Reviewed by Dougie Adam
Larry Norman was, of course, synonymous with the beginnings of what became contemporary Christian music, recording some of the landmark songs ("I Wish We'd All Been Ready", "One Way", "Why Don't You Look Into Jesus", "The Outlaw", "Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music") and albums ('Upon This Rock', 'Only Visiting This Planet', 'So Long Ago The Garden', 'In Another Land') defining the genre in the heady days of the Jesus Movement in the 1970s. Many people's introduction to this most extraordinary of songsmiths came in concert where he could be captivating, controversial, amateurish and humorous in equal measure as he toured North America, Europe and Australia consistently for over three decades. His influence on Christian music also came via establishing Solid Rock Records and working with other pioneers like Randy Stonehill, Mark Heard, Tom Howard and Daniel Amos for a time, and then after moving to Europe in the 1980s for a few years he continued to tour and record with artists there including Alwyn Wall, Sheila Walsh, Norman Barratt, Q-Stone and later on with Beam.
Norman led a controversial life. In 2009 David Di Sabatino filmed a documentary, Fallen Angel, which focused on the rumours which had dogged Larry for decades. Artists' grievances about their time on Solid Rock Records were aired, alongside claims he had an affair with Randy Stonehill's wife which brought his record label crashing down and cost two marriages, and that injuries incurred in his airplane accident and heart attacks were exaggerated for his own financial gain as he exploited his fan base seeking donations for his medical expenses. Most damaging of all were the claims Larry had fathered a baby out of wedlock and refused to accept responsibility for his actions. For years many people have split neatly into two rival camps regarding Norman and his legacy. Those who regard him as one of the best Christian songwriters of his time and who sympathise with Norman's claims of being unfavourably misunderstood and those who say he was a dark cloud who left a trail of devastation and lived a life inconsistent with his public persona.
Now ten years after his passing, we finally have the first published biography of the man at the centre of the ongoing debate. Gregory Alan Thornbury has produced a fairly concise summary of Larry's life, the book is just over 280 pages long including almost 30 pages of references to the 13 chapters (based on the uncorrected proof copy I was sent for review purposes). He has conducted fresh interviews with close family members who had refused to be interviewed for Di Sabatino's documentary but the main source of Thornbury's information is from Norman's own extensive archives. Not only did Norman keep a record of the interviews he gave, he filed all the fan mail and hate mail received over the years, and his correspondence with the artists he worked with and all the legal documents and lawyers' letters, and tape recordings pertaining to the establishment and later collapse of Solid Rock Records. If that sounds rather one-sided, Thornbury quotes extensively throughout from those dealing with Larry; concert promoters, A&R men, record label executives and his first wife Pamela, and from correspondence spanning three and a half decades with Randy Stonehill. It could be argued that to augment the archive material utilised the author could have sought new interviews with some of those with whom Larry clashed over the years, but his normal modus operandi is to summarise both sides of the disputes and let the reader decide.
As someone who discovered Larry at a concert in 1991 and who had no emotional investment in his early achievements my one disappointment with the book is that it has ended up closely following the arc of Fallen Angel's telling of Larry's life story, concentrating largely on the 1970s and Larry's troubled marriage with Pam and their divorce and his time on Solid Rock Records. Arguably his best albums were recorded prior to establishing his own label and probably his best live performances came in the later years which Thornbury skims through. The book is pitched at those with a passing but not exhaustive knowledge of Norman and his music. Thornbury doesn't discuss songs or albums in great depth or deal with the unreleased projects or even talk much about whether any of the albums were censored. The author's evaluation of Larry's music might be one of his weaker spots, he doesn't claim to have encyclopaedic knowledge of Larry's extensive and infuriating back catalogue and can make the occasional strange comparison; eg, he moves from discussing Larry's harmonies with his sisters on his 1963 living room tapes to comparing them to Brian Wilson's harmonies with the Beach Boys and the classic 'Pet Sounds' album recorded three years later.
While at times it looks as if the author has relied on some of the self-written PR which Larry was infamous for penning, he also is happy to depart from Larry's script and follow where the evidence in the archives led him. There are a few surprises even for arch collectors, such as the revelations that after Larry had signed with ABC Records and they bought Word Records it is Norman who pursues having his albums sold in Christian bookstores, and following the counsel of Billy Graham and Cliff Richard, 'So Long Ago The Garden' may well have been a deliberate attempt to record a popular secular album and use his fame as a platform to let non-Christian fans hear his earlier overtly Christian songs in concert alongside his hits. The only problem was that MGM Records were being bought over when the album was ready for release and Polydor only gave it a limited release. There would be no secular hits but his Christian audience assumed he had backslidden when they discovered an album with no mention of Jesus housed in a controversial album cover.
If anyone is familiar with the Beatles' establishment of Apple Records and the sorry tale of how it unravelled, echoes can be found in the story of Norman and his Solid Rock label. As Thornbury relives the tale, in hindsight, it seems doomed from the start, with Norman offering to deliver four albums per year from a roster he hadn't signed yet when the deal was struck. On this telling of the story the label comes crashing down when Word grow frustrated at the lack of finished product being delivered; by 1980 only five albums had been released since 1976 and at least two of those had sold poorly and Word had no further interest in follow up albums from those artists. Against a backdrop where Word are set to drop their investment, Larry and his manager, Philip Mangano (who had been heading up the concert booking agency Street Level Artists Agency) fall out and a meeting called to resolve the issues between the label and Word and between Larry and some of the artists wanting released from their contracts ends in acrimony and stalemate rather than compromise and resolution. Norman and his reputation never recover from the collapse of the label or from a fresh string of rumours which compound those which had circulated after 'So Long Ago The Garden' was released.
At times the book is an uncomfortable read as the author sheds light on Norman's first marriage and divorce, and his troubled relationship with Randy Stonehill. It is open to question whether Norman himself would have divulged the details and level of detail which Thornbury goes into. While he was alive Norman chose to allude to his problems with Pam and Randy, sometimes cryptically and sometimes less so, but generally he spared everyone the gory details. Given we are now 40 or more years removed from some of the most controversial parts of Larry's life, some readers will wish less information had been provided in some of these inglorious cases. The counter argument is of course that a brief internet search on Larry throws up many of the rumours and controversies of which Thornbury attempts to give a more balanced account.
Despite its brevity and despite not focussing in any great depth on the songs and albums Larry made, the book has much to recommend it and Thornbury is still to be congratulated by how well he captures the quixotic character of a massively talented but flawed musician. The portrayal of Norman's character, personality and failures as well as his warmth, naiveté and triumphs perfectly capture the man as many people will remember him and Thornbury has produced a readable, entertaining and pretty even-handed account of the era when Norman was at his creative and commercial peak. One can only hope he has laid a solid foundation for other books on Larry's life and music to follow further down the line. The final 30 years of Larry's life which saw him deal with a brain injury, remarry, become a father to Michael, divorce a second time, experience a KGB poisoning, encounter healing from his brain injury, suffer heart attacks and continue to write, record and tour prolifically for much of that time are certainly worthy of more books. In the meantime, Larry Norman fans will find much here to stimulate their appreciation of a true giant of popular music.
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