THE TAPE KEEPS ROLLING
Published in Buzz Magazine May 1981. Interviewed after the Chapel Lane Royal Albert Hall event in February 1981 by Steve Goddard/Roger Green.
Ten years ago - when 'avant garde' Christian bands were still called 'beat groups' and coffee bars always but always ended up with a speaker - Larry Norman arrived. Strolling on to stage he would dump his guitar case on the floor, silently take the instrument out, adjust the microphones that had already been set up during the sound check and start singing. The songs soon became rock 'n' roll hymns. Sanctified standards.
And there is little doubt that every Christian music punter and performer, from After The Fire to the local youth fellowship band, owe it to Larry for nailing the myth that it wasn't righteous to rock 'n' roll. He spoke strongly and uncompromisingly about his Christian faith and you could actually play his records to your non-Christian friends without embarrassment. Yes, 10 years ago. His humour and on-stage rapport with audiences was something you either loved or hated. There was little choice - cringe or clap.
He is one of the few Christian artists who has refused to use the 'safe' image of the 'boy-next-door- really-one-of-us' and developed a presence which could have come straight out of the biography of a world-famous rock star. We met shortly after the Chapel Lane concert at the Royal Albert Hall in February. At times it was difficult to remember who was actually doing the interview. Some questions were flung back at us in a defensive manner and when we received a reply it was at the third time of asking. A man with Larry's vision and perception fits uncomfortably into the compressed columns of a magazine. But straight forward questions deserve straight forward answers. We were simply left with the impression that it may all be part of a 'mystique-building' package that Larry rails strongly against and yet could be subconsciously caught up in. A day or two later he became the first interviewee in the 16-year history of Buzz Magazine to ask for a transcription of his taped interview. His reasons were that he wasn't ready for the original interview and he wanted to answer the questions more fully.
To ensure that uninformed gossip did not circulate in Britain about Larry's recent divorce from Pamela, his wife of seven years, we asked him for an official comment about it. Larry is not the only Christian musician, it would seem, who has had marital problems. Two other Solid Rock artists, Randy Stonehill and Tom Howard have also recently been through the traumas of divorce.
Larry mentions his dislike for fake publicity pictures - 'perfectly lit promotion shots with perfect smiles, perfect hair and all the pimples airbrushed out'. Instead he prefers casual, honest pictures'. It seemed inconsistent with his own argument when he requested a proof sheet of the shots our photographer had taken. Our aim in presenting these facts is not to attempt a character assassination, or to get cheap commercial mileage at a defenceless person's expense. But to ignore the facts would put us dangerously close to the background of press release propaganda, an area which Larry himself dislikes. Read the interview for yourself. It is only a glimpse into the enigmatic brain for which his hair had to make room. But as he put it: 'This is me in all my complexity.'
Buzz: What is the main aim of your ministry?
Larry Norman: I don't think music is a ministry. Music is just a bunch of notes.
Buzz: What are you trying to say then?
Larry Norman: A lot of things. I can't select five major issues. Everything is a major issue to me. Which is maybe why I don't have a clear cut image from the public. They can't figure out what I'm getting at because I'm always giving them something different. I worry about what's happening in repressed societies like Latin America, India and Africa - in addition to worrying about something that seems very unrelated like the inflexibility of Christian art or the commerciality of religious journalism.
Buzz: People tend to expect a limited message, though, don't they?
Larry Norman: Isn't it more convenient for us to know what 'Dallas' is going to be about when we turn it on? What if JR runs for office in one episode, tries to destroy a Saudi Arabian government the following week and then gets converted to Hinduism and opens a fruit stand. We like to know what someone is on about. So we turn to Billy Graham for a particular theological approach and Andrae Crouch for a particular musical style.
Buzz: How do you fit In with that?
Larry Norman: I'm just a person. I'm not Billy Graham, I'm not JR. I'm just a person like everyone else who is outside the media and the music - I just happen to be in music but I'm not really well suited for it. I don't fit into the niche comfortably.
Buzz: There was a point in 1973 when you decided to stop performing here in Britain. Why was that?
