Mike Rimmer threw a whole heap of questions at the founding father of Jesus rock music, LARRY NORMAN.
Seemingly against all the odds the pioneer of Jesus music and the inventor of Christian rock and roll, Larry Norman continues to release albums at a greater rate than even the Kingsway Music praise and worship factory! To catch up on some of Larry's news, Cross Rhythms' Mike Rimmer pitched the living legend some questions.
Okay, you have a long standing relationship with the UK where audiences are passionate about your music and concerts. Why do you think this is?
Oh well, you know, I came over from America to England in 1971 and I didn't have the attitude that America is the best country in the whole world and that we are superior and that nothing in England matters, you know. America's just, you know, we don't know much about the world; in school we don't really study other countries and other cultures. We are just "it's all about America baby!" I think that's the reason I came over with a properly critical attitude about a lot of American things instead of trying to preach that westernised American style Christianity - yeah - I think that's it; I think that's where it started anyway - just I had a lot of bad things to say about America, if I can just put it like that - succinctly! So I think that's why we got on so well and then from there I don't know why. It just seemed like a romance that kept growing, but no I can't analyse it beyond that first trip.
Are you a bit of an Anglophile? I know that you have a pretty good handle on British culture. I mean not many Americans know about marmite.
Yeah, yeah I see what you mean. I loved the experience that I had in England. I wrote a lot of my best songs in England. I was inspired by English history and culture, went to the museums, had a lot of English friends that I made over the years and I was there for the turning point of your society when you discovered food! Yeah dude, cos when I first went over there you guys, well I ordered a chicken salad at a restaurant and I got one piece of lettuce - that was the salad part, and a leg of chicken on top of the one piece of lettuce! That's your chicken salad?! What - are you kidding?! What about salad, no, they didn't have salads, in fact the "American disaster" came to England and introduced salad to your civilised world and you were never the same. You started up a competing restaurant, the great British success; Hard Rock Café came in, taught you all about hamburgers and you know, before that, I am not criticising the "shepherd pie" and all that but the food was just a lot of carbohydrates, a lot of potatoes! I also came at a time when you had the coldest winter in something like 80 years. I did a 38 concert tour in 35 days and it was on that tour that I used my first outdoor loo in the backyard of people's homes - and that was a shock! That people would wander out into the garden in the middle of the night when it was so freezing, when there was snow everywhere! So yeah, I was just charmed by England and love Charles Dickens, love GK Chesterton and I became friends with Malcolm Muggeridge and Steve Turner before he really started his career. I was charmed! You know - England, there's no place like it on earth!
One of your most fruitful periods of writing and recording happened while you were living and working in England in the early '70s. What memories stand out from that period?
Yeah, that's right you know. I wrote some of my more interesting songs like, "Living On Park Lane". I always remember the first time someone asked me and I said I was living in Park Lane - they went "Oooh (snooty English accent) - and then I said "Oh, you've heard of it? It's in Carshalton, Surrey" - and they went "Ohh! (snooty English accent). I didn't even know what Park Lane was, it was just the street I lived on! So, in that room I completed work on "The Great American Novel" for instance and being in England really helped me see America more clearly. It helped me define its defects more cogently really - I don't know - America's kinda like England, only totally not at all! So I was able to sift through the variables.
You think you were spiritually naïve when you were younger, for example when it came to the belief that Jesus was going to return any second?
No, no, no - that was what the Jesus Movement was talking about. I always said I was not part of the Jesus Movement and people thought I was being coy or something. I mean, when I came over to England and got off the airplane some reporters were there for that first tour and one of them said, "Are you the leader of the Jesus Movement?" and I said "no" and they said "Oh! But didn't the Jesus Movement start in your living room?" I said, "Well if it did I wasn't home at the time!" I didn't feel I was part of the Jesus Movement. I had already been a Christian since 1952. A lot of kids had just become Christians in 1970 and yeah, they did think Jesus was coming back at three o'clock tomorrow. I think you can assess what I am saying if you look at the lyrics to "I Wish We'd All Been Ready". It doesn't say "the Son will come and you'll be left behind," it says, "the Son has come, you have been left behind." It's all past tense and that's how I was able to avoid the pre-, mid- and post-millennial, you know, the return of Christ clock. I just avoided it all because I didn't think it mattered. Hey! Doesn't matter if I know when Jesus is coming back, he knows. In fact the Bible says he doesn't know, only the Father knows and the Father will tell him and then he'll come and so, if God hasn't bothered to tell him why should I worry about figuring it out for myself - it's not important!
How did the discovery of God as your Father around the time that John Barr prayed for you change your life?
That was quite something! I was over at Dave Markee's house. He had been the bass player for Eric Clapton's band and he became a Christian and they kicked him out of the band; and then he told the drummer and he became a Christian and they kicked him out of the band too. So I met somebody who was a very devoted Christian. He was willing to give up everything to follow Jesus, he didn't care. I was at his house and found out from Dave, he explained Christianity to me in a quite different way. I had grown up being more or less like a Catholic. I was a Southern Baptist in my up-bringing because my cousin believed that your salvation wasn't ensured; you had to go to confession and mass and if you are killed in a car on the way to confession you might not get into Heaven cos you hadn't really cleared the slate in the little cubicle. So, you know, the Baptists teach that (the Southern Baptists teach) once you are saved you are always saved - so that's very positive; but then they say "but are you saved? - are you saved? Is there anything in your life that's not right? Is there anything that you haven't turned over to God?" Well then they would say "come down to the front, one by one everybody, get up and come to the front." And well I wouldn't go because I thought hey! I became a Christian, it's really up to God to improve my life, if that's what it needs. I was only five at the time so I didn't really have that much going on that needed to be addressed but I ended up having the same fear that my cousin had, like "gee, I might not be going to Heaven cos God hates to look upon the sinner, or hates to look upon the sins and I am a human being and therefore he hates to look upon me. So I don't know if he's going to want to see me so maybe when I get there he will look inside and if he doesn't see a big bunch of Jesus right away he might not let me in." I had no idea that he loved me. I had no idea that he was completely accepting. I had never been taught that. I was just going by what I had been taught and reading the Bible for years by myself did not change the initial settings on my receptors. I was filtering everything in through incorrect theology - so when I found out Jesus loved me - yeah! - big change, big change! And then I met John Barr and he had an impact in my life; but it was really Dave Markee that gave me "the Word" you know, that God loves you and there's nothing you can do to make him love you more. He loves you completely and there's nothing you can ever do to make him love you less because he loves you completely!
Do you think you had lived in a too legalistic fashion before that?
Oh yeah definitely! Because I thought that I was "under the thumb". I was "under the eye," I thought I was being judged each day, so I thought well, as a Christian we have to judge everything we do. You can never have dinner with somebody who is not a believer unless you are talking to them about Jesus; but you can't, you know, party on with your buds if they are not Christians because that will make them think that you are just the same as them and we have just got to stop that, we have got to make sure that they know that being a Christian means total, different, separated life, you know. So yeah, I was very legalistic. I wasn't having fun, I did not enjoy being a Christian. I loved Jesus, was terrified of God, felt that I was a total loser, failure, you know, bound for hell and my prayer was, "Well God please let other people go; help me to witness to people in the street and please let them in, I don't care if I don't get to go but please let me make a difference. Let me help your Kingdom."
How did that discovery change your ministry?