Larry Norman: the troubled troubadour of Christian rock

Why Should The Devil Have All the Good Music:Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock by Gregory Thornbury is a fascinating look at a complex figure. With iconic long white-blonde hair, Norman was the father of Christian rock, and arguably the most consequential Christian artist of the past 50 years. 

Thornbury is a very talented writer, and it is fortunate he had access to Norman's archives, including handwritten diaries, journals, photos, studio record logs, passports, plane tickets, letters, newspaper clippings, as well as tape recordings Norman made of several conversations with his first wife as well as business meetings. (Wait, what, tape recordings?)

Plenty of interesting stuff about the early days of the Christian rock movement, the ups and downs of Norman’s career and his marriages, and his fathering of an illegitimate son (more about that below).

It was a little jarring to read about Larry Norman's continual relationship problems: he barely got along with anybody. Norman seemed to consistently "derail" relationships throughout his life, Randy Stonehill once said. That’s putting it mildly. On page 187, Thornbury writes, “Once close friends, the relationship between Phil Mangano and Larry Norman began to disintegrate." The same could be said of almost everyone who entered Larry Norman's orbit, whether through a personal friendship or a business relationship. Eventually they ended up feeling hurt or manipulated or betrayed by Norman.

The level of broken relationships in Norman’s life is far beyond what you would expect from someone who was merely eccentric, or even a creative genius.

So, what is the explanation? Norman often blamed his difficulties on a 1978 incident when he was on a United Airlines flight. Norman said an airplane ceiling panel came loose and struck him on the head, causing significant physical and mental problems. Yet Phil Mangano was on that flight, and has said the incident was not that serious.

I wish Thornbury had explored the mental health angle. There is certainly a solid basis to suspect Norman had mental health issues: Pam Alquist says in the documentary Fallen Angel: The Outlaw Larry Norman, “Larry told me there was a lot of mental illness in his family and he wasn’t (mentally ill) because he had Jesus. And yet over the years he had a lot of idiosyncrasies.”

Norman's career does have similarities with another musical genius, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Wilson had a long struggle with drugs and mental illness (schizoaffective disorder), and experienced significant conflicts with Mike Love and others.

My one major complaint about this book, and the reason I give it 4 stars instead of 5: I don’t think the book adequately grappled with the issue of Norman’s illegitimate son. Thornbury plays it coy: he acknowledges there is anecdotal evidence that Norman had an out of wedlock son, but since a DNA test was never taken, he won’t say with 100% certainty that Norman was the father. Come on now, you don't need a DNA test to do the right thing.

Yet, reading Chapter 13 it seems obvious that Norman and his sister-in-law Kristin Blix put up roadblocks that made it difficult for a DNA test to be completed before Norman diedin much the same way Norman slow-rolled Daniel Amos and the release of their Horrendous Disc album in the 70s. (Page 197.)

(BTW, after Norman died, journalist Arsenio Orteza did a pretty thorough accounting of the saga for World Magazine—including verified emails between Larry and Daniel—here; Daniel’s mother lays out her side of the story here.)

It is unfortunate that Daniel Robinson suffers one more indignity in Thornbury’s book; in the footnotes, he is called "David Robinson" instead of his real name, Daniel Robinson (see photo below). 

Larry Norman was troubled soul who spoke prophetically to the Christian church, even as his personal life was a mess. Thornbury has written a compelling and engaging book that will make you think. See it at Amazon here.