Larry Norman: I walked out on stage at the Royal Albert Hall and saw the audience mouthing my lyrics. And I thought 'What's the point of trying to communicate something when there's no struggle to convince them, and they accept everything?' I didn't come over to service the church-goers with entertainment and to write rock and roll hymns. I came over to try to break against the culture and say Jesus is relevant. He is not dead and the Church is not outdated. I'm not trying to have a popular message; I'm trying to go into the culture and say, 'Receive Christ'. But they already had received Christ because they were all Christians. I announced at that concert that I was never going to do another tour or be part of another circuit like this. And I've never gone back into the churches. I want to be out in the world preaching the gospel to an unconverted culture, not in the churches singing to people who have bought all my albums.
Buzz: Is reaching non-Christians something you've been able to achieve since that time?
Larry Norman: It's easy. You just go out into the street and talk to somebody. Or you talk to one of your friends whose round for coffee. I don't try to reach non-Christians through my music. I just try to reach them like you would.
Buzz: Are people expecting more from your music than you want to give?
Larry Norman: I've started to get the impression that they are expecting less from me.
Buzz: Are you sure?
Larry Norman: I'm not sure about anything. Do you expect my music to be more evangelistic?
Buzz: No, but a lot of people simply ask the question 'What are you trying to achieve through It all?'
Larry Norman: But I never achieve evangelism through my music. If I'm going to say anything evangelistic I say it with words and not music. Music is art, not propaganda.
Buzz: What do you think the audience expects of you?
Larry Norman: I don't know. I only do between five and 15 concerts a year. So I don't build up an expectant rapport. I don't do what they tell me to. If they cracked a whip and said 'Smile and do a back hand spring', I have an idea I'd just go home. I'm going to tell you something you probably don't want to hear. Because I'm not here to fulfil your expectations I'm here to tell you that if you're not a Christian then you should become one. And if you are a Christian then you better stop putting expectations on people. Start getting rid of your own limitations, your own preconceptions and your own repressions. Stop coming to these concerts. Go out into the world and preach the Gospel. I'm not coming to entertain you, I'm coming to inspire you; to be so filled with Christ that you stop listening to Christian records because you don't have time for it. And you don't have money for it because you're giving your money to people who don't have food. This whole Christian thing has really burgeoned into some dilettante art form where people are smug, not only on delivery but on the receptive end. The singers are doing one album a year and a lot of concerts and they're so popular. The audience is buying Album of the Month and making sure their Christian record collection is as complete as required by their tastes. That is not what life is for.
Buzz: How do you prepare for a concert?
Larry Norman: I don't plan what I'm going to say. I just go on stage and let whatever happens happen. I'm just a punter. Do we say, 'Well I'm going to dinner tonight and I'm going to discuss this and that'. No, we just go through life and it happens to us while we're doing it. We're unprepared for each moment. The only preparation we can have is personal and private devotion as a Christian. So I just go up on stage and try to be a human being. Even my jokes aren't planned. I may tell a joke twice. Initially I make it up as I'm going along and if I think it is worth saying again I try to remember it.
Buzz: So how do you define a professional?
Larry Norman: A professional is someone who works out every move, figures out the lights, sound, and has a rehearsal. I don't rehearse. I didn't even rehearse with the band at Greenbelt. I don't believe in over-rehearsing something and meticulously planning out everything I'm going to do or say. I'm not always looking for another new outfit. If I find something that looks alright I just wear it until it falls off. I bought a poor little blue jean jacket over here in Britain. I put it on, it fitted and I thought it was a coat that I could get some use out of. It also felt comfortable. So I wore that for five years and somebody came up and said, 'How come you never change your clothes?' I never thought about it, I just washed it. It finally started ripping apart at the seams. This coat I've had now for four years . . .
Buzz: But the very fact that you've thought out exactly what image you want ie the down-trodden look is Image building, isn't It?
Larry Norman: It's not an image - I'm dying daily. Dying not only to self, but to fashion society, income. I try not to watch TV because I think it's what's wrong with part of our lives. Very few of us get along as well as anyone on TV does. People fall in love because they both missed the bus, and they marry and live happily ever after. Or if they get divorced it's also fashionable. I don't think society's telling us the truth about life and God. So I'd rather pray and read the Bible. I try not to pollute my mind with the latest books, movies and TV. But then don't go calling me an ultra-conservative, anti-pleasure, you know? I'm not thinking this up for an image. I don't go on stage and bore people to death with all my peculiarities and all my personal tastes.
Buzz: Is somebody wrong to dress up on stage - even if they've spent as much time thinking about it as you?
