by William Ayers
This is taken fron the 1991 CD booket of the European version of Stranded In Babylon
There are so many today who are not familiar with Larry Norman or his
music. This album will serve, perhaps, as an introduction. For others
who have followed his work over the years, this is the
"comeback" album they have been waiting for. Stranded In Babylon
resumes the high cultural standard establlished with Only
Visiting This Planet, So Long Ago The
Garden and In
Another Land before he suffered brain damage in an airplane
accident in 1978.
In 1991 he celebrated his 35th year as a songwriter and performer. He has released over 30 albums in his recording career, including studio and live albums, and retrospective collections. He has produced many albums for other artists over the years. In 1990 he won the C.A.S. Lifetime Achievement Award. His album Only Visiting This Planet was voted the most important album in the last twenty years by CCM Magazine. His songs have been translated into more than a dozen languages and his music has been recorded by more than 200 other artists, including rock singers like Cliff Richard, who has recorded several of his songs, and non-rockers like Sammy Davis Jr., Petula Clark, and Jack Jones.
In 1990 he performed seven times at Moscow's 35,000 seat Olympic Stadium and sold out four concerts in Kiev on the weekend of the 4th memorial observance of the Chernobyl nuclear power-reactor explosion.
Always political, Larry spoke out for the impoverished, spoke about abortion, and politicized other social conditions in his music during the Sixties and Seventies. His sly stand-up comedy and biting social commentary made him a contreversial force in the music industry and a voice of reason in the modern church world. Sometimes it was to the detriment of his "career" that he spoke about his strong beliefs. Artistically he cam into conflict with Capitol Records and MGM records because of his straightforward message and he has left several other labels in protest to their business treatment of himself and other artists. Journalists and record executives have prematurely issued his death certificate, commercially, many times in the last twenty five years, but his music remains culturally relative and his commercial popularity continues to grow. Even during the years when his brain damage prevented him from making viable recordings, he continued to travel around the world doing concerts in England, Germany, Scandanavia, and Western European countries where artists traditionally tour and even in places where many other artists are rarely invited. He went behind the Iron Curtain and made secret concerts for years before he was officially invited to perform. He still remains one of the top performers in his field. In Europe he sells more records than Amy Grant and most American artists, and illegal bootlegs of his concerts and studio recordings circulate on cassette and CD among collectors. His vinyl records from earlier years sell for up to $400.00. He recently opened up a branch of his Solid Rock Records label in Moscow with Vladimir Yakovlev, his rock videos have been played on television to an extimated sixty million people, and Larry considers his tours and Russian record releases an important part of his musical outreach.
To understand Larry's music it is helpful to understand his background. He spent his infancy in Texas, but his conscious life began in a black neighbourhood in San Francisco. When he was three he moved with his mother and father into an apartment on the corner of Lyon Street and Fulton, one block from Hayes, and directly across from where the Haight-Ashbury sub-culture would one day rise up. There was an upright piano by the front window and Larry would "sit in the living room and compose for hours" while his mother would "sit in the kitchen and decompose." Larry loved music and spent a lot of time at the piano even though there was not enough money for piano lessons. His grandfather, Burl W. Stout, had been a performer with the Fontnell's troupe touring vaudeville houses before the talkies changed theatre. Larry spent may happy hours at his grandfather's house listening to the 78's which comprised his collection of blues and gospel albums.
"Bert Williams was irreverent and angry," Larry recalls. "Ethel Waters was saucy, Paul Robeson was majestic and a little frightening, Mahalia Jackson was very dramatic; I listened to it all, and I had so much more of a connection with this music than the white fluff that was played over the radio. I also liked classical music and the hymns. All of it kind of swirled around in my head and became seamless. I felt that all music had come from God but I knew everyone wasn't using it for Him. I thought that Broadway music was interesting because the scores were clever and the lyrics were playful and used inner-rhyme. I was only five years old and probably only appreciated it at that level but inside something deeper was going on because I started to write music when I was four or five and didn't realise I was composing tonally because I was simply using the piano. When I was five I found a little ukelele in my father's closet and then with great concentration learned that if I put my fingers on different strings and at different frets it sounded either bad or good. That's when composition became intentional. But music seemed so complete in itself that I didn't need to perform to enjoy it. Except for singing for my parents or for my relatives at Christmas I didn't really think about music as something you do for others. Until I was nine I really did music for my own pleasure. When I was five I wrote a song about the rain because I loved the San Francisco drizzles, and later I wrote about a dog because I couldn't have one, and a clown because my uncle was a circus performer, and when I was eight I wrote a song about a cowboy in the desert watching the stars at night and thinking about God because I often looked at the stars and tried to picture Heaven."
