In his new book, Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils Of Christian Rock, author Gregory Alan Thornbury reminds us just how influential “Jesus Rock” pioneer Larry Norman was during his 70’s heyday. But truth be told, even 10 years after his death, he is still a revered figure in the larger pop/rock music world influencing groups/artists such as U2, the Pixies, John Mellencamp and Guns & Roses just to name a few. Bob Dylan has admitted to being a fan of Norman’s music as well. Billboard magazine once dubbed him “the most important songwriter since Paul Simon”.
In a way, the idea of Larry Norman becoming a rock & roll iconoclast seems unlikely considering that he achieved only minor success as a secular artist with the group People! In the late 60’s, and never sold massive amounts of records as a “Christian” music artist. In fact, Paul McCartney offering advice, once advised Norman that he could be famous if he would just “drop the God stuff”. Norman admitted that telling the larger world that you were a Christian was the same as being a leper in their minds.
So, with that in mind, how did Norman rise to such prominence in both the religious and secular worlds? Well, being at the right place at the right time certainly helped. Norman, due to his affiliation with Capitol Records in Hollywood found himself at the forefront of the quickly exploding Jesus movement. It began as a largely California phenomena with Norman becoming a vital voice within the movement. These so called “Jesus Freaks” were young people abandoning 60’s free love and drug culture in exchange for direct access to God without the need for pastors, priests, gurus, or any other intermediary.
Norman burnished his reputation with these new acolytes by writing a weekly column for the Hollywood Free Paper and writing and performing songs that let’s just say weren’t their mom and pop’s “gospel music”. On top of being rhythm & blues driven, Norman’s music was grittier, more intellectual, and more threatening to organized religion than anything the religious music industry was pedaling at the time. Norman’s message could be summed up as a broadside against the traditional church for abandoning its core mission of helping the poor and needy, its reliance on ritual instead of authentic spirituality/true religion, racial insensitivities, and a stodgy ideology seemingly as vacant as that espoused by the 60’s counter culture. Norman could wax poetic about the eternal human soul on the one hand, but also attack consumerism, middle class values, and
the Vietnam War on the other.
Norman’s albums from that pivotal period would remain his best at least critically if not commercially: Upon This Rock, I’m Only Visiting This Planet, So Long Ago The Garden, and In Another Land. In 2013, The Library of Congress added I’m Only Visiting This Planet to the National registry, calling it an “American musical treasure”.
You can tell Thornbury is a scholar of the genre as well as an ardent Larry Norman fan. But being a fan didn’t keep him from exploring the many controversies and personal failings that impacted Norman’s life. Among them was his marriage to model Pamela Ahlquist, whose questionable activities would at times clash with Norman’s strict Christian sensibilities. Several pages in the book are devoted to Norman protĂ©gĂ© Randy Stonehill who Thornbury labeled a “frenemy”. And indeed, they would achieve some success as sometime collaborators. But eventually personal and business issues would drive a permanent wedge between the two. Norman would later marry Stonehill’s ex-wife Sarah. One of those business issues would become the acrimonious dissolution of Norman’s management team and Solid Rock Records, a label he founded. In 1979, Norman was the victim
of a freakish airline incident in which a ceiling panel came loose and struck him on the head. Norman claimed brain damage after the incident, but his manager at the time who was with him on the plane claimed the incident wasn’t that serious. Norman would cite this incident as the reason for his unfocused behavior and inability to finish projects. Lastly, Thornbury pursues the mostly over the top allegations brought up in the documentary film Fallen Angel: The Outlaw Larry Norman. It seems that anyone that ever had a beef with Norman was given camera time to vent about what a terrible person he was. But for the most part, the claim that he fathered a child out of wedlock and never reconciled with the boy in question is the only allegation that stands up to scrutiny. So, you see, Larry Norman carried some of the same baggage around that a lot of us do. He wasn’t perfect.
A near fatal heart attack in 1992 would end up slowing Norman down to the point where he only performed sporadically throughout the rest of the 90’s until his death in 2008. He had moved to Oregon before his death where family members attended to his health and helped him sell his recordings through a mail order business. Thornbury’s book, perhaps unintentionally, in a larger spiritual sense suggests that every generation needs its own “Larry Norman”. Someone to shake us out of our complacency and spiritual vacancy. But most of all, someone to counter the preachers, politicians, and pontificators of the age…a voice crying out in the wilderness.