Provided by Paul Keeble
A JESUS ROCK LEGEND - Martin Wroe, September 1984 Buzz
To Rock Gospel Show Christians the name Larry Norman will mean nothing. But to older devotees, Larry is a legend. In what is now called `contemporary Christian music' there is only one man who can honestly be called legendary and it's not George Beverley Shea.
Larry Norman, the popular spokesman for the late 60s and 7Os `Jesus Movement', coined the phrase and symbol `One Way'. His long blonde hair and black leather jacket symbolised the rebellion of Christian youth through the 70s.
His folk-rock anthems like `Sweet Song of Salvation', `The Outlaw' and `I Wish We'd All Been Ready' were the birth- pangs of `Jesus Rock'. His concert appearances, public statements and private life gather the moss of myth quite unlike a rolling stone.
`I never invented Christian rock because the blacks invented it years ago.' Larry Norman denies the one thing he'll always be credited with - reconciling the musical expression of the Church with that of popular culture.
The critic may analyse his uniquely charismatic stage person, his enormous popularity, his enduring controversiality. But one point that the Larry Norman critic never misses was neatly put by an American magazine when it described him as `The Original Christian Street Rocker'. His recollection of his early days says it all: `I was born in San Francisco in a sick and desperate all- black neighbourhood. I didn't go out to play because I saw no point in it... sometimes I got beat up because I stood out a little, so I stayed indoors and listened to the radio. I began to really love the songs from the Broadway musicals. I started to play the piano and ukelele that belonged to my father... then as soon as I could hold a guitar I set the house rocking!' Years later in his most famous song `Why Should the Devil?', Larry defended his right to listen to and enjoy the music on the radio. Thousands of Christians in dozens of countries sang along in hearty agreement - but they still didn't listen to the radio themselves. Larry Norman did. He also bought magazines by the shelf- load and poured over books... grappling with the mainstream culture.
He'd started writing rock and roll music before his age was in double figures. Why rock and roll? `I walked out of church when I was nine years old. I didn't like the hymns and couldn't stand the singing anymore.'
Fortunately for the church, Norman didn't react to ecclesiastical irrelevance like so many others by writing off both Church and God. He went home and wrote the Church into his generation. His first song `Boppin' with my Girl' probably wouldn't go down a bomb in most places of worship but his third `Moses' earned a place on the first `Jesus Rock' LP `Upon This Rock', which to date has outsold every other rock release on a Christian record label.
Running away from home, Larry's rock band `People' scored a massive hit with his song `I Love You'. Larry left when the record company wanted to temper the bluntness of his Christian observations.
The first solo album `Upon This Rock' with its disturbing lack of sacred sounds and its annoying tendency to humour and satire instead of `straight (bash the sinner on the nose) gospel' was soon banned from Christian outlets. Norman was unavailable for comment, observing in one song that reporters often `quote me perfectly and rewrite every word I speak'. Even 15 years ago Larry Norman was becoming an enigma and the Larry Norman rumour industry was born.
His `Street Level' and `Bootleg' albums completed his years as `Poet Laureate of the Jesus Movement' (Time Magazine) and in 1972 `Only Visiting This Planet' with its searing soclo-political commentary, Dylanesque lyricising and hard rock and roll moved Billboard magazine to describe him as `the most important songwriter since Paul Simon'.
`So Long Ago the Garden' in 1973 was banned next, with Larry nude on the cover apart from a delicately overlaid lion's head. Great art but not Christian.
By now Larry Norman was seen as a bad man. Gone were the darling days of being guru to the Jesus Movement with plenty of preaching and lots of acoustic guitar. Now in the mid- 70s he was showing his true colours - sexually suggestive songs, anti-American lyrics and snarling electric guitars.
Unfortunately for the critics Larry was more popular than ever. But it wasn't the kind of popularity he was after. Selling out the Royal Albert Hall three months in advance to people who had all his albums and knew all his lyrics backwards he'd accidentally become a pop star for Christians. He stopped touring, founded Solid Rock Records and Street Level Artists Agency and put out `In Another Land' to widespread acclaim and a strange evangelical acceptance.
After a four year break his 1977 world tour demonstrated all his legendary charisma and audiences lapped it up. Vince Clarke, of chart-toppers Yazoo, was one of them and he described Norman in Melody Maker last year as the `best live performance I've ever seen'.
In the seven years since then, Larry Norman appears to have been deserted by creativity. But appearances are deceptive. He's been hampered by both personal traumas and business difficulties with record distribution. The 1981 release of `Something New Under the Son', a Pilgrims Progress for the 1980s and his grittiest, bluesiest work to date, won rave reviews and rightly so. But three years on there is still no sequel.
His pet Phydeaux label has been releasing rare live performances on vinyl to the collectors in surprising number, while an Australian release called `The Story of the Tune' is mostly new material and demonstrates all the old songwriting brilliance. He's apparently laid down an album of Dylan tracks at Chapel Lane recording studios.
Meanwhile the interviews are sporadic and the rumours flourish (`Heard the one about Larry Norman's nude centre- fold in Cosmopolitan? Pass it on').
Sometimes he hasn't helped himself. But the evangelical church has trained its brightest spotlight on Larry Norman and it's no wonder that he has shaded his eyes. But there is still no-one coming from the mainstream evangelical church who comes remotely close to him in terms of talent or influence.
To the unchurched, Larry Norman is the bloke who introduces `Film 84' (isn't he?) but to Christians he's an unrivalled phenomenon and a 100 per cent legend in his own lifetime: `I'm an outcast to those who think my music is devil music, perhaps, but I'm part of the Body, even if the Body sees me as an ingrown whisker or toenail.'