Christianity / Jesus Movement

Larry Norman & Keith Green: A Study in Contrasts

Larry Norman & Keith Green: A Study in Contrasts

I just had a chance to watch the new documentary on the life of Larry Norman titled Fallen Angel: The Outlaw Larry Norman. Its created and produced by David Di Sabatino, a man who has established himself as a historian and chronicler of the late 60’s – 70’s Jesus Movement.

As I’ve mentioned before, I became a Christian during the Jesus Movement and was greatly influenced by early Christian artists like Norman. Many of his tunes from iconic albums like In Another Land , Upon This Rock, and (my favorite) Only Visiting This Planet are embedded in my head. I had the opportunity to see Larry Norman perform a couple different times in my life and was greatly saddened when he succumbed to health related heart issues in Feb 2008 at the age of 60.

Over the years I’ve always known, and heard rumors about, character flaws which often served to dilute the incredible impact and anointing the man had on a generation of young Christians. However, even armed with this knowledge, I was a little unprepared for a 2 hour roast of a man many consider to be the Father of Christian Rock. One by one, former artists, wives, girlfriends, band mates etc. took turns analyzing his insecurities, ego, fabrications, arrogance, and spiritual inconsistencies. Always coupled with the occasional nod to his brilliance, music ability, and genuine desire to see Christ preached, one can’t be blamed for leaving the film thinking this guy was more than just a flawed individual…he was a jerk.

One of the main guests being interviewed in the documentary is fellow “Founding Father” of Contemporary Christian Music, Randy Stonehill. Stonehill mixes the real pain he felt at times in his relationship with Norman, with the sincere grief of a friend who has died. He seemed genuinely saddened that because of the way Larry treated others, “he died a lonely man”.

I couldn’t help contrast Stonehill’s commentary with commentary he gave on another DVD documentary chronicling the life of another famous musician / minister, Keith Green. Keith died tragically in July 1982 at the age of 28. However in the 7 brief years he was a Christian, he blazed a trail in his faith that many, including myself, have tried to follow.

In that documentary, Stonehill shares anecdotes of his early Christian years with Green, and although Keith had his flaws as well, there is a whole different spirit that seems to radiate from his life. Stonehill’s comments are positive and even lighthearted when talking about their disagreements as opposed to the real grief he still seems to carry from his relationship with Norman. When I watch Keith’s story, I am stirred to follow Christ no matter what the cost. Norman’s documentary left me with an “ugh” feeling inside.

When I reflect on the two men’s lives, I ask myself what is the difference between them. Both were anointed musicians whose impact on the Christian community continues well after their deaths. Both have gone on to an eternity with the Father and yet Larry’s life still carries a tarnish that Keith’s doesn’t.

For what it’s worth, I think it may come down to is the complete surrender Keith had in his life. A John the Baptist focus that radiated a “He must increase and I must decrease” approach to his relationship with God. Larry, at least according to the documentary, had a relationship that seemed to say, “He (Christ) must increase, and if I can increase while its happening, so much the better.” One could hardly envision Larry singing the Keith Green classic, “Oh, Lord you’re beautiful…Your face is ALL I seek.” In the end, there can be only one seat on the throne, and if you are fighting for your place on it…well…you get the picture.

Anyhow, I honor Larry. He had an incredible impact on my life, particularly as a young Christian. I know he loved the Lord and is enjoying his new life in the kingdom…and I look forward to meeting him one day.

As he would say, “this world is not my home…I’m just passing through”

9 comments

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  • Good entry here, Steve. Over the years we have seen a lot of Christian artists make it big, so to speak, and it’s been interesting to see how they have handled that. We get a first-hand view here in Nashville.

    Amy Grant’s a good example. Though not a father (or mother — 🙂 ) of Christian rock as the ones of whom you write, she certainly blazed a trail for Christian singers and the genre in general. She crossed over into pop music and made it much bigger. Her marriage fell apart. I was very critical of her at one time but, in the process of mellowing about a number of things over the years, came to realize I have not walked in those shoes and don’t know what went on in her life. She’s a gifted, humble lady and she’s blessed many.

    You might remember BJ Thomas’s conversion to Christianity. I wore out one of his albums in college. Don’t know what’s going on with him today but word is he returned to the drug culture. Sad.

