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Larry Norman: Rebellious, Reborn and Reissued

In the '60s as it does now, Christian rock can evoke balding ministers attempting to rock and singers who substitute "Jesus" for "baby" — and, after a cross into the mainstream, the other way around. But as the "Father of Christian Rock," Larry Norman never had it easy: He was a pioneer, a heretic, a saint, and a madman. He was outspoken against the Vietnam War, the hypocrisy of the church, and "righteous rockers" who cashed in on God. Like most visionaries, he had dedicated followers in his time, but his recent death should lead more to understand and appreciate his work.

Pixies frontman Frank Black has been known to cover Norman's "Six, Sixty, Six" in concert, and it's jarring to hear Black snarl, "In the midst of the war, he offered us peace" over raucous guitars. While Black's rendition can sound devilish, even mocking, it turns out he's a fan — a quote from Black graces the front of Rebel Poet, Jukebox Balladeer, a new anthology of Norman's greatest songs.

If Black had the same experience many Christians did growing up, then Norman was literally a Godsend. Many parents and ministers harshly objected to Norman's use of the "devil's music," but the children of the '70s Jesus Movement found in him a radical hero.

Norman constantly explored End Times theology and mythology, but he always brought it down to a human level. "Six, Sixty, Six" (here retitled after an Ira Levin book) reads like a protest song a la Bob Dylan, a professed Norman fan. A banjo weaves in and out as Norman plucks a nylon-string guitar. The narrator sings about a man who slowly takes control of the world "with a face of an angel and the heart of a beast," and as the man's promises lead to ruin, Norman's voice becomes increasingly defeated. It's a testament to his lifelong message: Embody the song as if it's the last thing someone will hear.

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