The story of the controversial forefather of ‘Christian rock music,’ a format that’s still a thorn-in-the-side to many staunch pulpiteers – a fact that (somewhere in Heaven) is probably making Larry Norman smile.
Why Should The Devil Have All the Good Music: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock
Gregory Alan Thornbury
Convergent Books / Penguin Random House
Uncorrected proof version reviewed
When the stories of the heroes and legends of ‘Christian rock’ are all said and done, one name will always stand out as the pioneer, the instigator, the innovator, and, yes – the trouble-maker of the genre. That name is Larry Norman. Love him or hate him, the man with the long blonde hair, black leather jacket, cheap acoustic guitar, and unique, almost child-like singing voice is largely the genesis-factor that spawned an industry that, today, is too-often artless and sanitized - a far-cry from the basic, visceral gospel that Norman tried to sing about.
Thornbury approaches Larry’s life story, psychology, and interaction with the music business as both a historian and a fan. His access to the “Larry Norman Papers,” as well as personal artifacts including Larry’s tapes of phone conversations with his first wife, Pam (more about that later), provide the author with intimate details that the reader will find fascinating and almost voyeuristic. The question is, can these personal documents be reliable and non-biased sources of information about Larry’s life? My guess is that the answer is both yes and no. If nothing else, Why Should The Devil Have All the Good Music: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock, is the account of a creative man – perhaps even a creative genius – that was obsessive about self-promotion and image building; an artist with a desperate need to be in control, perhaps to his ultimate detriment.
The book paints Norman as a perpetual fish-out-of-water from his childhood days through his adult years as a Christian artist. Larry was determined to make inroads to the secular marketplace, where he could, as Jesus modeled, be a physician to the spiritually sick. While the newly-emerging Contemporary Christian Music market was content to offer inferior, homogenized sound-alike product to ‘church youth,’ Norman wanted to offer an edgier, more artistically valid form of rock music with a less-obvious agenda to the un-churched masses. Thornbury’s biography of the artist details the pitfalls and triumphs of Larry’s quest in the marketplace as well as his more personal battles with trust, intimacy, and personal happiness.
Apocryphal childhood tales aside (after all, Norman’s mom is going to see a five-year-old Larry through her particular pair of rose-colored lenses), Norman seemed to struggle with his need to be a lone wolf – to be in control of every aspect of his career. A brilliant and mesmerizing performer (who I had the privilege of seeing onstage several times as well as having had one face to face meeting), Norman could hold an audience in the palm of his hand, spellbound one moment and laughing the next. His ability to own the stage, alone in the spotlight, was second-to-none. Certainly, his first ‘official’ album, Upon This Rock, had an undeniable pop/hippie/commercial appeal, and the trilogy of albums that followed (Only Visiting This Planet, So Long Ago in the Garden, and In Another Land) still hold up well today as classics of the genre of Christian Rock as well as Larry’s best personal legacy. The question might be asked - was there much more to give? Later work by Norman was certainly interesting but never approached the quality and thematic richness of these masterworks.
Certainly, Larry reached many of his goals, getting contracted to a major label and even securing a bit-part for himself and his protégé, Randy Stonehill in the film Son of Blob (an episode unfortunately missing from this book)! Still, he insisted on writing his own bios in his album inserts, and was a notorious name-dropper. His association with such notables as Cliff Richard and comedian/musician Dudley Moore are recounted in these pages, but meetings with the likes of Paul McCartney and the implied associations in “Song For a Small Circle of Friends” (Clapton, Charlie Watts, and McCartney) are not actually claimed outright.
A thorough reading of Thornbury’s book seems to beg the question recently posed by another famous book – what happened? Those who love Larry will point to the cascade of incidents that seemed to throw roadblocks in the artist’s path – others might see those same roadblocks as excuses. The author supplies the facts – many of them, remember, from ‘the Larry Norman Papers’ – and ultimately lets the reader decide. In terms of his personal life, Norman at least seems to have been surrounded by betrayers – including his wife, Pam. As badly as Pam Norman, friend/co-artist Randy Stonehill, and others are portrayed in these pages, the door swings both ways. At best, an immature Larry made poor choices – at worst, Larry was more interested in creating his legend than taking better care of his personal life. As much as we want a story about a noble struggling artist fighting against impossible odds and villains at every hand, there seems to be plenty of blame to go around.
Even though Larry Norman finds a measure of happiness eventually, it’s tainted by serious health problems that would ultimately lead to his death. Sadly, Larry’s ‘young lion’ persona ended more like a self-exiled, cave-sitting Elijah, with even some of his fans wondering how much of his condition was real and how much was ‘for effect’ …until it was too late.
Fans of Larry Norman – and I count myself among them – have been waiting for the definitive bio to be written, and Gregory Alan Thornbury has given us at least the first serious offering. Maybe we were hoping for some kind of vindication of the struggling troubadour, but there’s a kind of sadness that the reader is left with.
“The heroes,” wrote George R.R. Martin, “will always be remembered. … The best and the worst. And a few who were a bit of both.” The writer of A Feast For Crows (from which the quote is taken) could have been talking about Larry Norman, who certainly was ‘a bit of both.’
The author also doesn’t shy away from the accusations about Norman having a child out of wedlock, and doesn’t whitewash the evidence (which seems to indicate that it’s true). But questions still remain. Did Larry have certain psychological issues? After all, a man that records interviews with his wife and colleagues, preserves personal letters and documents, and keeps extensive ‘papers’ pertaining to relationships might be exhibiting a bit of paranoia. Did his control issues damage his career? Was he self-destructive? Fodder for another book, perhaps…
For fans of Larry Norman, Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock is essential reading. The author writes in an engaging style, and even though much of the source material comes from the ‘Norman side,’ Gregory Alan Thornbury manages to stay relatively even-handed in the story of this, the controversial forefather of ‘Christian rock’ music, a format that’s still a thorn-in-the-side to many staunch pulpiteers – a fact that, somewhere in Heaven, is probably making Larry Norman smile.
- Bert Saraco