Mike Rimmer couldn't resist one more opportunity to talk to Jesus rock pioneer LARRY NORMAN.
Larry Norman has just played his last concert in the UK. Nobody thinks he's going to be coming back to do this again. Aged 58 and in poor health for over a decade, his live appearances leave him drained. On stage his weakness is poignant. His wit is as sharp as ever, his desire to communicate the love of his saviour is what drives him to take another stage. Yet sometimes he's distracted, his voice is a weak parody of its earlier power often helped by a throat spray and plenty of water. It's clearly a struggle for Norman to complete the gig even when supported by the backing of his brother's band Softcore.
The gig has finished and he's rested briefly backstage before coming out to the signing table to meet fans, chat, have his photo taken and sign things. Eventually the last fan leaves the church and the organisers and various friends and hangers-on are treated to a Chinese take away. Like a thousand other gigs I've been to, I'm hanging around waiting to interview him for this feature. I'm told he'd rather do it tonight at 1am than meet tomorrow afternoon when the tiredness from tonight's gig will have caught up with him.
For the moment I'm leaving him to eat and chat with friends at the other end of this enormous table and I'm catching up with Alan Gibson and some of my friends from Leeds. Gibson runs the www.larrynorman.uk.com website that releases his music here in the UK. Later I'll talk to Larry about some of the CDs that have been released in 2005 but for now I'm trying to work out when would be an appropriate moment to interrupt his food to drag him off to a quiet room for a quiet chat.
Eventually we slip away and sit and chat. Larry begins in world weary fashion, stifling a yawn here and there and taking a while to focus and answer questions but as the chat progresses he becomes sharper, more animated, more focussed and scarily honest as the clock ticks past 2am.
It seems to be the fact that if Larry Norman was a blues singer, he'd get more respect the older he became. Biblically that should also be true because we are taught to honour those who have the maturity and experiences of age. But in a music scene that wants to stay forever young and even Paul McCartney dyes his hair, how does Larry feel about getting old? "The only thing I don't like about being old is FEELING old," he shares. "I've had a heart attack. I can't really do concerts anymore. My body hurts. My hands bleed. I'm going blind in my right eye. That's stuff I don't really like. So it's tough feeling all of that, it's tough feeling your body fall apart. I've just been through a lot physically. I've had a lot of problems in the past. It seems like I started having problems when I was young. I got hit in the head with a baseball bat and I lost my sense of smell. Somebody hit me in the head and I got a brain tumour. They took my ear off, opened my face up, took it out and then sewed everything back on. I've got a scar completely round my ear. Then I got hit in the face and lost my teeth and we went to the dentist's office and he put them back in. I didn't know you could even do that! Then I was on a motorcycle and a truck ran over me. Didn't see me. The last second I just turned my bike into the full approach of the truck. So I didn't go under the truck, I went over the top of the truck. The motorcycle went under the truck and I went over to the other side of the street. Landed on the sidewalk.on my feet! I wasn't hurt that time at all. I got a little scratch on my wrist from where I hit the mirror on my cycle as I took off flying. I really thought that I was gonna die then. I said out loud, 'Well God, here I come!' I was just ready. I just thought that with the impact, in my mind, I'm just going to keep going up and up like Superman, you know? So I was quite shocked when I found myself standing on the other side of the street. So I've had a lot of stuff happen to me and I've been protected by God, for all of it really, if you say standing here being alive means I was protected. But my body got beat up along my journey."
After that description, you can just imagine how thick his medical file must be at his local doctor's surgery! Even in the UK we've seen him tour when he's walked on stage with crutches because of back pain. On his 30th anniversary tour, he performed with his leg in a cast having fallen down some steps. In concert he's talked at being poisoned by Russian communists during a tour there. Despite the physical infirmities, Larry's spiritual passion remains untamed. He comments, "I think I'm just happy. I'm happy because God loves me! I didn't know God loved me until Dave Markee told me. He's a musician guy and he said, 'Come over to my house.' He told me, 'God loves you and you don't know it.' And I said, 'Yeah I do,' and he said, 'No you don't.' He started quoting verses to me and I got really mad at him, like, 'Man! This is not easy to hear! I don't wanna hear this. (Pause) You better tell me more!' I didn't really want to hear it so I knew that it was something true."
