Why Should the Devil Have all the Good Music?
Greg Thornbury is the former president of The King’s College in New York City. He presently serves as Vice President at the New York Academy of Art. Greg’s latest book, Why Should the Devil Have all the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock https://www.amazon.com/Should-Devil-Have-Good-Music/dp/110190707X frames this conversation. The interview was conducted by David George Moore. Some of Dave’s videos can be seen at www.mooreengaging.com and his writing can be accessed at www.twocities.org.
Heartening note to the Jesus Creed Community: Shortly after Greg assumed his role as president of The King’s College, I sent him an email with a concern I had over one way The King’s College was promoting its uniqueness. Details of my concern are not relevant. People of goodwill can and do often disagree. What struck me is how Greg did not dismiss my criticism nor stymie further correspondence with him from taking place. In the subsequent years, we have periodically corresponded and had one extended phone conversation. So for those of you who may cynically think this kind of leadership has gone the way of the Dodo bird, I offer you this evidence that the rather odd bird is still alive and well.
Moore: When I first heard that you wrote this book, I was a bit surprised. In some ways, you seemed like the perfect person to write it because of your background as a trained philosopher (Larry thought deeply about life) and musician. What made me surprised is your age. You are in your late forties, so why would you be interested in a Christian musician who is more in keeping with my generation?
Thornbury: Well, I’ve always been of fan of rock and roll from the sixties and the seventies. I played in a rockabilly band with the son of Carl Perkins when I lived in Tennessee, so actually I love music from the fifties! One of my teenage coming-of- age-revelations was sneaking into the Bucknell University library and listening to Sergeant Pepper’s by The Beatles. Rock and roll was verboten in my household — I was a preacher’s kid. Listening to Dylan, The Beatles, and The Stones was so enlightening to me. I figured if Francis Schaeffer talked about them in How Should We Then Live? then why couldn’t I do so too. But this was at a time when youth pastors were still telling kids to bring their secular records to church to have them burned, because rockers had sold their souls to Satan.
When I went to Messiah College, I found myself in the strange position of being a manager — and the format was CCM (Christian Contemporary Music). I was already playing in bands by that point and listening to Punk and New Wave, and the Christian Rock I heard was (mostly) cringe-worthy. But a more experienced semi-professional DJ at the station pulled me to the side one day and said, “I think you’d dig this.” It was the original vinyl LP of Only Visiting This Planet by Larry Norman. I flipped the jacket over and saw that it was on a *real* secular record label – MGM / Verve. I went into the studio and put headphones on and listened. I was blown away. Planet was as good as anything I had heard, and yet Larry Norman had the temerity to talk about stuff I cared about: systematic poverty, institutional racism, the failure of the church to follow Jesus, and so on. I became a fan and drove 750 miles to go see Larry in concert at the Ichthus Festival in Kentucky. I was intrigued by both the performance I saw (along with several other thousand people), and with the records Larry had recorded that I had been listening to.
But the best answer to your question is this. Over the years, I didn’t keep up as Larry’s music or career as much. But then in 2008, a friend of mine from New Zealand who is a filmmaker called me and said that he had read online that Larry Norman had died. As I read the obituaries and remembrances in The New York Times and other magazines and news outlets, I began thinking about his legacy. In a series of odd providences, I wound up meeting Larry’s brother Charles in Oregon some time later while I was attending an arts conference at Portland State University. When Charles told me that “Larry kept everything, and it might be of interest to a biographer,” I went to visit the archives to see what was there. I was taken aback. There were hundreds of boxes of correspondence, audio tapes of conversations, studio logs, diaries from multiple parties in Larry’s life story, photographs, videotape, unheard multitrack tapes, and the like. As I started pouring over the materials, I saw what a unique, strange, and compelling story was unfolding before my eyes. Somebody needed to tell the behind the scenes story, and that task fell to me.
Moore: Larry Norman’s relationship with the sub-culture of American evangelicalism was rocky, to say the least. Unpack that a bit for us.
Thornbury: Well, he was the pied-piper and poet laureate of the Jesus Movement, and a withering critic of the traditional evangelical church at the time. He felt angry that kids in the sixties and seventies had been told that the answer to happiness was sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But nobody with any standing in the youth culture had the credibility to suggest that maybe Jesus was better than any of those things.
The word “religion,” comes from the Latin root religio, which means “to bind.” Larry was outside of church control, and that made him public enemy number one to a lot of church leaders: he was encouraging a rebellion of a bunch of so-called Jesus Freaks in their minds. It wasn’t until the Jesus Movement and Larry’s and other group’s music became a national sensation that Billy Graham and Bill Bright saw the future of evangelicalism playing out. In response, they put together Explo ‘72 in Dallas, where over 100,000 teens packed the Cotton Bowl to hear preaching and listen to Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Larry Norman, Andre Crouch and others perform.
Because he was on secular record labels, and later his own label, Larry never had to “play ball” with the evangelical subculture. That both helped him and hurt him because he didn’t exactly have much institutional support or backup when people rumor-mongered about him, and he found himself on the “outs” with Christian magazines and church insiders. A lot of the book is about that conflict.
Moore: Following up that previous observation, do you think Larry Norman would be better received in the evangelical world of today, especially here in America?
Thornbury: No, I don’t. He’d be just as radical now because he was such a trenchant critic of commercialism in the church. He didn’t like slick marketing or gimmicks from ministries. He was criticizing spending millions of dollars on new church buildings rather than giving to the poor back in the seventies. He would have barfed at churches who promised weekly attenders “rockin’ worship!” He hated all of that stuff, and would have made his opinions known. I can’t imagine ministry leaders liking those criticisms too much. And I think he would have been very outspoken in opposition of Mr. Trump, which would have ruffled more than a few feathers.
