A Little Bit

I don’t know about you, but I have a complicated relationship with genres.  As a fiction writer I have great difficulty classifying what I write, and that shows in the reluctance of publishers to embrace it.  We tend to suppose that some kinds of Platonic types exist out there by which we can map what we find here in the physical world.  These genres, however, are far more permeable than they seem.  My wife and I just finished watching the eight-part Ken Burns documentary Country Music.  Neither one of us is what you might call a fan of the genre but I can say that I learned an awful lot.  My stepfather was a country music fan, so many of the names and songs, particularly of the early years, were familiar.  What became clear throughout the century or so covered by the films was that the dividing line was always a blurry one.

While today we tend to think of country music as a southern phenomenon, the documentary made clear that its beginnings were folk music.  And folk lived most places.  While certain styles predominated in certain ages, across the years it was hard to tell some country music from pop music and rock (especially in the early days of the latter).  Even rock is difficult to classify.  What it often comes down to is self-identification.  An artist or band that identifies as country is country.  It is a distinctly American art form and it quite often identifies with religion.  Like rock, it also has some roots in gospel music.  When it becomes secular, gospel can go into many unexpected places.

Another association—again, a generalization—is country music and conservatism.  Partly it’s the promoting of Americanism, but partly it’s based on a false perception.  Performers are actors, after all.  Many of the “clean cut” examples of country singers struggled constantly with drug abuse (often considered the demon of rock-n-roll) and alcoholism.  It’s often right there in the lyrics.  The listeners, however, tend to think of them as stories.  That was the other great takeaway from the series—people are drawn to the stories.  I think that’s something we all know, but country music often excels at the hard-luck story that resonates with people down on their circumstances.  I’m not about to become a country music fan, but watching this series, like any educational venture, has opened me to a new tolerance for what I previously classified as a genre that didn’t have any appeal.

Sinning

The other day I was searching through the CDs we have and came across the Pet Shop Boys’ album, Actually.  Curious, I googled them and was surprised to learn that they are considered the most successful British pop duo ever, by some metrics.  Who knew?  I lost track of them after 1987.  As I played the album—and synth-pop really isn’t my style—I began to wonder why I’d bought it.  Then “It’s a Sin” played.  The Pet Shop Boys’ second number one hit from ’87, that song was part of my personal history that has led, indirectly, to my last two books.  Let me set the scene:

In 1987 I graduated from seminary.  I was just a small town boy, having grown up in rural northwest Pennsylvania.  My exposure to big cities was limited, and that was one reason I’d chosen Boston for said seminary.  It was there that I began to realize just how much popular culture referenced religion.  “It’s a Sin” is emblematic in that regard.  Everything the boys want to say or do is a sin.  Sounds like Calvinism to me. Still, the song was heard by millions.  I bought the album because of it.

As I recall, there were several pop artists singing about religion at the time.  Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” was still eight years away, but it was becoming obvious to me that people took religious cues from pop media.  I once described the ability to find references to the Good Book as “Bible radar.”  If you’re raised in that culture you learn to spot religion in the most unlikely places.  The concept of sin is a purely religious one.  We all have consciences (I hope) but to make an act Hell-worthy requires religion.  And according to some forms of Christianity just about everything is a sin.

That idea lay dormant for decades.  I read novels and found religion embedded in them, often in biblical form.  I saw it on television.  And in movies.  Even horror movies.  While I sometimes elected to expose myself to intentionally religious media, these references often came from secular sources.  As I began to research this, I came to realize that religion is intricately woven into the fabric of society.  Try to tease it out to isolate it and the cloth starts to come undone.  We like to think of ourselves as more sophisticated than that, but the truth is at some level we still believe it’s a  sin.

A-changin’

The other day, while engaged in a mindless task, I had Bob Dylan playing in the background.  When I say Bob Dylan I mean the Bob Dylan of the 1960s.  I was an infant when he was singing songs like “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.”  As much as I cast the 1960s in a rosy glow, I was in fact a naive child through my portion of them.  I knew about the Vietnam War, but I couldn’t point to the country on a map.  Likewise, I knew about the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.  I also knew that we had walked on the moon.  My family at this stage didn’t listen to popular music.  I grew up with hymns in my ears and the culture in which I was swimming slowing becoming absorbed through my pores.  Dylan was part of the latter.