When I think of Larry Norman, I think of his ministry being recording albums and playing concerts. But his ministry has always been beyond that. He's always had a thing of making relationships with people and personally telling people about God as the Holy Spirit prompted him. Whether it's out on the streets of Hollywood as a young man or his friendships in the music industry. But how is it for Larry Norman now, not being able to have a concert ministry? He explains, "I don't do concerts anymore. My real ministry was mostly like the iceberg; you didn't see it. I did a lot of street witnessing even before my concerts and sometimes after my concerts, if I had any energy. So whatever city I went to I was proliferating the Gospel. And felt that that's really my calling and that the music was something that God gave me.I assumed. And that people enjoy music, so they don't mind taking a bitter pill of repentance if it's wrapped in sugar.you know? So people like rock and roll and they like funny songs and they like negative, sarcastic comments. But that's my personality, I just thought, I'm just going to let it all hang out on stage! I'm just gonna be my real self. Then I'll go and be my secret self! So I was like Superman in reverse! To me, the hero was the one that nobody knew - Clark Kent. And that was me on the street. Just witnessing to people, walking around for hours asking God, 'Who do I talk to next?' Finding real significant reformation in people's lives."
This year, a number of new releases have found their way onto CD. Two significant albums from the early '70s are now available in the UK on CD. There's 'Bootleg' and 'Street Level'. Both of these were highlights of early Jesus rock and released as underground albums. The Jesus Movement of the early '70s saw thousands of hippies find Christ and begin making music that mixed the contemporary rock fashions with their new found spirituality. Larry Norman found himself caught up in this scene though he'd been making spiritual music for a couple of years before everybody else caught on. Does he think the Jesus Movement was actually a move of God or was it just something that the media created? He thinks for a second and responds, "I think God was doing something. But if you look at what was happening sociologically, in America at least, there's always marketing going on by the record labels for music and there's always marketing going on by the newspapers for cyclic news. Sometimes they will release a story on a certain day because they know it's going to push up papers all week. So the Jesus Movement was just an extension of the love and peace movements. Let's see if I can get them all.The Love Revolution, The Peace Revolution, The Hippie Revolution.this word 'revolution' was being thrown around. And then they're getting religion. It was Jesus so they coined "The Jesus Revolution!" and "Jesus Freaks!" It's just terminology. So what I found was that me and a bunch of people that were doing this stuff on our own didn't know that it was news-worthy. We were quite excited when we found out that there was a Jesus Movement. Then quite shocked to find out that it was us! Then to be told that it was massive, was unbelievable because we had seen nobody out on the streets with us! There were only two of us working the Hollywood Boulevard that I knew of! My sister came along.she was three. Some of her friends came along.well that's four and five."
He continues, "As soon as Time and Life - all these magazines - made mention of it, all of a sudden the Hollywood Boulevard was inundated by a bunch of kids from a local church, with their youth pastor, who had a flower behind his ear, some love beads and some really poor shirt.crazy print, colourful. And they're trying to be the Jesus Movement! They've got no authority in the spiritual realm, they don't know what they're talking about, they've got nothing to say. What are they going to say?! 'You need Jesus! He can change your life!' 'Oh yeah? Well man, I've been on heroin for a long time and I don't have a job.' 'Oh yeah! My uncle, he used to smoke cigarettes, but he stopped!' So they don't have anything to compare it to. If they go, 'Oh, excuse me kid, I gotta do a line,' they wouldn't know what people were talking about!
"So they had no business being out on the street. I got mad at them, like, 'Hey! This is my turf! I worked this area! I've built this area up! I've been here for three years and now you're coming in and you're passing out crummy literature and you're going to confuse the issue! It's very hard for me to sensitively go out and bring people to the cross at their own speed, and now you're just pushing everybody away!'"
