Club Exit eZine|
by Brian Quincy Newcomb
Originally published June 1989
Twenty years ago today, or thereabouts, it was Larry Norman and not Sgt, Pepper that was creating a new song. 1989 marks the 20-year anniversary of Upon This Rock, and with his return to commercial recording on Home At Last, this seemed like an appropriate time to talk to one of the inventors of contemporary Christian music. Norman, with his recognizable long white hair and an ever-constant smile, gave life to rock 'n' roll that spoke to us about the world's sad brokenness and God's consistent love, in poetry that transcended as comfortable language of the church and in music that shook the streets. The gospel message is best spoken in the freshness of cultural significance, and the language most often spoken since the '50s is a vernacular of guitars, drums, rhythm and soul, and Larry Norman is one of the people that has made it happen. Roll over Beethoven, tell Martin Luther the news.
Regarding your music in the early days, you once said that you weren't rebelling, yet were creating a revolution.
Well, what I wanted to do was learn how to explain God without using any of the language or ideas that I had been taught in the church. I felt everybody's exposed to the church, so the minute you start saying to them something they've heard from their childhood, they're going to say, "oh yeah, I've been to church, I've had that experience, it didn't work out." So I tried to use strictly secular-sounding words to express what happened to me spiritually.
Upon This Rock shook the timbers. It was completely different than anything anyone thought would ever happen. Were you trying to do that?
I was never trying to be a revolutionary. I wasn't so much against things like the war in Viet Nam just because war kills people, because given time, everyone shall die. I was for Jesus. I wanted the soldiers in Viet Nam to know about Christ and I wanted the other side to know about Christ. How could I want anything less than for their salvation, redemption and everlasting life? I wrote "I Am the Six O'clock News" in 1968 and it wasn't about soldiers fighting the war... it was about the media's indifference to suffering, just as long as it was filmed well. So I was not, in my mind, a traditional rebel. I was angry about injustice and deceit, but my songs weren't written to stir anybody up to any focus other than Jesus. Outside of Christ, my songs have no value. They were always written raw. They came out of me so fast, I couldn't edit them. I didn't rewrite them, I didn't know how to rewrite. In 10 minutes I would have another song ... never change the words, never change the chords. I didn't realize you could do "arrangements."
Constantly, in your music, you express a desire to leave this life behind, either through death or Christ's return.
Yeah, there's a recurring theme like in the "Nightmare" songs. Something happened to me in 1968.1 almost died when I first moved to Hollywood. I was sick and alone for days. Nobody knew where I was. I didn't even know anybody in L.A., except my publisher. I had been laying in this bed for three or four days, in a delirium, and I saw a hole in the ceiling getting bigger and bigger and I thought, "I can't move ... I'm too sick. If it rains, I'm going to get all wet." Then as the hole got bigger and bigger, I realized, "it's not the ceiling, it's something coming toward me. It looks bigger, but it's just getting closer." It went right into my head, and it was a shaft of light and it pulled me out of my body and I started going up this light. I felt so happy. I didn't feel any pain. And then I felt voices singing. I didn't hear them, I felt them. And when that happened, I thought, "I'm dying." When I realized it had to be the angels making music, I fell back down the shaft of light back into my body and I woke up and I was well. The fever was gone. I just wiped the perspiration off like it was cold sweat. And it had bothered me for years. Why had I been so afraid to die? Was that why I fell back down? I didn't realty know if it was a dream, a hallucination, part of the illness. I felt like maybe I hadn't had enough faith to enter Heaven, so maybe God was letting me stay down here to build up my faith ... or maybe He still had more work he wanted me to do. There was so much glory in getting so close on that shaft of light. Once I had been that close to the beauty of that music, I didn't want to make music anymore. I didn't want to be alive. I wanted to go to Heaven.
Was that also to escape unhappiness in life?
When I was young I wanted to grow up and be a husband. I wanted to get married and have children and have a happy life, have a dog. I couldn't have a dog in the city but when I got married and my kids wanted a dog, I 'd get 'em one. I was trying to make things right.
You had a conception of the ideal romantic life...
