Mike Rimmer went to Portsmouth to see LARRY NORMAN in concert and talk to the Jesus rock pioneer.
In a church in Portsmouth in July 2005, I witnessed what might have been the last concert in Larry Norman's long career. Turning 58 this year and with ill health for more than a decade, playing live is a draining act of determination every time he chooses to play. The church pastor remembers Larry from the early '70s and gives a very long and over enthusiastic introduction until the man he's introducing enters in a slow motion shuffle, his grizzled appearance emphasising his ill health though his sense of humour remains fully intact. Stepping to the microphone he deadpans, "Who was HE talking about?"
During "UFO" and "God Part 3", Larry's performance seems distracted. Although he's spent a whole career making a joke about forgetting the words of his songs, this time out it seems worse and he hits wrong chords. He decides to detune his guitar to a lower key to suit his dropping voice. And while doing so gives us protracted thoughts about the French. Very amusing but he fills in doing this for about 30 minutes.
He plays "Reader's Digest" a Dylanesque song about music and culture in 1973 and he reminisces about life in England when he first lived over here. He sings "Pardon Me" and talks about safe sex, abortion and the myth of planned parenthood. He confesses that he's been angry all his life because he hates sin.
As I listen to him singing "The Great American Novel", another song from 1973, it seems like the words of the song are as relevant to the political scene in 2005 as they were to the '70s when he was attacking the Vietnam war. After the show Larry and I retire for a chat and I ask him whether he thinks the song is still relevant. "There's always wars everywhere in the world that are not reported on," he responds, "especially in America. We are manipulated as the consumer of the mass media. Usually they try to dangle one war at a time in front of us. I tend to be very cynical about news. I wrote "Six O'Clock News" and don't think I've changed my opinion on that. If anything, news has gotten worse. Even newscasters today talk about the terrible condition that news is in. It's no longer a conveyor of what's really going on. It's an amplifier for the propaganda of both sides. We have a two-party system. They're forced to use soundbites that the politicians want them to have. So you won't find a politician fully answering your question."
"The Great American Novel" has a line "When I was 10 you murdered law." I wonder whether that referred to the communist witch hunts in the late '50s. Larry explains, "Most specifically that's what I was referring to. That was the very first big political thing that I witnessed, the McCarthy Hearings. Then there was the Checkers Speech that Nixon gave. So that's my second big media thing! I realised that people talk and they manipulate us! I was eight or nine. It was the beginning of my education with politics."
We talk about Michael Moore who has used documentary films and books to question the politics of George W Bush. Does Larry like what he is doing? "I went to see Michael Moore on the steps of the Capitol. And then about a year later my son went to hear him speak and took notes and wrote a very good article on him. I think that he's a salesman of sorts. He's an entertainer. He's a bit of a huckster in that he likes to provoke the crowd, but it's all for a good cause in a way because he's trying to dig at things that lay covered by our politicians. Now he himself is a multi-multi-millionaire, but that's basically through all of his work that he's been doing, writing books and stuff. So he can't help it that people like his books and that the publishers send him royalties cheques. I wish my publishers would send me some money once in a while! So I like Michael Moore and at the same time I don't really respect him. Because sometimes he's just coasting and he's not really telling anything of value. He's just trying to bait the Right Wing and he's trying to amuse the left-wingers that come."
Larry continues, "As a Christian, if I've got the house with me.in a sense.and somebody stands up and says, 'Well I don't believe in Jesus!' I can shut that guy down by using the weight of the crowd, but I won't ever do that until I have a really honest conversation with the man as though no-one else was there. I think that allows that man to feel that there's dignity in the exchange and that he's permitted to not believe as I do, without being attacked. Then the Christians are able to observe that, 'Oh, we don't have to defend God! God's fine without our help! We just need to talk to people as though they're our brothers and sisters.' So that's what I miss from Michael Moore - because he's not a Christian perhaps - he never does that. He just bashes away, and this year it's Bush."
For my part, the current war on terror has plenty of echoes with George Orwell's novel 1984 where there's a perpetual state of war which is used by the government to keep people distracted and it is used to control people's thinking and actions. Talking with Larry, I wonder whether he's observed any of the similarities? "Well there's also double-think going on. Bush will say a word that really has a completely opposite meaning. During the election campaigns Kerry said something that was quite thoughtful. He said, 'We need to fight a more sensitive war.' This is right after the Abu Ghraib thing where it was revealed with photographs that our soldiers had taken off prisoners' clothes and humiliated them. He said, 'We need to fight a more sensitive war.' So Dick Cheney jumped all over him all day long and said, 'SENSITIVE! What's he talking about?! SENSITIVE! We want to WIN the war! We don't want to make friends with these terrorists and let them walk all over us! This is ridiculous! SENSITIVE?!' And the next day, Bush started to use the word 'sensitive' in every speech he gave! He didn't say 'fight a sensitive war', he said, 'We need to be sensitive to the issues of blah, blah, blah.' So they're co-opting ideas left and right. They're stealing them and claiming them as their own. So there's a lot of Orwellian stuff going on. It's a bit amusing but it's also a bit frightening."
