1. Why were you compelled by Larry Norman's story?
I had been a fan of Larry Norman's music since the age of 14. I can remember buying his album IN ANOTHER LAND and being immediately attracted to the catchy tunes and positive faith message crafted into the lyrics. There was a definite genius to how Larry put together the entire package; the songs, the message, the persona. To someone like myself who had been raised in an evangelical Christian culture, I found him far and away the most interesting of the Christian rock performers of that time, and one of the few that rivaled any mainstream rock 'n' roll personalities.
Over the years, as one is want to do when enamored of an artist, I sought to know more about him. The deeper I delved into his story, the more complex it became. Even from a removed vantage point you got the sense that the things Larry said about himself were not shared by those who were around at the time. Every once in a while a former associate of Larry's would let fly a curious quote that left us all scratching our heads. But because Larry made his claims while shrouding himself in his Christian faith, you tended to give him the benefit of the doubt. Isn't that the Christian thing to do, after all?
At first, the curious little eccentricities just made him all the more compelling. The funny little stories, the excuses and explanations piled on top of one another; all of this added to the intrigue and mystery surrounding him. He was the Christian culture's answer to Bob Dylan, with as much of the accompanying interest as that subculture could muster.
As time went on, however, you realized there was a serious disconnect between what he was saying about himself and what was actually true. Did he really steal songs from other artists? Even his own artists? Did he screw them out of royalties, just like other mainstream record execs? Did he derail the career of one of the biggest acts in Christian music at the time just because they posed a threat to his own stature? Did he really sleep with his best friend's wife and then marry her? Did he really father a child in Australia and then completely abandon him? And if any of this is true, how does that square with the stuff he is saying about himself? Most importantly, however, if any or all of these things have any validity, did he ever come clean and make amends?
As someone interested in the commingling of faith and popular culture, I was left backed up against a wall with one final question; did Larry Norman have any resonance with the Christian message he sang about? That might sound harsh to some at first. But I am not sure there is any way around that question given the circumstances of his life.
2. Why is Larry Norman important historically?
Larry Norman was the engine for an entire genre of music known as contemporary Christian music (or CCM). To his credit, Larry was on the front lines of a cultural battle against the traditional church and her antagonistic stance, for the most part, against contemporary forms of music. Evangelists like Jimmy Swaggart were loud in their denunciation of rock music as the devil's province.
Already a veteran of a long and drawn out battle with his father over this issue, Larry became the prime apologist for using Christian rock music as a device to evangelize youth. As was his genius, Larry brilliantly captured the entire issue in the song "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?" To understand the journey that Christian rock 'n' roll has taken from being demonized through to its wholesale adoption by evangelical mega-churches in their want to be more seeker-sensitive, it is impossible to underestimate the influence of Larry Norman.
3. What is contemporary Christian music (or CCM)?
Contemporary Christian music (or CCM) is a genre of music distinguished solely by its lyrical content intended to affirm the historic tenets of the Christian faith. No matter what style of rock music - be it reggae, rap or punk rock - there are a number of bands providing a Christianized version. In CCM, the music almost always takes a back seat to the message. And as with other musical genres, CCM has become an industry based in Nashville with its own separate subculture and its own idiosyncrasies.
CCM has its roots in an evangelical revival called the "Jesus movement" that began in the late 1960s. Where hippies and even other counterculture participants wrote about issues of the day, be it civil rights, drug-induced mysticism and/or sexual exploration, "Jesus freaks" wrote about the life-changing experiences they underwent as they embraced Jesus Christ as the literal answer to eternal questions. These early expressions of musical faith were first called dubbed "Jesus music," and Larry Norman was anointed the most outstanding performer of this burgeoning genre by none other than Time magazine (June 21, 1971).
4. Is Larry Norman the originator of this hybrid of contemporary rock music with Christian lyrical content? Can he be called the "father" of CCM?
No and yes.
Earlier I mentioned that Larry Norman was the "engine" that propelled the fledgling Jesus music scene. I chose that word carefully because one of the embellishments Larry made was he was the first to join a gospel message to a contemporary beat, and that he was the originator of the entire genre by reason of being the sole person to dream up this new thing. Truth be told, gospel beat bands in the UK were setting Christian lyrics to contemporary tunes as far back as 1960, pre-dating even The Beatles. On top of that, Larry was singled out as being influenced by these early performers. Most notably, in the book Call to the Streets by Rev. Don Williams (1968), Larry Norman is said to have been impressed by a "gospel hard rock band" named Agape who "convinced Larry" to play Christian music.
