The Upshot: Christian music maverick and iconoclast – who was characterized by some critics as the Todd Rundgren-meets-Frank Zappa of Xian music – loved rock as much as he loved Jesus, and as a result of those complexities he remained outside the mainstream—and therefore retained his integrity all the way to his untimely death.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Years before the Christian Rock was a multi-million-dollar industry; before there were massive days—long music festivals spread across the country dedicated solely to it; before it could be divided in sub-genres, of sub-genres like “Christian Ska” or “Christian Hardcore” and “Christian Hip Hop;” before all of that there was Larry Norman.
Norman, born in Texas and raised in Northern California as an evangelical Christian, he loved Jesus and he loved contemporary Rock and Roll, so he decided to marry the two in a way that no one before him ever had. As a result, he made a slew of fans across the globe and just as many enemies. (Count the BLURT editor, who saw Norman perform in the late ‘70s and was blown away by the man’s psychedelic muse, among those fans who still obsessively collect his music. – Books Ed.)
In Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?, Gregory Alan Thornbury deftly tackles the complex life of Norman, the patron saint of Modern Christian Rock.
From the late ‘60s, after joining the San Francisco band People!, Norman first saw the power of rock music to draw in listeners, particularly with the band’s million-selling cover of the Zombies’ “I Love You”; but it wasn’t until his solo records – opting for major labels like Capitol Records over the tiny Gospel/Christian music labels – that he really started to combine his religious beliefs with his music. Through his songs and interviews he often railed against the hypocrisy he saw in established religions that seemed to turn their back on the poor and needy. That view point dovetailed nicely into the burgeoning hippie and spiritual movements in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He also took full opportunity at his shows, speaking to the fans between songs, about what he saw wrong with the world and established churches. As a result, leaders in the evangelical world say Norman as an enemy.
(Below, listen to a pair of tracks from Norman’s 1972 conceptual masterpiece, Only Visiting This Planet.)
Thornbury does a brilliant job of covering all the complexities in Norman’s life – not simply laying out a fawning bio on the influential rocker and part-time street minister, but also covering his often-prickly personality, growing ego and eccentricities. The musician was surrounded by seeming inconsistencies, including his first marriage to Pamela Fay Ahlquist, a model who also posed regularly for magazines like Playboy.
Though his records were rarely massive sales juggernauts – his grassroots label, Solid Rock, is still considered by many to be one of the first nationally-recognized indie rock imprints – he regularly sold out major venues across the globe. To get an idea of just how broad Norman’s appeal and influence was (and still is a decade after his untimely death, in 2008, following persistent heart problems), consider that conservative tech entrepreneur and Trump supporter Peter Thiel and The Pixies’ frontman Black Francis both contribute blurbs of praise to the book jacket.
For the uninitiated, Thornbury does a commendable job of explaining that appeal. For true fans of Norman, the author lays out a definitive biography.