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THE LIFE AND DEATH OF CHRISTIAN ROCK: The First Wave 1970-1985

LONGFORM
by Dustan Hlady on Thursday, March 12, 2015

Christians love altar calls. If you don’t know what an alter call is, here is one.

One of the reasons we love them is it gives us an exact date and time of conversion. People know when they were born. Why not know when you were born again?

I find myself looking for that moment for Christian Rock. When was the moment Christian Rock music was born?

My answer?

Rock music was born again the moment Randy Stonehill was.

Christian Rock music was born in Larry Norman’s kitchen in Hollywood, California.

Larry Norman was a rising star in the music scene of California. He became a Christian through the Jesus movement. He was trying to reconcile his love for Rock and Roll and his new-found faith when Randy Stonehill came into his life.

Randy Stonehill was an unbeliever, moved to Los Angeles to become a rock star. (He did land a scene as the “guitar hippy” in “Son of The Blob”.)

Randy’s scene is at 26:43… I wouldn’t watch the whole thing. This movie is horrible.

The girl he’s singing to is the actress that plays Ron Howard’s girlfriend in American Graffiti.

amergraf

There were a lot of “Jesus Freaks” in Los Angeles at the time and Randy was sought for conversion regularly. It didn’t hit home until he was in Larry Norman’s kitchen one night. Larry asked him, “How are you doing?” The question floored him. Larry had been preaching to Randy pretty much non-stop since they met. He continued that night. Out of nowhere Randy’s body started to shake and he experienced a very real natural high.  He was weeping. He describes the spirit moving him into a complete breakdown. Larry prayed for him and he converted to Christianity. Randy wrote a song about the experience.

 

Randy and Larry, both great song-writers, found in each other the ability to adapt their love for rock and roll toward God and for a Christian audience. This is what became Christian Rock.

KEEPING IT REAL

Later on in their careers, Larry embezzled thousands of dollars from Randy and had a relationship with Randy’s wife when he was on the road. When Randy divorced his wife, Larry married her (and also divorced her decades later). This is the Sarah in the story Larry Norman tells in this video:

…. and the same Sarah in this song Randy wrote, “Song for Sarah”.

Larry Norman was never held to account for his actions before he died at the age of 60, legally or otherwise. The kindness (or some say naivety) of Randy Stonehill sheltered Larry from that. He’s said, “I just don’t think I could sue a brother” (in Christ).

Larry Norman wrote and sang songs condemning sin. He also expressed the legitimacy of his career in Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music:

Larry’s song, I Wish We’d All Been Ready:

became the anthem of the rapture craze of the 70’s.

The phrase LEFT BEHIND, the popular title of the bestselling books and not-so-bestselling Nicholas Cage film, came from this song. “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” is like many Larry Norman songs in which he preaches a hard message of repentance and pure living.

Randy Stonehill wrote many nondescript Jesus songs. He had a strong voice and played rock guitar but for some reason he has spent most of his career playing acoustic guitar without a band.

It wasn’t long after the birth of Christian Rock that Randy Stonehill was introduced to Keith Green, an ex-child singer who didn’t make it. Keith spent his Saturdays playing rock piano at open mics around Los Angeles. Keith Green was raised in both the Jewish and Christian Scientology religions but rejected both.  When he became a Christian, Randy encouraged him to continue music, but for Jesus.

Keith Green and Larry Norman were very similar figures. They had four distinct things in common:

  1. They were both incredibly charismatic individuals.

When people who knew them talk about Keith and Larry one of the first things they will mention is how people were drawn to them.

keith mad                                         Larryman

They were both great stage-men, story tellers and they were both really funny. An example of Larry Norman being very funny is here:

 

  1. They both had ministries to the poor.

keith homelslarryhomeless

 

At the beginning of Larry Norman’s conversion he spent his days walking up and down the streets preaching the gospel. He got a job polishing up pop songs for Capitol Records and spent all his wages on setting up half-way houses for the homeless and buying them food and clothing.