Larry Norman: I'm not saying that I'm the standard. I'm not saying that people are wrong. I don't want to get in a fight and say everybody should wear old clothes. All I'm saying is that I'm not the sort of person who buys a new outfit for a tour so I'll have a new image, a new look. I'm not always making sure my hair is perfectly cut and tweezing my eyebrows, wearing stage make up, getting the lights right, practising my songs, figuring out how I'll have two fast ones to get the crowd going then I'll do a slow one to make them think ...I don't do all that.
Buzz: That sounds a bit like 'Larry Norman - Anti-Hero' strolling out onto the stage, hands in pocket, standing like a statue in front of the microphone.
Larry Norman: Well, it's a particular mannerism, isn't it?
Buzz: A friend turned to me and said 'That man is so conceited it's unbelievable'.
Larry Norman: If he had me over for dinner he'd probably say you was wrong. The guy's not conceited he's just boring.
Buzz: He didn't think you were boring. He thought it was a non-verbal statement of arrogance.
Larry Norman: I must make a note of that. Do not go out with your hands in your pockets - it looks conceited.
Buzz: In the past five years your writing hasn't been as prolific as it might have been. Why is that?
Larry Norman: I just had too many personal problems to worry about which I felt were more important than getting albums released. I know you know about my divorce. It's taken a long time for me to get over it. I guess Pamela and I just didn't know each other well enough when we got married. She'd had a drug problem for four years before we met which I didn't know about, and it never completely went away. At first things were great and we were very close, but then she went into modelling and kind of got mixed up with the jet set crowd and ended up in compromising situations. I realized that I was making things worse by being away from home on the weekends and that she was having problems because of it, so I came off the road for several years to be with her. But it didn't seem to change anything. When the divorce finally came, it was no overnight surprise. I know that I'm not the cause for the problems she had before we met and I realize that I had the proper biblical grounds for divorce and all that, but it doesn't make the death of my relationship with her any less of a tragedy. Any less painful. It takes two people to get married, but it only takes one person to get a divorce. And it takes a long time to get over something like this. I don't know if anyone ever gets over it completely.
Buzz: Do you feel that your divorce will hurt your ministry?
Larry Norman: I don't think so. But at first I wondered... not about what people might think because people usually think what they want to. Besides, there are at least a dozen other Christian couples who have been divorced in the last four years and it hasn't seemed to change the way the public views their music or books or preaching or TV shows. But still. . .I was very concerned about what divorce might do to me ... inside. I've always been very shocked and negative toward anyone who got divorced because that was the way I was brought up to feel. That's the attitude that most of society used to have - even secular society. So when I ended up divorced, I felt very negative and condemning toward myself. I thought that perhaps I wasn't a Christian any more. I hadn't stopped believing, I hadn't stopped living a Christian life, but now I fitted into the category of a DIVORCED person. It's just the same kind of judgement I'd always automatically extended toward other broken marriages. It never occurred to me that they might have extenuating considerations, like Biblical grounds for divorce. I kept waiting for a feeling of abandonment to overtake me. But instead, I started to feel closer to God. Not farther away. The real divorce occurs when the relationship is first broken. Forgiveness heals that spiritual divorcement. If the marriage keeps on being broken, or if you can't reverse things, then getting some papers from a lawyer simply reinforces what you already realize. A coroner's report doesn't create death, it merely confirms it. In fact, when it was finally over, I realized that certain issues were somewhat resolved and although I was still sad, I wasn't desperate. But it took a while to feel noticeably different. I stopped judging myself because I started to understand things in the Bible better. I stopped having migraines and stomach pains so the doctors took me off all the medicines. And finally I started to feel peaceful and relaxed about life. I know that God hasn't abandoned me just because my marriage failed. I think Jesus was very specific when he pointed out the only acceptable grounds for divorce, but if someone finds that they're divorced without these grounds, I think they need to realize that God still loves them. But also, they will need to do a lot of soul-searching, as no doubt we all should be doing anyway, working out their salvation with fear and trembling so they can more clearly understand the reasons for their failures and sins and turn away from them. Anyway, no... I don't think that my ministry has been destroyed. And I'm not afraid of what other people might now think of me. It's not really up to the public to decide whether someone has a ministry or not to begin with, is it? It's not even up to the individual himself, really. God alone gives us our ministries... and only God knows whether someone is remaining open and submissive enough to continue being used.
