When Norman was eight years old, the salvation he had prayed for came at last.
On September 22, 1996, the Family Victory Church opened its enormous doors to the people of Georgia. Reverend Norman McCoy had ridden the wave of “pro-family” sentiment in the country to a position of national prominence. That the Defense of Marriage Act was signed into law one day before the first service in his new church surely showed the whole world that God was still at work in the laws of the United States of America.
The church was larger than most theaters, seating thousands of the faithful. “Our God is an Awesome God,” the band on the stage announced as the parishioners filed in, and it was hard to argue when He had brought this arena into being, an arena in which the Christians and not the lions were triumphant.
The Reverend was no fool; he knew that young people found traditional church to be as appealing as cough syrup. He had hired a marketing consultant away from the Christian Coalition, who had told him that if he wanted to “grow the brand,” showmanship was the way to go. “You can’t build a church the size of a Broadway theater and not put on a show,” was the take-away message.
In Reverend McCoy’s old church, there had been singing, but…not this. Not a full band with guitar, drums, keyboard! Norman had never heard a live band in his young life, and he was drawn to the stage like a moth to the flame.
Norman stood there, entranced, as the band played a cover of George Michael’s “Faith.” The lyrics had been radically revised, of course.
Well, I guess it would be nice if I could touch your spirit,
I know not everybody has got a spirit like you
The people in the hall, including Norman’s grandmother, were clapping in time with the song. Until they heard it, felt it, they didn’t know that this was what had been missing in the old church – a beat.
Music in the McCoy house had been nonexistent. The radio played the “devil’s music,” and never mind the television, which was kept in a locked cabinet so Norman couldn’t be exposed to its unwholesome messages. When he got to college, he would sit in a room with a bunch of stoned students, watching “The Simpsons” for the first time, and they would laugh their heads off at Ned Flanders, keeping Rod and Todd safe from Harry Potter, as if nothing like that could ever possibly be true. For him, it wasn’t funny, because it was such a perfectly normal part of his own childhood that he couldn’t see the humor in it.
The band on the stage was like the Monolith in 2001, the thing that made a great leap possible for him. All those things that composed popular culture were forbidden, but this…this was allowed. And if it was allowed, it was allowed to him.
He knew he could do this. He stared at the lead singer’s guitar as if he could will it into his possession.
That night at dinner, after they’d said grace, he asked.
“Father, may I please learn to play the guitar?”
Reverend McCoy’s fork paused on his way to his mouth. He looked at his son. Then he looked at his mother, forming the third at their table since his wife had passed away. He searched her face to see if there had been any conspiring on this. After all, Faith McCoy had once been Satan’s slave, playing guitar on the circuit with Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. But she was just as astonished as he was.
“I’ll only ever play God’s music, I promise,” Norman said. He was a good child, a good boy, but like any observant child, he had watched and listened to the world around him and seen what kind of behavior would get him what he wanted. The TV was unlocked for shows like “Touched By An Angel,” and Rocky knew the appeal that would make his grandmother cry.
“Oh, Lord, child,” Faith said. “That’s wonderful!”
“Well,” the Reverend said, “I don’t know.” But this was for show, of course – he had to remind them that he was the master of the house, and not so easily swayed.
“Please, father, I’ll work extra hard, I’ll mow the lawn at church!”
Faith and Norman Senior both laughed at the idea of Norman Junior pushing a mower over the massive grounds.
“All right. If,” his father raised a finger, “you keep up your studies. And you keep your promise, only Christian music.”
“Yes, thank you!” Norman would have made a deal with the devil at that point, if that’s what it took.
He took to the guitar like a duck to water. His grandmother was already his home-schooling teacher, so adding a music lesson to the curriculum was perfect. He’d been amazed when she’d shown up one day with a battered guitar case, and pulled out a beautiful old Gibson acoustic guitar.
“This is the old girl I used to play on the circuit,” she sighed softly, looking at it like a lost lover. “it sure has been a while.”
Norman watched her silently, recording the affection she had for the instrument.
She shook herself. “Well, time marches on. And the march of time, thank the Lord, has brought us the Korg.” She showed Norman a device about the size of a pack of cards. He was fascinated by the way the digital needle moved on the display as Faith plucked a string and adjusted its tuning key, until the needle was in the “sweet spot.”