Larry Norman has written songs about politics and made political comments in concert since the early '70s. He's been successful in lampooning political stupidity from whichever party corner it's emerged. He's also been successful in making Christians think through the issues from a spiritual Christ-like position. Has the 21st century world turned out the way he imagined it would back in the '70s? He responds, "I thought life would be much as it's turning out right now. It's actually going better than I thought! The things that I thought were going to happen are happening, but they're not as far along. I think God is holding stuff back. I was waiting to see an example of the anti-Christ, some man, some leader that had 'Peace' as his motto but really didn't have peace on his mind and that the country would follow, that the world would follow. I mean, Bush doesn't have the world behind him. I'm not saying he's the anti-Christ but he's as good as a template for what the anti-Christ could be like. Double-speak. Saying one thing but not telling the truth. Always avoiding the truth. Running a private enterprise and basically sacking, raping, pillaging culture in his own population, his own voters, his own constituency. I think some day the anti-Christ will be like this. He'll be somebody that's really got his act together, except all the people that voted for him or pledged allegiance to him suddenly start to see that he's not that nice of a guy!"
Larry is clearly not a fan of his president. "I think that Bush is going to be humiliated by the time he's out of office. I think that a lot of things will be known about him. He doesn't care. He's got eight years. That's the maximum you can have as a President and he's out. He raised the price of oil so that has made his father richer. While in office all of Bush's holdings in the oil business have to be set aside. He can't manipulate the stock market. But how difficult is it to manipulate oil prices?! All you do is make an embargo, or tell the house of Saud, 'Go ahead and raise the prices for the American public.'"
On stage Larry Norman takes us back to his childhood to include songs that he wrote when he was a kid in the '50s. He sings "Moses" as if he's a shy 10 year old. It's very entertaining! He asks for requests and as it's my wedding anniversary I shout out for "Woman Of God" and he plays it!
The acoustic part of the concert is finished and he is joined on stage by Softcore, an excellent band featuring his brother Charlie Norman. They are also joined by blues guitarist Mark Lemhouse who is touring with them. They do some blues songs and then versions of "Why Don't You Look Into Jesus", "Watch What You're Doing" and "Twelve Good Men". Larry is clearly exhausted by this point but pushes through to close the show with an apt cover version. The band propel him through a riotous version of The Stones' "The Last Time" and who would have guessed he would give us an encore? We get "Messiah" and "Why Should The Devil".
I have plenty of concert memories of Larry attacking the American political system or teasing the British for their culture. Larry spent a few years living over here so he's in a good position to observe. He says, "I try to pick my battles carefully and point out things about Christian culture mostly and not just British lifestyle. I do that as a tease, just because I think it's funny to talk about the differences between the countries. I had a house in Carshalton and I had to unplug either the lamp, TV or the heater! I couldn't run three things at once! Those are fond memories otherwise I wouldn't have kept moving here. I kept coming back and getting another house and staying for a year or two."
In 2001, Larry did his 30th anniversary UK tour and recorded 'The Norman Invasion' live album. What memories does he have of his years over here? "Let's see," he ponders, "going out with Cliff Richard to a Greek restaurant for the first time. I'd never had Greek food before. Now, I eat it all the time because the salad is so good. So that's a fond memory. Partly because somebody threw a plate on the floor and it broke and I was really scared but he didn't get in trouble. Then somebody else threw one and I thought, 'Oh my goodness! It's getting out of control!' Now people all over are doing it. I didn't know you were supposed to do it! Then Cliff said, 'You want to break some plates?' And I said 'Yeah!' So I grabbed my plate and he said, 'No not that one. You have to buy the plates, they're different. The ones that we're eating out of, they won't break, they'll shatter and splinter.' So we got a stack of plates and we broke them and that was fun. Some guy got up, put the table in his teeth and stood up with the table in his teeth and started dancing around. I couldn't believe it! It was incredible! It was like Superman. Zorba the Greek becomes Superman! Then at the end of the evening we went out and I said, How much is the bill?' and he said, 'Oh it's £800'. And I said, 'No!' He said, 'Not really. They've overcharged me.' And I said, 'Really?!' And he said, 'Yeah, just watch.' So they came and said, 'Oh no! It's completely our privilege! We're so happy to!' So they faked the bill. They made it really high so they could tear it up and they said, 'You bring your friends back Mr Richard! You're welcome here any time!' So I thought, 'Wow! What a crazy evening!'"
