What: Why Should The Devil Have All the Good Music: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock
Author: Gregory Alan Thornbury
Publisher: Convergent, NY
Publication date: 2018
(Bob) Dylan replied.
“Tell your brother I’m a fan.”
Gregory Alan Thornbury “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock” p.253
I am a fan of Larry Norman’s music also. Seems I might not be in bad company.
I was never quite sure what to make of the man himself.
Let me start by telling you not so much about the book I’m reviewing, not so much about the artist but where I come into the picture and why I feel invested in the book’s subject.
I was raised in a home where there was no religious belief to speak of – no Christianity as such beyond a certain nominalism on my mother’s part. When I was 17, going 18, i was in a relationship with a Christian which made me sit and carefully think through the Bible’s truth claims. As a result, I came to some kind of faith, a faith which as well as belief in God felt an intellectual certainty about what the Bible seemed to be saying. By this time, my friend who was a believer was no longer part of my social circle and for various reasons I drifted into the kind of church where you checked your academic questions at the door with your hat (if you had one!)
I didn’t last long at that church and I found myself awash in a situation where I had many questions and not many answers. I’m the sort of person who has been surrounded my whole life by music, art, literature, and scholarship and I began to explore if I could find credible voices in those fields that shared any of my convictions about Christianity.
I read G.K. Chesterton, Malcolm Muggeridge and C.S. Lewis. I listened to Bob Dylan (although by this time there were rumours that he changed his views on Christianity). I looked at art. I read Francis Schaeffer and Hans Rookmaaker. And then began to ask around if there were contemporary musicians who were addressing questions about faith who were believers… Big mistake.
Somebody pointed me in the direction of a Christian bookstore where I discovered a record rack and I spent a lot of money and I bought what turned out to be a lot of… saccharine. There were a lot of sweet harmonies, bad rhymes and quaint tunes but nothing much to make you think. It wasn’t all bad. I bought an album by Randy Matthews which was more interesting, found some carefully crafted lyrics by a guy called Mark Heard, a few interesting early albums by Michael Omartian but not a lot else.
I asked somebody else and they said I should check out a guy called Larry Norman and someone else called Randy Stonehill. Back to the bookstore I went. Mr Stonehill looked the part but there was little edge to his music or lyrics. When I asked about Larry Norman, the manager said that most of his albums were now pretty hard to get hold of. I came away with something called “Upon this Rock” and one side of an album called “Friends on Tour”. “Upon this Rock” was good in parts but sickly sweet in others and taken out of context I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.
Another friend played me an album called “In Another Lord” which was better but seemed to fight a good fight from the believers’ corner and not have as much edge as rock music should have but it was good enough to make me want to explore.
By now I was involved in a Christian Arts Festival called Greenbelt and turning up there one year, there was a whole tent of rather obscure “Christian” music from independent labels. I bought three by Larry: Quiet Night (an album which, again, out of context, seemed just like odds and ends); something called Only Visiting This Planet, and another called So Long Ago the Garden.
Before long I was a fan.
Not someone who appreciated his music. Not an admirer. A fan.
Over the years, I met Larry a number of times. There was the time I stumbled into a conversation with Christian apologist, Os Guinness and Larry and his wife, Sarah and just hung around as though I belonged there. Another time I happened to be in a record tent at Greenbelt when Mr Norman arrived with two suitcases of cds to sell and we chatted. Another time, I hosted a concert of his and acted as MC. I interviewed him over the phone at his home at some obscure hour of the day when he was about to release an album called Tourniquet. There were other occasions.
I bought all kinds of albums (in the end mostly in an attempt to help his medical funds). I travelled around the country to see him in concert and marvelled at his better moments and shrugged off the occasions when his recordings didn’t deliver to my expectations.
I defended him to the hilt against his gainsayers. Was equally frustrated and mystified by his terseness. Wondered if it might be easier to interview Bob Dylan or Van Morrison than Larry Norman (not that I would be afforded the chance to find out!)
