Listening In: Greg Thornbury

WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith and today you’re listening in on my conversation with Gregory Alan Thornbury, the author of a new biography of Christian rock pioneer, Larry Norman.

GREG THORNBURY, GUEST: He eventually wound up recording a solo record in 1969 on Capitol Records called Upon This Rock. He was singing about Jesus and the church didn’t know what to do with him because we forget that there was a time where your staple of Christian youth ministry at your local church was to bring your Beatles and Led Zeppelin records to church and put them in a bonfire and burn them because why? Rock ‘n roll was the devil’s music. And so Larry smashes these two worlds together. He was sort of the person that was the trailblazer at the vanguard and it festooned in what was called the Jesus Movement, which was an honest to goodness, national, cultural phenomenon. That swept the nation. It was on the front of news magazines everywhere. And Larry Norman was the musical pied piper of all of that.

SMITH: Larry Norman is often called the grandfather of Christian rock. After having a hit record with the sixties era band People, Norman embarked on a solo career. His 1969 Capitol Records album Upon This Rock is usually considered the first Christian rock album. Norman went on to co-write thousands of songs and he produced more than a hundred albums for himself and for such artists as Randy Stonehill, Mark Hurd, Daniel Amos, and many others. 

But Larry Norman was a complicated figure. He was twice married and twice divorced and many who knew him say a 1978 head injury he sustained on a United Airlines flight altered his personality and led to many of the relationship problems that followed. 

Gregory Alan Thornbury has documented Norman’s life in a detailed but also fast-moving biography. The book is called Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock

Before we jump into my conversation with Larry Norman biographer, Greg Thornbury. Let’s listen to a part of the Larry Norman song that gave the book its name.

MUSIC: Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? 

Gregory Thornbury, welcome to the program. It’s really exciting for me to chat with you about your new book Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock because this is the subject—and Larry Norman in particular—has been a fascination of mine since the 1970s when I first discovered his music. I assume from reading the book that he has been a fascination of yours as well.

THORNBURY: Well, he has been a fascination. It hasn’t been constant. It was something that I came back to once I had the opportunity to see this voluminous archive that he had and it dawned on me that maybe this ought to be something that I might want to dive back into. And indeed, what I found was this compelling, engrossing, twisty story. And so it was sort of my version of searching for sugar man.

SMITH: Right. Well, I do want to come to the part of the story where you had unique access to this treasure trove of documentation. But before I get to that, Greg, if I could just back you up and tell our listeners, who may not know who Larry Norman is and why he is such a significant figure in modern evangelicalism.

THORNBURY: Well, he’s significant from a couple of different points of view. Some are quantitative and some are qualitative. Both things are cultural. He unintentionally kicked off what eventually became a multibillion dollar industry, which we now know as Christian contemporary music or Christian rock. He was called the father of Christian rock because he was on Capitol Records in the late sixties. He had previously been in a band called People that had a Billboard Top 20 hit. He was on tour with people like Janis Joplin and The Who and The Doors and Jefferson Airplane. And he was hanging out with Neil Young and Steven Stills from Buffalo Springfield at the Art Club in Sausalito, California. So he’s in that world, but he is also a Christian and he feels the tension between those two worlds. And he is either fired or leaves the band People because the other boys in the band became scientologists—and that’s something I talk about in the book. 

And he winds up getting rehired by Capitol Records to work on the first rock musicals. And he writes a musical named Alison with Herb Hendler, who at that time was one of the biggest record producers of the era at Capitol Records. So you do that during the day and at night he’d go out, you know, onto the corner of Hollywood and Vine. He’d walk the streets, you know, there in Hollywood. And he would sometimes take his guitar along with him, sometimes not. And he was witnessing to street people. And he was sharing about Jesus with them, to the people that the church, quite frankly, found to be untouchables or undesirables at that point. You know, the drug pushers and the people out on the sexual fringe and the prostitutes and whoever.