That aside, Larry Norman was undoubtedly one of the most gifted and talented of the early Jesus music performers. He had already tasted a modicum of success, having been part of a band with a Top 40 chart single, Larry was light years ahead of other Jesus music performers who knew little to nothing about stage presence or maintaining an audience's attention. Larry wrote catchy upbeat pop tunes that captured the pressing theological issues of the day in a succinct and memorable manner. His iconic blonde hair against black leather jacket and black jeans gave him a striking look that he honed and perfected by the early 1970s.
More importantly, Larry almost single-handedly carved out his own commercial niche by playing gigs at Christian coffeehouses, Bible colleges and progressive churches and showing other performers by example how these events could be commercially viable. His efforts were so successful that when the largest religious music company of the time approached him in 1975 wanting to capitalize on his momentum, they not only gave Larry his own company (Solid Rock Records) but also agreed to let him choose his artists and keep all the publishing to boot.
5. You've mentioned that you wondered what resonance, if any, Larry had with the Christian message that he was proclaiming in his concerts. Can you elaborate on that?
As with any high profile personality, there are inconsistencies between the private and public personas. But as I followed the story along, I got the sense that there were some systemic problems with Larry that had dogged him throughout his life. And these problems went from bubbling under the surface while he was in People and during his early days in the Jesus movement to become more and more problematic and unmanageable in the 1980s and 1990s.
The story that first made me wonder involved the origin of the One Way symbol, the iconic insignia of the Jesus movement. Larry claimed that he had come up with this sign after suffering an accident to his index finger while playing one of his last gigs with People. He said audience members began to mimic him holding up his broken finger during concerts as an act of submission to God, praying for his finger to be healed.
The sign was actually made by an artist named Lance Bowen who refashioned a popular symbol of the student movement - a clenched fist with the words "STRIKE" stenciled underneath - to an open-palmed hand with its index finger pointed upwards and the words "ONE WAY" beneath. When members of the community where both Larry and Lance Bowen were attending heard that Larry was telling this story, they confronted Larry and asked him to knock it off. Larry agreed, but within the next month he wrote a song called "One Way" and went out and trademarked the One Way symbol as his own.
And if it were simply minor like this ... who really cares?
But as life progressed, things got more unruly. In 1989 he fathered a child in Australia, scammed the child's mother out of a significant amount of money and lied to her and her other children by promising that he would take them to live with him in America. For the next twenty years and up to his death, Larry knowingly neglected this child.
That scenario made me question what was really going on with him.
6. So, Larry Norman had a son he neglected?
When Larry's old protégé Randy Stonehill was conducting a tour of Australia in late 2006, a young man named Daniel Robinson came up and introduced himself to Randy and explained that he was Larry's son.
Ironically, I had connected with Daniel's mother, Jennifer Robinson, back in 1989 for a brief spell just after Daniel was born. And when Randy and Sandi Stonehill informed her that someone was doing a documentary on Larry, she remembered my name. When I reconnected with Jennifer and began speaking with Daniel, he told me he wanted to be in the documentary to tell his story.
7. Is there any question that Daniel is Larry's son?
8. Is Larry Norman simply an Elmer Gantry figure, or perhaps better put, a musical Marjoe?
That really is what the movie is about. Is Larry Norman a guy using religion to con the faithful? Is he a crazy person that has no control of what he is doing? Is he a sincere guy that simply lost his way? Is he all three?
Larry is beyond easy answers, however, and defies simplistic categorization. As difficult as he was to deal with in life, it should be no surprise that his death leaves us with some nagging questions.
9. What have been people's reactions to the documentary?
It depends. I think if you had no vested interest in Larry Norman, it is simply another chapter of rock 'n' roll history that takes place within a musical genre you may know nothing about. The issues, however, are much the same as you would see in a documentary about The Ramones or The Kinks; boys behaving badly with a great soundtrack.
If you had a vested interest in Larry, however, you may have been caught off guard. Part of the façade of Larry Norman was the creation of his mythological status as some sort of evangelical superstar who was endlessly proclaiming the gospel around the world while helping out fledgling musicians get their start. For them, some of these revelations are bound to be a little upsetting.