Faith shook her hand as if burned and sighed. “I used to have fingertips as tough as nails. Guess we’ll have to go get some picks.”
They rode through Marietta to Ken Stanton Music. Inside the old store, Norman’s eyes lit up. The way some people would gasp with awe in a jewelry store, so Norman felt in here. He wanted to play everything he saw. The drum sets, the keyboards, everything shiny and glossy and more alluring than any diamond.
Faith saw the look on her grandson’s face and smiled. “I know that look, young man. I tell you what. You work hard and practice every day and when you’re ready, I’ll bring you back here to get you your own guitar.”
Norman looked at his grandmother and his face nearly split open with the size of his grin.
Faith was stunned by his progress. After only a few tuning sessions, Norman no longer needed the Korg to get the guitar in tune. She experimented with twisting the tuning keys way out of whack, and held the tuner out of his sight as he worked. Sure enough, he sent the needle into the sweet spot every time, just by ear.
He learned fast, knocking out “Amazing Grace” and “Red River” in no time, and Faith decided that “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” wouldn’t be an inappropriate song to add to his repertoire.
She was hesitant to use the word “prodigy.” It was prideful, for starters. She’d been a prodigy, and it had led her down the garden path to sin. It had taken so much prayer to have the strength to walk away from that life, and she swore to God she would keep Norman from even looking down that road.
All the same, she sighed. I know who’s got God’s gift when I see it.
One day there was an event that seemed insignificant at the moment, but aren’t those always the ones that we look back on later and realize, that’s when it all changed?
Until that point, the bedroom had been strictly for sleeping. He spent his evenings with his father during “Family time,” which was pretty much all the time that he was home, praying or doing Bible study or his other homework.
But mastering a musical instrument starts with mangling a musical instrument. Norman would sit in the living room and practice after all his other tasks were complete. But there were so many wrong notes, so many false starts, that it got on his father’s nerves.
“Go on up to your room and do that,” his father said, not looking up from his account books.
Norman was stunned. Until now, being sent to his room was punishment. That room was a monastic cell with no posters, no music, and no books other than the Bible and a copy of “Left Behind.”
But he didn’t argue. He took his guitar and his lesson book and went upstairs. He had one of the musician’s first formative experiences – what it sounds like, what it feels like, to play alone in a small, empty room. To make mistakes with nobody to hear, to judge. And then even, one day, to softly and tentatively sing the words to the song he was playing, to do something that he hadn’t asked permission to do, a first tiny rebellion.
Norman had no idea that the six steps up from the church floor to the stage could be such a long and terrifying journey.
“I don’t know,” the Reverend said, shaking his head at his mother’s suggestion. “It might give the boy a big head, having all those people applaud him.”
Faith wasn’t to be stymied. Norman’s progress in the nine months since they’d started had been uncanny. “If they’re applauding him for doing good Christian music, and they will, because he’s that good, well… If you want him to use this gift to serve God, you’d better get him up on the church stage before some other stage lures his soul.”
The camera frightened Norman more than the thousands of people who were waiting for him to perform. Its cold, impersonal eye broadcasted a gigantic version of him onto the screen above the stage, so that even the faithful in the far reaches of the balcony could see him up close.
Faith saw his nerves when he looked at it. She walked over and stood by the cameraman, smiling, so that it was her that Norman saw. He smiled back, relieved, and sat down on the little stool in front of the microphone.
Rocky launched into “I’ll Fly Away,” singing the lyrics in his sweet, high, nine-year-old voice, his fingers deftly plucking the notes. He didn’t just play with technical facility, but with such feeling for the sad song, an old man’s song, really, about waiting for death, that for one blasphemous moment Faith wondered if there was such a thing as reincarnation after all, and that Norman was an old soul reborn.
Norman didn’t know about getting old and thinking about death, but something in the song spoke to him anyway. As he sang it, he looked up at the skylight in the ceiling, a hundred feet above him, and thought about what it might be like to be a bird, to just…take off, to just go. He looked at his grandmother and for some reason he thought about how sad it was to be a bird in a cage, and that’s what he sang about.
When he finished, the church roared its applause, coming to their feet. He felt a surge of ecstasy, a chemical response to some pheromone that gets released into the air by that many people expressing so much enthusiastic approval.
Until that day, he’d played at being a fireman, or an astronaut, or a policeman, from one day to the next. But after that day, there was no more pretending. He knew now what he would be.