And he eventually wound up recording a solo record in 1969 on Capitol Records called Upon This Rock, which has been called the Sergeant Pepper’s of Christianity. He was singing about Jesus on a secular record label and the church didn’t know what to do with him because we forget that there was a time where, you know, your staple of Christian youth ministry at your local church was to bring your Beatles and Led Zeppelin records to church and put them in a bonfire and burn them because why? Rock ‘n roll was the devil’s music. And this was bad and Christian shouldn’t have anything to do with that. So Larry smashes these two worlds together, you know, by the force of his will. It’s not like nobody else had thought about this or was even experimenting with it, but he was sort of the person that was the trailblazer at the vanguard. And in the wake of that, there was this whole burgeoning of people starting to do this then and getting notoriety for it. And it festooned in what was called the Jesus Movement, which was an honest to goodness, national, cultural phenomenon that swept the nation and was on the front of news magazines everywhere. And Larry Norman was the musical pied piper of all of that.

SMITH: Well, let me stop you there and just to drill down on a couple things. Upon This Rock, you called it the Sergeant Pepper’s of Christian rock. It is widely considered by historians to be the first true Christian rock album. It’s the genesis, the seminal document of contemporary Christian music. Would that be fair to say?

THORNBURY: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it was definitely the first one. I mean, there might’ve been bands playing in like coffee shops, you know. There were people around during this time, you know, like Chuck Girard and Love Song. And you know, I think not long after Upon This Rock Myelin Lafever may have recorded, you know, kind of a bluesy type record. But the difference with Larry was that he was on the main stage. He was a legitimate rock star in his own right. He had a big record company behind him. And so he really kicked it off in a major way. And he was the person that, you know, when Time magazine did an article on the Jesus Movement, they said, Larry Norman is the leader in this field. And so he was the person people looked to.

SMITH: You’ve alluded to this already, but I want to ask you to sort of say a little bit more about it, Greg, is that not only was Larry Norman deeply involved in the music industry and, of course, helped begin the contemporary Christian music business. But you also talked about his street witnessing and the sort of the Jesus People movement that was growing out of places like Calvary Chapel and Chuck Smith’s church in southern California. These two movements in some ways culminated with an event that took place in 1972 at which Larry Norman was a headliner. Can you talk about that?

THORNBURY: Yeah. As an exemplar of how big the Jesus Movement became, in 1972, there was an event called Explo 72 in Dallas in which by this point, Billy Graham had sort of woken up to the fact that there was something really stirring. And it was based in southern California. There was sort of the Orange County version, which was Chuck Smith and Calvary Chapel. There was a Sunset Strip version that was Arthur Blessitt and his ministry. There was the Hollywood Free Paper, which was sort of, you know, a Jesus Movement alternative to the hippy newspapers of the area run by Dwayne Peterson. There were ministries like at Hollywood Presbyterian Church at that time. So there were different outlets of it, but it became a national thing. And there were over a hundred thousand teenagers that packed into the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas.

And Billy Graham preached to them. Bill Bright was kind of the organizer of it and the musical talent—there were lots of people playing at it—but the main headliners were Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, the black Gospel singer Andre Crouch, and Larry Norman. And it was such a huge gathering. I mean it was the size of a Woodstock—maybe as many as 150,000 were there and it created a huge reaction. So I still, when I’m speaking in various places and it said that I’ve written a biography on Larry Norman, it’s uncanny how often I have somebody come up to me and say, I was at Explo 72 in Dallas.

SMITH: Yeah. Well, I think it’s fair to say that in some ways Explo 72 was kind of a high water mark for the Jesus Movement. And Larry Norman, of course, was on the main stage, as you said. He was always kind of ambivalent, though, about that role, especially about the role of starting an industry of Christian music. It always seemed to me, and I think your book highlights this, brings us out, is that he seemed to be much more interested in building community of nurturing artists, Solid Rock Records, and some of what he did with Mark Heard and Randy Stonehill were in some ways the anti Christian music industry. Is that a fair assessment?