One of the reasons I don’t often listen to music is that I really listen to it.  It is so significant to me that I don’t like to relegate it to the background.  While I work from home, for example, I don’t put music on.  I find it difficult to concentrate because, truth be told, I’d rather listen to the music.  As I had Bob Dylan on, I was doing a task where I could listen as the rest of my body went into autopilot.  The angry white men who are running things now, it struck me, were alive in the sixties as well.  As much as they seem like aliens who were beamed down after the expansion of human consciousness, they were lurking in the shadows all along.  If they sing along to Bob Dylan they’re hypocrites.  We need another Dylan.

Photo credit: Rowland Scherman, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That’s putting quite a burden on an artist, I know.  But Dylan captured the spirit of the times.  Even as scientism was growing the reality of the Zeitgeist was obvious.  I grew up in the chaotic seventies.  The eighties were bland with the Reaganism reaction—angry white men wanted to get rich at others’ expense, and we let them.  Not enough time has passed for history to decide on the spirit of the fin de siècle, I don’t think.  You see, we seem stuck in a feedback loop.  Dylan’s lyrics are as necessary now as they were more than half a century ago.  I’m growing weary of angry white men and their petty concerns.  Maybe I need to listen to music more often. 

All Been Ready

As the pandemic stretches on and getting things in stores—or even from Amazon—isn’t assured, my thoughts go back to Larry Norman.  Specifically to his song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.”  Made famous for many by its use in the 1972 rapture film A Thief in the Night, the song recounts the state of those “left behind” when a piece of bread could be exchanged for a bag of gold.  The lyrics are haunting in their sincerity.  Here in Pennsylvania, as in neighboring New York, non-essential businesses have closed, per order of the governors.  Periodic forays to the grocery store show the empty shelves of panic buying.  Norman’s song rings in my ears.  Only this isn’t a biblical plague.  We’re just acting like it.

No doubt technology has been of great use in keeping us aware.  I do wonder, however, at how panics seem to come more quickly now.  Slowing down manufacturing will have a knock-on effect for things down the road, of course.  Right now we’re all wondering how we’re going to get through yet another day just sitting in the house.  Meanwhile the lawn is beginning to grow and I’m going to have to get out there with the push mower soon.  I’d been planning on shopping for a better one this year, but plans seem to have suddenly pooled at my feet.  What is essential travel anyway?  Does it count a trip to the big box hardware store to buy a reel mower?  Should I even bother about the lawn when there’s no toilet paper within a fifty-mile radius?  I wish we’d all been ready.

The funny thing about all this is how it makes us focus on the here and now.  While we’re waiting for things to “get back to normal” we’re being told nobody knows how long this might last and we should plan to hunker down for some time.  The International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (being held in Australia this year) was cancelled.  Many of us in the discipline have had our lives revolving around the Annual Meeting in November for all of our adulthood.  If that meeting’s cancelled how will we even know when Thanksgiving comes?  Can it even come without the crowds at the Macy’s parade?  Best not to look too far ahead, I guess.  The rapture is a fictional construct, but the effects of a pandemic are eerily similar.  I do wish all of us had been ready.

Dancing

An artist is never really gone.  I have been listening to Leonard Cohen’s posthumous Thanks for the Dance.  Haunting in the way of Bowie’s Blackstar, there’s a poignancy to listening hard to the dead.  Especially when they saw it coming.  Artists are never really gone, and we can forgive them because they’re oh so very human.  Cohen was an exceptional poet and this album captures a man who knows the end is near.  Still he sings of girls and sins and God.  There’s an eternal soul there, and Cohen captures longing better than just about anyone.  The artist knows longing and understands not knowing for what.  The album struggles with religion and depression, a remarkably common combination.  Memories of glories that linger even as the body ages.

Listening to someone else’s music is taking a stroll through her or his head.  Someone once gave me a disc of songs built around a theme.  Although the theme came through I feared a little of what I heard here.  Some who know me primarily from my overly pious upbringing would be shocked to find Cohen on my favorites list.  For me he has no pretense.  Instead of ignoring religion, sexuality, or politics, he tried to make sense of them through song.  For me—and listening to music is a very personal thing—I think I understand when I’m drawn into his lyrics.  His experience of life was vastly different from what mine has been, yet he’d accurately mapped the direction my mind might wander, if given free rein.  Religion will hold your imagination captive, if left to its own devices.

