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.
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.
Posted in American Religion, Current Events, Memoirs, Posts, Rock-n-Roll, Sects
Tagged Christian Rock, evangelicalism, Gordon College, Gregory Alan Thornbury, Larry Norman, music