He continues, "Then, there was the most embarrassing moment and it was my first moment here. It could have been my last. I was on a speaker's platform with Malcolm Muggeridge and Mary Whitehouse. Malcolm is brilliant, and I'm thinking, I want to say something meaningful! But I'm 23 years-old. I don't know much. But I'd seen this great movie and it made me cry. It was all about a man who became a believer in Christ and he died. They burned him at the stake. I want to tell people, 'Go see that movie! It's an incredible Christian statement!' Well fortunately Mary Whitehouse got in before I did and said, 'There's a movie out by Ken Russell. It's called "The Devils Of London" and it's the worst piece of filth ever made!' And I'm thinking, 'Hey, that's what's I was gonna talk about. Oh! I'm glad I didn't!' That could have been the very end of my so-called 'ministry' to England! So that's a very memorable moment.
"There's just a lot of stuff. Walking through the woods with Malcolm Muggeridge, just talking to him. He always took me out to lunch when he came to America. I got to see his little house and his little library and meet one of his friends who was a Salesian nun. I lived here for all those years and there's just so many great snapshots. I wrote 'The Great American Novel' here! I wrote the last two lines just before I got on the train to go in the tube to the recording studios, at AIR Studios, to record the song! I fretted over those last two lines for three or four weeks. All in all the song took me over a year to write and I just was praying, 'God, why won't you give me the last two lines? Because I'm desperate!' I knew I couldn't show up and not record it because I had people from rock and roll groups. Good groups. Top-flight professionals waiting to record and be paid. I just thought, 'I'm going there empty-handed God! What am I going to do?!' Then I got the lines and thought, 'Okaaay! Thaaank you Lord!'"
Larry Norman has spent nearly 40 years performing and he's toured the globe. But has he ever been afraid while travelling? "No," he says firmly. "But sometimes afterwards I'm a little shook up! I was in Israel, leaning against a building because I wanted to see a procession. Then I just got really mad and I said, 'I don't really want to see this. I don't want to see their idea of who God is.' And I left. And shortly afterwards, the building blew up! A lot of people got injured."
He continues, "I've been in a lot of dangerous places. I went behind the Iron Curtain in '81. Had to sneak in and then had to sneak out. That was a little scary, once I got back out! It's funny, I'm never scared going into a bad situation. I'm never scared walking into a bad neighbourhood. I'm never scared when the Hell's Angels come up and say, 'Hey man, we're gonna beat you and we're gonna rape your girlfriend! Wha'd'ya think about that?!' 'Well, she's not my girlfriend but I like her. She's a very nice friend of mine. Maybe you think you're going to rape her and you're going to beat me up, but you're not going to unless God says you can! Do you know about Jesus? Have you guys ever looked inside yourselves and seen anything like sin? Have you ever sinned?' Just talking to them. But then after they leave I'm like totally shook up! 'Oh my gosh! They could have just cleaned my clock so easily! Those guys were so big their shoulders were bigger than I am tall!' Then I get nervous. Yeah."
With the threat of terrorist acts hanging over the UK, there are plenty of Christians who are still scared of what could happen them on a bus or a tube train. Larry thinks for a second, "I would not laugh at any Christians who were afraid to get back on the train. But if I felt God wanted me to get on a train, I'd get on the train. When Bobby Sands died nobody in the band wanted to go to Ireland. I said, 'Well I'm going and I'm not going to get blown up. If I do, then I'm supposed to and it'll just make people love God more somehow. I don't know how it'll work but, I'm going!' So by the time the flight came round they'd all agreed, 'Okay we'll all go.' Bobby Sands died and we went. We've been bomb-threatened. At my first concert in Ireland there was a bomb threat. We all went outside and they swept the building. I just thought, this is a nice way to get to know the people more evenly on a different level. I had a wonderful time! Then the concert was special, you know? I said something like, 'I'm really glad that I happened not to be wearing my best clothes tonight because if this building does blow up I'd just hate for it to blow up my best clothes!"
The crowd in the church in Portsmouth quieten down realising that they're not going to get any more music. It is possible that with them, I just witnessed Larry Norman's farewell concert appearance. Although to be honest, every time I've seen him play in the past decade I've wondered if it would be the last. It seems impossible to believe that it's the end of an era. But looking at how much it takes out of him, I'm glad that I witnessed this gig because it just may be "The Last Time".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.