10. Are the expectations of the Christian public too high? Is that the problem?
All of us have a need for heroes that set standards for us to emulate. All of us glean from what we see modeled before us, whether that is a parent or mentor or even some unknown third party in the public spotlight.
I think there are times when people's expectations become too much of a burden, for sure. There sometimes tends to be a divorce between how people think life should be rather than their acceptance of how things really are. There is a definite need to allow others to be human and simply accept them for who they are.
But I don't think it is unreasonable to cry foul when a public figure says one thing and does the opposite. Rock stars getting DUIs probably shouldn't be speaking at Mothers Against Drunk Driving rallies. And if you find that the local spokesman for Marxism is a venture capitalist, shouldn't he or she be called on the carpet?
I don't think it is simply Christians that expect people to live up to a standard of ethical behavior. Just look at what has happened to Michael Vick, Tiger Woods or Michael Phelps.
11. What was Larry's contribution to the movie? Did he have any input?
Early on we approached Larry to be involved. I went so far as to offer him a deal whereby a friend of his, a pastor from South Africa who had been with Larry back in 1972 when he snapped the cover photo for So Long Ago, The Garden (1973), could act as his liaison and be in the room when I edited the movie - all in exchange for him being interviewed.
Without going in to the tawdry details, from the day that I told Larry that Randy Stonehill had sat in my house to do a four hour interview, Larry began to derail the documentary any way he could.
12. So if you knew that he wanted no part of this, and he was going to fight you all the way, why not just leave it alone?
I sat down with a guy I know who I respect and believe is full of wisdom, and I outlined the generic storyline and asked him whether I should just not bother. He asked me, "Are the things you finding the truth? And are you going to relate them in a truthful manner? If so, then I am all for truth telling. Because Christians desperately need people who will deal with things honestly."
I never had a second thought after that.
Other things helped cement my feelings along the way. I was sitting with Daniel Robinson, Larry's estranged son from Australia, and he was just about to show me some e-mail exchanges between him and Larry. I could see he was beginning to get nervous and was somewhat reluctant. I asked him what was wrong, and he said, "Nobody has ever believed me about all of this. And I am worried that you aren't going to believe me either." I began to see that nobody had ever stuck up for this kid and taken his side. And that became very important to me.
Back in March 2008 I received a heartfelt hug from Jennifer Robinson who expressed her gratitude that somebody had finally told their story. That is as good as it gets.
13. How are you allowed to use Larry's music and photographs?
Along the way in the filming of this documentary, I learned about the law of fair use and how it tempers the high strictures of copyright law. When someone creates a piece of artwork, be it a photograph or song or whatever, they are laws protecting that piece of work from being stolen or replicated or used without permission.
However, since freedom of expression also has a central place in the law, fair use says that if a person like myself needs to use some piece of copyrighted material in order to tell their own story they should be able to do so without the other person simply refusing or making them pay some exorbitant licensing fee. Fair use says that if I am not copying or replicating, but turning the used materials into a wholly new piece of artwork, that I can use snippets (and not entire works) within my new work.
When you watch the evening news, that is the best example. If they do a story on The Beatles and mention a particular song, the corporation is allowed to trot out a small portion of whatever copyrighted materials (song, video, etc.) that is necessary to buttress their point.
15. What is it that you take from this documentary?
I see a disconnect between the Christian culture's perception and portrayal of the world and the raw and brutal truths contained within the Bible. I have called my two documentaries "Bible stories" for that very reason.
My documentaries are intended to get people to think through issues critically without really providing easy answers. Larry cannot be dismissed as simply a charlatan. Neither was he anywhere close to the superstar Christian rocker that his propaganda-like writings make him out to be. And, despite the problems he had in his life, Larry did influence many people in a positive way. Myself included.
I think one of the saddest things about Larry's life is that he simply couldn't admit that any of this negative stuff was true. One of the great things about the movie is the forgiveness offered by those most hurt by Larry. It isn't that any of them are any better than him or they didn't have their own personal struggles and failures. The grave difference was that they received and gave forgiveness freely and understood its absolute necessity to their lives.
For whatever reason, Larry simply couldn't accept this. He was a tortured soul, singing circles around the very thing that he so desperately needed. His life is a cautionary tale for those who have ears to hear. Or maybe better put, the stomach to digest.
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