I remember when I first heard Larry Norman sing “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” He was performing from a couch in the basement of the home where I grew up in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota. He had married my sister Pamela a couple years earlier. I was 15 years old. It was 1973.
We laughed at the lines, “They say to cut my hair/They’re driving me insane/I grew it out long/To make room for my brain.” And, “I don’t like none of those funeral marches/I ain’t dead yet!” We laughed because we knew it was irreverent, but we felt justified for being irreverent. The problem, we thought, was simply bad church music that did not serve our Christian joy. Church music was stuffy, and we wanted to knock the stuffiness out of it. Tradition was bad because it was old. Innovation was good because it was new.
But we didn’t have much of a gauge. We were Baptist. “Traditional” music for us went back maybe a hundred years, except for the really old stuff that went back 150 years. Anything older than that belonged in a museum.
Unfortunately, what Larry was in the process of doing, though we didn’t know it at the time, was making bad church music worse. He thought rock music was a way to reach people. He was a genius and a genuine artist, and he certainly knew how to grab an audience and hold it. He would preach as much as he sang, and even preach while he sang. It was original and captivating, funny and serious. And influential. His first album, Upon This Rock, came out three years before Jesus Christ Superstar. He was perhaps more than anyone else responsible for creating Contemporary Christian Music or whatever you want to call it this week, and it was probably one of the worst things that happened to the Church in the last fifty years. And he realized it when it was too late.
Gregory Alan Thornbury has written a fascinating if flawed biography under the title of that song I first heard in my basement. The subtitle, “Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock,” telegraphs the tale that it will tell: in spite of his great creativity and wide impact, things did not go well for Larry Norman. Among the many things that did not go well was his marriage to my sister. Pamela is painted as one of the many villains in his life, along with fellow musicians, managers, record producers, and most of his friends. The book is in some ways a counterpunch to the documentary Fallen Angel, which trashed Larry Norman. Instead, Mr. Thornbury holds Larry up as an icon and trashes everyone else, especially Pamela, who is never given the opportunity to defend herself. There are two sides to everything, especially in a failed marriage. But in any case, it is a sad story.
I can say that Larry Norman was always good to me. He was generous to me in every way, and was certainly the person who most influenced me during those most formative teenage years. He was a mentor who encouraged my creativity and broadened my horizons. He bought me a guitar and showed me how to make a good tune and make a good rhyme. I worked for him for a time in the office of Street Level Productions and Solid Rock Records on Hollywood Boulevard, across the street from the famous Chinese Theater. In addition to being an office schlep, I assisted him in the recording studio, accompanied him on a brief concert tour, and was just with him all day long, morning till morning. He helped pay for my college. And—this is what usually surprises a lot of people—he was the one who first told me to read G.K. Chesterton. That advice, of course, changed my life utterly. Mr. Thornbury’s book says that Larry enjoyed our discussions about Chesterton, but the irony is that we never had any. He once told me to read the author and that was it. I didn’t pick up my first Chesterton book till after the divorce.
In the meantime, we discussed everything else. God and sex and rock and roll. He was a student of pop culture. He had an entire room full of comic books. He would walk away from every newsstand with an armful of magazines. He watched movies constantly. Back in the days before VCR’s and DVD’s and YouTube, when you had to watch whatever was on TV, the late movies were usually pretty lame. But we watched them. He and I were up one night (again in my basement) watching that Troy Donahue/Sandra Dee flick, A Summer Place, and as the music swelled Larry said, “Hey! That’s the theme song from A Summer Place!” When I lived with Larry and Pam in the summer of ’78, every morning at 11 am, he would call from the bedroom, “Dale! Devotions!” Which meant it was time to watch the daily episode of The Twilight Zone.
I also watched the marriage from beginning to end, nine years. I was angry and sad when they got divorced, but then my own life immediately took a new direction, as I fell in love, got married, started reading Chesterton, who eventually brought me to the Catholic Church, and started having children. I fell out of touch with Larry for the next twenty years, and only glanced at his life from afar: his second marriage, his second divorce, and the decline of his career. We reconnected in 2002, with some phone calls and emails. I interviewed him for Gilbert! Magazine, and I had the great blessing of a face-to-face reunion with him in the fall of 2007, just a few months before he died.
It took a while to realize the unique vantage I’d had, having a front row seat not only of Larry at the height of his fame, but of the Jesus Movement in its prime, and of its key players. But it’s hard to look back on the 1970s with anything other than befuddlement and regret. What were we thinking? Everybody was angry, but they didn’t know what they were angry about. And everybody was comfortable, which makes revolutions difficult to carry out. As one of Larry’s lyrics went: “The word is revolution, but no one’s fired the shot.”
