from flying saucers.
A slightly revised form of this
article appeared in HM magazine as "Larry Norman: The Conquest
Revisited". Tourniquet was a pre-release demo for the album, Behind the
Curtain, but it's an excellent album in its own right. LarryNorman.com
describes it as "Planet + Babylon" (referring to the styles of two
other popular Norman albums, and Tourniquet was released in 2003, in a
slightly different version than the demo.
Just look what
Larry's up to now.
The (Larry) Norman Conquest Revisited by
"I'm the Volkswagon of gospel music, not the Rolls Royce," Larry Norman
once quipped. Consider the Volkswagon. The "Love Bug" was every
hippie's choice for transportation in the 'sixties, and the harbinger
of a sustainable future has long appealed to counterculture types and
free spirits. But the V-dub also made a comeback for the new millenium
high-tech marvel of styling and engineering-"reverse engineered from
saucers" the billboards said.
In the intervening decades, the little bug could not help look a little
out of place next to the shiny behemoths of Detroit and generic bubble
cars of Japan. Over the years, however, Dr. Porsche's brainchild has
only grown in appeal, along with its "small is beautiful" aesthetic,
and bugs of both eras are the choice of a new generation. In a word,
the bug is back.
Larry Norman is also back, though to those in the know, he never left,
and the man once characterized as "too rock'n'roll for religious people
and too religious for rock'n'rollers" now appeals to both. Listeners
may be surprised to hear Norman's song, "666" on the new album by Frank
Black and the Catholics. Black, it turns out, is a long-time Norman
fan, and also recorded a heavy blues-rock fave, "Watch What You're
Doing," when he was Black Francis with the Pixies. Black not only
confessed to growing up on Larry's music, but also dressing like him,
and once won a Norman
On the other hand, Norman's most popular release, 1972's Only
Visiting This Planet, pegged number two in CCM Magazine's recent book
on the 100 most influential albums, just behind Any Grant's Lead Me On.
Arranged by Beatles producer George Martin, and originally released on
the MGM/ Verve label, Planet is Norman's most immediately likeable and
accessible album. Not surprisingly, numerous artists have covered songs
from this classic disc, among them British crooner, Cliff Richard, and
pop diva, Petula Clark.
You can hear D.C.Talk's version of "I Wish We'd All Been Ready" on
People Get Ready, a musical collection "inspired by Left Behind,
" as well as Geoff Moore's styling of "UFO." Norman was also invited to
perform on the opening and closing nights of the play of "Left Behind,"
later made into a popular movie. The blockbuster book series, which to
date has sold over 20,000,000 copies, may also owe its title to the
song's haunting refrain, "you've been left behind."
As everyone knows, Norman's albums are conspicuous in stores by their
absence. You may find Remixing This Planet, a set of reworked
and respun numbers by the Echoing Green and other N-Soul artists, or
"One Way," a tribute album by Rebecca St. James, Grammatrain and other
folks at Forefront--but no Norman. That's because as every Internaut
knows, some time back Norman went "web-only," with his Solid Rock label
following the "mail-order only strategy of his earlier Phydeaux
named for Norman's dog and begun to battle bootleggers.
Strolling into larrynorman.com, however, is like stumbling into a
parking lot of old classic cars, and more forgotten, lost and archival
vinyl recordings are finding their way onto the site everyday, restored
and relaunched on CD. But you'd be just as intrigued browsing at the
neighboring new car showroom. So many new Norman albums have come out
in the last few years, that I could write the ad copy: "Just look what
Larry's up to now."
The new volkswagon never could have appeared from the "old" way of
making cars--by dumbed-down, please-everyone, market research committee
decision in Detroit, Munich--or Nashville. Likewise, Norman's millenial
model, Tourniquet, could never appear by consensus of record company
suits--only by a new way of making albums--on an "underground" label
with a "virtual" fanbase. You say you want a revolution? You got it-on
Stranded in Babylon made it clear that Norman was saying what
he wanted to say, and his egg-walking days were over. But if you think
at fifty-something the Godfather of gospel rock is following the VH1
poster bands to the Old Rocker's Home to settle down to a life of a
nostalgic, adult contemporary lounge lizard, think again.
