Jan Willem Vink interviews the Jesus rock veteran.
Time magazine once called him "the poet laureate of Jesus music", the New York Times labelled him "Christian rock music's most intelligent writer and greatest asset"; while 20 years on from those quotes, CCM magazine admitted Larry Norman was "one of the inventors of contemporary Christian music."
Yet despite these accolades Larry Norman has not quite found the fame or fortune his gigantic contribution to contemporary music should surely have brought him. The sheer brilliance of those seminal early albums, 'Upon This Rock' (1969), 'Only Visiting This Planet' (1972), 'So Long Ago The Garden' (1973) gradually gave way to a flood of eccentric releases where some classics would rub shoulders with half-finished demos and rambling blues jams. Shuttling around the world (with Europe and Australia particular favourites) the Christian rock pioneer and poet laureate became in the 70s and 80s a quixotic half-madman-half-genius who never seemed able to quite find the place of rest or the acceptance of the contemporary Christian music industry he had largely set in motion.
In 1989 he almost found belated American CCM acceptance with 'Home At Last', his first album on a major US CCM label, Benson. Larry even turned up at the conservative Dove Awards. But no US Christian radio hit transpired and soon Larry was off on his European travels again, signing a deal with small Dutch indie Spark Music.
Larry grew up in a Christian home. By the time he was 15 he had written his first Christian song "Moses" and by 1967 he'd formed his first rock band, the People and made the Hot 100 with "I Love You". By 1969 Capitol Records had released Larry's debut album 'Upon This Rock'. Recognised as the spearhead of a revolution dubbed 'Jesus Music' by an agog media, Larry almost single-handedly wrenched the church into the post-Beatles age. He went on to put out his own limited edition albums before signing with MGM/Verve in 1972. But an unhappy marriage was beginning to dominate his songwriting themes and his songs often shocked the sensibilities of conservative churchgoers, he was criticised by Christians who saw this radical longhair as hardly the role model for their sons and daughters they'd have liked. Larry formed Solid Rock Records and produced some albums for himself and others like Randy Stonehill, Daniel Amos and Mark Heard. But somehow the really big sales and recognition never came Larry's way, though Cliff Richard covered a couple of Larry's classic songs on his 'Small Corners' gospel album.
In 1978 a freak accident on an aeroplane caused, Larry believes, brain damage. He separated from his wife the same year, and was divorced in 1980. He told journalist Brian Quincy Newcomb, "After that happened I just moved to England. I couldn't run Solid Rock Records any more because of my mental condition due to the accident. I couldn't concentrate. I couldn't finish anyone's album."
Spasmodic recordings appeared through Chapel Lane, but there were many more releases of questionable quality released as "collectors items" on Larry's Phydeaux label and sold through the mail to his loyal fans. In 1989 he made an album for Benson which promised much but which Larry later dismissed in a Belgian press conference as "just a collection of tapes I had... some were even recorded before the plane accident."
In 1991, after recording a live album at Holland's Flevo Festival, Larry reports that he was healed from brain damage while on a visit to England. He told a journalist, "A man prayed for me. I heard a lot of noises in my head, a lot of heat and from that day the man prayed for me my brain has been so clear, so I've been excited, wondering how quickly can I make a new record now I have my old brain back, it's a good brain, not the damaged brain that I had. That's also a comparison that now my brain is healed so I can make music like I used to make."
His subsequent album 'Stranded In Babylon' was considered by most critics to be his strongest for many years. But Larry's creative resurgence was cut short by two heart attacks in 1992, and it was rumoured that the veteran Christian rocker would never play again. Then in the Spring of 1993, the veteran rocker amazed fans and doctors alike by undertaking a tour that was to take in four concerts in Holland and one in Belfast.
He never made the Belfast gig. Larry was rushed to hospital after his final Dutch concert in Drachden on 19th June. A week later he gave this interview from his hospital bedside to Cross Rhythms reporter Jan Willem Vink.
How were the four concerts in Holland?
"The concerts in Holland were a lot of fun to do. I performed with the band called Thesis, which are very good at rock 'n roll, and jazz, and anything in between. We made a good sound, complicated arrangements, and there was a lot of powerful musicians on stage. I did a lot of jumping around, a lot, which might have been a mistake since I felt very healthy. I was running around too much, jumping up and down too much, having too much fun. I had a problem with my heart. After four concerts I had to go in the ambulance to hospital and stay there for a week while they gave me medicines to try to stop my heart beating; it was beating too fast; 200 times a minute instead of 60 or 70 which is the normal range. I don't know -I Had a lot of fun on the tour but maybe I can't perform any more."
So the problem with your heart came after the tour and not during it?
"Well, actually it wasn't after the tour because I had one more concert to do in Ireland. But I was never able to leave Holland and fly there, because the doctor said it was too dangerous to go on a plane. The doctor said until they do some more tests, and they can see that the tachycardia is stabilised, it's not legal to go on an aeroplane. No airlines will let me fly."
Is it hard for you to accept that you may never play again?