GREGORY THORNBURY - Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock

Larry Norman biog

A few years ago I watched a film Fallen Angel about about Larry Norman by David Di Sabatino that stopped me listening to Norman’s music for years. It was a sledgehammer on Larry Norman’s character and as I look back a little imbalanced. Larry Norman was the rock musician who most changed and shaped my life. I was uneasy listening to Norman anymore, after Di Sabatino’s film.

I am delighted to say that Gregory Thornbury’s book with the short snappy title of Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock has Larry’s albums back out of exile. Thornbury’s book is no hagiography but it gives a balance to Norman’s eccentric life. 

Thornbury sets the book off explaining the adversarial nature of Larry Norman’s gripping stage show where he was oftentimes beginning with a rant at the sound man, usually both for having it loud enough which was another confrontations with folk music and the hymns of the Church. Every chapter heading is a confrontation Jesus Verses organised Religion, Jesus Versus The Critics, Jesus Versus Pamela (Larry’s first wife) Jesus Versus Frenemies,  even Jesus Versus Soviets, and Jesus Versus Playboy!

When I say that I got my Larry Norman albums out again. I have 50 of them! I know this man’s work. I have been longing for a biography for years. Indeed if he hadn’t been such a complex character I would have written a book myself but I feared a chapter called Versus Steve Stockman! What I am saying here is that I already knew well the skeleton outline of Norman’s life. What Thornbury has done beautifully is put flesh and muscle on. The research is good. Indeed, Thornbury had access to letters and papers of Norman’s the existence of which says something about the artist’s paranoia.

So I didn't know about his childhood or that his first wife Pamela was such a high profile model. There are details of his setting up of Solid Rock Record and the sad relational fall out. Even a journey into Russia is enlightening. Thornbury has filled in the story.

Where I was asking for more was in the music itself. I am a serial rock biography reader and I love spending a long chapter in an album, finding out the personal and social context’s that give us the meaning of the song, a little about the writing process and how it was all put together. I listen to the album as I read the chapter! Yes, there were some insights but I would have liked much more, particularly about Only Visiting This Planet, In Another Land and much later Stranded In Babylon. 

All in all though this is a very satisfying read for anyone who has been a fan or who has had their life impacted by the charismatic performer that Norman was.

That is what I was reminded of. I have lived and ministered for almost 40 years constantly suspicious of the way that religiosity or churchianity get in the way of the life, message and mission of the authentic Jesus. What reading the book made me realise was that without Larry Norman I could never have made sense of the first century Jesus and his 20th Century relevance. As a seventeen year old the Church simply could not reveal to me the incarnated revolutionary that Jesus was and is.

I have always been aware of that moment when I put the needle down on the vinyl of In Another Land. In that first rock sound of The Rock That Doesn’t Roll I discovered a 20th century Jesus and on the week that God proved his existence to me. That was a fulcrum moment in my life.

I had forgotten though how much the spiritual formation of my thinking and my practical discipleship was honed by the songs and concert conversation/sermonettes of this maverick follower of Jesus.

That reminder, or maybe first time realisation, was a lovely refreshment to my journey of faith today. Thank you Gregory Thornbury for a fine biography and redeeming Larry Norman so that he could point me to the one who redeemed us all!  


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