Those who reduce Leonard Cohen to his over-used “Hallelujah” catch only glimpses of this complex man.  I once read an article about Bruce Springsteen in which a friend of his said that if he hadn’t succeeded in music he might’ve become a priest.  There’s an authenticity to these artists who write probing songs that have deep spirituality yet allow themselves to be human.  Cohen’s songs revealed he could see death with some ambivalence from afar.  Even in albums recorded thirty years ago the hints were there.  Instead of running and attempting to hide, Cohen’s lyrics, at least, indicated that he’d continue to try to live.  Maybe these are just the reflections of a middle-aged man who’s only glimpsed a fleeting connection between an artist in perpetual motion and a one-time scholar sitting up alone at 3:00 a.m., seemingly stuck in one place.  Whatever else they may be, such quiet moments will ones be haunted by Thanks for the Dance.

Seasonal Music

Music is deeply, deeply personal.  That’s why I don’t write much about it.  There are pieces, I swear, if someone walked in to shoot me when I was listening to them I wouldn’t even notice.  This effect is amplified in autumn.  I don’t listen to music all the time.  In fact, I rarely do.  The reason is, counterintuitively, I fear that music may cease being meaningful to me.  Good things have a way of running out.  The music I like is only very slowly supplemented.  So as the clouds encroached this month, I put on some tunes and I began thinking of appropriate songs of the season.  I’ve heard attempts of more recent artists to sound spooky, but their lyrics don’t match the mood I’m seeking—remember, it’s deeply personal.  So what is autumnal music?

Despite being a fundamentalist, I was raised on rock-n-roll.  My favorite artist growing up was Alice Cooper; in fact, to this day Alice is the only secular rock artist I’ve seen in concert.  Two tracks on Welcome to My Nightmare are among those eerie autumn songs: “Years Ago,” and “Steven.”  This album was profoundly sunk in my psyche before I discovered others.  While not scary in the same way, “Brilliant Disguise” from Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love hits a similar chord.  The melancholy of autumn must be appeased and this song begs to bring it on.  Many of Leonard Cohen’s songs are like the angst of this season bottled up for a restorative tincture, but I was quite a bit older when I discovered Nick Cave.

The Boatman’s Call with its willowy sound and occasionally explicit lyrics, walks that line between a deep-seated spirituality and fear.  There are others, of course, some even fairly recent.  Imagine Dragons’ “Demons” from Night Vision certainly qualifies, as do the first two tracks on Muse’s The Resistance.  But this is my list, and I fear to reveal too much.  Someone who knows your music knows very much about you.  I hear some people discuss music as if it’s a throw-away commodity.  For others of us it has become part of our souls and we’re reluctant to reveal too much.  New members of this autumn music club are added only very slowly, and I reacquaint myself with the long-term members not frequently enough to rob me of their impact.  So it was as the clouds thickened and the cold wind began to blow as the leaves were beginning to turn that I put on my personal songs of the season.  And there was transcendence, but it was, as transcendence tends to be, deeply personal.

The Sound of Musik

“Why is there so much people here?”  The words aren’t mine, but those of a random stranger I heard in Herald Square.  Not only was it grammatically offensive, I always find “much people” in Manhattan, but this was the occasion of the Pope’s visit a few years ago, so more of us were crowded into that area than normal.  It was a feeling that returned last night as my wife and I wandered around Musikfest.  If you’re not from around here, Musikfest is the largest free music festival in the United States, and it takes place in Bethlehem each summer.  Ten days of free, live music and tents hawking wares and all kinds of comestibles, as well as that strangely satisfying feeling of being lost in a crowd.  We ended up there more or less accidentally.

I was an experimental subject.  Those of you who know me will probably not find this odd, and you may well come up with many reasons to find me in the psychology department, some involving locked doors.  This was, however, a voluntary research project that required participants and it had been literally decades since I’d volunteered to be one of the “much people” who was not not part of the university crowd.  It felt good to be on a campus again.  The Lehigh Valley hosts several colleges and universities, and that draw is perhaps related to why Musikfest is held here.  When we got to town my wife realized we might have trouble parking.  Sections of downtown Bethlehem are closed to traffic and there are people everywhere.  I finished my experiment and we became part of the crowd again.

