Sipping whisky from a paper cup
You drown your sorrows ‘til you can’t stand up
Take a look at what you’ve done to yourself
Why don’t you put the bottle back on the shelf
Shooting junk ‘til you’re half insane
A broken needle in a purple vein
Why don’t you look into Jesus
He’s got the answer
from “Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus” by Larry Norman
On “Center Of My Heart,” a song from Tourniquet which was Larry Norman’s final studio album before he passed away ten years ago, he included the line “I’m a walking contradiction.” After reading Gregory Alan Thornbury’s Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock, it’s obvious truer words have seldom been spoken.
Thornbury’s biography of Larry Norman, Christian rock’s founding father in the 1960s and most polarizing figure to this day, is a fascinating and sobering look at the life of a man almost perpetually surrounded by controversy. Much of it was Norman’s own doing, intentional or no; his incessant need to be in control and insistence on being a lone wolf utterly convinced of his selected path’s correctness often frayed and sometimes shattered relationships both professional and personal. Yet, he could also be generous to a fault with his time, money, and talents. He was also a brilliant songwriter and performer, penning and recording work that remains stunningly powerful and genuinely life-changing for those who have ears to hear.
Norman, to quote from a song by Mark Heard whose early career was directly influenced by Norman, was too sacred for the sinners and the saints wished he’d leave. The former were often off-put by Norman’s frequent references to Christ crucified and risen, while the latter routinely freaked out over his mixing straightforward love and political songs, plus generous use of allegory and parable, into his body of work. Norman didn’t care. It was his vision, done his way, take it or leave it.
The book does an excellent job in painting the backdrop for Norman’s life and times, managing the not inconsiderable feat of detailing such elements as the Jesus People movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s in a manner both informative to the uninitiated and not dreary for those already in the know. Some biographers tell a tale of life well; others specialize in times. Thornbury does both well.
Thornbury mentions more than once how Norman in concert sought not to entertain, but rather to challenge his audience, having no hesitation about making it feel uncomfortable through in-between song musings as well as in the songs themselves. He posed questions about faith and how believers should conduct themselves in the world, detailing the need to demolish the Christian ghetto and actually be in the world but not of it. Norman was simultaneously icon and iconoclast, the one without whom most every contemporary Christian artists would not be there while at the same time asking what they were doing there, as they were neither witnessing to non-believers nor edifying those who were already Christians.
The book is unflinching in its examination of Norman and those around him; his first wife Pamela and his early protege Randy Stonehill both come off quite poorly. However, the book also tosses bouquets as easily as it does brickbats. It is no hatchet job designed to speak maximum ill of the dead or the living. In lieu thereof it is, as best as Norman can be capsulated, a multi-level study of a multi-level man who won friends, made enemies, influenced many far more than they are willing to admit, and left it for others to argue about as he decidedly did it his way. If you love Larry Norman, or have no idea who he was, Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock is enriching reading that, even as Norman did with his work, forces reflection.