Mr. Thornbury’s book will appeal to anyone (who still happens to be alive) who went through that time, and to any serious student of the history of rock music (who can now take college courses on the subject). He delves into Larry’s dilemma of how secular he needed to be in order to establish fame and influence so that he could in turn use that influence to evangelize. Larry’s problem was always that he was “too rock-and-roll for the religious people and too religious for the rock-and-roll people” and the record companies did not know how to handle him, that is, how to market him. He had planned a trilogy of albums, and the first, Only Visiting This Planet made a big splash, the second, So Long Ago the Garden made only a ripple, and the third, In Another Land was too much, too late. It was the second album where Larry decided to aim for a more secular audience with such songs as “I’ve Got to Learn to Live Without You” (which Mr. Thornbury wrongly assigns to Only Visiting This Planet.) I remember Larry telling me he wrote this song for the sole purpose of getting a hit. His timing was atrocious. It came out at the same moment as Harry Nilsson’s similarly named “(I Can’t Live if Living is) Without You,” which became a mega-mega-hit and won a Grammy. In the meantime, Larry’s fanbase was wondering if had sold out, which was in fact what he was trying to do—for the greater glory of God. Why should the devil have all the good contracts?
Perils indeed. He got the religious people to be more rock-and-roll. He didn’t get the rock-and-roll people to become religious. And, truth be told, a lot of the religious people who became more rock-and-roll became less religious.
Larry carefully nurtured his own image, but he was distressed that his wife was obsessed with her image. He liked the fact that she was glamorous, but he loathed glamour in general. Mr. Thornbury goes into her extra-marital affairs with plenty of painful detail (and some of it simply isn’t true), but he ignores or glosses over Larry’s infidelities and doesn’t deal with the fact that almost all of the marriages of his Street Level artists ended in divorce. To his credit he does give some credit to Pam, who was the driving force behind starting the Vineyard Church in their living room, and who contributed to Larry’s exotic image by being his exotic wife. He touches upon her connection to Marilyn Monroe, but he misses the obvious point that Pam was also a vulnerable, fragile, beautiful woman to whom people were attracted for all the wrong reasons, who was smarter than anyone gave her credit for but had to play the dumb blonde because it worked, and who lost her way because the one who was supposed to protect her from the world and from herself didn’t do it.
As W. B. Yeats intoned, the center did not hold. Because there was no center.
Larry Norman, who sang about Jesus, had a problem with organized religion, however, that religion was Protestantism, which isn’t organized. And in America, the Catholics followed the Protestants in following the world. And Larry successfully brought the world’s music into the Church. The choir moved from the back of the church to the front, and brought with it drums and electric guitars. And reverence became reverie…and revelry. Praise became a performance, and Larry himself hated what happened even though he helped make it happen.
He loved Jesus, but the thing he didn’t understand was the very thing he was longing for: the sacraments. He made humorous references to baptism and communion in his ballads of street people stumbling into the faith and being thrown into the river or the offer to the hungry man up in Canada: “How about some bread and a glass of wine?” He would invite people to follow Jesus, but without going to church because churches were full of hypocrites and rituals and bad music. He had to sing his confessions as poetically as possible because he did not have any other confessional. He didn’t know that marriage was a sacrament, but he knew it was sacred. He told me he thought he was going to go to hell for getting re-married. He also told me in our final meeting that I should still call myself his brother-in-law because he still considered himself married to Pam. He needed the sacraments, he wanted the sacraments, but as Catholic convert Tyler Blanski writes in his new book, The Immovable Feast, “The problem with a sacrament is that you need a Church.”
After Larry’s death, an elderly Catholic gentleman told me that Larry once sat with him and watched a Mass on EWTN and recited all the parts of the Mass along with him. The old man asked, “Larry, have you ever thought of becoming Catholic?”
But apparently he had. Why did he know all the parts of the Mass?
He designed his own tombstone, as we all should. On it he calls himself an “Evangelist Without Portfolio,” a reference to the fact that he was a Christian without a Church, and a “Blood-stained Israelite” which is a reference to, well, I’m not sure. His brother erected a mailbox next to the grave. Something you don’t usually see in a cemetery. It is full of Larry’s CD’s and people can help themselves to them.
I certainly miss the conversations we used to have, but I especially miss the conversations that we never got to have. In the 1970’s we had the end times all mapped out, but now the future is not what it used to be. Larry, like any good prophet, warned the world that Jesus was about to return. A thief in the night. An outlaw. A U.F.O. He gave the Evangelical world that deadly phrase, “Left Behind,” and launched an industry that did him no good and certainly left him behind. He wasn’t ready for all the things that happened. I wish he had been. I wish we’d all been ready.
Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock
by Gregory Alan Thornbury
Convergent Books, 2018
Hardcover, 292 pages
[Editor’s note: The essay originally stated that it was T.S. Eliot who wrote that "the center did not hold”; the reference was to a line by W.B.Yeats in his poem "The Second Coming”, which states: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”. That reference has been corrected.]