David Stowe: Larry Norman, the Bad Boy of Christian Rock

We welcome a guest post today from David Stowe, author of the forthcoming book No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism. In his cultural history of evangelical Christianity and popular music, Stowe demonstrates how mainstream rock of the 1960s and 1970s has influenced conservative evangelical Christianity through the development of Christian pop music. In this post, he describes his meeting and interview with influential Christian rock musician Larry Norman.–ellen

February 24 marks the third anniversary of Larry Norman’s death, in Salem, Oregon.  Only 60 years old when he passed, Norman had been living on borrowed time for years, it seemed.  Not that he had tremendous competition (though more than you might think), but Larry Norman could plausibly lay claim to the title “Bad Boy of Christian rock.”

He often claimed—and could make a reasonable case for—another appellation: “Father of Christian rock.”  Over his four decades in music Norman wrote and recorded some of the most memorable songs to come out of Baby Boom evangelicals—“I Wish We’d All Been Ready” and “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music” would be near the top of any list—and helped foster a number of important careers in the business.  But he also burned more bridges and alienated more friends and associates than anyone else on the scene.

In July 2007 I was fortunate to conduct probably the last major interview Norman gave.  Until we actually met in Salem, I had serious doubts that our conversation would really take place.  Word was that Norman was notoriously mercurial and press-averse. To my surprise, he answered my email request for an interview, writing back in a very large font that gave the impression his eyesight was failing.  He’d “consider speaking” with me, admitting he’d become “very distrustful of anyone from the media because every time I’ve spoken with them they have written incredibly negative things about me and falsely reported my communications with them, saying that I refused to cooperate, etc.”

He gave detailed instructions about phoning: not before 2 pm, since he’d be asleep; call twice, since he wouldn’t get to the phone on the first ring.  “When I meet with you there are things I will want to ask you before we begin talking,” he cautioned.  “God bless you with your work, if it is His work.”

The 900-mile expedition up Pacific Coast Highway to Salem felt something like a pilgrimage.  We’d started from my uncle’s house in Topanga Canyon, in the Santa Monica mountains east of Malibu.  It had served as an idyllic base for day trips to a Vineyard church in Reseda whose minister had done Bible study with Bob Dylan, to Calvary Chapel, original epicenter of the Jesus Movement, and to Saddleback Church, stomping grounds of megapastor Rick Warren.

At the appointed hour Norman pulled up at the Coffee House Café in downtown Salem in a Honda with “Fydeau” tags, a reference to one of his labels. He told me he couldn’t appear in public without being recognized.  “I never go out unless I’m with my son,” he said, recounting a recent accident in which he swerved his car into a tree to avoid plowing into a group of children.  When I asked the barista to turn down the music for our interview, she kindly offered us a small private room in back.  “You going to interview Larry?” she asked.  So we spent hours in the windowless room, chains hanging from the walls, a lone bare bulb giving the impression of an interrogation chamber.  “God must have worked this out because this room is usually filled with hip people,” Norman told me.

I noticed he had a number of messages inked on the palm of his hand, including one from Paul Stookey (of Peter, Paul & Mary). His long hair was tied back in a ponytail.  He had trouble losing his shoes under the table, and his feet were an unhealthy color, not exactly gangrenous but close.  He pointed out matter-of-factly that they were dying.  “My leg is black,” he joked.  “So I’m partly black, man.” During the long interview Norman sipped a single bottle of water over ice.  He asked if we could begin with a prayer, asking God to help him remember clearly whatever He wanted revealed, that nothing be left out that He wanted included.  And he asked a blessing on me.

For five hours we sat in a back room at the Coffee House, digital recorder running as Norman poured out his life story to me.  Some of his yarns I’d read in earlier interviews but many were fresh.  He seemed to trust me not to demonize him as he expected most journalists would.  Norman was particularly concerned about a biopic released last year as Fallen Angel.  He worried aloud that director David Di Sabatino was out to destroy him, and “he probably will.”  Norman saw our interview as perhaps the last chance to tell the authorized version of his life.

The conversation itself felt like a long, strange journey, careening wildly over decades and across oceans.  Norman spoke with notable pace and command of detail, needing very little prompting.  He recalled growing up in an integrated neighborhood near Haight-Ashbury, the oldest of four, delivering 500 newspapers a day for his grandfather when he was ten.  He seemed to have witnessed nearly everybody in southern California, from celebrities like Janis Joplin, Dudley Moore, Elizabeth Ashley, and Paul Stookey to an unknown teenager he talked to on Hollywood Boulevard, eventually learning the boy had just had sex with his mother.

Larry Norman (center) with Duane Pederson (right). Photo courtesy David Di Sabatino.

Lonnie Frisbee, Keith Green, Randy Stonehill, Pat Boone, Hal Lindsey, Duane Pederson, and Arthur Blessitt all surfaced in colorful anecdotes, as did T-Bone Burnett, Kris Kristofferson, Leon Russell, Bono (supposedly a big Norman fan), Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and the spectacularly disgraced evangelical duo Tony and Susan Alamo.  Norman recounted how Kenn Gullicksen stole his Bible study, and the time Manhattan radio deejay-turned-Pat Robertson sidekick Scott Ross proselytized to Eric Clapton.

Were all these stories credible?  Who knows.  He told me he’d chatted in an airport lounge with a woman in a beautiful jacket who claimed that her husband was Bob Dylan.  Andraé Crouch, who happened to be there with Norman, confirmed the woman’s story.  Norman confirmed something that my ears had told me: that Dylan’s Grammy-winning single “Gotta Serve Somebody” was closely modeled on Norman’s song “Righteous Rocker,” released several years earlier.

He admitted he’d rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, gotten a reputation for negativity, being a “troublemaker” and a “bigmouth.”  That was the downside of his gift for prophecy, he explained, which typically made him the bearer of bad news.  But events usually proved him right.  He reminisced about the time he warned one of his wife’s friends not to marry someone who turned out to be Ned York, a gay actor who gained notoriety by falsely confessing around 1978 that he was LA’s Hillside Strangler.

Reflecting on the rise and decline of the Jesus Movement, Norman emphasized that from his experience touring the country playing hundreds of concerts a year, a majority of the Jesus People were not burned out by hippie hedonism—they were simply nice church kids who’d been alienated by traditional worship and wanted something more.  He spoke of his success performing in prisons and nightclubs.  “The place I’m least effective is in a church,” he admitted.

Larry Norman (left) with author David Stowe, July 2007

When we finally emerged, feeling a bit rubbery-legged from the extended conversation, he invited me to follow him up through the hills of Salem to his brother’s house.  I met his son Michael, soon to be married.  Norman took me down into the basement, which was brimming with merchandise and mementoes of his career.  I left with a bigger trove of Larry Norman swag than I ever imagined.  And a whole lot of stories to transcribe.

David W. Stowe is professor of English and religious studies at Michigan State University and author of No Sympathy for the Devil:  Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism (forthcoming April 2011).