THORNBURY: He was ambivalent about the Jesus Movement and its aftermath in the original sense of the word. In other words, he was torn. On the one hand, he was the one that invented the symbol of the Jesus Movement, which was the one way sign. He would be performing at these concerts in Southern California. And kids would start clapping after songs just like a regular rock show. And he was like, this isn’t a regular rock show. We’re talking about something far more profound here. And he would just hold his right hand aloft with one finger pointed toward heaven and all of a sudden kids started imitating that. And so when you look at something like the March for Jesus on the state capitol steps in Sacramento in 1971 where they would have these marches for Jesus, just like you would have Vietnam War protests, you would have a positive March for Jesus and you’d have 10 or 20,000 kids holding their hands aloft the with the one way sign, which got turned into a bumper sticker. And Larry didn’t like the commercialization of that and felt kind of icky about the fact that people associated him with the commercialization of the Jesus movement. 

And so he actually retired from the Jesus Movement and from Christian rock. In a famous incident I described in my book at the Royal Albert Hall where he was sitting at the piano and he said, you know, I don’t want to talk just to Christians. I don’t want to be in an echo chamber. I don’t want it to be said that I made my whole career making money off of Jesus. I want to reach people that have never heard about this stuff before. So I’m not going to be doing these, you know, goody two shoes Jesus concerts anymore. I’m going to try to break out. And his next album was a foray into that, which was a very sort of dark, surrealistic, spiritual, twisty record called So Long Ago the Garden.

So, at one point when he was interviewed about the Jesus Movement, he said, you know, maybe there was something that was a spark of it originally that was really pure and authentic. But then it was sort of, you know, nice kids who maybe grew out their hair a little bit longer and it was a bunch of nice kids getting nicer. And it wasn’t anything of the sort of massive revolutionary scale that people were making out to be. That was Larry. He was the kind of person that would, you know, be the curmudgeon at times or be that devil’s advocate. He was a contrarian is what I’m trying to say. But he definitely did think that there should be a safe haven for artists. He loved Francis Shaffer and L’abri. He visited L’abri. He wanted a L’abri for artists. He wanted for people that had massive talent to be nurtured, to be able to explore their faith, but also to do it in a way that, you know, the music industry would regard as being first rate art. And so he was more interested in that sort of community, this artist’s colony. That got him a lot more excited than, you know, 10 to 20,000 people filling up  an arena with Jesus signs.

MUSIC: Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus

SMITH: It is ironic and I don’t think it would be fair to call Larry Norman a hypocrite in any greater sense that the rest of us are hypocrites. 

THORNBURY: Right. Let’s be careful. 

SMITH: Exactly right. Whenever I want to see  a hypocrite I just look in the mirror. Right. But on the other hand, you know, he hated the commercialization but on the one hand, but on the other hand, he copyrighted that one way Jesus symbol.

THORNBURY: Lance Bowen’s graphic design, yeah. Exactly, yeah. 

SMITH: And he got a lot of criticism for that and even though he was passionate about creating a community for artists, and he gathered folks around him like Steve Taylor and Randy Stonehill and Mark Heard, just to name a few of many. With few exceptions, a lot of those relationships ended up in chaos and in conflict. 

THORNBURY: Yeah. Because of record sales, you know, in part. There were a lot of things because—it was because of the business end, ultimately, why some of those relationships ran aground. Not all of them did as I describe in the book. Mark Heard, who in my opinion was the greatest discovery Larry Norman ever made, he and Larry had a perfectly fine relationship—no hiccups after Mark left Solid Rock. It was still sunshine and roses. They had copious correspondence with one another, but other people, you know, were more interested in the practical things of life, like record sales and distribution and are you managing my career well? And those are things that are pretty pragmatic and maybe not subject to very lofty artistic ideals.

SMITH: Well, and you can’t blame those folks for having those expectations of Larry because—

THORNBURY: Not at all. 

SMITH: He promised those things, right? 

