You wrote a song called Be Careful What You Sign - It has probably added fuel to the Larry Norman controversy. What exactly was it all about?
I wrote that in 1970 when I was attempting to say how dangerous it is to go through one's life without acknowledging God. Because if you refuse Christ, you automatically win, as your prize for self-deception, you win the devil's prize which is, you know ... So I was trying to show allegorically that we're all walking down the road of life, and that we all encounter Christ on some level, in some form. The person in the song rejects Christ. He says
You stopped me
You touched me
You looked me in the eye
I had the feeling that you knew me
So what did I do? Did I respond? No.
I decided that you must die
That I might live.
I pulled out my Thornton Special
I shot you in the head
And the head is significant for different reasons in the scriptures. Especially in the book of Revelation.
I threw you in the alley way
And I left you for dead
But at the end of the song, after encountering the man in the hat wearing the disguise - you know, a hat is a sign of authority.
The man with the hat
Came up from behind
If he was a friend, if he could be trusted, why didn't he walk up from the front? He walked up from behind and
The sky went black
Which is not a good sign either,
And I thought I was blind
Truly this man was blind.
He put his hand into my jacket
And left a million dollar bills
He slipped his hand into my pocket
And gave me women and thrills
And when I turned around to thank him
There was no-one there but me
So obviously I could assume I did it for myself, and all this was just an imaginary vision that took place in the dark. So I congratulate myself for having made money, and having manipulated people into my possessive love and sexual control.
And both my hands were filled with sand
As our bodies go from ashes to ashes, dust to dust, sand is also pretty worthless: the sands of time and all the resonant imagery that sand might fall into.
I was standing by the sea
I chose the sea, because to me that is one of the symbols of God's great and unending power in perpetuity. It just keeps crashing into the land, tearing away at the cliffs. The sea cannot be stopped. Even the greatest vessel that man has built can be plundered by the storms and thrown to the bottom of the ocean. The sea goes on forever like God's eternal power, so I chose the sea. Then the songs says,
We had dinner at eight
That's another traditional appetite,
The party was great
My life was wonderful,
Till we ran out of wine
Till we ran out of intoxicant, so that there was no unction of duplicity I could drown myself in. I had no drugs for delusions, so I start becoming sober to the reality of my life.
There was a knock upon the bedroom door...
Well, a door usually represents either the sector for passage or a way of providing protection or secrecy. The bedroom is where mums and dads go to talk about their problems and discuss their lives, or to have intimate relations. So I'm not in a public situation. I'm in my private sanctuary, and how did someone invade my seclusion?
My knees began to shake
Deep down inside people know they're not right.
And this man came in and melted
All the candles on my cake.
Well, cake represents, in our western society, a birthday, a party and celebrations. The candles that are on fire represent each year of our lives that we have been alive and aflame. But this man's power is even greater - he can destroy the number of a man's years. His fire can diminish the fire of the candles. He says to me,
I've come here to escort you
It's time for you to go.
If you escort somebody, usually they've asked you to call in a taxi, or pick them up at eight, but the feeling in the song is, 'What do you mean, escort me? Did I ever ask you... ? Who are you?' But obviously there has been a prearrangement for this moment
He opened up my body
And he took away my soul
Then there is screaming and noise, and then the song says,
I was running down the road
People say that when you drown, your life passes before you. Maybe when we stand before God in judgement, our life is similarly reviewed. After the screaming dies down, I see the same road of my life, and this time I am running down the road instead of walking down the road, where I previously encountered Christ.
I was running down the road
I was trying to leave
And I saw you all alone
In between the thieves.
I never use the pronoun 'you' in this song except when it refers to Christ. All the other times, it was a man or it was myself, but the 'you' refers right back to the man I threw in the alleyway.
And I saw you all alone
In between the thieves
How can it be that He's all alone if He's in between two other people? But He was alone. Christ died on the cross alone. Maybe the thieves were present as examples of even a last minute repentance.
And when the lightning flashed
I saw somebody hanging from a tree.
If we reject Christ in this Life, we are no better off than Judas: we all hang ourselves. And lightning is the intervention of God's power on earth, which is why I use the lightning bolt in my name just to show that God has interceded in my life and I have never been the same because of Christ's intercession.