Keith opened up his home to anyone who needed a place to crash or wanted to be around other new Christians. Keith didn’t feel that people should have to buy his music since he saw his music as spiritually beneficial, so he left his Christian record company at the height of his popularity and sold the albums  for whatever people could donate. Sometimes a dollar came in for a record and sometimes a thousand. They put all the money into a house ministry they called Last Days Ministries. Even today you can get his albums for free if you can’t afford it. When Keith and his wife Melody’s house was too full they used his touring money and donations to buy the house next door. It wasn’t long before they had bought up the whole block, where the homeless and new Christians seeking community filled the rooms. They eventually made a mass-move to Texas where Keith Green tragically died in a plane crash at the age of 28, along with two of his young children and nine others. For more on his amazing and heartbreaking story watch this video:

 

  1. They both had high standards for living the Christian life.

keithup                       larrynormanpoint

 

Keith Green’s “Asleep in the Light” and “The Sheep and the Goats” come across as downright judgmental. To both Larry and Keith,  holiness was an essential part of their preaching and singing.

Do you remember Marc Martel? He’s that guy that sounds a lot like Freddy Mercury and was on Ellen a couple years ago.

 

He also sounds exactly like Keith Green. Here he is covering “Asleep in the Light”:

Here’s “The Sheep and the Goats” by Keith:

 

Jesus has high standards. I have never met a Christian that lives by the teachings of Jesus. To live by the teachings of Jesus you would need to sell everything you own and give all you had to the poor or those that needed it. You would only live to serve others. You would tend to the sick and needy and poor as your full vocation. You wouldn’t judge others. You wouldn’t have a job or a home or family. If you did have a family, you would cut them off if they stood in the way of your mission in life. These are things Jesus teaches.

Larry Norman was concerned about the holiness of others. In many of his interviews he mentions, “Those Christians that…”  or, “Those people who do…”. In the early 80s, his ego started to become his moral compass. If a friend of his became recognized, he denounced them as secular.

Keith Green was concerned about himself. He really tried to live by the impossible standard Jesus set out. His songs are convicting and some say judgmental but Keith made clear that he was always preaching to himself or at least himself first. He wasn’t too concerned about making sure other Christians lived by his high standard. Early on in Last Days Ministries, when they had a couple houses full of the homeless and other Christians, Keith gathered a meeting and announced to everyone that that very night he had become a Christian. This confused the people in his ministry because they felt that if this man who has dedicated his entire life, time and money to ministering to the poor and preaching the gospel wasn’t yet a Christian what hope had they of being Christians?

But that was Keith. He held himself to such a high standard and it looked as though he had the time of his life doing it. He could have, but he never played the part of the long-suffering servant. He was the joyful son of the Lord.

In his songs and ministry Keith mostly directed himself to the Church and the lost. What I think is one of the greatest parts of Larry’s legacy is that he had a wider scope. He wrote political songs hearkening to a better social vision of America. He condemned racism, systematized poverty, the flaws of the justice system, war, biased media, corrupt politics, government spying on its own citizens, inequality and blind capitalism.

It’s undeniable that The Great American novel is one of the greatest protest songs ever written. It touches on all the dark parts of the America he lived in. He was invited to sing it at the White House to sing it when Jimmy Carter became president.

About the KKK: “The sheet you wear upon your face, is the sheet your children sleep on. And at every meal you say a prayer you don’t believe but still you keep on.”

About how government money is spent: “You say ‘we beat the Russians to the moon.’ I say you starved your children to do it.”

About inequality: “They say ‘All men are equal. All men are brothers.’ Than why are the rich more equal than others.

Check it out here.

 

  1. They had a genuine love for Jesus and his people.

keithalter larrynormanpeps

I’ve been a little hard on Larry but he was only human. He made a lot of mistakes but he loved Jesus. So did Keith.  Maybe comparing Larry Norman to Keith Green is wrong. Keith was at first an anomaly and secondly he died so young, he didn’t have the disadvantage of having time steal his focus or his passion. He ran like a freight train until the wheels fell off.

Green called his ministry Last Days because he was genuinely convinced that  the rapture or end of the world would happen before he was 30. He was not expecting a tragic plane crash but he was absolutely right. Those were his last days and he packed more life and joy and purpose into those last days that most get in a lifetime.

Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill and Keith Green are the founding fathers of Christian Rock music. Other bands that should be mentioned are

SERVANT

DANIEL AMOS

BARRY MCGUIRE

MYLON LEFEVRE

PHIL KEAGGY

LOVE SONG

RANDY MATTHEWS

Dustan Hlady
dustan j. hlady is the founder of Middle of Nowhere music and sings and writes songs for his band, Friend Friend. www.middleofnowheremusic.com