THORNBURY: Yeah.Well, I think what Larry promised to do was to—as I went through everything, what he promised to do was I will get you a start. I will give you a platform and then it’s up to you to develop the platform after that. But those were heady times. And when you look at some of the things that he wrote about something like Solid Rock Records where it was this thing where it was going to be a combination of this sort of, you know—and this was the title of his booking agency that he started, street-level artists agency where we’re going to be on the streets, we’re going to be doing concerts, we’re going to be directly engaging the culture. And yet we’re also gonna have first rate records, you know, that are produced by the best sound engineers and mixers at the best studios. And we’re going to have the best distribution and you’re going to have a great career. You know, it all got jumbled up like a lot of things that our ministries do where you have this big vision, but then there’s the actual execution of things. And, of course, I mean, you can understand why somebody might feel, you know, resentful or bitter if it didn’t turn out the way that they were hoping that it would.

SMITH: The bottom line was that Larry Norman was essentially in the right, but in the court of public opinion, he ended up coming across as a villain. Another controversy later in his life was the controversy over what many people thought was an out of wedlock child that Larry had fathered. You dug into that and, in your book at least, come to a definitive answer on that.

THORNBURY: Yeah. Because there were a lot of problems with that story. I was really hoping as an author that there would be some sort of smoking gun that would answer the question definitively. But as I started looking at the various different accounts that were were given, what I came to was basically this conclusion: surely there was some kind of inappropriate relationship that made the accusation even plausible, OK? So let’s just put that out on the table. I think that’s probably beyond dispute. However, the timelines don’t match up between—I have airline tickets and you know, I had access to who was where at what time and some of the timelines don’t match up where, you know, Jennifer Robinson said, here’s where we got together and this is where this child was conceived. Well, as best I can tell, Larry was not there at that time. He was somewhere else based upon the documentary evidence. 

And so there were a lot of problems with the overall story. And I think that’s why when, you know, there was this sort of press to answer the question, I think Larry’s response was, yeah, it’s possible. Let’s find out. And the way it turned out was the wheels did not move fast enough, bizarrely, and he died before there was any DNA test or confirmation of it. So, I certainly don’t want to, I’m not trying in any way to let Larry Norman off the hook, but it wasn’t a slam dunk either. And so I sort of saw it as, and I don’t mean to be flippant here because what I say in the book that’s really sad is that there was a child, there was a young man who didn’t know who his father was and was told that it was Larry Norman. And to me that is just, ugh, that’s heartbreaking. 

SMITH: Yeah. 

THORNBURY: And that’s really sad, but I don’t mean to make light of it, but I sort of saw it as like a Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou situation where, you know, I mean, maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. And so that’s what you have to do as a journalist, as a historian is say, what does the evidence actually say? And it was not entirely conclusive in my opinion. 

SMITH: Yeah. Well, that causes me to want to ask how you got access to all this documentation. We alluded to that question earlier, but you had unique first time access to a lot of Larry Norman’s papers. Is that accurate and how did you get that access?

THORNBURY: Yeah, it was a unique and distinctive and it was not just his papers but I mean all of the correspondence from all the other parties. So what was unique about it was I was seeing two way conversations and quite a lot of it that went all the way back into the ‘70s and the ‘80s. So I immediately knew this is both the biographer’s dream and nightmare. I wound up talking to Peter Goralnick, Elvis’s biographer, his prize-winning biographies, Careless Love, and Last Train to Memphis. Those are out of order. But he said this is what he found with Elvis was there was a lot of stuff that was just like locked away in trunks and file cabinets that nobody had really paid that much attention to. Well, I had that in spades. Hundreds of boxes. I mean it was like time capsules, you know, you’d find plane tickets, diaries, day planners, sheets that he would—he’d be at a hotel and he’d get a song idea and he slept with the Sharpie. I mean this is—he was OCD. He would write lyrics on the bed sheets of the hotel and go to the hotel and say, I really love these sheets. Can I buy them? You know, so you’d find this all like packed away in these boxes. And it was two-way correspondence. So I was like, I don’t have to rely upon the faulty memories of people that are like, oh, this happened 40 or 50 years ago. Here they are having a conversation, you know, in black and white in real time. It’s like, wow, this is like a huge gift. I can just go on the basis of this and pretty much reconstruct what happened. 

