“Only Visiting This Planet” by Larry Norman

‘Christian Rock’ has a notoriously bad reputation among mainstream music fans (and one that is not entirely undeserved), but it only really acquired that reputation after the homogenized cottage industry of ‘Contemporary Christian Music’ came on the scene in the Eighties. The early ‘Jesus-Rockers’ of the previous decade were essentially just Hippie Rock’n’rollers that happened to have latched onto Christianity (we don’t really think of the movement in that light now, but the actual number of “Hippies for Jesus” back in the day was larger than you might think). This probably has something to do with the fact that these ‘Christian Rockers’ tended to be far more legit musicians than the bland, whitebread acts marketed exclusively toward the Evangelical cultural bubble that have given the genre such a bad name.

Legendary guitarist Phil Keaggy was a prominent member of the genre in its day (he’s still making records, actually, though he’s now switched to more of a Christian-themed New Age Music sound), as was Barry McGuire (of “Eve of Destruction” fame) after his conversion to Christianity. But of all the classic-era Jesus-Rockers, probably the greatest of them all was Larry Norman, and this, his second album and acknowledged Magnum Opus, is probably the most iconic album the genre ever produced…it was added to the Library of Congress, for God’s sake, an almost unheard-of honor for a Christian Rock album.

Granted, for all its unquestionable artistic merit, a lot of this album’s religious content is iffy at best from a theological point of view—Norman was a premillenial dispensationalist, and therefore by definition a bit of a lunatic. But his work is significant in being pretty much the only valid art to come out of that particular religious movement…we’ve gotten some decent stuff from nonbelievers who were merely co-opting the movement’s mythology as fiction (like The Omen), but from the actual devout, we’ve mostly gotten only terrible B-movies and even worse airport fantasy novels.

Also, it’s worth noting that the song from this album that deals most directly with the ideas of the “Rapture” and the “Tribulation”, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready”, strikes a very odd tone compared to, say, the Left Behind series…there’s no triumph here, and virtually no judgment. It just sounds like a grieving, pitying dirge for those ‘left behind’ from a man who believes that God is going to do these things but desperately wishes there was some other way. So it’s hard to object too much on those grounds…indeed, one starts to pity Norman for the sadness his religious worldview seems to be causing him (even if he does appear to have been the first to use the phrase ‘left behind’ in reference to the Rapture on this song).

More to the point, it’s a haunting, beautifully written ballad has all the edge and honesty that modern Christian Rock is so notorious for lacking. The melody is gorgeous and conveys an immense depth of sorrow, and the lyrics are some of the best poetry found in any Rock song this side of Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, with such eloquent and memorable turns of phrase as ‘A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold’.

“The Outlaw”, a retelling of the life of Jesus, is arguably even more beautiful in both music and lyrics (though it also refers to Norman’s belief in the Rapture in its final line). The rest of the album isn’t quite up to the level of these two highly polished gems, but it is nonetheless impressive. “Righteous Rocker #1” is a kind of Rock-song paraphrase of the Apostle Paul’s 1 Corinthians 13 (the passage about “If I have not love, I am nothing”), which is a sentiment even many nonreligious people can get behind. “Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus” is a little more exclusively Christian in its sentiments, but most of the self-destructive behaviors he describes on the verses are not terribly controversial examples of the wrong way to live, and if he thinks he can help these people mend their broken lives, I say more power to him. In any case, both songs have definite inspirational punch to their music and lyrics that can be enjoyed regardless of what the listener thinks of the message. And Norman’s defense of his chosen medium, “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?”, is a downright danceable Blues-Rock jam that is infectious enough back up the assertions in the lyrics.

Some of the political content on this album may surprise modern listeners used to the Conservative leanings of modern Evangelicals…after all, Christian or not, Norman was still a hippie, and apart from one line advocating prayer in school, his grand political statement “The Great American Novel” would not have been out of place on an early Dylan album. Frankly, “I Am the Six O’Clock News” hardly even mentions religion, opting instead for bitterly biting social commentary about the callousness of the media, and there are two sad, pretty love songs on the album, “I’ve Got to Learn to Live Without You” and “Pardon Me”, that relate to the album’s religious subject matter only subtextually, if at all.

The only song on the album where the more asinine and self-righteous side of Norman’s religious convictions really comes to the forefront is the last track, “Reader’s Digest”. The implied homophobia and transphobia in the first two lines (about Alice Cooper’s crossdressing and David Bowie’s androgynous persona, respectively), while they would probably outrage many modern listeners, are not really that surprising given the album’s historical era and cultural background. Nevertheless, hearing Norman sling insults at pretty much every secular Rocker around at the time, including some comments that have nothing to do with religion and are just juvenile jabs, ends this otherwise wonderful album on something of a sour note.

The album’s title is not mentioned until its closing lines, which also include a reference to the lyrics to Jim Reeves’ Gospel classic “The World is Not My Home” (which may be more familiar to modern listeners from their quotation in the Tom Waits song “Come On Up to the House”), in the album’s third overt reference to the Rapture doctrine. This album definitely has an agenda, even if it’s not the same agenda usually associated with modern Evangelical Christianity, and if you’re one of those people who put ideology on a higher pedestal than art, you might well find that aspect off-putting. Granted, Phil Keaggy’s Christian Rock albums tend to be less confrontational, and they’re certainly better sung (Norman’s biggest liability is his strange, high-pitched vocal sound, which sometimes makes him sound like an Adam Sandler character), but Keaggy doesn’t have Norman’s sheer songwriting chops (and it’s not like Dylan was any great vocalist either). This album has fairly earned its special pride of place in the Christian Rock pantheon. if you’re an open-minded, sensible person who can appreciate the quality of great music and lyrics even if you don’t entirely agree with the message they’re trying to convey, this album is well worth your time.

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