Review by Douglas LeBlanc
If any musician of the genre known as contemporary Christian music has merited a thorough biography, it was Larry Norman, who died in 2008. For a good many years in the 1970s, young converts to evangelical Christianity found their music choices limited if they did not enjoy organ-driven hymns or the barbershop quartets of Southern gospel. Andraé Crouch, Love Song, and Norman were the leading artists providing an alternative. Norman was the grittiest and the most grounded in rock and R&B.
Time eventually revealed that the gritty lyrics emerged from a gritty life. Norman married the ex-wife of his close friend and protégé Randy Stonehill after the Stonehills divorced. Norman’s first wife, Pamela, was a model who occasionally drew her income from pornographic magazines (to Norman’s distress). He recruited fellow Christians to join the artists’ colony he envisioned forming around Solid Rock Records, but ended up in disputes with both Stonehill and the band Daniel Amos about publishing rights. A website, The Truth about Larry Norman, still devotes itself to swatting away rumors about him by quoting Norman’s rambling personal letters, in which he is ever the victim of other people’s nefarious schemes and betrayals.
This would be rich soil for a biographer who works from a critical distance. Gregory Thornbury, chancellor of the King’s College in New York City, writes brisk prose, but his critical distance is the sort that favors constant first-name references to his subject.
Thornbury makes his commitments known immediately. He quotes a passage from Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation that begins with this sentence: “One of the first signs of a saint may well be the fact that other people do not know what to make of him.” Several pages later, he declares that Norman “was a holy fool, often grossly misunderstood, certainly harassed—mostly by fellow Christians—and uniquely constituted to attract controversy.”
Thornbury had access to Norman’s archives, which are overseen by Norman’s younger brother, Charles, rather than any college or museum. Those archives, including cassette recordings of phone conversations and business meetings, became Thornbury’s primary source for his narrative. The endnotes do not suggest that Thornbury interviewed anyone. As a result, Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? reads as an authorized hagiography, one that makes unkind assumptions about those who criticized Norman (especially Stonehill) but takes the great majority of Norman’s narrative at face value.
Norman was, for instance, a shameless name-dropper. His “Song for a Small Circle of Friends” (1976) depicts an imaginary jam session with Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, and Charlie Watts, written as though Norman was an intimate peer rather than a derivative musician who imitated and sometimes mocked the work of better-known celebrities.
The name-dropping in Thornbury’s book includes these brushes with the stars:
- Norman’s father, Joe, taught mathematics to Steve Wozniak.
- Pete Townshend saw Norman perform a rock opera before Townshend composed Tommy (post hoc ergo propter hoc).
- Bob Dylan pronounced himself a fan of Norman’s work (this from Charles Norman’s account of a brief encounter with Dylan at Los Angeles International Airport) and Norman’s albums may have influenced Dylan’s post-conversion work.
- Charles Norman was good friends with “the legendary skater Steve Caballero.”
- Norman was in a bowling league with guitarist John Fahey.
- Norman received a faulty medical diagnosis from physician Gerald Labiner, who prescribed Percocet for Michael Jackson.
- Charles Norman walked past Marcia Clark and Johnnie Cochran in a hallway during the trial of O.J. Simpson, while his brother pursued a legal case related to Labiner.
By God’s grace, Norman apparently never crossed paths with Charles Manson.
By the time of Norman’s death, his survivors contended with a public dispute that had remained private for nearly two decades: the wish of an Australian woman, Jennifer McCallum, that Norman (and later his family) agree that Norman was the father of her son, Daniel Robinson. Thornbury writes that McCallum and her family “waited some nineteen years to reveal the truth to the media,” which has no bearing on her veracity.
Thornbury grants that Norman probably had a sexual encounter with McCallum — Norman admits as much in his vast archives — but draws short of finding that Norman was Daniel’s father. He does not mention McCallum’s public assertions that Norman paid her $10,000 in child support, or that Norman and young Daniel Robinson had a brief and painful meeting in London, or that Robinson felt so rejected by Norman that he repeatedly spoke of killing himself. Paying $10,000 to support a child one disputes having sired is odd behavior.
Thornbury makes the astonishing claim that “Larry was quite possibly the only honest-to-goodness rock star who was expected not to act like one.” But the record is clear: evangelical Protestants respond vigorously when their celebrities, from honest-to-goodness rock stars to bland crooners to TV evangelists, stray from Christian teaching on sexual morality. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Amy Grant and her first husband, Gary Chapman, Sandi Patti, Gary S. Paxton, Sam (formerly Leslie) Phillips, and Jimmy Swaggart (who takes a few easy slaps from Thornbury) all faced public scrutiny of their private lives. Why should Norman enjoy a hall pass?
Thornbury’s narrative is at its best in describing Norman’s childhood, his early career, and his desire to distinguish between making art and making propaganda. Two of the most poignant moments spring from his vulnerability.
When Norman’s first wife sought his advice on whether to pose as Playboy’s “Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” Thornbury writes, “Larry’s response was to put his arms around her, give her a hug, and tell her, ‘Baby, you’re the centerfold of my life and that’s all that matters.’”
Late in his career, when Norman was living in Los Angeles surrounded by lost dreams of leading the artist colony at Solid Rock Records, he rescued a crow being attacked by dogs. The crow’s wing was broken, and he became Norman’s pet.
“I didn’t realize crows were so friendly,” Norman wrote in a letter to percussionist Alex MacDougall (a percussionist with Daniel Amos who remained his friend). “He’s not at all violent like the crows in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. The throaty CAW voice they have makes them sound unfriendly but he sat on my hand the second day. I have him in a big Aviary[-]type room and he didn’t want to go anywhere near the cage I bought for him so now he’s living in a dog house inside the room.”
Thornbury adds: “Horace stayed with Larry through the rest of his bird life, and when he died, Larry took him to a taxidermist to preserve him. He sat perched atop Larry’s grand piano until the day Larry died too.”
Any man who showed such kindness to a besieged crow still knew how to show a hand of kindness. Had Norman found a more consistent compassion for the people in his orbit, websites like The Truth About Larry Norman might be unnecessary, and Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? could be a convincing paean.