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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Thursday, February 28, 2008
    Strong love, strange peace

    Reading Steve Turner’s punctilious Guardian obituary it strikes me that Larry Norman’s star rose and fell quite quickly, really. The most influential and likely only enduring work of his was mostly contained in the trilogy of albums he produced for MGM, Only Visiting This Planet, So Long Ago the Garden and In Another Land, which emerged over here in the mid-to-late Seventies.

    It also strikes me that the mid-to-late Seventies was when I was coming of age and into a Christian consciousness and that one of the reasons I so mourn Larry’s untimely passing, at 61, was the major influence this maverick and his music had on me at such a formative time in my life.

    The dear daft iconoclast fell out with the mainstream music industry for being ‘too Christian’ and fell out with the Christian music industry for being not ‘Christian’ enough, and he fell out with Greenbelt in 1980 for - as he would always allege in front of every British audience ever after - their ‘stopping’ him talking about Jesus onstage. I think he manipulated each of these fallings-out for, as Turner writes, Larry was ‘instinctively an outsider’. Outsider status authenticated an artist so singlemindedy devoted to the man (messiah) he called The Outlaw.

    And so Larry’s insistence on possessing this peripheral vision lent me a certain sense of what it must mean to follow the wilderness wanderer, unwelcome prophet, family-leaver, man-abandoned-at-the-last-by-his-closest-friends, the tortured so-called Christ. A certain sense which has never left me, though today I cringe at some of the Larry Norman crystalline certainties which first led me to embrace the vision. I find I can write this in all good conscience now whilst still sipping whiskey from a paper cup.

    Steve Turner omits to suggest that Larry’s work had a prophetic edge, prophetic as in the wild-haired ranter confronting the powers, but it should never be forgotten that when he was invited to perform at The White House their novelty guest gospel rocker stood up with his guitar and spat these words out before the President:
    Your money says, In God We Trust
    But it’s against the law to pray in school.
    You say, ‘We beat the Russians to the moon’
    And I say you starved your children to do it.
    You say, ‘All men are equal, all men are brothers’
    So why are the rich more equal than others?
    Don’t ask me for the answers I’ve only found one,
    That a man leaves the darkness when he follows the Son.
    No wonder he moved me to a politicised view of faith, this man who performed like Jagger and Jeremiah combined.

    Larry was one of the great performers - in my all-time top two for the skill he had in entertaining and captivating an audience, even those who were disagreeing radically with his uncompromising message. Comedian, counsellor, coach, great with hecklers and fully cognizant of context, a defining Larry gig for me was one at the Methodist Central Hall, Liverpool where he coaxed the audience (many uncomfortable with the idea) into compiling and singing along with him a medley of Beatles songs, spiritually reshaping each of them in ways which John Lennon (or some church authorities) would certainly not have intended them to go... which, you sensed, added to Larry’s enjoyment of the moment. Transformational, that, on many levels. He did a pretty good Scouse accent, too, for a San Franciscan.

    Now that I’m (almost) grown towards maturity and a deeper appreciation of the mystical, I’m grateful to Steve Turner for reminding me that in this aspect, also, Larry has played his part. For he was, Steve writes, ‘a powerful lyricist who could turn complex theological ideas into simple statements ... but was also a master of obliqueness, preferring to see his songs as threads in a tapestry rather than as individual pictures of Christian doctrine.’

    And so one of the songs of Larry’s which most moved me back then (and moves me to tears today as I hear it in my heart) is a confessional story of the trials and torments of being a performer hounded by reporters who misrepresent him and critics at odds with his vision, all forcing him into defending his work and words with wearying regularity. Sounds a bit like the life of the vicar, and other outsiders under duress. With us and for us he sings heavenwards this poignant appeal:
    We're all so trapped, we need release,
    We need your strong love and strange peace.
    Rest in that now, Larry, and thanks.