In this week's Here Comes Your Fan column
, I spoke with Greg Glover, founder of local label Arena Rock Recording Company and host of KNRK's the Bottom Forty
, about Larry Norman. A Texas-born, California-bred singer-songwriter who spent his last years in Salem, Ore., Norman is widely recognized as the "father of Christian rock," though he bore the title somewhat reluctantly. Norman's career as a musician took off with Bay Area psych-pop troupe People! and ended with Rebel Poet, Jukebox Balladeer: The Anthology
, Arena Rock's latest release. WW
spoke to Glover about how he discovered Norman's music and, much later, became the subversive icon's friend, colleague and survivor.
Do you remember when you first heard Larry Norman's music?
It was around 1980 in Dallas, Texas. I used to spend my summers visiting my father who'd remarried a woman that was a fundamentalist Christian. She didn't allow secular music in the house—which was odd considering my mom had already taken me to see both Kiss and Alice Cooper by the time I'd reached my 10th birthday. My stepmom would drop me off at a Christian bookstore ("His Place"!) on her way to prayer meetings, and they had what would now be considered a decent Christian music section. Larry Norman just looked different than the other artists. That long blonde hair and those patched jeans! He looked like he had a clue whereas most other Christian artists looked like preachers or your 3rd grade teacher. Larry was radical and I thought it would piss off my stepmom, so I bought it.
What first struck you about his work?
His image made me buy it, but once I heard the music it was all over. I had to own everything he'd released. His songs weren't just about "praising the Lord" or "Heaven" as subject matter. They were social snapshots from a moral point of view. He didn't beat you over the head with his beliefs, nor did he sound dated like all the other music in that genre.
How did that initial exposure lead into your wanting to release a sort of retrospective of his work?
Just before I moved here from Brooklyn I started revisiting all my Larry Norman albums and remembered how influential they were on me. He released such a large body of work, and most of them aren't readily available. Once I moved to Portland and learned that Larry was living down in Salem I thought I'd attempt to get in touch. After a year of leaving messages on his answering machine I got a returned call.
Can you describe your initial experiences with him? What was his reaction when ARRCO approached him about the anthology?
I can't tell you how nervous I was when I first drove down for our initial meeting. I was told to meet him at his mother's house who lived nearby. I sat there for an hour with her before Larry arrived. I think he wanted her to suss me out first. Larry was distrustful of most people involved in the music business, as he'd been screwed over by so many of them. I think Larry was flattered that someone outside of his small and fervent fanbase wanted to get his music out into indie record stores. He learned to trust me and we became friends.
Do you know how he ended up in Salem?
He told me he wanted "clean air." He said he thought the air in California made him sick. Larry was one of the oddest people I've ever met. He was so damn quirky and was incredibly witty and kind. He'd finally trust me enough to come to his house and go through boxes and boxes of old photographs for use in The Anthology
. He'd look over my shoulder as I sat on the floor. He was a control freak in a good way. We also talked about doing a book together. I wanted to do one with Larry similar to Conversations with Tom Petty
[by Paul Zollo] that I'd recently read. Not a biography but [something] simply based on Larry answering my questions about his life. Larry also loved visiting Portland. We'd go to Music Millennium, and he was so flattered that Terry Currier was also a fan. He loved the Hawthorne area and said it reminded him of San Francisco back in the day. He told me he wanted to move here.
Had you ever heard stories like those posted to the comments section on the Mercury's obit post, regarding Norman's kindness and generosity toward fans/fellow musicians?
There are a million of those stories. Larry was extremely proud and humble at the same time. He knew he was an icon of sorts but yet always had time for those around him. Larry once gave me a giant book of Dylan photographs that he'd purchased for himself. He would often call or email to make sure I had somewhere to spend Christmas or Thanksgiving or to invite me to the movies or tell me to listen to the remastered edition of The Joshua Tree
Do you think an artist like Norman, whose music was too Christian for the rockers and too rock for Christian music fans, would have an easier time today? Are people more willing to embrace and think about such topics in a less rigid way nowadays?
The lines weren't as blurred 30 years ago as they are now. When [Norman's] Only Visiting This Planet
came out in 1972, it was so groundbreaking. Christian music back then was Jimmy Swaggart. It certainly wasn't this long-haired freaky lookin' guy who sang about Vietnam, Jesus and
venereal disease. I mean, this record came out on Verve and was produced by George Martin! He was too worldly for the Christian marketplace yet too Christian for the secular audience. Larry was the ultimate paradox up until the day he died.
I think it's really interesting, because in the liner notes to "I Am the Six O'Clock News," Norman talks about the song not getting airtime because of his having a differing opinion [from the head of Capitol Records and, as he says, "most middle-class Americans"] regarding Vietnam.... Do you think it's still hard for a religious-leaning songwriter to write religious songs that disagree with the majority of Christian Americans, or do you think in, say, an artist like David Bazan's case, the questioning of such institutions is more lauded?
I'm not too familiar with Bazan's music, but Larry was doing this when nobody
else dared to mix Christianity with politics or personal social commentary. Larry was considered an outcast for doing just so yet he never wavered. He was stubborn and determined to do things his way. It hurt him in record sales, but I don't think Larry would've been comfortable in the mainstream. He relished the fact that he was different.
Do you have any personal favorite Norman songs? Which? And why?
Larry had a great sense of humor. "Reader's Digest" showcases this in which he takes to task the likes of: Bowie, Alice Cooper and even his heroes....The Beatles. "Why Should the Devil Have All The Good Music?" is another example in the title alone. I also found Larry's social commentary to be spot-on. Take "I Am The Six O'Clock News," for example. It was written over 35 years ago, yet it applies to what is going on in the world in 2008. Whether you agree with Larry's religious beliefs or not, if you aren't touched by "The Great American Novel," you better check for a pulse.
Can you explain the process of getting him to write the liner notes for the album? Any thought into why he chose the songs he did? Or was it a collaborative effort?
I initially came up with the idea to do 2 CDs because he's got so many great songs. Larry thought one CD would be a better way to introduce his music to those that may have never heard it. We collaborated back and forth for about a year before we got a final track listing we were both happy with. Larry labored intensely over his lyrics and was proud of them. Larry always included lyrics so there was no question whether or not we'd put them in The Anthology
. However, I insisted that Larry comment on how
he wrote each song to give the listener an insider's point of view. Larry sent me countless revisions of his comments until I said, "Time's up...we're going with this version." He finally conceded, saying, "You're the boss!"
What do you think his thoughts on the final product would be? [Norman passed away on Feb. 24, 2008]
I just wanted Larry's music to get its fair shake is all. I hope that people are as moved by his songs as I was the first time I heard them. Due to the extensive packaging we did on The Anthology
, the release date was pushed back a few times. I'm completely devastated that I can't walk into a store with him and point to The Anthology
there on the shelves. He'd have smiled that big, goofy and kind smile of his and probably wanted to change the album cover just to drive me nuts! [laughs]
Larry Norman on the Web
Arena Rock Recording Co.
Photo borrowed from Arena Rock Recording Company.