The Devil and Larry Norman

Readability

The Devil and Larry Norman

Sip­ping whisky from a paper cup
You drown your sor­rows ‘til you can’t stand up
Take a look at what you’ve done to your­self
Why don’t you put the bot­tle back on the shelf
Shoot­ing junk ‘til you’re half insane
A bro­ken nee­dle in a pur­ple vein
Why don’t you look into Jesus
He’s got the answer

from “Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus” by Larry Norman

On “Cen­ter Of My Heart,” a song from Tourni­quet which was Larry Norman’s final stu­dio album before he passed away ten years ago, he included the line “I’m a walk­ing con­tra­dic­tion.” After read­ing Gre­gory Alan Thornbury’s Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Nor­man and the Per­ils of Chris­t­ian Rock, it’s obvi­ous truer words have sel­dom been spoken.

Thornbury’s biog­ra­phy of Larry Nor­man, Chris­t­ian rock’s found­ing father in the 1960s and most polar­iz­ing fig­ure to this day, is a fas­ci­nat­ing and sober­ing look at the life of a man almost per­pet­u­ally sur­rounded by con­tro­versy. Much of it was Norman’s own doing, inten­tional or no; his inces­sant need to be in con­trol and insis­tence on being a lone wolf utterly con­vinced of his selected path’s cor­rect­ness often frayed and some­times shat­tered rela­tion­ships both pro­fes­sional and per­sonal. Yet, he could also be gen­er­ous to a fault with his time, money, and tal­ents. He was also a bril­liant song­writer and per­former, pen­ning and record­ing work that remains stun­ningly pow­er­ful and gen­uinely life-​changing for those who have ears to hear.

Nor­man, to quote from a song by Mark Heard whose early career was directly influ­enced by Nor­man, was too sacred for the sin­ners and the saints wished he’d leave. The for­mer were often off-​put by Norman’s fre­quent ref­er­ences to Christ cru­ci­fied and risen, while the lat­ter rou­tinely freaked out over his mix­ing straight­for­ward love and polit­i­cal songs, plus gen­er­ous use of alle­gory and para­ble, into his body of work. Nor­man didn’t care. It was his vision, done his way, take it or leave it.

The book does an excel­lent job in paint­ing the back­drop for Norman’s life and times, man­ag­ing the not incon­sid­er­able feat of detail­ing such ele­ments as the Jesus Peo­ple move­ment of the late 1960s and early 1970s in a man­ner both infor­ma­tive to the unini­ti­ated and not dreary for those already in the know. Some biog­ra­phers tell a tale of life well; oth­ers spe­cial­ize in times. Thorn­bury does both well.

Thorn­bury men­tions more than once how Nor­man in con­cert sought not to enter­tain, but rather to chal­lenge his audi­ence, hav­ing no hes­i­ta­tion about mak­ing it feel uncom­fort­able through in-​between song mus­ings as well as in the songs them­selves. He posed ques­tions about faith and how believ­ers should con­duct them­selves in the world, detail­ing the need to demol­ish the Chris­t­ian ghetto and actu­ally be in the world but not of it. Nor­man was simul­ta­ne­ously icon and icon­o­clast, the one with­out whom most every con­tem­po­rary Chris­t­ian artists would not be there while at the same time ask­ing what they were doing there, as they were nei­ther wit­ness­ing to non-​believers nor edi­fy­ing those who were already Christians.

The book is unflinch­ing in its exam­i­na­tion of Nor­man and those around him; his first wife Pamela and his early pro­tégé Randy Stone­hill both come off quite poorly. How­ever, the book also tosses bou­quets as eas­ily as it does brick­bats. It is no hatchet job designed to speak max­i­mum ill of the dead or the liv­ing. In lieu thereof it is, as best as Nor­man can be cap­su­lated, a multi-​level study of a multi-​level man who won friends, made ene­mies, influ­enced many far more than they are will­ing to admit, and left it for oth­ers to argue about as he decid­edly did it his way. If you love Larry Nor­man, or have no idea who he was, Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Nor­man and the Per­ils of Chris­t­ian Rock is enrich­ing read­ing that, even as Nor­man did with his work, forces reflection.

The book is avail­able from Ama­zon and Barnes & Noble.

Sipping whisky from a paper cup
You drown your sorrows ‘til you can’t stand up
Take a look at what you’ve done to yourself
Why don’t you put the bottle back on the shelf
Shooting junk ‘til you’re half insane
A broken needle in a purple vein
Why don’t you look into Jesus
He’s got the answer

 

from “Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus” by Larry Norman

 

On “Center Of My Heart,” a song from Tourniquet which was Larry Norman’s final studio album before he passed away ten years ago, he included the line “I’m a walking contradiction.” After reading Gregory Alan Thornbury’s Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock, it’s obvious truer words have seldom been spoken.

Thornbury’s biography of Larry Norman, Christian rock’s founding father in the 1960s and most polarizing figure to this day, is a fascinating and sobering look at the life of a man almost perpetually surrounded by controversy. Much of it was Norman’s own doing, intentional or no; his incessant need to be in control and insistence on being a lone wolf utterly convinced of his selected path’s correctness often frayed and sometimes shattered relationships both professional and personal. Yet, he could also be generous to a fault with his time, money, and talents. He was also a brilliant songwriter and performer, penning and recording work that remains stunningly powerful and genuinely life-changing for those who have ears to hear.

Norman, to quote from a song by Mark Heard whose early career was directly influenced by Norman, was too sacred for the sinners and the saints wished he’d leave. The former were often off-put by Norman’s frequent references to Christ crucified and risen, while the latter routinely freaked out over his mixing straightforward love and political songs, plus generous use of allegory and parable, into his body of work. Norman didn’t care. It was his vision, done his way, take it or leave it.

The book does an excellent job in painting the backdrop for Norman’s life and times, managing the not inconsiderable feat of detailing such elements as the Jesus People movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s in a manner both informative to the uninitiated and not dreary for those already in the know. Some biographers tell a tale of life well; others specialize in times. Thornbury does both well.

Thornbury mentions more than once how Norman in concert sought not to entertain, but rather to challenge his audience, having no hesitation about making it feel uncomfortable through in-between song musings as well as in the songs themselves. He posed questions about faith and how believers should conduct themselves in the world, detailing the need to demolish the Christian ghetto and actually be in the world but not of it. Norman was simultaneously icon and iconoclast, the one without whom most every contemporary Christian artists would not be there while at the same time asking what they were doing there, as they were neither witnessing to non-believers nor edifying those who were already Christians.

The book is unflinching in its examination of Norman and those around him; his first wife Pamela and his early protege Randy Stonehill both come off quite poorly. However, the book also tosses bouquets as easily as it does brickbats. It is no hatchet job designed to speak maximum ill of the dead or the living. In lieu thereof it is, as best as Norman can be capsulated, a multi-level study of a multi-level man who won friends, made enemies, influenced many far more than they are willing to admit, and left it for others to argue about as he decidedly did it his way. If you love Larry Norman, or have no idea who he was, Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock is enriching reading that, even as Norman did with his work, forces reflection.

The book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.