Music and religion, I’ve noted before, hang out in the same crowd.  They both have the ability to be transcendent and people seek out such experiences.  Since we hadn’t planned on attending—accidental musicologists we—we had no groups as targeted hearing while we wandered.  Mostly we marveled at the size of the event.  The city of steel transformed to the city of music.  And the religious feelings music brings.  As I walked from the college back to downtown, a couple strangers accosted me.  “Hi, brother,” they said.  “Heading to Musikfest?”  This, I realized was a congregation.  I was an unknown brother.  Music brings peace.  Dona nobis pacem, sisters and brothers.  Like those crowds a few years back hoping for a glimpse of the pontiff, an entire city had kicked off its shoes for a Friday night of potential transcendence.  Why is there so much people here?  Simply listen and you’ll have your answer.

Sixes and Sevens

Few eras conjure mental images as readily as the sixties.  As the first decade of my life, I idealize them a bit, I suppose.  I wasn’t old enough to appreciate the truly wonderful and troubling things going on around me, and being raised in a Fundamentalist family I probably couldn’t have enjoyed many of them in any case.  Morris Dickstein’s Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties was written in the seventies.  Since he’s a literary scholar much of the culture he analyzes is print culture, emphasizing the works of Jewish novelists and African-American writers.  That fits the sixties image pretty well.  He also looks at the music, but not as much as I had anticipated he might.  For me the music of the decade conveys what it really was about.

At one point Dickstein describes the political situation in the fifties that led to this incredible decade.  I had to remind myself that this was written forty years ago, for he seemed to be describing, with eerie prescience, the world of Trump and his followers.  Repressive conformity and the superiority complex of that era led to a breaking point where individual expression tumbled long-held rules and regulations that had tried to repress women and those that didn’t fit the WASP mold.  Most of us thought those controlling, catatonic days were over for good.  It seems we underestimated the will of those who lack imagination of where things might go if freedom were allowed to be free.  Some people, it seems, believed the sixties were a disease to be cured.

Historians who have a wider grasp than I do say that time has to pass before accurate pictures can emerge.  Instant potted histories tend to miss much of what becomes clear only with the slow passing of further decades.  To me the music defines them.  I only started to become culturally aware in the seventies, and that was in a small town.  When I learned to look back, largely in the eighties, I could see, and hear, that I’d lived through an extraordinary time.  The nineties, largely spent at Nashotah House, were again isolated from culture.  Who knows how this new millennium will be assessed?  Has a new music emerged that will help define us?  Or will it be, as Dickstein unwittingly projects, a new era of acceptance, love, and peace?  Or did the world really end at the millennium?   It could be, we might dare to dream, that a new decade as remarkable as the sixties is waiting to usher in Eden again.

January 2019

When January starts grinding you down you have to find something to hang onto.  See, I even ended a sentence with a preposition.  January.  If I’m not careful I can find myself getting quite depressed, so a bit of self-induced music therapy helps.  Although I hate to admit it, I am a bit of a fussy person when it comes to my likes.  My music tastes are quite personal and I mourn when a performer I like retires or dies.  There’s not a ton of stuff that I enjoy and I don’t listen to music as often as I should.  I work from home most days so I could have music on, but I find it hard to read (which is much of my job) with music playing.  Like I said, fussy.

The other day—a weekend—I pulled out John Cale’s Paris 1919.  John Cale is an underrated member of the Velvet Underground.  Okay, with Lou Reed in the lead it’s gonna be tough to stand out.  Cale, who suffers from competing with J. J. Cale (who was actually John Cale too; I empathize!), is a very thoughtful lyricist.  Despite having been abused by a priest in his youth, he sprinkles his songs with religious references.  “Andalucia” is a haunting single with the words “castles and Christians” hanging there for anyone to interpret.  And “Hanky Panky Nohow” has an intriguing line about nothing being more frightening than religion at one’s door.  There’s something profound here.