When the Norman family moved, they left the piano behind. The apartment where he lived became a church and has remained so ever since. (When Larry recorded Something New Under The Son he went back to his old house and photos were made with some of the kids from the neighbourhood. The window next to the front door was broken and the shattered pane left a hole which was shaped perfectly like a dove in flight. He didn't say anything in case they were embarrassed that the building was in need of a little repair. And Larry didn't ask if his piano was still there, though he thought about it. He offered to come back someday and so a concert. The church was a high holiness church and at that time they looked at Larry the way the white church had looked at him a decade before. The invitation never came. Larry now goes to Bishop Benjamin Crouch's church when he and Charly are in Los Angeles and he has recently thought of making the offer again, joking that maybe if he came with Andrae and Sandra, Tata Vega, and Sister Rose he would probably be more welcome.)
The Norman family next moved to a more racially mixed neighborhood and Larry started school, "walking one mile through no man's land" five days a week and never explaining to his parents where his bruises came from. He thought that getting beat up was hust part of life and accepted it, even learning to avoid it sometimes through fast talking and humor. If he was one of the only white boys on the block, he was also the whitest boy around. Some of the kids called him an albino, which he didn't mind. He kind of like it although privately he thought he might be an octoroon. There was a rumor of a black relative in the family bloodline but no one was quite sure, or could say with any certainty whether other deceased ancestors like Markitty Stories or Julia Broadhead had been of indian birth, although it was said that there was both Choctaw and Pawnee blood in the family tree.
In 1956, when Larry was nine, his family moved out past the Golden Gate park and toward the beaches where all the streets were in alphabetical order. He attended fourth grade at Ulloa Annex. His best friend was Alex Nofte, a quiet boy from a nice Greek family who helped him dig an underground fort and start a secret club. The club motto was, of course, "no girls allowed," which was just as well since the underground "cave" was a little unsafe. After two weeks, both sets of parents ordered the subterranean passage destroyed. This new neighborhood was peaceful in comparison to the inner-city life of previous years. Larry secretly liked a black girl named Barbara, and wrote a song about her, but he was recitent to tell her, not because of any racial aspect, but because he was shy. More gregariously, Larry socialized with the kids at school and invited them to church, and although he was rarely allowed to go to anyone's house at any time he tried not to languish in isolation. His parents were rather protective of him even though there wasn't very much violence in this new neighborhood. He read a lot of books and continued to grow musically. Then something happened which greatly changed his personality.
Elvis Presley came onto the music scene singing "rock and roll," described by many as a new style of music. Because of his familiarity with different kinds of black music, Larry perceived that rock and roll was actually black gospel without Christian lyrics. He thought that Elvis was trying to steal the church's music and thought that somebody should steal it back. While the blacks ignored Elvis as a pale imitation of a singer and the white adults in the church consigned rock and roll to the fires of hades as an invention of the Devil himself, with its roots planted in the soil of American ignorance and its backbeat rhythm ensconced in the mysticism of voodoo drums, Larry felt none of this. He believed that music came from God and that only people's minds could try to make it turn into something which was ungodly.
He began to perform publicly in 1956, polarized by the conflict and open animosity that people held for his music. Ten years later he had become an experienced performer and a gifted song writer. He was offered a worldwide recording contract by Capitol Records. Because he was underage his parents had to sign it on his behalf. His father wasn't much in favour of him entering into "show business," but Larry wasn't really interested in commercial success. He wanted to change the way people listed to music which had a gospel message. He wanted to have an effect on the music of the modern church and the religiuos perceptions of the youth culture. He was a white boy writing black gospel music, only it came out sounding like rock and roll.
So at the age of eighteen Larry ended up on the same record label as The Beatles and The Beach Boys. In concert with his band he opened up for The Dave Clark Five and other bands from the British Invasion, and then for new American bands like The Byrds, The Grateful Dead, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and Big Brother, and others. Larry was eccentric and outspoken. His music was original and very diversified. He tried to put classical music together with the blues and ended up writing a rock opera. Pete Townshend credited Larry's composition "The Epic," for giving him the idea for The Who's rock opera, Tommy. Larry continued trying to create new hybrids and styles of music to show that God's voice was not limited to the hymns. He didn't want to be commercially restricted as an artist. His music might have seemed to be too rock and roll for the Christians and too religious for the rock and rollers but he stood his ground.