Yeah. And I was unhappy growing up 'cause my friends in the neighborhood weren't really friends, and I'd get beat up and I wouldn't know why. Anyway, I wanted to be happy someday. So I got married to a girl who seemed real normal, but turned out to have a lot of problems. I stuck with it, thinking, "Well, maybe if I try to love her this way, try to love her in that direction, she'll see things differently and it'll work out like it's supposed to."
That your marriage was not working as you thought it should must have created strain in every area of your life. Your records were highly acclaimed in mid '70s, yet all that time, you're in a relationship that was feeling uncomfortable and difficult?
After we'd been married two weeks, she announced that it was over as far as she was concerned. But I thought if you got divorced, you couldn't go to Heaven. That was what I'd learned in church and I had never really read those portions of the scripture that talk about what is the only acceptable reason for divorce, so I just stayed with her and I really did love her. I wasn't upset about anything, but it was all in my mind or maybe my spirit. For me, the relationship was working. For her, she wasn't more comfortable, she still was out on the town. The idealism that marriage is going to change you, that's gone with a second marriage. You realize that if anything can change you, it's going to be you, it's going to be Christ, it's not going to be a ring and a ceremony.
You met her when?
In ’71. Got separated in ’78, got divorced in 1980. So after that happened I just moved to England. I couldn't run Solid Rock Records anymore because of my mental condition due to an accident, I couldn't concentrate. I couldn't finish anybody's album. I couldn't get any work done in the office, it was just real hard. And I'd already done the one album for each artist that I'd promised, and I wanted to liberate them and get them signed up with a real big record company. But they all wanted to stay together because that was what they knew.
Your new bio speaks of a 1978 airplane accident. Is that how you understand that it all began to fall apart?
Well, I couldn't do anything.
Your condition? What did the doctors call it?
At the time they didn't call it anything. They didn't know what it was I didn't think to have X-rays because I thought I was okay Now, what they have isolated it as is a bi-polar trauma, which means the accident caused an interruption in the information from one side of my brain to the other the neurons spark but sometimes don't make a connection The plane landed on the runway very hard it was a 747 and in the middle section the whole ceiling came straight down and struck me on the head I was so embarrassed I went into shock and started laughing All I could think of was that the people in the next section behind me had seen me get hit on the head, like I slipped on a banana peel or something The paramedics were there when the plane taxied to the gate.
Before your plane accident it appeared, at least to a rural New Yorker, that you had created this amazing community of Christian rock musicians. DA, Randy Stonehill, Mark Heard, Tom Howard...and you'd worked with Steve Camp. The whole concept seemed like a romantic ideal from the perspective of a fan who longed for community and cultural relevance and couldn't find them in their local church. You guys appeared to be best friends who were fortunate to be able to play each other’s music? How was it really?
It wasn't that way, but I thought it was that way, because I wanted to be part of a family. I wanted to support the ministries of these people who I believed in and I wanted their Solid Rock album to be something they could never improve on. I wanted to make their very first album something that would be a landmark for them forever. I was only going to produce one album for each artist, but I also had really strong ideas about how people listen to music and how people come to understand an overall message of a certain artist. I was using as much communication as I could, even with the photos. I hadn't intended to produce any second albums for any of the artists. They were all out of contract. My contract wasn't really a contract to hold them to me. I had a contract with them because Word required it of Solid Rock. So, I just gave them their contract back as soon as their album was out. There was a lot of personal strife in everybody's life. My wife had decided she wanted to marry somebody else and all of the artists at the same time were leaving their wives, and I just thought this was an appropriate time for introspection. I didn't want to be up on stage and having kids come back afterwards and ask me why everyone was getting divorced.
From a distance, it looks like, whatever was going on, you're the one who was left by everyone. Everyone else continued working together.
Oh, I wrote this letter saying I don't want anybody to pay me anymore for managing you, I don't know what they thought it meant. I didn't tell my reasons, didn't say I was disappointed by your public behavior, I mean, I was just getting outrageous reports all the time. But I didn't tell them why I didn't abandon them.
It may be perceived that there are hard feelings between you and Randy, and between you and the guys in Da. Is that so?