I grew up listening to The Velvet Underground & Nico when my older brother played it and the curtain door between our rooms didn’t block any sound.  The only performer I could name was Reed.  Years later, when the music of my young, virginal ears started in with a longing I couldn’t explain, I bought the album and learned of John Cale.  I have to confess that I first encountered his name as the performer of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in Shrek.  It drove me nuts when ill-informed students used to say it was Rufus Wainwright; yes, he performed it on the CD, but not in the movie.  John Cale is one of those somewhat offbeat singers, who, like Nick Cave, salts his songs with images of a Christian upbringing that show a grown man clinging to something to which he somehow can’t fully commit.  It makes us who we are and then leaves us wondering.  It must be January.

October Devotee

Here it is October and I have hardly written about monsters.  Apart from the US government, that is.  I suspect that I could use a little escapism right about now, and most of the boxes are unpacked from the move.  Perhaps it’s time to watch a little horror and feel better about the world.  Monsters, you see, crop up in the most unexpected places.  Yes, in October we expect them to be crouching in dark corners and in dismal swamps as the light begins to fail.  Yet the trees are still mostly green around here and I think I might be in need of some new material.  As with most people my age, I get lost on the internet—someone needs to offer a roadmap to it.  Preferably on paper. 

I admit being stuck in the past.  As any music therapist will tell you, a person’s musical tastes often reflect the sounds of their youth, and some of us believe that rock hit its high point in the 1980s.  My work doesn’t lend itself to background music, so I seldom listen to the radio, and I wouldn’t even know what station to try to hear contemporary offerings.  Fortunately I know some people half my age who find their tunes on the internet, and I was recently introduced to Panic! At the Disco via YouTube.  I’m old enough to remember when music videos first appeared, although I never saw them.  We lived in a small town and, besides, we couldn’t afford cable.  Kids at school, however, talked about MTV and other places—there was no world-wide web then, kids!—that they had seen the latest, coolest video that I could only imagine.  When my contemporary young friends showed me “LA Devotee” by Panic! I was stunned.

If you haven’t seen it, just look up the official video on YouTube.  You’ve got the whole internet at your fingertips!  While the lyrics seem innocent enough—young person wants to make it big and so imitates the Los Angeles lifestyle—the video is horror show.  Literally.  Borrowing from M. Night Shyamalan the opening sequence is a cross between The Village and Signs.  Then it becomes a torture chamber for a young boy (from Stranger Things, no less, a show I binge-watched when it came out on DVD).  And Satanism.  Yes, taking on the LA lifestyle is compared to selling your soul to the Devil.  The stunning visuals kept me clicking the replay button.  Even as I felt my age, I also felt October growing.  And I was glad to see the monsters are still there.  Too bad we can’t banish them from DC, however.

Jericho’s Folly

The sound was compellingly familiar although it had been years since I’d heard it.  We were visiting the Quakertown farmer’s market for the first time—this weekend event is widely advertised and we were curious.  Part fresh produce, but mostly flea market, it was a tribute to my generation.  You could find stuff from my childhood years here, making it a species of time travel.  We stepped out of the car on a gray morning when I heard it.  I was drawn to it.  I’m at the age where I recognize things before I can name them.  “Where are you going?” my wife asked.  “Toward Pink Floyd,” I replied.  Music has a way of doing that to you.  It took another minute for me to place the song.  It was from the album The Wall.

After we returned home I had to hear it again, uninterrupted by the distractions of a flea market to new home owners.  It was a frightening experience in the age of Trump.  Although they’d never been my favorite band, I had a long history with Pink Floyd.  My older brother used to listen to them, and when I was working as a church intern (yes, there is such a thing) while in college, the kids in a family I was staying with took me to see The Wall on laser disc—an affluent family in the neighborhood had just bought a player, and I was curious both about the technology and the film.  The Wall is one of those concept albums that requires attention—you kind of need to listen to the whole thing.  The accusations against those who are different being sent “up against the wall” chilled me with thoughts of Trump and American fascism.  I can only listen to the album within prescribed headspace.

Even those who’ve never been sent to boarding school can imagine how it lends itself to abuses and horror.  At Nashotah House the album was almost as frequently cited as Hotel California.  When the religious isolate themselves odd things begin to happen.  On one of the occasions when I was left home alone in our New Jersey apartment, I pulled out my DVD of The Wall and began to watch it.  As the years melted away, I suddenly felt young and intensely vulnerable.  The visuals, like a little pin-prick, were jabbing at nerves a little too close to the surface.  I had to turn it off and watch a horror film instead.  It’s even scarier to listen to the album when democracy has failed its constituents.  The wall, after all, is a most protean of metaphors.

