Bob Dylan said he was a fan; Billboard called him “the most important songwriter since Paul Simon; he played on bills with the Who, Janis Joplin and the Doors. Larry Norman is the most important rock’n’roll artist you’ve never heard of.
Norman was the “father of Christian rock,” an outstanding performer and songwriter, who effectively launched a new genre of music, and who, to the end, fiercely held on to his faith in Jesus and his determination to be an artist, rather than simply a Christian propagandist. Gregory Alan Thornbury’s book, Why Should The Devil Have All the Good Music? (taking the title of one of Norman’s early and most provocative songs), gives us a comprehensive and compelling account of Norman’s career from his childhood in California to his early death in Oregon in 2008.
Thornbury charts Norman’s development as an artist from being a successful “secular” performer in the sixties to leader of the “Jesus Movement” in the late sixties to world-wide touring artist, and the subsequent ups and downs of a career that entailed popular acclaim, distrust and suspicion from fellow believers, betrayal from friends, physical injury and subsequent miraculous healing, and a considerable amount of both single-minded focus on his own values and vision, and naiveite on Norman’s part.
It’s a fascinating tale, woven with considerable skill by Thornbury who had access to Norman’s considerable archive of personal papers. Thornbury’s picture of Norman is sympathetic but never hagiographic, and Norman’s difficulties with other artists and various aspects of the music business are not skirted over. At the same time, Thornbury’s account of the rumour mongering, jealousy and outright opposition that Norman suffered from the evangelical church in the United States, and the outrageous behaviour of his first wife, leave one wondering how he survived with his faith intact and his commitment to his art undiminished.
Although we get a perspective on Norman’s life up until his death in 2008, most of the book deals with the twists and turns of his life up to 1981. There is an engaging story of Larry’s transition from singer in popular Californian group People! in the sixties to leading light in a social phenomenon hailed by Time Magazine as the Jesus Movement at the end of that decade, as disenchantment with flower power and free love began to set in.
Larry Norman’s 1972 album Only Visiting This Planet is considered by many, including Thornbury, to be a masterpiece and one of the best Christian albums of all time. It was inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry as a “cultural, artistic, and/or historical treasure”. In the hard hitting Why Should the Devil have all the Good Music from the album, Norman sings:
I know what’s right, I know what’s wrong, I don’t confuse it
All I’m really trying to say
Is why should the devil have all the good music?
I feel good every day
‘Cause Jesus is the rock and he rolled my blues away.”
Thornbury does a good job of highlighting Norman’s commitment throughout his life to a very personal experience of Jesus. But this, it seems, never led to pietism or a narrow-minded exclusivism. On the contrary, right from these early days, Norman’s all-encompassing vision of what Christian faith should be about made him an incisive critic of Christian hypocrisy.
According to Thornbury,
“Unlike other Christian leaders, Larry seemed to believe that the easy relationship the Church enjoyed with American culture was more of a problem than a blessing. He somehow seemed to understand that apologetics may actually need to start with apologies: for the Church’s racism, ready acceptance of aggression, violence, and war, and for an unwillingness to listen to the concerns of a generation.”
Norman’s critique of evangelicalism still echoes powerfully, after all these years. Consider this lyric from The Great American Novel from 1972:
“You kill a black man at midnight just for talking to your daughter
Then you make his wife your mistress and you leave her without water
And the sheet you wear upon your face is the sheet your children sleep on
At every meal you say a prayer; you don’t believe but still you keep on.”
Thornbury notes Norman’s commitment to supporting organizations which sought to bring relief to the poor in various parts of the world to the end of his life.
His insistence on his music as art and not simply proselytizing, however, would bring him into serious conflict with his Christian audience, and his attempts at building a community of like-minded artists ultimately failed, at least partly because of the betrayal and ambition of people Norman considered as friends. The twists and turns of all this are engagingly and, it seems to me, quite fairly laid out by Thornbury. As are the broad sketches of Norman’s two failed marriages, the first of which you become amazed lasted so long.
Norman was a fierce critic of early “Contemporary Christian Music,” questioning its quality and artistic value, but nevertheless he was the first professional singer-songwriter to express his faith in a rock-blues genre. Thornbury notes how he paved the way for a whole new genre of music and a new generation which would acknowledge its debt to Norman’s uncompromising approach.
Friends of mine in Belfast who worked with Larry Norman and had him stay as a guest in their homes over his many visits to Northern Ireland (he was a frequent performer there during the “Troubles” when many other artists refused to come, and a 4-CD set entitled “The Belfast Bootlegs” was released in 2001) recall a Larry Norman who was unfailingly generous and kind, and whose passion and commitment as a performer was second to none.
Thornbury quotes Black Francis, former frontman for the Pixies as saying, “In my humble opinion Larry was the most Christ-like person I ever met.” That, no doubt, would have pleased Norman, who, from reading the liner notes to his 2001 album Tourniquet, was only too aware of his own failings but who was “overwhelmed by God’s incredible mercy and faithful care.”
This is a gem of a book, utterly engaging from start to finish, which will appeal not only to Larry Norman fans, but to both music fans and anyone interested in the engagement, or lack of it, between the Christian church and culture, particularly in the United States.
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