February 26, 2008
Remembering Larry Norman
Larry Norman Died Yesterday
by Paul Tokunaga
Please don’t mistake this for a eulogy by a close friend. Rather, these are reflections from one who knew Larry a bit “back in the day” and after hearing of his passing, realized how his life impacted my own. Over the passage of time, some details may be a little off but it’s how I remember them. Watch the broad brushstrokes for beauty, courage and a heart for God.
As an adolescent boy growing up in Campbell, on the west side of San Jose, life was lived on bicycles. First, basic Sears one-speeds, which were just fine for paper routes and tooling around in say, a three-mile radius around home. By the time one reached high school, we all graduated to 10-speeds—Schwinns and Peugeots for those who could afford such fine machines. Along with our one-speeds, out went our paper routes. Nobody (except me my freshman year; I had little concept of cool) kept their paper routes in high school.
Nobody except Larry Norman.
Larry lived on DeTracey, two blocks from me on Monica Lane. Most of Campbell was white, but Larry was white white. He would have given chalk a good name. Back then his nearly white hair was in a crewcut. Crewcuts had been out for at least five years, maybe 10. Then he rode a one-speed to Campbell High. Then, then, he had a paper route. He delivered the San Francisco Chronicle. I worked for the competition, the San Jose Mercury. My rout e covered Larry’s home.
I had my route in sixth grade. I had just turned 11. I had about 50 customers. I would clear $30 in a good month. Not only did we deliver the paper by 6 a.m. seven mornings a week, we also had to collect from customers. If a customer wouldn’t pay, it would come out of my pocket, not the Mercury’s.
One month, Larry’s parents subscribed to the Mercury. They joined mid-month. I had a formula for figuring out partial payments. My formula was designed to benefit me, not the customer. When I went to collect, Larry answered the door. As he studied my bill, he determined I was cheating his mother. “That’s not how we calculate part-months at the Chronicle!” “Well, this is not the Chronicle!” “You’re cheating my family!” “Am not!” A heated argument between the Chronicle’s high school sophomore paper carrier and the M erc’s Hamilton Elementary’s sixth grader ensued.
Larry’s Mom came to the door to intervene. After hearing me out, she disagreed with me but decided to pay the bill I calculated. It couldn’t have been more than a dollar’s difference. As I walked away, I had to have the last word . Not knowing how else to meaningfully express myself, I cursed Larry’s Mom. Larry took out after me. I hopped my bike, waved a certain finger at Larry and took off into the night.
Later, I heard about Larry being constantly taunted by the jocks. Once he was beaten up. He never fought back because he was a pacifist. I wondered what he would have done if he had caught up to me on my bike
By the time I reached high school, Larry had become semi-famous. He sang in a folk group called The Back Country Seven. His sister, Nancy, and high school pal, Gene Mason, were in the group. (Larry’s sister, Kristy, was in my grade from elementary school through high school but she was so quiet I can’t recall one conversation with her.) I heard The Back Country Seven at hootenannies held at Campbell High and thought they were fairly groovy. I was at their last concert.
Shortly after, Larry and Gene became lead singers for a rock group called People. Larry grew his nearly white hair out down to his shoulders. Capitol Records signed them to a contract. “I Love You” became a national hit.
During the summers, Campbell High had an evening “club” for its students, Buc’s Cove (we were the Bucaneers). Among other activities, we had dances. Before they hit it big, People sang at Buc’s Cove. We always had teachers as chaperones at school dances.
Senor Sanchez was one of our Spanish teachers. He was chaperoning the night People was playing. I stood on the edge of the crowd and watched Senor Sanchez watch Larry as he danced, pranced and sang, his wild mane of nearly white hair taking on a life of its own. Not a mind reader, I tried to interpret Senor Sanchez’ sad expression as he watched Larry, who, academically, was brilliant and gifted. My interpretation: “What a waste of such a gifted young man! He could go far in a respectable field! Instead, he’s wasting it on rock ‘n roll!” I watched Larry watch Senor Sanchez’s sad expression. For me, it was a vivid picture of disappointing your elders, something I would wrestle with for years.