    I bet it’s hard to suddenly become a star/big name — Christian or otherwise.

    It is sobering to think we ALL leave a legacy. Our chances of leaving a strong one depend on how closely we follow Christ.

  • Thanks Bob…I saw BJ Thomas back in the early 80’s in concert. The poor guy sang “Rain Drops Keep Falling on your Head” and a bunch of people started yelling, “Sing Christian songs” The next day the local Christian radio station in Detroit apologized for promoting it and said they did,’t know he was going to sing non-Christian songs…shameful!

    Yeah, I agree, I have more grace on people these days. I’ve never had the life Amy Grant lived so .., I just give grace.

  • Anonymous

    Reply

    Please, let’s be thankful to our Heavenly Father in Jesus Christ name that the were here. Stop the need to explain what our Heavenly knows and let us rejoice in His present on what He has given us.

  • I met Kieth and Melody Green, and Melody and I sat together as we worked the sound board at one of his concerts in 1977, and Kieth and I had some correspondence through mail afterwards, as he was just starting LDM (Last Days Ministry). I wrote and told him what a powerful show it was and how clean and tight he played that night, and he practically scolded me for enjoying it. This led to several more letter to each other and neither of us could drive the point home to each other, his being “If the music got in the way of the message, he would never play again”, and mine being “If you don’t play your music, and just preach, you won’t plant nearly the number of Godly seeds that you could have, because the youth want to hear GOOD MUSIC ALSO, and not just funeral hymns”. Neither one of us agreed openly, but I think we did spiritually, because he did continue to play. As far as Larry Norman goes, he touched so many people, and made the music that wouldn’t let go of your soul, even after 40+ years of listening to it. There is an everlasting message in his music, that presents a new message every time I listen to any of it. Compare”Fire” to “Water” and tell me which is more needed or important, so Larry and Keith were equally two of the most important rocks in my life and a comparison just isn’t fair. That film about Larry tries to cast a lot of doubt, but it’s hard to believe, that as much as he did in the name of Jesus, that hardly any of it, if any, is true. I can not see what good the film maker(David Di Sabatino) is doing for the name of Jesus? Is it possible that this film could draw even ONE person closer to God, EVEN ONE? I am sure that Kieth and Larry are having a great time writing songs for us right now.

    • cgperks

      Reply

      Love Keith’s music and I STILL listen to his music regularly

      • Steve

        Reply

        Me too!

  • Thomas

    Reply

    I value engagement with “Christian culture” and “Christian artists.” As such, I appreciate your effort to discuss a difficult subject, such as the personalities who have had such a tremendous impact on our Christian lives. Consequently, I hope that I am not appearing harsh when I am suggesting that your comparison of these two men is most likely pretty unfair and probably altogether ill-advised.

    First off, Keith Green’s musical legacy is quite impressive. Yet, as far as his life is concerned, he had the advantage of spending a relatively short time in the harsh light of celebrity scrutiny. Even that time was limited to the relatively insular arena of evangelical Christian culture. By contrast, Larry Norman spent a life-time in public view, secular as well as Christian.

    Second, the sources you are citing are, to say the least, not unproblematic. David Di Sabatino’s documentary has received a lot of criticism. He has been described extensively as a wanna-be expert on the Jesus People movement who is desperate to make a name for himself. And what better way than by seeking out controversy in chronicling the life of someone who is not there to defend himself. There is an entire web site dedicated to documenting the alleged falsehoods in this documentary (failedangle.com). It has also been suggested that many of the participants in the documentary have been unhappy with the way their contributions ended up being portrayed in the documentary’s final cut.

    Many of these allegations come from the Norman family; so it needs to be pointed out that they are obviously an interested party in their own rights whose comments may need to be considered critically. At the same time, take one look at the amazon reviews of the documentary. You will find that there are many glowing reviews by people who have obviously not seen the documentary, and have no idea what it is about or even who Larry Norman was. These are obviously planted (most likely paid for) “reviews. So how much trust can one put into a documentary that is being promoted for sale in an unethical manner?! All facts considered, I cannot even begin to take this documentary at face value.

