay Area psych group People! broke out with a mellowed, Billboard Top 20-placing version of "I Love You"), touches upon six of the singer's 60 or so albums and includes lyrics and liner notes for every song. Musically, it ranges from jangle-folk rave-ups recalling Van Morrison ("Peacepollutionrevolution") and Dylan-esque stream-of-consciousness storytelling ("Nightmare #71") to tender, psych-tinged ballads examining love and personal identity ("I've Got to Learn to Live Without You"). But Norman's bread and butter—despite the "father of Christian rock" tag—was more morality and social commentary that straightforward religiosity.
"His songs weren't just about 'praising the Lord' or 'heaven,'" Glover explains. "They were social snapshots from a moral point of view. He didn't beat you over the head with his beliefs, nor did he sound dated like all the other music in that genre." But it was Norman's ability to incorporate those beliefs into a rock 'n' roll sound and image—he was a huge Elvis fan—that both earned him a fervent (if small) following and cast him as an outsider. Just as the Pixies' Frank Black—who names Norman as his "rock 'n' roll hero" and recalls dressing in head-to-toe black "just like Larry"—was fascinated with Norman's persona, Christian music fans didn't know what to do with him. "The lines weren't as blurred 30 years ago as they are now," says Glover. "Christian music back then was Jimmy Swaggart. It certainly wasn't this long-haired, freaky-lookin' guy who sang about Vietnam, Jesus and venereal disease. Larry was the ultimate paradox...."
And, much like Dylan or Van Morrison—who were Norman's contemporaries rather than his inspirations (both have cited Norman as an influence)—Norman's music still, perhaps unfortunately, rings true today. Glover, who describes Norman as "a control freak in a good way," agrees: "Take 'I Am the Six O'Clock News,' for example. It was written over 35 years ago, yet applies to what is going on in the world in 2008." Which is why Glover, 38, couldn't help but approach Norman when he learned the songwriter was living in Salem. "I can't tell you how nervous I was when I drove down for our initial meeting," says Glover. Eventually, though, the two were close enough that Norman would call Glover to "make sure I had somewhere to spend Christmas or Thanksgiving, or to invite me to the movies or tell me to listen to the remastered edition of The Joshua Tree." Which makes it all the more tragic that Norman passed away at the age of 60, due to heart failure, on Feb. 24, 2008—two months before the release of Rebel Poet.
Glover, who says the album's release was pushed back a few times due to its extensive packaging, is understandably torn up: "I'm completely devastated that I can't walk into a store with him and point to The Anthology on the shelves. He'd have smiled that big, goofy and kind smile of his and probably wanted to change the album cover just to drive me nuts!" Even so, when Norman's voice asks in the song of same name, "Why should the devil have all the good music?" Glover—and anyone who's spent time with Norman's music—has an answer: He doesn't.
"I Am The Six O'Clock News"
is out now. Read an extended Q&A with Glover