My sister Pam was a year behind Larry in school. After high school, she set her sights on becoming an actress. She moved into a large Victorian-type house near San Jose State. Larry lived upstairs. Pam lived downstairs. Pam told me magical stories of singing a song and Larry would bound down the stairs completing the line.
I became a Christian during my senior year of high school. When I got to college, the Jesus Movement was in full bloom, though it only nicked us in San Luis Obispo on the Central California coast.
We did hear about Jesus moving powerfully in Southern California. Music was playing a strong role in bringing young people to faith. At the forefront of the contemporary Christian music scene was Larry Norman.
Larry (and Gene) had left People my senior year of high school. While the rest of the group embraced Scientology, Larry and Gene did not. Larry had been a Christian since childhood. He started performing and recording as a solo artist.
My sophomore year, word came our way that Larry was performing at a concert in Los Angeles. A few friends and I drove down to the concert, picking up my sister Pam, who had since moved to Venice to join the East-West Players, the first Asian American theater company. After Larry performed, I went backstage to tell Larry that my sister was in the audience.
Our conversation went something like this:
“Hi, Larry, I’m Paul Tokunaga from Campbell High School. I’m Pam’s brother.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m a Christian ”
“No, you’re not!”
“Actually, I am a Christian ”
“No, you can’t be!” I watched his eyes flash back to my cursing his mom and his chasing after me on my bike.
“I really am a Christian! And Pam’s here, and she’d like to see you.”
That changed the conversation. Larry came out, hugged Pam and they talked and said they had to get together since they were both in L.A. I’m not sure they ever did. I’m not sure Larry ever really believed my spiritual state.
Six years later, I was working for 2100, the multimedia ministry of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. We were producing a large scale widescreen media production based on Habakkuk in the Old Testament. We wanted an original musical score. As we surveyed the current landscape of artists who could possibly write and perform such a score, our list was short. Actually, at that time, there were only two on the list. We had met with Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul & Mary the previous year after a concert he did in L.A. He was open to it. Larry was the other.
After performing at the U. of Wisconsin, we invited Larry to lunch and a meeting at our studio in Madison. I apparently convinced him that I was a follower of Jesus. He was intrigued by the show and asked us to keep in touch. I asked Larry if he kept up with any classmates from Campbell High. His eyes brightened as he told me about attending his 10-year reunion. “It was great! I got to share Jesus with so many people.”
When it came time for my own 10-year reunion, I was pumped. My own conversion had come six months before graduating. Many of my friends weren’t aware I had become a Christian as my behavior hadn’t changed much. I envisioned my reunion being like Larry’s. Unfortunately, it was nothing like Larry’s. My old friends gave me the cold shoulder. I think after listening to Larry, I was expecting them to come sit at my feet while I told them about Jesus. Oh, well.
That was the last time I saw Larry. I kept up with his career from his distance. I bought all of his albums. I heard how he was mentoring young musicians like Randy Stonehill and Steve Camp.
When I got word this morning from an old friend (and Larry fan) that Larry died yesterday, it saddened me. I went on his website to read about his final days. To the end, he was faithful to Jesus. Then I was gladdened. He is no longer weighed down with physical ailments that had plagued him for decades.
It also gladdened me because I realized in one specific way, Larry was a trailblazer and role model for me. Larry fought all kinds of obstacles—sadly, more from fellow believers than those outside the family of faith—to live out his calling. He walked a lonely road and in so doing, blazed a trail for many, including me. The path I chose to follow Jesus was not acceptable within my family. It has been lonely to walk it alone in my family. Having role models who courageously lived out their faith helped me to do the same.
Larry, thank you for remaining true. Thank you for blazing a lonely trail that benefited so many of us. It couldn’t have been easy being out there out front all alone. Thank you for submitting your enormous gifts to the Lord. Clearly, you could have been a huge secular talent but you took Jesus seriously when he said, “Whoever loses their life for me and the gospel will save it.”
And yes, I am a Christian. Thanks, in part to you, I know he’s the rock that doesn’t roll.