No. I don't think so. I've met all the guys in DA, separately, in a restaurant or walking down the street, and there's a lot of good feelings. Their perception at the time was that they didn't know what was going on. They knew that I was after their best interests, because I took them all out separately and talked to them at length about their personal lives and what I thought was going to be happening, if certain decisions were made. I think that's why everything is all right between me and those guys. And Randy and I stayed in rooms across from each other at a festival and talked and wrote to each other. I've most recently received a letter from Randy and I see him different places. I think we're friends. But the idea that everybody left me isn't correct. Mark Heard and I continued to work together. We've worked on each other's albums now for 10 years solid. And Tom Howard, I recorded two albums of his new material to try to help establish him as a songwriter because he wasn't getting any concerts. And, Randy and Terry don't need my help. But I give them advice anyway.
When did you write "Letters to the Church?"
'77. I was on my world tour seeing all of these people starving and then had all these evangelists on TV that kept talking about we need this much money to get our own satellite, so we can project our program all over the world. But what I saw in that world was these people that don't even speak English, these people don't have TV sets ... how can you expect a broadcast to touch them? All I mean is these TV people, they're in the spotlight. They're stars. They speak of compassion, and they drive around in a Mercedes. They talk of Heaven, but are they really going there? Is God going to say to them, "Depart from me. You did only evil?"
Your son, Michael, is now three, you're 42. There's a sense of new-found resolve on Home At Last that seems to link your spiritual sojourn and your family life.
The last three years I finally have a real life, a family.
Some critics of the new album, including myself, have pointed to a lack of political statements on the new record. Is that reflective of a change in your thinking?
There are a lot of issues that are very obvious to people, pollution is one, the threat of nuclear war, and abortion, which is a very important issue especially right now. But I haven't written any songs about that kind of thing on the new album because I already wrote those songs. My focus as a father has changed my political values—I'm no longer a pacifist of sorts. If a man came to my house with a gun I'd try to knock the man down, whereas before I always felt that if a man came at me with a gun, I'd be happy to go to Heaven. All my concerns for the earth's well-being and pollution and nuclear catastrophe are tied up in my hopes for my son.
What would you say is the theme of the new record?
Home At Last is about my sense of home. All my life, I was never sure where my home was. I never felt the neighborhoods where I grew up was home; I didn't like being beat up—that didn't feel like home. That's why I chose a graveyard for the back cover that's not our home; we don't lay in the ground for eternity. And the front cover with the house with the white picket fence, that's not my home. It's my house, but it's not my home. Heaven is my home. I want Christ's protection for my family and for my son, which is why I have the bloodstains on my door, like the Passover.
So it's not about some familial ideal, exactly.
In The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy clicks her heels and says "There's no place like home," I always cried, it was such a beautiful ending, but I didn't know why I was crying. As a result of this accident I began to think about where I belonged, and I didn't feel I had a home anywhere. I didn't have a sense of self—sense of belonging—only isolation. I love the church and my sisters and brothers but I didn't always feel welcome, and church never felt like home. People were always speculating that I wasn't really a Christian, because they didn't like the music I was writing.
I'll be honest. I still don't feel like I have a home on Earth. I don't know if any of us should feel that we have a home here. This album is my "Letters to the Church"—not of Corinth or Ephesus, but to the "Church of the Me Generation." They're not overly aware of the pain and suffering in the world, but they still feel isolated; they still feel alone and aren't sure how their life might be better spent.
There are still people around me that don't know who they are and don't know who Jesus is. This is a yuppie world. They can't believe there's an answer in church. They went to church—they tried that. I write my songs to convince them that Christ is different than Christianity. Christ is the Savior; Christianity is us trying to follow the Savior and making a lot of mistakes on the way.
I'm still writing songs for people in a maelstrom of confusion. And that's why some of these songs cover so much ground about contradictions and emotional aspects, instead of politics. "Somewhere Out There" is not so much about me and Michael and how much I love him. It's about the tensions, not the resolutions. I'd really love to stay at home for the rest of my life and spend every day playing with my son. But God did not give me a son so that I could spend so much time with one of His creations that I forget to spend time with Him, or to do His will in my life. There's a lot of sad, broken people out there in the world. And just as I hope my son wilt be a good boy and make me happy, I realize that my Father also wants me to be a good and faithful servant... that I've got to make my Father happy too.