Even late in his career, he rankled church leaders. For example, he played at the Toronto Airport Vineyard church in the nineties and wondered aloud if the signs and wonders phenomena (“spirit-led” gyrations, animal noises, holy laughter, etc.) were really helping people become serious about Jesus or actually just a mixed up way of drawing attention to one’s own personal piety. They basically shut down the concert from what I was told and they asked him to leave. He wasn’t very “on brand” for nice evangelicals then or now. But it’s true that there are drums and guitars in most churches today, and whatever you think about whether that’s been a positive development, there might not be contemporary music in modern worship today.
Moore: In an interview with journalist Robert Thoreaux, there is a line that I would like to hear your thoughts on. Norman says in response to a question, “But the irony, and try to understand this because it might get complicated…” Was this kind of condescension and prickly posture typical of Norman?
Thornbury: People thought Larry was condescending, sure. He had that same sort of affect with reporters that Dylan had. He was often combative in interviews — especially with the Christian press. But you have to remember that so much of the Jesus movement culture and music went on to become pretty sanctimonious, but also oddly brittle. If something was not “uplifting” or “an encouragement in the Lord,” it was regarded as unspiritual. And I think Larry found himself trying to explain to evangelical listeners over and over again what art was, and what he was trying to do to build a bridge with listeners that didn’t come from religious backgrounds. People at the time really struggled seeing the difference between art and propaganda. They still do.
Moore: In the book you wrote, “And over the years, he would learn a hard lesson: never help anyone with their dream, because when their desires do not become reality, you become the living embodiment of the fact that dreams do not come true.” Describe why Norman came to this kind of conclusion.
Thornbury: Because he had this vision that he was going to build an artist’s colony for Jesus — a rock and roll L’Abri. But actually what the musicians he discovered and produced really wanted was not that at all. They wanted record contracts, royalties, tours, notoriety – the stuff that Larry himself had. They wanted to “cross over” and get secular record contracts. And when Larry told them — “hey, if you’re good enough, you’ll get all the recognition you deserve,” well, that’s not what they wanted to hear. As Rene Girard would say, there was a very mimetic dimension to all of this. These other artists understandably desired the same sort of career that Larry had. When that didn’t exactly pan out in the ways they sometimes hoped, they naturally blamed Larry at best. At worst, they reviled him in both public and private. Were there other personal issues involved? Sure, that was part of it too. Larry sparked a lot of jealousy and big emotions. Those impressions and perspectives are still around today, ten years after his death.
Moore: In the marginalia to your epilogue, I wrote “A complex, endearing, conflicted, and relatable portrait.” Are there any ways Larry Norman can help us know ourselves better?
Thornbury: Thank you so much. I think there’s something universal to Larry’s story. People feel torn in today’s society — caught between Christ and the Devil — between two worlds. Larry wanted to force a conversation about Jesus into places it wasn’t supposed to fit – in clubs and bars, on the streets in Hollywood at night where he witnessed to people polite pastors and evangelists would have never been seen talking to. It’s the reverse of the “in the world, not of the world” problem. The danger is always that we’re of the world, but not actually in it, as Ken Myers has said. People talk about “engaging culture” for Jesus, but does anyone with a real “seat at the table” in the culture know any Christians? Let’s be honest about what’s really going on.
My biography was not hagiography — I wrote this book to hold a mirror to the evangelical community, especially to leaders. Larry was an artist, but he was also often harsh, and sometimes self-centered. He had terrible faults, despite his incredible talent. Fame does bad things to you. We start to believe our own press clippings. I’ve seen “star” theologians treat people terribly — everyone from staff, colleagues, to waitresses. I think that probably most institutions should mandatorily rotate leadership after a few years, because platforms are like narcotics. People cling to them with deadly devotion, and rarely take a risk at saying or doing anything that is perceived as being “off brand.” Larry took good risks and bad risks. So my book is ultimately not really about him. It’s about “us.”
Moore: Great job on the book. I found it riveting and very balanced. For the latter, it is interesting to see two Amazon reviewers vindicate my assessment in their own rather imbalanced reviews. One describes it as “another story to make him [Norman] look good” while the second titles his review of your book with “character assassination.”
What are a few things you hope your readers will gain from reading Why Should the Devil Have all the Good Music?
Thornbury: That’s hilarious. It’s great to know that the book has been a massive Rorschach test. People are engaging with it, it’s challenging them, and making them happy, sad, angry, entrepreneurial, etc. What more can an author ask for than people really caring about your book? I’ve heard from atheists who say that they’ve never cared much to try to understand religious people, but because NPR and The New York Times covered/reviewed the book, they thought they’d second guess themselves and take a look. That’s just like jelly beans to me. I hope that true believers are prompted to understand their secular counterparts in the same way.
The fact that the book prompted an entire cultural essay on the enduring significance of faith in popular music by The New Yorker is a massive endorsement of the fact that we can’t avoid being religious, about “living the dogma loudly” in ways that we understand and ways that we don’t. I hope the book prompts introspection, not more commentary on Larry Norman, as puzzling and wonderful as he was. Larry once told a reporter that his mission was to offer “invasive entertainment”– to rearrange the mental furniture around for people that are overconfident or just lazy in their own personal philosophy. I hope Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? does the same.