Christian Rock Pioneer Larry Norman’s Songs Part 6 (Larry’s friend Steve Turner tells about John Lennon’s spiritual search)
I posted a lot in the past about my favorite Christian musicians such as Keith Green (I enjoyed reading Green’s monthly publications too), and 2nd Chapter of Acts and others. Today I wanted to talk about one of Larry Norman’s songs. David Rogers introduced me to Larry Norman’s music in the 1970’s and his album IN ANOTHER LAND came out in 1976 and sold an enormous amount of copies for a Christian record back then.
Larry Norman – 14 – Song for A Small Circle Of Friends – In Another Land (1976)
Larry Norman on John Lennon, Paul McCartney and the Beatles
British author and Christian Steve Turner was quizzed by Tony Cummings about A Man Called Cash and The Gospel According To The Beatles.
As well as his many other gifts (poet, speaker and best selling children’s author) London-based Steve Turner is one of the finest ever chroniclers of popular music. Down the years he’s penned excellent works on Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Marvin Gaye, Cliff Richard, not to mention the definitive work on the hymn “Amazing Grace”. Now two more top rate Turner books are on sale in all good book shops, A Man Called Cash – by far the best work ever penned about the country music icon – and The Gospel According To The Beatles – a brilliantly researched investigation into the myriad belief systems adopted by the most famous pop group of them all. Here are Steve’s answers to my questions.
Tony: Both the Cash and Beatles books are available through UK Christian retail though clearly are aimed primarily at the general non-church going reader. What do you think Christians can learn from the stories of Johnny Cash and the Beatles?
Steve: The story of Johnny Cash is a great story of a self-destructive, damaged man who God wouldn’t let go. The story of the Beatles can teach us a lot about where our culture has come from and how spirituality became an acceptable subject to be dealt with in pop.
Tony: What were the circumstances that led to you writing The Man Called Cash? There have been two Cash autobiographies. What made you think there was still plenty of new material to cover?
Steve: I was approached by the publisher; Cash wanted to do it, he wanted to do it with me and then he died! It was planned as a spiritual autobiography but became a biography when Johnny left us. People often think that if someone has written their own life story there is nothing left to say about them but this isn’t true. Cash’s books about himself can’t have the perspective that an outsider can have and also can’t have the observations of all those who’ve known you and have worked with you.
Tony: One of the many ‘sub plots’ touched on in the Cash book is the strange spiritual state of Kris Kristofferson. Isn’t it bizarre that a man who wrote lines like “one day at a time sweet Jesus” should not in fact be a Christian?
Steve: Kris also wrote “Why Me Lord?” I first met him in 1972 in Los Angeles on my very first trip to America. He played me the tapes of the then unreleased ‘Jesus Was A Capricorn’ album. Some country singers have a sentimental attachment to Jesus.
Tony: The film I Walk The Line disappointingly failed to show the extraordinary events in the Nickajack Caves when Johnny, according to his testimony, having gone there to die, had an encounter with God and then was miraculously guided by God through miles of tunnels back to the opening. Do you believe this event actually occurred and why do you think the filmmakers ignored such an obviously dramatic and important
incident in Cash’s life?
Steve: I think it happened although his telling of the story does raise some questions. I think the film makers decided to go for the love theme at the expense of the spiritual theme. There is a guide to screenwriting which actually talks about the major crisis in a protagonist’s life as ‘The Inner Cave’ and, like you, I thought that this was the perfect dramatic crisis. A friend of mine in California said to me, “Johnny Cash had four major loves in his life – drugs, music, Jesus and June. This film only dealt with three of them.” That’s a pretty good summary.
Tony: You offer pretty incontrovertible proof that Johnny embellished his testimony and made himself out to be considerably more violent and unpleasant in his Air Force years than he actually was. Why do you think he did this?
Steve: I think he had a tendency to over dramatise. However, he didn’t need to make himself seem more of a Prodigal Son because in subsequent years he really did slide down hill.
