Larry Norman: Left Behind

My late brother-in-law was largely responsible for creating “Contemporary Christian Music”. He loved Jesus and he introduced me to Chesterton, but the thing he didn’t understand was the very thing he was longing for: the sacraments.

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?”

“Never.”

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.]

About Dale Ahlquist 31 Articles
Dale Ahlquist is president of the American Chesterton Society, creator and host of the EWTN series "G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense," and publisher of Gilbert Magazine. He is the author and editor of several books on Chesterton, including The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton.

16 Comments

  1. Thanks for your perspective Mr. Ahlquist. My own family has often noticed the confessional nature of many CCM songs. As you wrote of Larry, “He had to sing his confessions as poetically as possible because he did not have any other confessional.” As a convert myself, I have repeatedly been healed and strengthened through the Sacrament of Confession. Whereas I used to find confessional CCM songs bold and honest, I now listen to them with a prayer that the writer will receive the grace to approach Christ in the Sacrament of Confession.

  2. Very interesting. I’m not Catholic, so I’ll have to disagree on some things you say in that vein. But I think that what you write regarding Larry and Pam and the whole Street Level and Jesus Movement situation is fair and balanced and worth reflecting on.

    Incidentally, I believe that “the center [does] not hold” is from W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming.” But your lines “reverence became reverie…and revelry,” and “now the future is not what it used to be” are gems. Wonderful writing and thought-provoking essay.

      • To sing the merits of the most destructive religion prior to modern Islam is somewhat ironic when your observations on Larry’s career and poor timing of his albums is misguided at best as well as exceptionally ungrateful.
        Catholicism is cancerous in every way from the paedephelia, cruelty, torture, false doctrine, Vatican​corruption and worst of all an infallible mediator between man and Christ…..All men are equal etc. Confession to another person rather than the gift of prayer and your own direct line, the harbouring of terrorists in my home country and the elevation of Mary to Christ like importance when she was simply a vessel….”she is sleeping in the ground”

  3. Thank you for this article, Mr. Ahlquist. I have enjoyed and learned a lot from hearing some of your Chesterton clips on our local Catholic radio station. But I’m a little embarrassed to say that I was surprised, shocked might be a little too strong, but not by a lot, at the quality of your own wordsmithery.

    Perhaps you picked much of that up from reading so much of Chesterton’s work, but in any event, what a pleasure to read an interesting & thought provoking article, but one that is so skillfully written.

    Thanks again.

  4. Good thoughts, Mr. Ahlquist! You’ve prompted me to examine the thoughts and writings of G.K. Chesterton myself now! I would disagree with you, however, in regard to Larry’s fundamental problem being his lack of a confessional and engagement with the Catholic “sacraments”. As a Protestant and Preterist myself, I believe Larry’s fundamental problem was his “futurist” eschatology (expectation of a future, and immediate return of Christ Jesus). This is a problem all Christian rockers had and it contributed to their ultimate decline in popularity. False doctrine is unsustainable in the long-term (Catholic doctrine’s longevity thus far notwithstanding). Our confessions must be to God alone, directly – not to another man acting as God’s “go-between”. He needs no human intermediaries anymore. We all have direct access to Him via faith in Christ Jesus and our internal “circumcision in heart”.

    • “False doctrine is unsustainable in the long-term (Catholic doctrine’s longevity thus far notwithstanding).”

      Yeah, but what’s 2,000 years, really?

      What Dale describes in his essay is really a failing, on the part of Norman and similar-minded folks, of ecclesiology. The “futurist” eschatology of dispensationalism and its offspring is rooted, first, in a skewed Christology, which then results in a deformed ecclesiology (both of these found in abundance in the thought of John Nelson Darby), which then births a deeply lacking eschatology. But that isn’t just the case with dispensationalists; it’s found in nearly every version of “Jesus and me only” Christianity. And it appears you are an adherent of some such variation on the theme.

      In face, you do rely on “human intermediaries,” if only by the simple fact that what you know about Jesus comes from Scripture, which was not just written by men, but then guarded and passed down by Church fathers, bishops, doctors, councils, synods, etc. You wouldn’t know which books belong in the NT canon except through the work and authority of said intermediaries. And so it goes.

    • “Our confessions must be to God alone, directly – not to another man acting as God’s “go-between””

      Says who?

  5. Dale, I’ve passed this on to Dr. Thornbury and encouraged him to connect with you. I think he will appreciate reading this take. Thanks for drawing my attention to it.

  6. It is amazing to me that Mr. Ahlquist remains so calm and detached, while he reads that Larry has trashed his sister from the grave. Ahlquist knows the Norman and Norman’s family were and are pathological liars. Why not bring this point up, that Larry consistently lied to people about his life, the things he did, and trashed anyone and everyone who did not play along with the mythology that he spun.

    And now, Gregory Thornbury has been duped into reprinting every last one of the lies that Larry put forward. What researcher does absolutely no interviews with anyone involved in the story, but takes the word of a man who most of his cohorts and ex-associates would claim was an absolute sociopath? How did this book even get published? It is chock full of Larry-spin, under the guise of this is the perspective from the “secret Larry files.” Please…the person who wrote “Jack Chick lives” wasn’t kidding.

    Of course, one can write a book without interviewing the lead character. Larry is gone. He can’t defend what is here anymore. But to write the kind of innuendo-laden slander and libel that Thornbury was spoon-fed by the remaining Normans is vintage Larry Norman bitterness enacted. The stuff written about Stonehill and Pamela are so outside of the bounds of a researcher being fair that it is criminal. Did Thornbury not think to pick up a phone and inquire of these two people? Or was he told not to? Or was that the gig…enter into the lie, or else we’re not going to let you have access…?

    One wonders. This book deserved a more resounding response from Ahlquist whose sister was slammed. He still is defending, in part, good ole Larry, because Larry would do these sinister things, then smile and pretend to be your buddy if you saw him in person. Which is what a sociopath does.

    Incredible.

  7. I was hoping to read Larry’s own autobiography (The Long Road Home:) to get his own perspective. Do you have any idea how I might be able to find a copy?

    Thanks, Jim

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