The Height of Norman Wisdom
Martin Wroe Interview in Strait Magazine October 1984
One would think that five years after his first appearance at Greenbelt, the army that followed him around site in '79, the hordes who turned up for the seminar he didn't do and the hysteria that greeted his 'surprise' appearance would be nowhere in sight. After all there's only been one widely released album in nine years. Nine years! And he's hardly this year's model - no funny haircut (well ...), no synthesizer, nobody would notice. One would think. But there they were. Probably the biggest seminar crowd of the week-end for his 'conversation' with Stewart Henderson. I.C.C. sold more of that tape than any other. Five hundred copies of four 'new' albums he brought with him soon became crisp blue notes in the Greenbelt Shop. Even our interview cross legged on Greenbelt grass at the top of The Fringe attracted a crowd. Normaniacs to a man. Larry Norman is a new man reflecting that for a period of years he walked around on another planet but has just returned to earth. He was only visiting ... In April this year he married Sarah, formerly Randy Stonehill's wife and a mutual victim of the triple marriage breakdown which shook and probably irrevocably split the Solid Rock record label in the late seventies. They seem as happy together as the teenage sweethearts they were. So long ago ...
Larry Norman, the new man, is relaxed. No sign of paranoia. He's a stimulating conversationalist, quite widely read and healthily disdainful of 1984 America. He still gets extremely edgy with journalists - convinced they're hostile when they only want to know. Ten minutes into our interview he was regretting his comments and reversing the tape. His moving recollection of a profound mystical experience which, I've never told any one before, could have walked out of a Charles Williams' novel with its frightening colour and drama. But next to his Nightmare songs the artist was never seen so clearly tangled up in his art, nor the art so tangled up in the life of the artist. A week later he told me, freely quoting from Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer that Mark Twain could have written my story ... all his characters keep getting lost and not knowing where they are. Larry is lost and found.
Larry Norman is deeper than you know. The reason that for so long he has been a rash on the face of the Church is because people keep scratching on the surface.
When I first proposed this interview to the powers that be one person was adamant that there was no point because you had not been creative for seven or eight years. How do you react to that kind of comment?
Well that's true I died about 7 or 8 years ago but I got better.
We've only seen one album on general release in that time Something New Under the Son.
Well sometimes when a man's wife leaves him for half a dozen other men he doesn't notice but I noticed and it killed me.
Did it drive you back into yourself and away from everybody else?
No it drove me closer to the Cross. It made me creative in a different way but I never released a record. I try not to bleed in public. I try not to sell my blood, I wrote those songs for me. I have about eight, maybe nine new albums if you count a live album of mostly new songs, already recorded just sitting in my house waiting to be released but I don't really know any companies to release them through. I've never been really good in the business side of it. I haven't had a problem with creativity but I've never had the business side of it together.
You mean someone to 'market' you?
I've always thought that perhaps 'marketing' your self is not as pure as creating something to say. To go around flogging yourself and selling yourself, it's something that I can't do. I can't even be happy about finding a manager to do it - you know if I think it's evil for me to do it, would it be right for me to find somebody else and say I'll hire you to do the evil? I just think 'selling' is not as pure as just communicating, so I'm quite pleased for something like Greenbelt to happen where they're not particularly selling anything.
In many respects you're like the senior citizen of Christian rock and roll. As you survey the present state of what they call 'contemporary Christian music' are you pleased or disappointed with how things have progressed since Upon This Rock?
I'm pleased with what's happening in England and Europe. I just heard of Barinov in Russia but I'm not totally thrilled about the commercialisation of Christian music in America. Moms and dads own the bookshops and run the radio stations so they're not going to play real, raw ideas on the radio. Amy Grant won't offend your grandmother so she'll get radio airplay because your grandmother will send money to hear more Amy Grant which means the radio station will break even another year. When the dollar becomes your major concern - how do we get the most money out of our radio listeners? - then you start playing music for the people that give their money.
Three years ago you said Christian music usually meant sloppy thinking, dishonest metaphors and bad poetry. You said I've never been able to get over the shock of how bad the lyrics are. Is that still the case?
Now I'm too content with my life to be poetic and glib - let other people figure out what's wrong.
You couldn't care less?
It's not that I couldn't care less - I care more. But because I care more I see that there's more evil and if don't pinpoint what's wrong with this tiny insignificant experience or that one - we have a great world all around us - how about all the people that are preaching that don't have a guitar. Why can't I be more uplifting and draw people's attention to Billy Graham and how precise he is every time he preaches? It doesn't matter if he has an old sermon or a new sermon - every time it's different. Every time it gets me. In fact what if Christ said There's some more people that haven't got the message I'll die again, and he came down and we said Wait a minute, not the Cross - you did that before, come on do something new. Oh and before you die could you and Peter stand over here, I'd love to get a picture of you together. Could you sign this Living Bible I just got?.