Larry spoke out against drugs, which didn't go over too well with the counter culture. But Larry wasn't trying to be hip. His first album on Capitol Records was titled, We Need A Whole Lot More Of Jesus, And A Lot Less Rock And Roll. The album cover depicted Larry and his band in the recording studio, with Jesus standing in their midst. Without the band's knowledge or approval, Capitol changed the name of the album and reorganised the material included on the album. Ironically, perhaps, the day that the album was released to the stores Larry left the label. It was only when Capitol agreed to let him have total artistic control that he re-signed with the label and recorded Upon This Rock in 1969. It was an impressive debut for religious rock music. Some of the press called it "the Sgt. Peppers of Christianity." Others reviled it without mercy. One writer called Larry a hermaphrodite and his message, "a hunk of hubris."
Larry's performances were uncompromising, sometimes lasting for hours. His finger, broken during the last days with his band People!, was a reminder to him of his journey. The scripture, "Lift up your body as a living sacrifice," and Larry's upheld index finger in between songs evolved into an international symbol refered to as "the One Way sign." It became the logo for the burgeoning Jesus Movement of the early Seventies but ten years later when Larry began doing secret concerts behind the Iron Curtain he found that the sign was also a gesture of committment in cultures outside of his own.
Larry's Street Level and Bootleg albums in 1970 and 1971 were as street-orientated as his public message. In 1972 he recorded Only Visiting This Planet for MGM Records. He flew to London and recorded it at George Martin's Air Studios. It received FM radio airplay and critics discussed his artistry in the same context as artists like Bob Dylan. Time Magazine recognised him as "the top solo artist in his field." Billboard Magazine called him "the most important songwriter since Paul Simon." In 1973 Larry recorded the enigmatic So Long Ago The Garden, also at Air Studios, while in the next room Paul McCartney was recording with Wings. Paul and Larry had met earlier, in 1968, during Larry's days at Capitol. Years later McCartney was quoted in an interview as saying that Larry might have been a major artist in the Seventies if he hadn't insisted on writing about Jesus. In the years since Larry first began recording Cliff Richard, Van Morrison, John Mellencamp, Depeche Mode, U2 and even Bob Dylan would call themselves fans.
In 1978 Larry was returning from an extensive world tour which had taken him to Europe, Lebanon, Israel, India, Hong Kong, and other countries. After he returned to America without incident he was hurt in an airplane accident at Los Angeles International Airport. He suffered an injury to the head which left him with partial brain damage and interrupted his recording career for more than a decade. Several years ago he released a loose collection of songs written between 1956 and 1989. This album, Home At Last, covered the years of ground between his childhood, career, divorce, and dysfunctional family life. The album ended with "Selah" which contained a minimalist reference to the KGB poisoning he and his brother suffered in 1988 which ended their Russian tour after one concert. They were sick for over a year and when Larry finally felt recovered he went back to Russia and performed in Moscow's Olympic stadium as well as in Kiev. More dramatically, at the end of his British tour later that year, Larry unexpectedly encountered God in a new way and was physically healed from the brain damage that had persistently frustrated his musical efforts and personal life. He flew back to Oregon with new physical strength, peaceful optimism, and a clear mind. This album of songs, Stranded In Babylon, speaks of the new understanding he now has about God as a loving Father and about the struggles each person faces in life. He has recovered from the disabilities which weighed him down and has returned to the musical scene with renewed musical power. And new spiritual depth.
As family, friends and fans watched, his life spiraled downward. He was unable to record a bonafide album from the time of his airplane accident in 1978 until, with the help of therapy and chemical treatment to increase electro-neuron brain activity, he attempted to release the badly produced Home At Last. He never expected to be healed and thought he would have to continue chemical therapy until the day after John Barr came into his life and layed hands on him. He felt like twelve years of his life had been spent at the bottom of a black hole. He tried hard to climb out of it, watching it engulf and destroy his private life and diminish his personal ministry. Now, after meeting John Barr, he feels like he is back from the dead. He doesn't need medicine. He's been healed. Stranded In Babylon is the beginning.
The Albino Brothers are back from the Russian Front. Revived, focused, and already working on the songs for the next album. Selah.
Tim's note: Unfortunately, things changed again in early 1992 when Larry had a major heart attack. You can read more in the other notes.