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A Great Work Misunderstood
on January 31, 2007
When "So Long Ago the Garden" was released in 1973, the people I knew who were aware of Larry Norman's music (mostly the Christian youth I hung around with at my high school who had heard "Only Visiting this Planet") didn't completely know what to make of it. Some church youth said that Norman was no longer a Christian, and their main evidence was the fact that the name of Jesus was not mentioned once, even in the liner notes, and most of the songs dealt with falling in love (Meet Me at the Airport--Fly, Fly, Fly), the loss of a lover (It's the Same old Story, Baroquen Spirits, Soul Survivor--well, most of the album covers that theme), or the haunted sense of abandonment in a world gone strangely wrong (Lonely by Myself, Nightmare, She's a Dancer). So the album didn't apparently sell until a few years later when it was presented as the second album in a trilogy and bookended by the more blatantly Christian "Only Visiting This Planet" and "In Another Land." Yet even without this context, when given a careful hearing, it is almost impossible to ignore Norman's tracing of the effects of the fall from the garden of Eden in some of the terms most immediately accessible to young listeners at the time. I've long suspected that Norman's title was aimed not at church kids, but perhaps at a larger youth culture whose main connotations for "garden" might have been "the garden" Joni Mitchell wrote of in her song "Woodstock." Norman's music usually had a context like this.
Plus, this is an album that rocks, with some fierce keyboards, brass, and guitar work provided (as I recall) by The Average White Band. And though the theme of unrequited love, when it appears repeatedly, can tend toward the maudlin and self-pitying, Norman's songwriting, though not so explicitly religious, is for the most part still edgy here, with some shrewd insights into relationships and the emptiness of life when the love of another is suddenly taken away.
Even in this context of pining for lost love, Norman's humor comes through, and he's not afraid of self-parody as, for instance, in the final song: "I dreamed I was in concert on the middle of a cloud./John Wayne and Billy Graham were giving breath mints to the crowd./ I fell through a hole in heaven,/ I'd left the stage for good./ And when I landed on the Earth I was back in Hollywood." And if you didn't quite get that landing in Hollywood is not preferable to Heaven, I remember Norman playing this song live and punctuating that last line with "Rats!"
Anyone doubting the Christian subtext of this work would have to ignore a number of indicators to the contrary. This is a fine work, a real musical and lyrical achievement rarely found among Christian artists, and certainly way beyond what anyone would have expected in the early days of "Jesus Music."