Christians working in the musical arts seem to divide into two groups. The vast majority record on Christian labels, play mostly to Christian audiences and their music often appears to be only a vehicle for their message - not justifiable on its' own terms. The second grouping, and by far the smaller number, consist of individuals and bands who record with secular record companies, play in regular rock venues and clubs and offer a wide socio-political commentary as a reflection of their faith rather than a sermon in every song - people like Cockburn, T-Bone, the Violent Femmes and U2. Now you don't seem to fit into either category exactly but you seem to have started off in the second and gone back to the first.
I peaked too early in '66 I signed to E.M.I. and by '74 I'd had nine years in secular music preaching the gospel and nobody ever noticed that. But now if somebody gets signed to a secular label or even gets a commercial on TV and they're a Christian, everybody flips out - Praise the Lord - one of us slipped over into the enemy lines. Well that's silly. For that matter every time a person get drunk he's doing something secular. It's not whether you're on a secular label or a gospel label, it's are you being brave, are you saying the Truth, or are you trying to be commercial, are you trying to be popular? I think things are turning around and people have decided that they quite like me even if I am an old fossil. Somebody once said to me who's your favourite rock-group? and I said My favourite concert would be listening to William Buckley Jnr. and Malcolm Muggeridge discuss G.K. Chesterton. I'd still say it.
Buckley Jnr., Muggeridge and Chesterton are your three favourite authors and are all Roman Catholics - is there anything in that?
Most young evangelical or Protestant Christians won't understand this but when you get older and you want to enter into a literary tradition and you want some chat that hasn't a lot of popular nonsenses thrown in to inflate it - you end up thinking gee, the Catholic Church. Despite their fascination with Mary and believing that she has the keys to get you out of Hell and into Heaven, there's a long historical tradition of thoughtfulness in the Roman Catholic Church - and you've got to say that there's not much intelligent intellectualism going on in the mainstream evangelical Protestant Church.
Do you like the mystical tradition in the Catholic Church?
Well I wish that Protestants were aware of the mysticism of the Old Testament, the symbolism ... because I'm aware of it. But I'll never become a Catholic because I refuse to give my name to Mary to put in the Book of Life. I don't mind if Malcolm (Muggeridge) say's he's a Catholic - I know he's more than a mere Catholic and I hope we all become more than a mere Baptist, or a mere Presbyterian or a mere evangelical. I've entered into the mysticism without wanting to. I almost died once and I didn't know I was dying because I'd been unconscious for so many days. And a light came down from the ceiling. I saw a hole in the roof and I was afraid that I'd get wet if it rained, and I was afraid I wouldn't be able to move. As it got closer I realised it wasn't a hole in the roof, it wasn't the sun coming through - there was a beam of light coming down and it went into my head and it sucked my body up out of the bed, or I guess it sucked me out of my body - I never did see my body I went up through into the sky for a long way I didn't even realise that maybe I was dying until I felt them singing. I felt people and angels praising God and then I got afraid that I was dying and I guess I chose not to go to Heaven. Either that or God wanted me to work some more and He sent me back. I keep writing about it, you know my nightmare songs, that's what they're about.
I fell through a hole in Heaven
I landed back on earth.
I don't think I was disobedient because I was willing to die. I've never been afraid of death. When I was little I was beaten up so many times that I just didn't care - I felt if I died I'd get out of this place. But I won't know for sure if I was afraid of dying or if He wasn't finished with me yet but for some reason He wanted to show me.
Some time ago you said that you didn't like to get your mind polluted by the TV, cinema and radio. To me that seemed a little strange for in the early days you were one of the few Christians who actually knew anything about the mainstream culture. For a long time you were the only one to touch the world and the Church.
Well people used to tease me and say Oh, you're a Christian Bob Dylan and then when Dylan became a Christian in my Bible study they'd say to him Oh you're a secular Larry Norman.
Do you know Dylan?
Not really well. I'd been through several life-times in music and so had he. He'd come out of folk, the early Woody Guthrie, and then went through protest and then went through rock. So he's had several life-times of music and my early music was a lot different from my late 60's music, and then my early 70's music was a lot different from my late 70's music and my music now. (Originally) I wanted either to be a missionary or a schoolteacher and I never wanted to be in show business because I thought that show business was evil. You play in a club and people would smoke and drink and take drugs backstage and girls would be backstage. Is that where a Christian should be? When I got older I thought Yes, this is the war, this is the battlefield, get in there and take your sword with you and fight a good battle.
Have you come away from there now?