Tony: I was speaking to a hard core country fan who felt that until the ‘American Recordings’ and subsequent releases the rock world didn’t really give a toss about Cash. Isn’t it true that without those recordings much of the iconography surrounding Johnny wouldn’t have developed?
Steve: I think he was still a huge star and an American icon but it helped that he finished the race well. When I met him in the late 1980s he was still touring and recording but he wasn’t setting the world alight. I think the records produced by Rick Rubin confirmed his stature. Rick just gave him the opportunity to be himself.
Tony: Hasn’t there been an absolutely absurd number of Cash reissues and compilations since his death?
Tony: How did you come to write The Gospel According To The Beatles?
Steve: I had the idea of doing John Lennon’s life as a “spiritual” journey some time ago and was later approached by WJK to do a gospel according to rock’n’roll. I felt that I had already done that with Hungry For Heaven so I suggested The Gospel According To The Beatles.
Tony: Do you think it possible that if Lennon had encountered a vibrant evangelical/charismatic fellowship in his teenage years rather than the staid broad COE church he joined he might have gone in a very different spiritual direction?
Steve: I would frequently think with each of them – if only they had met such and such a person or such and such a community. George said such great things about the importance of searching for God. His disenchantment with the Catholicism of his childhood was that he saw it was only a Sunday morning thing. It didn’t affect the lives of the people the rest of the week.
Tony: Your book clearly and helpfully codifies the myriad of beliefs subscribed to at some time or other by the Beatles and particularly John Lennon. My conviction, and that of many charismatic and evangelical Christians, is that such beliefs aren’t inert philosophies but are in some cases “doctrines of demons” and that real and tangible spiritual forces can ensnare those who enter into their disciplines and rituals. Do you agree with such a viewpoint?
Steve: I have to say “I don’t know” simply because I don’t think there is enough Biblical evidence to suggest so. Ultimately all ideas that take people away from Jesus are Devilish in that they are deceptions – I just don’t know that there are designated spiritual forces. I was fortunate to be able to travel to Rishikesh, India, a few weeks ago to see the ashram (now closed and decaying) that the Beatles studied in with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Tony: Isn’t there a danger that your book overemphasises the youth impact of the Beatles? I grew up in a sizeable tribe – the soul music scene of the ’60s – which had tens of thousands of devotees for whom the Beatles were perceived as merely irritating white boys who made inferior cover versions of the Isley Brothers, Cookies, et al and later made boring albums which pretentious Times critics hailed as popular culture masterpieces while ignoring our favoured masterpieces (‘James Brown Live At The Apollo’, ‘Otis Blue’, etc). Shouldn’t we be talking about youth cultures (plural rather than singular)?
Steve: Maybe. I know that soul and Tamla had a great effect but I don’t think they transmitted as many ideas, particularly ideas about spirituality, as did the songs of the Beatles and Dylan. And, although your tribe was big, it was still a subculture in comparison with the mainstream culture that was absorbing the Beatles. My memory is that in a class of 31 you might get one or two kids who were real soul converts and of course part of the appeal was in being an elite. You didn’t need a sophisticated taste to like the Beatles. But you’re right to emphasise that some people thought the Beatles were naff and of course some others thought they were too loud, untidy and impolite!!
Tony: Do you know whether Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr have read your book?
Steve: I sent one to Ringo. Paul knows me and I gave one to his personal assistant and know that it was handed to him. Neither of them have called to comment! Geoge’s sister, Louise, has told me that she likes it though.
Tony: Like you, I echo Rookmaaker’s observation “art needs no justification” but I also believe that it is unwise and unbiblical to expose ourselves to art given over to “foreign gods.” Don’t you think it unwise for Christians to listen to George Harrison’s paeans to Krishna?
Steve: I think that we have to be discriminate but I don’t think that the sounds contain a spiritual poison that can enter our spirits without us noticing. I think that he who is within us is far greater than any anti-Christian idea. I wouldn’t on the one hand avoid this music for fear of contamination nor would I immerse myself in it.
Tony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.