    Still, after the smoke clears, it is apparent that Larry Norman’s life was a complicated one and that he managed to make enemies for himself that were frustrated enough to speak negatively about him after his death. For starters, Larry was, by all accounts, a great artistic visionary who helped the careers of many young artists (such as Randy Stonehill and Daniel Amos, both of which appear in the film).

    He was also a lousy business man. Without a doubt, he was overextended and mismanaged the careers as well as the recorded output of many of his associates (such as Daniel Amos whose record release was botched) in his zeal to create a fiercely independent outlet for Christian artists. So where money and careers are at stake, it is not surprising that controversy and resentments fester all too easily.

    His relationship with the documentary’s chief source, Randy Stonehill, was, as many close relationships are likely to be, very complicated. He led Randy to the Lord and helped him launch a very successful career. He also ended up in conflict with Randy over rights to Randy’s music (a conflict that Larry resolved graciously and generously in the end by Randy’s accounts).

    Larry married Randy’s first ex-wife. This in itself is enough reason to create a severe strain on a close male relationship! But it is hardly a reason to declare one party at fault and the other blameless. Neither party had a marital record to be proud of! Larry was married and divorced twice. At least with his first wife, Pamela, there are dueling accounts of infidelity and rejection–to the point where it is impossible for outside observers to try to sort out the truth thirty years after the fact. Randy had a total of three wives, and managed to re-marry very quickly after his divorces. This casts doubts on his marital fidelity as well as on Randy as a source of unscrupulous integrity! (Disclaimer: I met both Larry and Randy at different times. I enjoyed both of these encounters and I respect both of their bodies of work greatly.) Relationships are complicated! I hesitate to consider either Larry or Randy as an infallible resource of the truth when it comes to appraising Larry Norman–or Randy Stonehill, for that matter.

    In your estimate, Larry was a jerk and Keith was a great contrast to that. I can not agree with you there. I never met Keith. But I received his newsletter (Last Days Ministries) for a couple of years. Much to my consternation, the newsletter went to great lengths to discuss the evils of the Catholic church for a long drawn-out series of issues. It left me wondering if a small ministry with severely limited resources could not find anything better to do with their print space! (Disclaimer: I am not a Catholic; I am not speaking out of defensiveness in this appraisal.) Many people (including Victor in this thread) have characterized Keith as quite harsh in his appraisal of other’s Christianity and their convictions. It is no great stretch of the imagination for me to think that meeting Keith, many may have thought of him as a rigid, maybe even fanatical jerk. Of course, one could temper this speculation by allowing for the fact that Keith was a man both young in years as well as in his Christianity. Developing a more forgiving outlook on others invariably takes time and a growth in maturity–both of which were denied Keith Green by his young death.

    I would like to humbly suggest that the comparisons of people’s public personas is at best highly problematic and, at worst, becomes an exercise in recounting dueling items of gossip. And yes, I realize that my re-appraisal of these lives is subject to those same dangers. If nothing else, I am hoping to show that the truth about the lives of all these men is highly elusive. The only thing we can say for sure is that all of them–Larry, Randy, Daniel Amos and Keith–are/were highly gifted artists whose work has blessed many. Their lives are/were probably pretty much like the rest of all of our lives: we bless some, hurt others and oftentimes it’s a mix of both.

  • Steve

    Reply

    Hi Thomas,

    Thank you for writing such a heartfelt response. You bring up a number of valid points that I won’t argue. Keith did have a relatively short time in public scrutiny compared to Larry. However I wasn’t trying to prove anything hence I didn’t “cite” the DiSabitino documentary as you suggest. I was simply commenting on observations I gleaned from two different documentaries I had viewed and filtered that through my own knowledge and experience with events over the years.

    I’m sorry if it came across that I was suggesting that Norman was a “jerk” when Green wasn’t. Reading about Green I have no doubt he could have been an incredible jerk to be around. Truth be told I probably would have enjoyed hanging out with Norman more than Green.

    But I stand by my original observation in the post. I honor Norman and look forward to seeing him again one day…but I believe Green exhibited a revelation of God (especially in the end) that Norman didn’t quite get:

  • Marty

    Reply

    David Di Sabatino is not the most reliable and forces many things into a Enquirer type print.

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