If fans have been crying for some real rock and roll, Tourniquet, like
the turbo bug, makes you remember what the right pedal was always for.
There is a time to brake and a time to step on the gas. This would be
choice "B," and the ad would read: "Rockers Wanted." On some of the
songs at least. There are always a few other Norman songs that hearken
back to his roots in the singer-songwriter era of Paul Simon, James
and Carole King.
But this is exactly the place many modern musicians are going
back to, discovering the craft of songwriting in Elvis-era Sun
sessions, Motown and Chicago gospel, the Beach Boys and the Beatles,
before pop and rock went their separate ways. I personally think
Norman's "I Hope I'll See You in Heaven" is one of the best songs in
this genre ever written.
Not that this makes Norman a safe household pet or digestible
radio fare, however. As I write, Henry Rollins of Black Flag is in town
with his "Spoken Word" tour, but except for the bad words, you could
hear a message just as radical from Norman. Thirty years ago many heard
it on Street Level, the first album on Norman's One Way label, which
under the radar of corporate rock. One Way was kick-started with a cash
infusion from Pat Boone--himself recently under scrutiny from the
of popular culture for his MTV-aired "heavy metal" album - and who
on covered Norman's lighter songs.
You could also hear it in "Great American Novel," a Dylanesque protest
song from Planet which Norman had occasion to sing for President Jimmy
Carter when he was invited, with other gospel singers to the White
House. Ironically, Carter was probably the only member of the audience
who would have agreed with the song, still a favorite at Norman
"I wanted us to feed the poor, and to stop worshipping the space
program thinking this proved that God was on our side and not the
Russians' because we were superior in the space race to the moon. And
to realize that our government was taking over countries in the same
way that Russia was, creating satellites, but we call their communism
"evil" and our democratic appropriations of foreign governments
Norman has long made reference, in his copious liner notes, to writers
and thinkers whom readers today are avidly devouring, including
G.K.Chesterton, Malcom Muggeridge and Francis Schaeffer. The latter, an
influential Protestant writer in the "seventies, predicted that the
only values of the (post) modern world would be "personal peace and
affluence." Norman insists he is only urging a return to the earlier
values of the Bible.
"The Bible says we should go into prisons and hospitals and witness to
people and also bring them encouragement," he explained. He champions
the work of such organizations as Feed the Children, World Vision and
Compassion International. "I'm not an official representative for
Compassion, but I sponsor 22 children through Compassion, and add more
because it brings me such incredible joy." Many are looking for a
spiritual life, he notes, but the missing dimension is often that of
and social action.
"Preach the gospel," St. Francis advised, "and if necessary use words."
That might also be Norman's message on Tourniquet. "Feed the
Poor," a thirty second song-in-progress that ends last year's Copper
album, is a full-blown rocker on Tourniquet. It's followed by a quieter
song about how awkward making contact can actually be. "I've been
about it for thirty years," Norman relates. "In the 'sixties, people
want to hear it. It was like, 'no, our obligation is to go to church
be nice people.' I wanted us to go out into the streets and witness to
people on Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard, whether they were prostitutes
or drug users, and bring them back to the church and bring them into
kingdom of God."
"I remember getting a lot of irritated responses because they
thought I wanted to turn the church into a half-way house. No I
wanted to turn the church into a house that brought people all the way
through to the kingdom." Norman cites his dad, who also helped run the
Phydeaux record label, as an early role model. "My father used to go
prisons and hospitals and talk to people about Jesus, and I was
this. When I was five years old, I went with him out on the streets and
started doing street witnessing. It was a very natural thing."
Tourniquet was unveiled at this year's Cornerstone festival,
along with the Belfast Bootlegs and other archival albums garaged at
Solid Rock. That's a natural choice, since from its inception the
heartland festival has always been about, if you will, the heart-land,
and Norman will find a ready audience of kindred souls, receptive to
not only his music,
but his message, not only for the old classics, but also this year's
- © Gord Wilson 2003.