Forever Jung

A funny thing about aging is that you recollect your youth, but you find yourself less able to do the things that seemed so easy when you were more spry.  We live in a world where the elderly are coming to outnumber the young, and that means a lot of memories of “the time when.”  This thought confronted me when reading a story about two missing patients from a nursing home in Germany.  Authorities were frantic to find them until they were spotted at Wacken Open Air, the largest heavy metal fest in the world.  The news stories seemed bemused—it was cute, in a way, wasn’t it?  Two old guys trying to recapture their youth, like salmon swimming upstream where they were born.  I’ve got to wonder if there’s more to it than that.

Music has a way of touching us deeply.  While I prefer my rock on the harder side, I’m not exactly a metal-head.  There’s something, however, in the rage of metal that resonates with some of us when we get older.  It’s almost religious.  You see, I recall hearing the music from my brother’s room when I was growing up.  As a naive fundamentalist, I sometimes went downstairs shaken, as if my virginal soul had seen some image it shouldn’t have.  Some teens reach a level of maturity before others, and metal speaks to them.  Let’s face it—life is unfair.  We see that every single day.  Music can help us cope with such unfairness and there are times when John Denver and James Taylor seem downright gullible.  Ask the elderly.

Our society harbors many myths.  One of them is that evolution doesn’t occur.  Not only is it a biological fact among species, but it’s also, on a macro-level, something that happens as we age.  Perspectives shift.  We come to see the wisdom of Heraclitus—no one steps into the same river twice.  Especially when it’s Styx.  Technology keeps us alive longer now, and sometimes it seems that it does so just to tell us what we can no longer do.  I’ve got, I hope, a number of miles left on the odometer, but my focus is on the car’s stereo system.  When driving to Wacken Open Air to pick up two men trying to plug into either the rage or the euphoria that heavy metal means to the elderly what comes through your speakers?  What would the “sweet Psalmist of Israel” have wanted to hear when not even Abishag could keep him warm?  Yes, Herman, there is a wisdom that is woe.  And banging your head may not be the worst option at such times as these.

Call It What You Will

I didn’t even know the House of Representatives had a chaplain. Then Paul Ryan fired him. I wondered once again if evangelicals were interested in religion at all. We all have labels we’d like to claim but lack of legitimacy prevents us from keeping them. My secret wannabe title is rock star, but given that I can’t sing and can’t play any instruments, I have trouble retaining it. Evangelicals, however, have no challengers. They are so flexible they’d make Proteus blush. Such theological promiscuity, traditional religion teaches, will have its comeuppance. If 45 has accomplished nothing else, he’s forced the religious right to show its true, secular colors. Of all the great ironies of the situation none is greater than the fact that “nones” of whatever description hold up the weightier matters of morality better than those most vocal about their faith. Evangelicals, however, control the narrative and claim to do so with God’s own authority. They have few challengers.

Source: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University via Wikimedia Commons

Then, mere days latter, Rev. Patrick J. Conroy was reinstated by the whiplash GOP. Did somebody warn the religious right that “religious” was part of their name? “Hypocrisy” comes from a Greek root meaning to play a theatrical part. As my stepfather used to tell us, “do as I say, not as I do.” He was a secular man, so his hypocrisy could be overlooked. Noble, even, at times. When those who stake their entire identity on WWJD promote, vocally and enthusiastically, an unrepentant candidate for sinner of the year, you’ve got to wonder if even hypocrisy has lost its punch. How can you reason with people who refuse to reason? We used to lock them away in asylums. Now we throw them into the swamp.

Double standards are the new normal, I guess. Nobody really paid any heed when the fall of the towering televangelists showed, decades ago, that the idol they proclaimed as true religion was rotten to the core. Oh, they made the headlines for a while, but their tumble did nothing to dissuade their true followers. Evangelicals control their own narrative. For many decades now higher education and the media have pretty much ignored religion as a force for social change. Once upon a time Evangelicalism meant change based on ideals that more or less fit the recorded words of the carpenter from Nazareth. Now that its inspiration is the ninth circle below, those who have access to the funds of higher education prefer to put their money elsewhere. Why study something that threatens democracy on a daily basis? Why bother trying to understand Evangelicals? Call it what you will—there’s no way to object to anyone claiming whatever name they want. I should know; I’m a rock star, after all.

