Covering 180 miles of Oregon coast travel: Astoria, Seaside, Cannon Beach, Manzanita, Nehalem, Wheeler, Rockaway, Garibaldi, Tillamook, Oceanside, Pacific City, Lincoln City, Depoe Bay, Newport, Waldport, Yachats & Florence.
Goodbye Larry Norman: Friend of Mine, Friend of the Coast
By Andre' Hagestedt (all photos Hagestedt, from Larry's farewell show, 2005)
(Portland, Oregon) - I didn't always agree with his stance on things. In fact, I'm not even sure I believe in God. But Christian rocker Larry Norman - who passed away in Salem, Oregon on February 24 - left a big impression on me.
True, this website is an entertainment, science and tourism publication about the Oregon coast, but there are a few Oregon coast connections to Norman. And if you knew him personally as I did, you couldn’t help but be affected by this passing.
A little over ten years ago, I began my journalism career as the music and nightlife writer for the Salem, Oregon newspaper, Statesman Journal. Obviously, the concept of “Salem nightlife” is one of the biggest oxymorons in existence, so I had to dig and scrape for tidbits to write about every week.
But one day, probably about ’96, I bumped into an actual scoop: a bonafied rock star lived in Salem. After befriending his brother Charles Norman – sometimes a guitarist of Larry’s over the years – I did a mini-interview with Larry in my column. It was rather earthshaking news at the time. It turned out a lot of people didn’t know he lived in town until then.
I actually hadn’t even heard of Larry Norman until then. But the more I got to know about him, the more this rather controversial, even historical figure blew me away. It all made perfect sense: I had simply never thought about who first did Christian Rock. But someone had to be the first, right?
This elderly hippy-looking dude, somewhere around 50 years old, who lived in the rather dingy town of Salem, had accomplished something historical. He was on the cover of Time Magazine. He was confrontational and in-your-face about his faith and the resultant viewpoints of his. And boy did he tick off the religious right.
I couldn’t agree with everything he wrote about. But upon listening to his music, I found he spoke his mind quite eloquently, passionately and even made some convincing arguments. He was one of those militant protest song-meisters left over from the 70’s – but in a Christian way.
What annoyed the Christian world wasn’t as much what he said, but that he said it at all. Just those subjects, plus that heathen rock ‘n’ roll thing, caused his stuff to be banned in Christian music and bookstores, pretty much forever. You didn't mix rock with the bible. Apparently, those bans still exist today.
Beyond the Christian community, he caused blank looks from the secular music world, which especially in the 70’s was way more interested in songs about sex and drugs. His record companies fought him enough over that, especially when his first two solo albums tanked commercially.
Still, he touched a nerve. Enough that his success continued and grew over the years, he single-handedly launched a whole genre (whose players ironically are not included in the ban), and he influenced a ton of big names we all know and love in the alternative world. Folks like Frank Black, Moby and even U2 all look up to Larry.
Interestingly enough, until I got to know Larry, I had this sneaking suspicion that Christian rock was more of a marketing effort on the part of the religious right than an actual form of music. I’d secretly assumed it was their attempt to convert the rest of the youth world.
Larry’s sincerity and ferocity changed that for me, however. Larry was the real thing.
Larry Norman lived what he talked as well. Hanging out with Charles, I was at their house in West Salem quite a bit. Over the years, I saw this ever-growing picture gallery in his kitchen of kids Larry was sponsoring in third world countries. In one of his last albums, “Copper Wires,” the liner notes, written by Larry, mention something about such charity not simply being a Christian thing, but that God expects it of you. It was a beautiful sentiment that still haunts me today.
In a huge interview I did with Larry in 2001 or so, which was done for the Salem paper but is now only available on Larry’s website, he told me some interesting things, which apparently hadn’t been revealed before.
It was, by far, my favorite rock star interview experience. I’d risked life and limb to come down from Portland, sliding down I-5 through a scary and sudden ice storm. We didn’t do the interview in a bar or coffee shop, or any of the usual places you’d interview a rock star. It was all so middle-class, even banal, if it wasn’t for the family warmth of it all. I, with my tape recorder, quizzed him as he slowly drove his van through the snowy conditions to pick up his son from school and take him somewhere else.
The one-on-one time was priceless; the depth of it all mind-blowing. He told someone for the first time what was really going on when other sly, back-biting Christian rockers in the 70’s pointed to his on-stage forgetfulness, accusing him of being on drugs. I already knew the story from hanging with his brother: Larry had incurred some amount of brain damage from a plane crash. He was never quite the same. But for reasons I didn’t understand, even after he supposedly explained them to me, he never stood up for himself. He simply took the public blows.
He also related to me the amazing stories (which his brother had clued me in on) of his near mysterious death in 80’s era Iron Curtain Russia. He and Charles were drugged shortly before a show there. They were taken, rather clandestinely, to some suspicious Soviet doctor types who insisted they have their appendixes out then and there.
Apparently, this was a common way the government had of getting rid of dissidents. They would have died on the operating table had that surgery happened.
There were a couple of connections to the coast, between Larry and I. Once, he told me how he loved one particular little motel right next to the 15th Street ramp in Lincoln City. It was his favorite getaway.
Another time, he or Charles told me some surreal tale about how Charles, Larry and other family members were staying in Lincoln City, and a rare water tornado apparently touched down and launched a few fish into the air. It was amusingly biblical, especially with Larry’s presence in it. Since then, I was never able to get either to recall the incident, so I suspect someone was pulling my leg one night (which Charles is certainly inclined to do).
In the late 90’s, I cajoled Charles, his future wife Kristin and Larry’s sister Kristy to go to Oceanside and see a gargantuan beached whale. I still have pics of that.
About once or twice a year, I’d stop by a West Salem supermarket on my often-weekly trips to the central coast. For some mysterious reason, I’d run into Larry there almost every time. The odds of that were astounding. It always cracked me up. And it seemed almost as if there was indeed a higher power behind those coincidences.
Somewhere in the early 00’s, Charles had me come down from Portland and play flute on a couple tracks at the Larry/Charles home recording studio complex. I played on the remake of his first big hit, “I Love You” and another tune. It was a blast. Because of my still being a music journalist at the time (for The Oregonian), I didn’t want my name to be known on the record. So to this day, “Copper Wires” has a mystery flute player who is not credited on the album.
My other brush with Larry greatness had to go unrecognized.
Over these years, I saw Larry get frailer and frailer. His health was indeed waning. In 2005, I was honored to be asked to be one of the photographers at Larry’s retirement show in Salem. There were some truly moving moments throughout that concert. I couldn’t help but shed a few tears.
My friend Bob Trusty, owner of Village Market and Deli in Newport, had been a big Larry fan back in the 70’s. At one point during Larry’s show, I called Bob on my cell, and simply sat the phone down for a couple minutes to let Bob hear some of it live. He loved it.
Frank Black showed up in Salem for that one. I have a picture of me and him from that.
Since then, I hadn’t seen Larry, and slowly grew out of touch with my friend Charles. Running around between Portland and 180 miles of coastline will do that. I didn’t realize his health had deteriorated so badly recently.
I was shocked and heartbroken to hear about his death – a week after the fact. Strange: I was thinking of Larry and Charles, rather out of the blue, earlier this week, perhaps even the day he passed. It’s weird how that happens sometimes when someone you know dies.
Particularly affecting was the news photo of his mother - a wonderful, warm woman named Margaret - getting a hug from someone at the service. I can’t imagine what it must be like to see her son pass on.
Still, having known Larry, all he stood for, and especially knowing him more as an individual and not as a distant music figure, I will never forget him. I also know that if anyone is in a better place right now, Larry is.
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