Finally, in 2008, Mr Norman who had been very ill for several years passed into eternity and I ceased keeping in touch with any releases that might still be appearing. There were still some obscurities being released by his family but it all seemed rather pointless. The well was rather dry. There were rumours and a horrible film made by a former fan who seemed to feel wronged for some reason I couldn’t fathom. At one point someone said that Larry’s Wikipedia page was the longest in the whole system because so many people had so many different points and view. And all of this for someone that most people I spoke to had never heard of.
And now there’s a book.
Published by a reputable publishing house (Penguin / Random House, no less!). By an author with a reasonable track record of previous publications who has obviously done his research. And a book which is readable and not just sensationalist.
And yet coming to this as a reader who is deeply invested in understanding the subject, I come away wondering about the author’s methodology and questioning whether he has been able to be objective.
Let me try to explain.
The author says, in the Acknowledgments section at the end of the book:
“I would not have been able to write this book in the way that I had hoped if the Norman family did not give me access to Larry’s extensive archives – an embarrassment of riches for a biographer. Nothing was held back. It allowed me to examine the life of my subject through a neutral lens (as much as possible) without having to rely upon the distant memories of the friends and foes of the father of Jesus rock, memories that can twist over time”
And therein I think is the nugget of my issue with this worthwhile book. Memories can twist over time but also time can bring perspective. We are told what the later actions and comments of Randy Stonehill seem to illustrate about his attitude to the book’s subject. There are comments about what the film made by David DiSabatino seem to reveal about his outlook. The quote at the head of my review dates from 1992 (about Dylan) and seems to have come from Larry’s brother, Charles, about something that happened 26 years before the book’s publication. But there are people who are mentioned extensively who are not given opportunity to update their perspective. These would include those who, if my memory serves well, were not included in DiSabatino’s work and wouldn’t seem to have an axe to grind. I’m thinking of Steve Scott, Steve Turner, Sarah Finch, Larry’s son, Michael and a number of others. They may have been contacted by the author and opted out but if so there is no indication.
Now a musician’s biography can have one of two major styles. The first would be to explore a musician’s catalogue of recordings with insights from his personal life when it colours his musical output. The second would be the reverse – to look at the artist’s personal life with some highlights from his musical output. Mr Thornbury’s book begins like the former and ends like the latter. The first 200 pages of the book take us to the end of the 1970s. The last 80 pages cover the rest of Larry’s life. In the first section all of Larry’s releases are covered in some detail. The latter section passes over many, many albums without even referring to them. There is no list of Larry’s recordings for the interested reader. There is however an exploration of Mr Norman’s personal life which will mostly appeal to the fan-base and those already partially “in the know” and seeking answers to the rumours.
One of the fair conclusions that has been aimed elsewhere at Larry’s critics is that they gave Larry, his friends and family little chance to respond to matters which at heart were essentially personal matters. The book does rather commit the same error but from the opposite side of the equation. Those closest to Larry have obviously shared their most recent memories and observations are here where there is no written record required. Others who have offered a more conciliatory tone in recent years or who have said in social media that they were misrepresented elsewhere are given no updated voice.
Albums that I seem to be in the minority in thinking are of some worth – Stop This Flight, Rock, Scissors et Papier, Safecracking, (the rather odd and incomplete) A Moment in Time – are rushed past or never mentioned. Larry’s habit of releasing endless recycled albums whilst never releasing albums that he had said from the earliest days were ready to go, is never really explored.
Strange anomalies are overlooked or never mentioned. Did I dream a period when Larry was associated with the rather controversial Oliver North?
We are left with a book that seems to be incomplete in all directions and unlikely to satisfy anyone except those who just want to draw a line under the whole sorry mess and move on
So, we have Larry Norman, worthy of a documentary film by those who used to be his friends, now the subject of a reasonably high-profile biography by a noted theologian and academic, but he remains controversial and unknown by turns. The founder of Jesus rock (except for those who came before him). Fiercely defended by his fans, still objected to by his detractors.
And still confusing to this reviewer who was warned a long time ago that one should never meet their heroes. As confusing as this book and its exact intent.