Years later, Larry still seems disappointed by what happened on the streets of Hollywood nearly 40 years ago. He remembers, "The Doors' and Janis Joplin's producer was going to produce an album for me. I was going to be on Elektra Records, the same label as The Doors and Joplin. The president came in one morning and he told his wife, 'I'm going to quit! I can't take it anymore! Everybody's just doing drugs and it's all negative, it's all death!' He came in and there was a package with one of my records in it. He put it on and he started crying. He had a breakdown basically. I was on tour and when I came back I had a meeting with him. He said, 'I've got to sign you! You're what the country needs. You're the new direction!' and on and on. I thought, 'Well, whatever. I don't wanna be that. I don't want that kind of pressure and I think that's false anyway. And I can't hold up my end of it. I'm a kid! I'm not mature enough. I'm not wise enough to run around amongst the serpents.' Within two weeks he'd changed his mind because he got some literature on the sidewalk, the Hollywood free paper and read it and decided he wanted nothing to do with anybody who was a Christian because we're all 'empty-headed morons that just babble on and on about propagandistic things.' I didn't blame him. Didn't hurt my feelings either. I said, 'I totally understand. I'm sorry. I would have liked to have changed people's perception of Christian music and Christian communication but I understand.'" Shortly afterwards another mainstream label, MGM, signed him up.
When I first got into doing radio in the early '80s, station jingles would be recorded onto cartridge tapes. They were a continual loop of tape and would cue themselves back up to the start of the jingle automatically. The technology was a hangover from the '60s where before cassette players in cars, there were four-track and eight-track cartridge machines. Albums used to be released on vinyl and cartridge so that people could listen to them in cars. Back in those days Larry Norman had a cartridge player in his car and he would edit his songs on reel to reel tape and have them dubbed onto cartridges to listen to in the car. Recently he found a collection of those old tapes and was intrigued by what he heard and released some of his earliest recordings onto CD.
The result is 'Four Track Motorola '66 Corolla' which gathers together some of Norman's earliest recordings. These are solo demos or stuff recorded with his '60s band People. Larry recalls, "I found out I could get songs put on a four-track in town and then put them into my car. I had an old Corolla. And so that's what I did. The album is from one of the tapes that I used to listen to. I just thought people might get a kick out of it. And also, I was working on song ideas. So they'd hear bits and pieces of songs and see how I worked and think, 'Wow! Larry sure sounds terrible when he's making up a song! He's mumbling, the lyrics don't make any sense. It's like he's not even thinking about the lyrics. He's struggling for the melody and he's making up nonsense words!' That's exactly what I'm doing. I just thought it would be nice for them to know that something can come out a certain way but it didn't start that way. So they should be courageous and bold and not be too hard on themselves when they're trying to make a painting or write a poem or do something for God. You have to start out with something in order for God to turn it into something better! So, I wanted to reveal the ugly truth about creativity. It's messy and it's clumsy but in the end it can be something beautiful if you keep on working on it and polishing it."
And what about all these people who suggest you invented Christian rock music? "I never take credit for starting Christian rock," he says simply. "I think the slaves started it. I got my inspiration from them. When I was nine I had no intentions except to stop Elvis Presley from hiding the fact.see, I grew up in a black neighbourhood. Most of the kids at that time - I was in a white neighbourhood - they'd never heard any black music. You couldn't get it on the radio, you could buy it in the store. It was called 'race music'. Only people in the ghetto could hear it because it was only played on race or black radio stations. It had such a limited range that only the people in the ghetto could hear it. The white people would not give permits to the black radio station owners for a more powerful signal. They did not want their white children being 'sullied' by the 'taint and stench of black culture'. So that's really why white kids didn't know anything and they thought Elvis was doing something new! Elvis knew that he wasn't doing anything new! He never said he was!"
These days of course, there's a generation of people who have grown up listening to Christian music who thought it was all invented by dc Talk or Amy Grant and it seems that the early history of the music continues to be glossed over. Norman was definitely a pioneer as some of his latest re-releases clearly show. And his influence thankfully still shows in artists who want to mix the creative with the spiritual and write songs which actually say something rather than watering it down to be acceptable for the mainstream palate.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.