buzz interview 1981
What is the main aim of your ministry?
I don't think music is a ministry. Music is a bunch of notes.
What are you trying to say then?
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.
People tend to expect a limited message, though, don't they?
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 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 Andre Crouch for a musical style.
How do you fit in with that?
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.
There was a point in 1973 when you decided to stop performing here in Britain. Why was that?
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 comminicate something when there's no struggle to convince them, and they accept everything?' I didn't come over to service the church-goer with entertainment and to write rock and roll hymns. I came over to try to break against the culture and say Jesus is relevent. He is not dead and the Church is not outdated.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 that I was never going to do another tour or be a part of another circuit like this. And I've never gone back into the churches. I want to be out in the world preaching about the gospel to an unconverted culture, not in the churches singing to people who have bought all my albums.
Is reaching non-Christians something you've been able to achieve since that time?
It's easy. You just go out into the street and talk to somebody. Or you talk to one of your friends who's round for coffee. I don't try to reach non-Christians through my music. I just try to reach them like you would.
Are people expecting more from your music than you want to give?
I've started to get the impression that they are expecting less from me.
Are you sure?
I'm not sure about anything. Do you expect my music to be more evangelistic?
No, but a lot of people simply ask the question 'What are you trying to achieve through it all?'
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.
What do you think the audience expects of you?
I don't know. I only do between 5 and 15 concerts a year. So I don't build up an exeptional 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 money for it because you're giving your money to people who don't have food.
This whole Christian thing has really burgeoned into becoming 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. Thst is not what life is for.
How do you prepare for a concert?
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.
So how do you define a professional?
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 great 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 ...
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?
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 my peculiarities and all my personal tastes.
Is somebody wrong to dress up on stage - even if they've spent as much time thinking about it as you?
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, practicing 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.
That sounds a bit like 'Larry Norman - Anti-Hero' strolling out onto stage, hands in pocket, standing like a statue in front of the microphone.
Well, it's a particular mannerism isn't it?
A friend turned to me and said That man is so conceited it's unbelievable.
If he had me over for dinner he'd probably say I was wrong. The guy's not conceited he's just boring.
He didn't think you were boring. He thought it was a non-verbal statement of arrogance.
I must make a note of that. Do not go out with your hands in your pockets - it looks conceited.
In the past five years your writing hasn't been as prolific as it might have been. Why is that?
I just had too many personal problems 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 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 realised that I was making things worse by being away from home on the weekends and that she was heving 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 realise 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.
Do you feel that your divorce will hurt your ministry?
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 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 towards 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 anymore. I hadn't stopped believing, I hadn't stopped living a Christian life, but now I fitted into the catagory of a DIVORCED person. It's just the same kind of judgement I'd always automatically extended toward other broken marriages. It never occured to me that they might have extentuating 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, the getting some papers from a lawyer simply reinforces what you already realise. A coroner's report doesn't create death, it merely confirms it. In fact, when it was finally over, I relised that certain issues were somewhat resolved and although I was still sad, I wasn't desperate.
But it took a while to feel noticably 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 know 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 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.
At concerts you mention rumours that have got around about you.
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.
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?
I think the rumours start up 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 tv or talking to a magazine, doing concerts, giving interviews or going to weekend retreats and talking to 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.
Do you see servanthood as an inportant concept?
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.
So you'd rather just be Mr and Mrs Norman's son?
I am Mr and Mrs Norman's son.
People do see you, whether you like it or not, as somebody special.
I don't care how people perceive me. It's not that I prefer them to think of me as an ordinary guy. I can't make them think of my 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 postion 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.
What about your own church background. What's your own connection with a fellowship at the moment?
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-hmmm. And they think to themselves Now I understand why he isn't going to be in the Kingdom.
The question is not loaded at all.
I think it's important and I'd prefer not to simplify it, just the same. If I were to say I'm a Baptist or I'm a Pentecostal or Lutheran I believe that it creates a different impression for each, and I'm non-denominational in any thinking. I'm part of the Body of Christ through the communion of saints which comes with fellowship between Christians.
Is fellowship something that's important to you?
It's extremely important.
You meet regularly then with a group of Christians?
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?
I'm asking you?
I don't know. I can't make judgements on other people's religion.
That's a defensive approach to a simple question.
You may be asking it simply but that's not what people read into it.
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.
I just don't like the question. If you just want a little statement, I don't have a one paragraph statement to make.
That's why I'm asking you 20 or 30 questions.
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.
How important are your friends to you then?
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. You can minister to each other and pray in some kind of depth.
Yeah - I'm looking forward to that.