Buzz: At concerts you mention rumours that have got around about you.
Larry Norman: That's become a standing joke. All I have to say is that I've heard some rumours about me and people start laughing because no doubt there's some fresh rumours that they've heard that I haven't heard.
Buzz: Would you say that the rumours are there simply because you don't make many public statements and because you tend to react against the media?
Larry Norman: I think the rumours start because I must look as if I'm up to something questionable and because I'm almost continuously in this semi-state of retirement. I'm not always on the TV or talking to a magazine, doing concerts, giving interviews or going to weekend retreats and talking to the kids. If I were doing that a different kind of information would be spread. That's gossip too but it's a constructive grapevine instead of a negative grapevine built on long absences.
Buzz: Do you see servant hood as an important concept?
Larry Norman: Isn't it one of our primary directives? Aren't we supposed to love one another, serve one another? Submit ourselves one to another and confess our sins one to another? I keep forgetting I'm supposed to be Larry Norman. I'm used to cleaning out my Mum's house when I go and visit her and ironing a few shirts for Dad.
Buzz: So you'd rather just be Mr and Mrs Norman's son?
Larry Norman: I am Mr and Mrs Norman's son.
Buzz: People do see you, whether you like it or not, as somebody special.
Larry Norman: I don't care how people perceive me. It's not that I prefer them to think of me as an ordinary guy. I prefer to be an ordinary guy. I can't make them think of me any particular way. I prefer to be an ordinary person and so I have left performing. It's something I don't do very often at all because I prefer to be something else other than a musician who has a high public regard. I don't sign autographs. I don't believe that God wants me to sign autographs. I don't believe that God would have wanted the Apostles to sign autographs. It's always a privileged position to be given deference to other people. But as Christians we'd better not accept that. We'd better not rely on that preference. We're going to be in serious trouble with God when we stand before him in judgement. He'll say to us. 'Who did you think you were? You wanted to be first, huh? OK I got a surprise for you. Welcome to the end of the line.'
Buzz: What about your own church background. What's your own connection with a fellowship at the moment?
Larry Norman: I always balk at these questions because it's like someone puts on a Nazi arm band and says 'Where are your credentials?' That's not what you're saying but I've just had this for years. People ask 'What church do you go to?' I might reply, 'I was raised blah, blah blah', to which they go 'MMM-hmm.' And they think to themselves 'Now I understand why he isn't going to be in the Kingdom.'
Buzz: The question is not loaded at all.
Larry Norman: I think it's unimportant and I'd prefer not to simplify it, just the same. If I were to say I'm a Baptist or I'm Pentecostal or Lutheran I believe that it creates a different impression for each, and I'm non-denominational in my thinking. I'm part of the Body of Christ through the communion of saints which comes with fellowship between Christians.
Buzz: Is fellowship something that's important to you?
Larry Norman: It's extremely important.
Buzz: You meet regularly then with a group of Christians?
Larry Norman: Does regularly mean limiting yourself to once a week? Does regularly mean only attending church for an hour? If you go for five hours does that disqualify you? If you meet three or four times a week is that really sick? Is that obsessive, compulsive?
Buzz: I'm asking you.
Larry Norman: I don't know. I can't make judgments on other people's religion.
Buzz: That's a defensive approach to a simple question.
Larry Norman: You may be asking it simply but that's not what people read into it.
Buzz: I don't think people would pass judgement on you if you were Brethren or Anglican. It's purely a matter of interest to people in this country.
Larry Norman: I just don't like the question. If you just want a little statement, I don't have a one paragraph statement to make.
Buzz: That's why I'm asking you 20 or 30 questions.
Larry Norman: Well this is me in all my complexity. I'm sure all of us are more complex than we've chosen to be. You get in trouble with people when you have too lengthy an answer. They fall asleep. That's why it's nice to have a close friend or a good wife or husband to give your full answers to.
Buzz: How important are your friends to you then?
Larry Norman: I'm really looking forward to the fellowship between Norman Barrett, Alwyn Wall and the others. There's something special about being locked up with close friends on a bus for days and days. You can minister to each other and pray in some kind of depth. Yeah - I'm looking forward to that.
Interviewers: Steve Goddard/Roger Green