And as I turned to walk away
From even this revelation he was going to walk away,
I realised it was me.
I pulled out my Thornton Special.
I shot me in the head
I threw me in the alley way
And I left me for dead
Every rejection he thought he had visited upon Christ, he had actually done to himself.
So I wrote the song as a surrealistic kind of drug-level vision of what it means to reject Christ. I've gotten the most comprehensive responses from people who have journeyed into drugs, where they have hallucinated or perceived things on a less literal level. Some of the people who have led a 'clean' life might appreciate the same message in other songs, but not Be Careful What You Sign In fact, this song even started some rumours. A nun wrote to me and wanted to tell me, one, I didn't have to be lonely by myself, which was one of the songs from So Long Ago The Garden. She thought I had left my wife, and that I was now 'lonely by myself', and she wanted to say If you are truly a Christian, God is still with you: you're not alone. Then she went on to say, referring to the story line of Be Careful What You Sign Okay, so you've experienced this incident on the road where something happened to you, where some man gave you money and stuff.... You know, she didn't understand what the song was about at all. She assumed that it was a personal biographical statement.
You mentioned So Long Ago The Garden. I read that this is one of your favourite albums. Can you tell us something about it?
It is my favourite album, and one of the most banned and misunderstood albums that I've recorded. Christians don't seem to be as aware of, or as sensitive to, the dire state of humanity as they are about the pleasant growth of their Christian walk. So Long Ago The Garden was as definitive a statement as I could make about the emptiness of our lives without Christ, just how lonely and wretched we truly are. I alternated songs. One song would talk about a man trying to find satisfaction and true love, and expecting a woman to somehow fill all of his needs and be his whole world. The next song would be Lonely By Myself. Strictly about a man looking for something, and he doesn't know what it is. We know it's God, and he knows it's something like great universal love, but he can't find it, and it causes him Ecclesiastical despair. Then Be Careful What You Sign, making that choice between God or Satan, and the song after that was making a choice between your own integrity, or giving up your integrity for things like love, whatever momentary, ephemeral things that we look to for lasting happiness. So it was all a very premeditated and carefully written album.
Can you explain the other parts of the trilogy?
Only Visiting This Planet is the first part of the trilogy, and represents the present. On the front cover, I find myself standing in the middle of New York City, with buildings and traffic pressed around me and my hand on my head kind of saying, What is going on in this life? Is this really earth?, and the back cover is me visiting the site of a previous civilisation with its own monoliths, not skyscrapers, but amazing, architecturally sound structures just the same. The Druids apparently constructed Stonehenge to help them observe or worship the sun, and their civilisation is now as dead as will someday be New York. And I'm just standing there, looking around, wondering what happened to kill off this culture and reduce its entire recorded history to a few standing structures.
So Long Ago The Garden is part two of the trilogy. It represents a journey into the grave of the past. I'm standing there on the cover as Adam once stood in the garden, without any provision of clothing or knowledge of evil or any force except the relationship he has in his heart with the Lion of Judah. And Adam is standing there in oneness with the Lion. I really worked for hours taking pictures in Africa both of myself and of lions, hoping to capture a certain ambience for the graphics of the album. The back cover represents what happened just after the fall. Satan's snake-skinned feet standing triumphantly over the fallen apple. You'll notice that there are two bites taken out of the apple. A big bite and a little bite. The big bite, of course, was the woman's. I shot the back cover in England, over a period of two days. I dragged a huge wardrobe mirror downstairs into the front yard and set it on the ground to try to capture the sky and clouds, and make it look like the devil was standing throughout all eternity gloating over Adam and Eve's fall. I wanted a cold and dispassionate mood to the back cover, and a photo without any sense of humanity. Again I spent a lot of time getting my message the way I envisioned it. There were no red apples to be found in any of the markets that were large enough, so I got the largest green apple I could find, and used some of Pamela's fingernail polish to paint it red. Then I realised that I hadn't taken the bites out, so I had to go all the way back to the store for another apple, pre-bit it, and painted it red. That's how much of an effort I had to go through to get it right. I was trying to show that before the fall there was peace in Adam's life and that he was one with nature, in his own environment in God's Garden ... and that after the fall there was no warmth at all. No provision for peace, not until God sent the second Adam, Jesus. A journalist who wrote for Rolling Stone Magazine said he didn't think the cover was successful graphically because the front seemed completely different style-wise from the back. He missed it entirely.