Original Sinner

Musical preferences are a personal matter. In the case of the kind that loudly thunders from open car windows, often they should be more so. Still, music is a deeply moving phenomenon. When a musician is paired with a compelling personal story, it can be quite a gripping narrative. Gregory Alan Thornbury’s Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock is one such account. Although Larry Norman was never popularly famous—many people today have never heard of him—he was a tremendously influential person. Like most true innovators he was, as Thornbury shows, a difficult person. He often had more enemies than friends, but there can be no doubt that he lived, at least in his own mind, by his convictions. And on his own terms.

I didn’t know until reading this brief biography that it was common for Larry Norman to wait around after concerts and talk with fans. When a friend invited me to see Larry in concert I was, as is generally the case, so wrapped up in my own issues that I hadn’t done much research. I was thrilled to see the artist that I, like Thornbury, had discovered during college. It was my friend’s idea to go backstage to talk to him. To this day those few minutes remain some of the most thrilling of my life. Norman was a name dropper, according to those who know, and I’ve met a few famous people over the years, including Jeff Bezos, but Larry was different. The breadth of his impact on rock in the 1970s and into the ’80s, was vast. Many secular artists count him among their most profound influences. And he had time to sit and chat with a seminarian from nowhere.

While my friend and I waited to see him, the guy in front of us wanted to play Larry a song. In an act of hubris I can’t fathom, he’d brought his own guitar to the concert. Larry kept saying “I don’t understand why you want to do this.” But surely he knew. Throughout his career he helped start many younger artists on their track, some to Christian stardom, others to more quiet lives. He had, however, something he couldn’t give away. Larry Norman was a true original. Despite his uneasy dalliance with fame, he was willing to sit and talk with a star-struck young man who would go on to become a lifelong admirer of an artist who remained true to himself, even if he was too Christian for some and too secular for others.

Situation Norman

It was in a locker room. I couldn’t believe I was here. First of all, at Gordon College—that bastion of conservative Christianity. Second of all, in the same room as him. A friend had offered to drive me up here from Boston, where we were both in seminary. I was a little saddened to see less than 200 chairs set up on the gym floor, carefully arranged on a tarp so as not to mar the shining wood beneath. Larry Norman came onto stage to great applause, and was remarkably intimate with his fans. He’d been a big name in the 1970s, almost single-handedly starting the Christian rock genre. After the concert was over, my friend said “Do you want to meet him?” Here he was, in the locker room, taking the time to speak with fans, individually. He refused to sign autographs, preferring to give the glory to the Lord. But he listened, he responded, and, it was clear, he loved.

While the sections of the brain that process religion and music may not be the same, we know that our gray matter is intricately interconnected. Analysts have noted that the most famous religious leaders of modern times have quite often been deeply affected by music. Religious services without some form of music are in the minority for a reason. And it really doesn’t matter what style said music takes, it moves people. Instead of apologizing for my own musical tastes, I’ll simply note that I was exposed to Larry Norman at a young age. Although his religious perspective and mine had parted ways before I had the chance to meet him, I’ve never disparaged his music. It is authentic, innovative, and above all, sincere.

Gregory Alan Thornbury has just published a biography of Larry Norman. I will surely read it. Although Christian rock has grown insipid and cloying since it began, it is still a remarkably lucrative business. Evangelicals will pay good money to get those rock rhythms with unthreatening words and praise of Jesus thrown in. Norman’s songs, however, were complex and nuanced. Equal parts love and social justice, they might not even mention Jesus. Or when they did, they might suggest he was a UFO. Unconventional. Blasphemous to some. As the ‘70s faded into the ‘80s, Larry Norman was considered old news. He had, however, started something that was bringing other people lots of money. And he looked me directly in the eyes late one night in the locker room of a conservative Christian college, and told me to keep on believing. Obscurity, he showed by his life, is no measure of a person’s actual importance. And music and religion can never be separated.