SMITH: How did you get this access? 

THORNBURY: So, what happened was—it’s kind of strange how it happened. I was presenting at a relational aesthetics conference in Portland, Oregon with one of my best friends—Harold Fletcher—at Portland State University. And we were doing this, you know, art project called the What Are You Running From-a-thon.  That’s a different conversation for a different time, but it was a year after Larry died in 2008. And when Larry died, he kinda got back on my radar screen ‘cause I took note of the fact that Spin magazine and the New York Times and the Times of London and NPR all did features on him. I was like, wow, how many Christian artists get that much attention? And I went back and I started listening to the music and I was like, wow, this is, you know—it kinda took me back. So I called what was extant of Solid Rock at the time, found the number on the Internet and just called and left a message. And I said, “Hi, my name is Greg Thornbury. I’m a philosophy and theology professor at Union University in Tennessee. I promise I’m not a weird Larry Norman fan. All I want to know is where’s Larry Norman buried?” Because I knew that he was buried in Salem, Oregon, which was about, you know, an hour drive from Portland. And so I didn’t hear anything back. And while I was out there, I got a phone call and it was Larry’s brother and he met me to show me where the cemetery was. And so I started, you know, I got to know Larry’s brother who is like serious record producer in his own right. 

SMITH: If I could interrupt you, Greg. I mean, Larry’s brother Charles is a musician in his own right, a record producer, and was very, very close to Larry, especially in the last years of Larry’s life.

THORNBURY: Well, yeah, from like 1984 until Larry died, Charles was a collaborator and frankly Charles was introducing Larry to all these hip people, you know, in the sort of second phase, like, you know, Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols wound up having a recording session with Larry because Charles was like moving around the punk scene. He in this very cool band called Executioner. And then he was with Jet Boy, which was one of these kind of like in the early days, sort of like a competitor to Guns and Roses. And then Charles and all these people in Guns and Roses. So anyway, a couple of years later—so I kept in touch with Charles and a couple of years later, Fuller Theological Seminary called Charles because he was the executor of the estate and said, we want to have an installation on Larry and his role in the Jesus Movement. Is there a scholar that you would like to come read a paper? And Charles said, “What about Thornbury?” So he called me and I went out and I did a paper and Dizzy Reed from Guns and Roses came and, you know, Larry’s son Mike was there and I read this paper at Fuller and Charles said, you know, my brother kept everything. And I said, what do you mean? He said, like, everything that ever happened, all the controversies and it’s all like, he was OCD, like everything is there. So I went back and I took a look at this stuff and it was like, holy cow, this is too good to be true. And he said, if you ever wanted to write a biography the estate would give you access to this.

And was like, yeah, this looks great. And so I’ve had a lot of biographers say to me, like, Warren Zanes who endorsed my book, Tom Petty’s biographers, you know, worked on many rock documentaries. He said, I can tell you, nobody has stuff like this. Like, nobody kept all of this correspondence. Even audio tapes. Like the Solid Rock breakup thing, Larry went in, told them all, said, is it OK if I record this, and they’re like, sure. He gets recorded. It’s like two hours. The breakup happens. They’re on tape. Nobody had ever heard that before—except maybe Larry and I don’t even know if he went back and listened to it. So it was like, going in a time machine.

SMITH: Well, I will say I know a good bit about this era. I lived it to a large extent. I knew Mark Heard. 

THORNBURY: That’s amazing. I’m so jealous.

SMITH: I’ve known Randy Stonehill off and on for, you know, 20, 30 years. 

THORNBURY: So jealous. 

SMITH: I grew up with Pat Terry, who was also a close collaborator with Mark Heard. I interviewed Randy Stonehill recently and I will have to say, Greg, that you really did an amazing job, a remarkable job. Reading, some of these documents that you quote in and transcripts of some of the audio is is just amazing.