What about the cover of In Another Land?
In Another Land is the third part of the trilogy It's about the future, and rather than speculate about what the future might hold, I tried to stick closely to what the Bible says it will hold. I think because the future orientated album was so directly tied to the scriptures, people felt this is Larry's best album, because this is the one I like best. Or This is the most Christian album. I think that Only Visiting This Planet or So Long Ago The Garden were much better conceptional statements, much better medicine for a non-Christian to swallow.
The front cover of In Another Land posed a problem. I couldn't really go and stand on a hillside in front of The New Jerusalem, so I just put together a lot of photographs of Israel and photographs of mountainous terrain. The front cover shows a painting of me standing on a hill, for the first time smiling at the camera, because in the new age I won't be troubled as I have always been on my other albums about things like world hunger, and world ignorance, human anger and jealousy and pettiness.
Is that why you don't smile in your concerts?
No, no, no! I don't try to make a statement with my face when I'm on stage. If I don't smile in concert it's usually because I forget to. But I think the smiling album cover is what suddenly made so many people say,Oh good, Larry's changed. Now he's singing all about Christian things and spiritual matters, and now he's very happy - look at that album cover. So it had an effect I hadn't even thought about, which all of a sudden had a very commercial effect on people. I realised that the music itself would probably appeal to the middle of the road Christians who are offended by the extremes in my observations. But if they like this album, and if they suddenly decide that I have returned to the fold and I am now one of them, they're going to hate the next album - it's all blues.
The back cover of In Another Land is a photograph of me standing over in Europe, high on a hill. In fact, it was at a castle where I had stayed for several days. It was not open to the public, but the castle keeper knew me, so he invited me to stay with him and his wife and his children. I had this amazing feeling that I was trapped in the past. This castle was amazingly pristine and clumsy in construction and architecture, so I wanted to capture me in yet another land on the back of the album. The private joke with myself was that here I was trapped in another land from the past, but really I was singing about the future.
Being part of a trilogy: is that why you've repeated songs on the three albums?
In Another Land revamps just slightly with If God Is My Father, which is the centre point of So Long Ago The Garden and then into Why Don't You Look Into Jesus which is the central point of Only Visiting This Planet. You can hear a little sequel of I Wish We'd All Been Ready right in the middle. The reason these repeated songs were titled Deja Vu is because they had already been seen, which is what 'deja vu' means, and they lead right into I Am A Servant, which is the central statement of In Another Land. The trilogy was supposed to be listened to as three albums, forty songs on three albums. I had carefully constructed all three to fit together. There are a lot of subliminal games and little puzzles in the albums, and a lot of cross references from one album to another. In fact in Nightmare, the last song on ... Garden, there's a reference to a specific number that is a major key to understanding the trilogy. It's about ... well, I ... oh, I shouldn't tell people, I'll just let them figure it out for themselves. But there are a lot of intricate little puzzles.
We heard that you've been working on a double album.
It was supposed to be a three-sided album, but the company in America said that if they release the fourth side completely blank, people will think it's a mistake, so they asked me to do a fourth side. I might release it as a single album, because the double album may turn out to be too expensive. I always worry about people's money, and albums cost a lot of money these days. First of all, I don't think we need music, and here I am in what people would say is the music business, and why should I be in the business if we don't need music? But I don't feel I'm in the music business. If I were I would definitely have been more business like in my approach to the labels I signed with. I would have got a proper agent, a proper manager, and I would have done what MGM and Capitol always hoped I would do ... sell out to become commercial. I really feel that I'm supposed to keep on doing whatever God is telling me to do, and if that means I have to stand up and say things that are not understood or popular at the time, then that's what I have to do.
I don't really enjoy saying things that I know I'm going to get shot down for. A long time ago I tried to warn people that Jesus movement was going to crumble if certain things continued to occur. But this was just shortly after it had begun, so of course people really didn't want to hear anything that they considered 'negative'. Because of my close association with its origins, people assumed I would be quite enthusiastic about rushing it along into greater prominence, but I was concerned with it becoming exploited and co-opted by the middle class religious structure. That is exactly what happened, so I had to stand there and watch it die.
