The 'Father Of Christian Rock' Larry Norman's Battles With Evangelicalism

Mar 25, 2018
Originally published on March 30, 2018 4:43 pm

Upon the release of his first album Upon This Rock in 1969, Larry Norman unwittingly created the billion-dollar industry of Christian rock. Author Gregory Alan Thornbury is sure that if Norman were alive today, the musician would have despaired at the state of the genre and evangelicalism.

Thornbury's latest book Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock, out now, chronicles the life of the evangelical singer and his divergence from the audience he sought to reach.

Norman's name is cemented among other famous evangelicals of the 1970s like Billy Graham and President Jimmy Carter. Even Vice President Mike Pence remembers "[giving] his life to Jesus Christ" at the 1978 Ichthus Music Festival in Wilmore, Kentucky, which Norman headlined.

"Over the years I've been listening to it, I've come to see Larry Norman's voice as a machine for killing complacency in religious people, and it is my sincere hope that this book does the same," writes Thornbury in the biography.

Thornbury points to "The Great American Novel" off Norman's 1972 album Only Visiting This Planet as a quintessential, complacency-killing Larry Norman song.

"You kill a black man at midnight just for talking to your daughter, / Then you make his wife your mistress and you leave her without water / And the sheet you wear upon your face is the sheet your children sleep on / At every meal you say a prayer; you don't believe but still you keep on," Norman sings.

The great irony of Norman's career, Thornbury says, is that secular musicians like Bono and Pixies' Black Francis embraced his message, but the Church largely rejected it.

"The church absolutely hated what he was doing because they thought that rock and roll was the devil's music," Thornbury says. The author remembers managing a Christian contemporary radio station in the '90s and finding Larry Norman CDs on the shelves labeled 'Don't play this song.'

Thornbury says Norman's songs like "Why Don't You Look Into Jesus" didn't appeal to the Church because Christian music was supposed to be positive and uplifting. Though Norman is known as the "father of Christian rock" for such incisive criticisms of Christian hypocrisy, Christian rock today often strays from this specificity.

"The name evangelical has definitely become a polarizing one," Thornbury says, speculating that Norman might despair about the role of evangelicalsm in American politics today. "Quite a different story from 1976 ... when it seemed like the evangelicals in leadership might actually be people that might bring the country together."

NPR's Music digital intern Stefanie Fernández contributed to this story.

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Finally today, he's been called the father of Christian rock.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHY SHOULD THE DEVIL HAVE ALL THE GOOD MUSIC")

LARRY NORMAN: (Singing) I want the people to know that he saved my soul, but I still like to the listen radio. They say rock 'n' roll is wrong, we'll give you one more chance. I say, I feel so good, I got to get up and dance.

MCCAMMON: Larry Norman, the long-haired bombastic rocker who praised Jesus with electric guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHY SHOULD THE DEVIL HAVE ALL THE GOOD MUSIC")

NORMAN: (Singing) All I'm really trying to say, is why should the devil have all the good music?

MCCAMMON: That lyric is also the title of Gregory Alan Thornbury's "Why Should the Devil Have All The Good Music?: Larry Norman And The Perils Of Christian Rock." It paints a complicated picture of Larry Norman and the beginnings of the musical sub-genre he pioneered in the late 1960s.

GREGORY ALAN THORNBURY: Larry Norman unintentionally started a billion-dollar industry. And even someone like Mike Pence in 1978 went to hear Larry Norman play music and kneeled to pray to receive Christ in 1978 at the Ichthus Festival. So it really became a huge thing. Larry Norman was definitely sui generis and got the whole project started back in 1969 with his record on Capitol Records, "Upon This Rock."

MCCAMMON: Why isn't he better known?

THORNBURY: He never sold millions of records. And he never had really big hits that would have kept him around on the scene. His concerts would be sold out, but by the time the 1980s came around, Christian contemporary music was judged by how many JPMs there were per minute - Jesus Per Minutes. And unfortunately, it never sort of recaptured what Larry thought it ought to be about, which was great art.

MCCAMMON: Is there a song or two from Larry Norman that you especially like it that especially sort of embodies who Larry Norman was?

THORNBURY: Absolutely. There's a song called "The Great American Novel," and it talks about the issues that the church has and what it was like to grow up in America during the '50s, when a lot of people would have considered these halcyon days, but there were really deep, dark troubles that people who claimed to be Christians had.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL")

NORMAN: (Singing) You killed a black man in midnight just for talking to your daughter. Then you make his wives your mistress, and you leave her without water. And the sheet you wear upon your face is the sheet your children sleep on. And at every meal, you say a prayer you don't believe, but still, you keep on.

THORNBURY: He was definitely trying to reach, you know, his tribe that he came from. And the irony of it all was that it wound up being that the world and other colleagues of his in the secular music industry, even to this day. People like Bono and Black Francis from Pixies accepted him, and it was the Christians that seemed to give him the most trouble throughout his life. And some of that trouble he deserved.

MCCAMMON: Why do you think that was, that the Christians seemed to have the hardest time with Larry Norman?

THORNBURY: Because he was making them look bad often and challenging them in ways that they didn't want to change. The church absolutely hated what he was doing because they thought that rock 'n' roll was the devil's music. I remember when I was a radio station manager at a Christian contemporary radio station back in the '90s, there were CDs that were on the shelves that said, don't play this song. And most of Larry Norman's songs were banned because in a song like "Why Don't You Look Into Jesus," there's a line - you've got gonorrhea on Valentine's Day, VD, you're still looking for the perfect lay. You think rock 'n' roll will set you free. You'll be deaf before you're 33.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHY DON'T YOU LOOK INTO JESUS")

NORMAN: (Singing) You'll be deaf before you're 33. Shooting junk till you're half insane, a broken needle in your purple vein. Why don't you look into Jesus? He's got the answer. your

THORNBURY: Well, nobody wanted to talk about sexually-transmitted diseases in the church at that point. And they were very nervous because Christian music was supposed to be happy and uplifting. And he felt like Christians were too complacent about virtually everything from the American war machine to the institutional racism of the white church to spending billions of dollars on the moonshot when people were starving in America at home. And he felt like all of those issues were things that Jesus would have addressed if he was there. So Larry saw that as a mandate from the prophetic genius of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus wasn't very much appreciated by religious people either, and so he felt compelled to carry on the tradition.

MCCAMMON: How do you think he'd feel about today's white American church?

THORNBURY: I think he would say it's gone from bad to worse. I wrote an article in The Washington Post this week about the fact that Larry Norman was friends with Jimmy Carter. And back in the 1970s, if you thought about what an evangelical was, you thought Billy Graham, you thought Jimmy Carter, who was a born-again evangelical, you thought about people like Larry Norman, who were in the mainstream.

And then all of a sudden, this strange thing happened after the Carter presidency faltered where television evangelists took over. And so the leadership and the look and tone of the movement changed. And the social conscience changed to quite different issues after that. And so I think I'm sort of glad Larry Norman passed away in 2008 because I think he would be - he would have died of a broken heart if he were around today.

MCCAMMON: Why?

THORNBURY: I think that he would have seen the complicity of the church in actually being a divisive voice in the nation. The name evangelical has definitely become a polarizing one, quite a different story from 1976, when Newsweek magazine ran a cover story called "The Year Of The Evangelical" when it seemed like the evangelicals in leadership might actually be people that might bring the country together.

MCCAMMON: Gregory Alan Thornbury is the author of the new book "Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music." Thanks so much for joining us.

THORNBURY: Thank you, Sarah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "READER'S DIGEST")

NORMAN: (Singing) It's 1973, I wonder who we're going to see. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.