No. No. The Christians don't go to clubs when I sing in clubs. I don't tell them. In fact now I'm thinking of going with a new name into pubs so that nobody knows who I am.
Is it right to say that your songs now are less social commentary and more pilgrim's progress?
No, I think my songs now are more social commentary except when you're young you think society is conceptual, that it's 'WAR' and 'RIP OFF's' and the 'ESTABLISHMENT'. When you get older you realise that the real social commentary is lust and greed and bitterness and revenge against your old friends. That's where the real social problems lie. Why do you think wars are fought? It's not because one country hates another country. Maybe it’s because one King is angry with one President because they need help. They need some grain and they're willing to give you some petroleum for some grain but you're getting your petroleum from their enemy and so they hate you because you're making their enemy stronger so that your enemy can strike you. I think that's what wars are. Sin is sin. There is no sophisticated, high tech sin ... it's all just silly, greedy, selfish, snotty sin.
Your stage performances are characterised by an unusual amount of talking and this year you were keen to be interviewed in a seminar at the Festival. Is there something you've got to say that can't be expressed in song?
A lot of things can't be expressed in songs, a lot of things. Songs are very fragile, flimsy little three or four minute devices - that's why I write a lot.
Are there some things too complicated to get in a song?
A lot of things. Probably the most important things are.
Bruce Cockburn says that he hopes people see Christianity is an alternative through his songs. Is that your emphasis?
I might say the exact same thing. I hope to give people a credible, a truthful and a possible alternative hope - Christ is a hope. Shouldn't we be living our lives to show people that there is an alternative, another way to live and that the way we're living is a reliable hope.
I wanted to mention Dylan - what do you think of Infidels as an album?
I love it.
Do you like the way its more ambiguous than before?
I don't think it's ambiguous - do I like the way it's more artful?
Yeah, maybe that's the word.
I like him reaching more for allegory and parable but I thought Slow Train Coming was the finest gospel album ever written. I'll never write one as good as that, He'll never write one as good as that, - nobody will. It touched me in every area. You know men in conflict, like Dylan was when he was dying to self and becoming a Christian are very interesting. And because he wrote that album when he was a baby in his crib, but he had a lot of knowledge from the world, it was an album that he can never reproduce. He can never re-experience those songs. I first heard it over here in '79 and all weekend I was on a cloud. I thought this is the greatest album I've ever heard. We were all afraid that he would be overly affected by the evangelical simplicity of American mindlessness and write an album that wasn't really worth his gift for poetry. That album is like a prayer, it's a beautiful prayer, a social communion. It's a communion for all the disenchanted people that are angry.
Going back to the parallel between your career and his, it strikes me that Infidels is like So Long Ago the Garden where the references to Christianity are oblique but the atmosphere is Christian.
That's a fair comment So Long Ago the Garden is a description of the loss; Infidels is a message to those who have been unfaithful to God and chosen against Him. I left the Church and T-Bone left the Church about the same time. You know there was a Christian up in Canada who had a travel agency business. He was selling tickets to come to Los Angeles and my Bible Study was a guaranteed point of interest. He would take them to Disneyland and he'd come by my Bible Study. I was wondering why all these people were just knocking at the door and coming in ... it was because he was selling them tickets.
In retrospect you don't feel the Garden album was clear enough, particularly your Nightmare?
Well, I'm not the best judge of all my material. I mean Malcolm Muggeridge doesn't like Jesus Rediscovered very much but you know to some people that was a powerful book. But I will never again go so heavy-handed with lyrics like Nightmare.
On stage on Saturday night you commented about the fact that Jesus is going to return and then suggested that Christians should not be concerned about 'the Bomb'. You said Christians shouldn't bother going on peace marches for example. I thought your logic was fatalistic - Jesus is coming back why bother doing anything?
But I didn't say that.
I specifically said that the Bible says Christ is coming back to earth and a lot of us are afraid of the world being blown up. But if Christ is coming back there's going to have to be an earth for him to come back to. Then I said we shouldn't all be so concerned about peace marches and things because there will be no peace. If you go on a peace march thinking that the human voice will be heard and the weight of the human spirit shall topple the government and their bombs with them ... it won't work, its idealism.
I agree that Jesus will return to 'a world', but if 'the bomb' doesn't destroy a world it could destroy a nation.
And it could destroy a lot of us in it.
Shouldn't Christians march against that?
I think we should proclaim Christ. If you're gonna preach against the Bomb also preach against prostitution, drugs, pride from the pulpit - preach against all evils. But I understand the intent of a young person wanting to march against the evils of the world. If you're not a liberal by the time you're twenty you haven't got a heart. If you're not a conservative by the time you're forty you haven't got a mind.