Three or four years ago, I started to warn people in the industry that Christian music was going to become commercialised if certain practices continued to flourish. I didn't go out and announce it in some interview ... I went very quietly to music seminars and functions where only musicians and record executives gathered. I couldn't believe how much trouble I got in. I wasn't accusing anyone of anything specific, because I only intended to alert them to the problems that were developing in Christian music. Nobody but Philip and Randy really agreed with me. Everyone gave me such an angry response. Well, I don't really like to be the one to say that the emperor has no clothes, but if nobody else notices something then maybe God has drawn it to my attention so that I can mention it. Now I am getting consolation of a sort, several years later; because other people are complaining about how commercial Christian music has become. So at least I don't have to feel guilty that maybe I contributed to the commercial problem by remaining silent instead of speaking up. I did my best, but nobody seemed to be interested at the time. They were all so excited about making Christian music more like what they refer to as 'real music'.
In what way do you think that gospel music is becoming too commercial?
I wouldn't say that the proof of gospel music becoming more, and unnecessarily, commercial is evident simply because of gospel music charts in magazines, or radio buys to ensure airplay, or sales of greater quantities of records in stores with 'pay for three, get one free' marketing gimmicks. It's more insidious than that. Gospel music is becoming overly commercial because of the artist's and audience's attitude and response to it. Instead of music being used in a thoughtful or introspective way of reaching out to the world, or reaching into our souls and asking questions that need to be asked of ourselves and others, gospel music has become a celebration of our cultural lifestyle. The audience participates with the performer, and we congratulate ourselves on our subculture. Christians say things like,
Now we have artists that are as good as the world's; now we have concerts that are as well produced and as professional as the world's; now we have rock'n'rollers.
But we're not supposed to be in competition with the world, and if it doesn't seem as commercial or as competitively effective or as successfully popular as some worldly standard in music, it doesn't mean that we are behind the world. It may mean we are ahead of the world in ways that matter.
Christianity was not popular when it began. Only a small number of people really believed in Christ, only a small number of people really made up the first church, the early church. There were many other religions that were much more popular, which was why Christianity was looked upon as an interloper, as a dangerous new religion that was uncompromising in its stance. It didn't try to be popular. It tried to be specific and reach only to those people who were willing to give up their standards for a new set of principles. To try to compete with secular music, or art, or films, literature, clothing, coffee houses or anything is to miss the whole point of how to make a Christian statement with your life. We're to respond to God, not react to the world. A Christian shouldn't be reacting, he should be acting. He should be listening to God and then acting upon what God has revealed to him, not reacting to other stimuli from sources other than God.
Another way that Christian music has become commercial in its own little world is this. It is now possible for a singer who is a Christian to record for a Christian record company, be distributed by a Christian distributor, be stocked on shelves in a Christian Bible Bookstore, and be purchased by Christians and only Christians, and this cycle from studio to turntable at home can provide a singer with enough income he need not take his message to anyone but Christians. But where is the instinct that takes Jesus out to the streets for free? Or that takes the message of the Gospel to individuals without guitar and vocal accompaniment - spontaneous; not a planned performance, but real? I remember when to go and sing at a concert about Jesus was to ensure the audience would start yelling at you and saying, Shut up! Get off this religious thing and entertain us! Sing 'Louie Louie', sing 'Little Red Rooster', sing 'I Can't Get No Satisfaction', but don't give us this religious stuff. Well, who is breaking the ground open for planting now? Very few singers apparently. But why should they go and sing in a nightclub for $20.00 and be heckled and jeered, when they can sing in a church for $50.00 and be looked up to and respected?
But this is the exact place we should be - outside of the full acceptance of even our brothers and sisters, and following close to God. We should be following the leading of the Spirit, and doing things that are not easy to do. We shouldn't be singing in coffee houses and churches simply because they will hire us. We should be going where the Gospel is not acceptable, to where the Gospel has not gone. We should be talking to people who do not believe in Jesus. The only way to take Jesus to the world is to go out into the world and preach the Gospel. If Christians are content to be not in the world and not of the world, then they are merely sheltering themselves in the protective walls of a subculture. They're not becoming salt to the earth, and they're not taking the message of God to the streets and to the people.