And, you know, some of it is interesting because in some ways it’s like going back and looking at my high school or my college annual. But some of it, it really is significant historically and culturally. I get that. But if you kinda had a bottom line that you wanted to say to a younger generation that maybe didn’t know who Larry Norman was, what would you want to leave them with as some sort of a summary of his significance to what’s going on in evangelicalism today?

THORNBURY: There’s actually quite a few lessons, you know, on the positive side. I mean, he is someone who stood in a very, very difficult place and was trying to do something when there was absolutely no support for it. He was trying to combine faith with art at a time when the church didn’t want that to happen. And when the secular music world and art world said this is a no-go area, you shouldn’t be talking about this. And he just did it. I call him a holy fool because a holy fool is someone who stands in the public square and says something that is difficult for everybody to hear. And he did not have any no-go area areas. He would on the one hand talk about the need to be born again. But on the other hand criticized the church, too, for whatever—racism, he criticized the American war machine.

He was talking about the sort of tension that young people felt about sex, the dangers of sex. He was talking about sexually transmitted diseases when that was not polite conversation for people to talk about in church. And also talking about what it meant to be someone who decided to have abstinence rather than be a part of the sexual revolution. Like, it’s all this stuff and it’s all put together in one place and there was just nobody like him. And he was fearless. Especially in that, you know, what I would call sort of the golden era, which was 1968 maybe up until his plane crash and his troubles thereafter. So I would say the lessons are that you have to just keep going and listen to both the artistic impulse, but also be faithful to your convictions while you’re doing it.

So I think that those are the kinds of things that I still—what I’m fighting is, is that there’s people like you that are reading this book as like, oh my goodness, this was my life. This is like, you know, This Is Your Life, that old show on TV. But then there’s this whole younger generation of artists that are reading this and say, I’m still going through this. I’m still living in this tension and this is really helpful. So, you know, in terms of the cautionary tale, this is why I subtitled the book the perils of Christian rock. There’s a couple of big cautions. One is be careful what kind of vision or dream you put out there and say that you’re about. Because if you don’t live up to that, and if you don’t help the people that you bring along with you to fulfill their dream, you become the living embodiment of the fact that dreams don’t come true. And there’s a lot of bitterness that results from that. And then you become a target when there’s that sort of feeling of unfulfilled promises. I still get this from a fans that say, well, he promised that he would release this album called The Orphans of Eden and it never came out. So they’re still angry about that 40 years later. It’s crazy. Because Larry was sui-generis and he was kind of an independent operator. And I say this in the book, he kind of sat on his own fence posts and whistled his own tune. He wasn’t really accountable to anybody. And that’s super dangerous. As we’re finding out now, you know, there’s all these, you know, when you’re not a part of some kind of hierarchical accountability system and you’re sort of making it up as you go along, that’s a prescription for disaster for you and everybody else around you.

SMITH: Greg Thornbury, at the end of the day, will we look back on Larry Norman’s life—either now from our vantage point or 10 or 20 or 30 years from now—and say he was a flawed person in many ways, but what a hero, what courage. Or will we look back on him as fundamentally a tragic tale?

THORNBURY: I think he still winds up being incredibly inspirational. I think that because he was such a pioneer and so dedicated and really stuck to his guns when everybody said—he’s stood athwart both the fundamentalist church and the secular world, and they all said, stop. And he said, sorry, I’m gonna keep talking about Jesus. Despite the fact that all of that heat I think eventually wound up causing him sort of to burn up, I think he still winds up being very inspirational in the same way that you know, let’s face it, most of our Christian heroes have big problems. We just—talking about the Protestant reformation. When you find out what Luther said about the Jews, it’s like, well, you know, part of you wants to just say, I never want to read anything by Luther again. And you sort of see the way he treated people and all the problems that he had. Just like, you know, is this person a hero or a villain? And the truth is always somewhat in between, isn’t it?

(Photo/AEI) Gregory Thornbury

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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