Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock
Gregory Alan Thornbury
Growing up in the 1990s, I belonged to a bizarre record club.
No, it wasn’t one of those where you bought an album on the cheap, then received another slew of titles free—though I did take that deal a few times. The customs of this club, its members spread far and wide, included jettisoning all your secular music, only to chase after it like an indecisive lover. Plagued by alternating bouts of piety and spiritual paranoia, I threw away, gave away or sold my secular CDs on at least two occasions. These purges were meant to foster purity, to keep me spiritually tuned in; all they did was leave me with seller’s remorse.
At that time, the little I knew about Larry Norman came through younger artists: A 1995 tribute album, One Way, and the smash success of DC Talk’s take on “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.”
Eventually I would learn that every qualm I felt about the sacred/secular divide, every question I had about whether a song was “Christian” enough, every ounce of nagging dread and fit of holy bravado I felt—Norman got there first.
The difference, of course, is that his stakes were far higher: his career, his artistic integrity, the very form and function of his faith depended on wrestling down these questions.
Gregory Alan Thornbury conveys these tensions in Technicolor prose with his new biography, “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock.” With clarity, humor and more than a few tragic chords, Thornbury elucidates Norman’s position as the patriarch of Christian rock—other than the ultimate Father figure himself, of course.
President of The King’s College in New York, Thornbury writes with a scholar’s eye for context and a pop-culture nerd’s breathless interest. Here and in his 2013 biography of Carl F.H. Henry, Thornbury nimbly exhibits how one person can embody the various connections and conflicts within evangelicalism, yet he never stretches the common threads too thin.
In Norman, Thornbury finds a “story” that “helps explain the rise of the Religious Right, the animosities that launched America’s ‘culture wars,’ and the recent rise of the religiously unaffiliated in the United States and Europe” (6). More than a few traces of Norman’s very public views on the institutional church also can be seen in the “just me and Jesus” faith that cripples so many congregations and Christians.
Norman wasn’t just an avatar Thornbury identifies in hindsight: His contemporaneous interactions were specific and significant. He was instrumental in guiding Jews for Jesus co-founder Susan Perlman to faith (51), “fancied himself as a U.S.-based version of Francis Schaeffer,” a thinker he engaged with and emulated (69), and fellowshipped with Presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush.
Norman’s influence, extending far beyond the faithful, was a phenomenon that hadn’t been seen before—or since. His songs were covered by Sammy Davis Jr. and Tennessee Ernie Ford; he shared stages with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead; befriended movie star Dudley Moore; and was formative in the life of Pixies bandleader Frank Black.
“He was the Forrest Gump of evangelical Christianity,” Thornbury concludes (4).
The source of Norman’s appeal was exactly what made him such an impossible animal to tame. Thornbury places him within the “holy fool” tradition (3), a figure who stands inside the doorway of an institution, using his particular, warped charisma to criticize hypocrisies, call out absurdities and make plain the need for reform. Like turning swords into plowshares, Norman bent the tools of rock and roll into electric prophecy. His songs launched a thousand conversations, spawned countless imitators, bound some wounds and caused others.
In his hands, protest songs which caused seismic shifts in the 1960s and early ‘70s became songs protesting the church (71). To the comfortable and the conformists, Norman’s plowshares cut like swords. “His Moby Dick was institutional Christianity itself,” Thornbury writes (59).
Norman’s capacity for confrontation endeared him to unbelievers burned by the church as well as Christians sure the way of Jesus was more satisfying, and less stagnant, than they’d experienced. And yet he frustrated people in both camps, one of the first modern artists to wear the hairshirt of those too Christian for the world and too worldly for the church. “Larry proudly wore the badge of the antihero of evangelicalism, the patron saint of mixing things that weren’t supposed to go together,” Thornbury writes (94).
By criticizing a tradition he helped create, Norman diverged from previous holy fools, and found his way fraught with different potholes and pitfalls. He bit the hand that fed him, then found tooth marks on his own palms. Being the first to do something, at least in Norman’s case, meant figuring it out as he went. All that warred within him spilled out, often in devastating ways.
Norman had high ideals and a perfectionist’s mindset, yet often acted on impulse. He wanted to create a collective of artists and kindred spirits, yet experienced wrenching loneliness. He raged against present-day Pharisees whose behavior created “others,” yet isolated friends and peers with his controlling tendencies. He labored to create a truly “alternative” brand of rock but, in key moments, conducted music business with all the coldness of the outside world (196).
Norman left the world as inauspiciously as any of us enter it, his final days a decrescendo from his glory days. And yet, there is beauty in the way Norman clung to Jesus as an anchor for his soul. As the last strains of his life faded out, a man who once moved mountains with his voice and guitar preserved a mustard-seed faith.
“In the end it was just Larry Norman and Jesus, disappearing down the tracks,” Thornbury writes (241). The artist who once sang “You’ve been left behind” into the apocalypse “simply left behind anyone who didn’t fit into that narrative.” Those words from Thornbury ring with a certain tragedy and yet, read a different way, testify to Norman’s legacy. He left many spiritual and creative children behind, and didn’t leave them penniless.
In those who’ve bucked against the church and walked out the back door—the David Bazans and Derek Webbs of the world; those who’ve closed their fists around a mustard seed—the Bill Mallonees; and those who’ve forged ahead against the grain and the odds—the Bonos, the Steve Taylors, the kids who now can let secular and Christian records sit on the shelf together—we find Norman’s heirs. Appropriately, Thornbury’s book lives in the spaces between hagiography and cautionary tale. Norman would no doubt recognize himself with a hearty laugh in some passages, wet some pages with his tears and be irked by others. That is to say, Thornbury did his job and did it well.
Like Woody Guthrie’s guitar, Thornbury heard Norman’s “voice as a machine for killing complacency in religious people” (7). By telling this pioneer tale to those of us who still struggle with whether to draw lines between secular and sacred or blur them—and that’s all of us—it’s his “sincere hope that this book does the same.”
Aarik Danielsen is the arts and music editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri. His work is concerned with the intersection of faith, culture and human dignity. Follow him on Twitter @aarikdanielsen and find more of his work at facebook.com/aarikdanielsenwrites.