Books I have read

Larry Norman And The Creation Of Christian Rock

Playing at the White House in the late 1970s may have been the pinnacle of Larry Norman’s career.

When you’re raised in an Evangelical church and you want to be rebellious — without going wild — and it’s the late 1970s, you buy a LP of Only Visiting This Planet by Larry Norman, or any of his works. As a teen you know that any Norman album is hands down better than the Gospel quartets (or George Beverly Shea) the church is promoting.

My interest in Norman began as a teenager and over the years I would see him in concert nearly a dozen times. The first time I saw him, in 1984 at the Ichthus Festival in Wilmore, Kentucky I was honestly star-struck.

By the time Norman died in 2008, I had moved in a new direction and had lost touch with some of his later work. But, when I noticed a biography had been written about him, and released earlier this year, I bought a copy. The book, named after one of his most popular songs (from Planet), is titled Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock.

The book is an interesting read, even for someone not familiar with his music.

In The Beginning

Norman, as the book points out, is a complicated, and contradictory individual. His career began in pop music as one of the lead singers of People!. The band scored one Top 10 hit, I Love You, which was a remake. By 1969, Norman left the band and recorded what many call the first Christian Rock album, Upon This Rock. Although his first attempt was shaky, his songwriting talent — he worked as a songwriter for Capitol Records — convinced executives to take another chance.

In 1970, he recorded Only Visiting in England’s AIR Studios (where the Beetles recorded). The album, which always ranks in the Top 5 of Best CCM albums (usually one or two), was inducted into the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2013. The registry preserves as “cultural, artistic and/or historical treasures, representing the richness and diversity of the American soundscape.” The album was the first Christian Rock album to receive the honor.

It is a fitting award because the album did usher in a movement and a genre. Today CCM is an estimated $500 million industry. (By contrast, Only Visiting sold about 10,000 copies)

Famous In His Heyday

Norman, mostly unknown today, rubbed shoulders with a lot of famous people. He started a church in his Hollywood home, and knew Dudley Moore and Bob Dylan, to name just two from his era. His personal manager Phil Mangano would go on to work as George W. Bush’s (and Obama’s) homelessness czar.

But, as the book points out Norman seems to implode in the early 1980s. After producing four of his best albums, Only Visiting, So Long Ago, In Another Land (Dudley Moore plays piano on this one) and Something New Under the Son, his personal life unravels. The book places much of the blame on his first wife, Pamela Ahlquist. She was an actress (small, non-reoccurring roles on TV), and model. Their marriage lasted about six or seven years, and in the book, she is portrayed as deceitful, engaging in ‘non-Christian’ photo shoots — posing in a porn magazine but, for some reason, turning down a Playboy centerfold. She is cast as a partier (who tried to smuggle pot on an overseas flight), a high spender, and someone who is jealous of Norman’s career.

This may be true, but other histories, like the film Fallen Angel, suggest Norman was not as saintly as this book makes him appear. This saintly martyr view leaves the reader feeling some of Norman’s darkness — from allegations of shady business deals to allegations he fathered (and abandoned) a son in Australia — has been minimized or erased.

Rating: 3.5/5

The book is rated 4.5 stars out of 5 on Amazon. I would give it a 3.5 — simply because a lot that’s in the book is common knowledge to people who followed his career, and the book relies too heavily on Norman’s private papers to tell the story.

His story is worth reading. Norman paved a unique road, and his music has been recorded by hundreds of CCM artists, and a few songs have even been covered by non-Christian artists like Cliff Richards and Petula Clark.


Afterthought

There is a potential Norman connection to the current White House. Vice President Mike Pence apparently drove to Ichthus in 1974 and credits that event with his conversion to Evangelical Christianity. Since this is in the heyday of Norman’s career, it is highly possible that Norman was one of the performers Pence heard.

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Categories: Books I have read, Religion | Leave a comment

‘Beautiful Boy’ Chronicles Teen’s Descent Into Meth Addiction

Two of the selling points for living in a small, rural town, is less crime and less drug use. Life is often portrayed, especially in farming communities like mine, as more natural — even holy. But, the myth has been destroyed in recent years as news spread about the opioid epidemic ravishing small towns.

But, before heroin, we were dealing with meth.

Meth (and heroin) tends to be more devastating in towns like mine because of limited mental health services, fewer economic opportunities and our entrenched reactive belief system. And, although how we got here has been heavily documented, how we escape has fallen prey to lazy thinking and a naïve belief that if ‘they just say no,’ the problem will solve itself.

This approach minimizes human frailty and dismisses the long-term impact that childhood decisions and upbringing have on drug use. It fails to address the myriad reasons people relapse.

Meth has made a resurgence in Preble County, and in an Eaton police report, one local resident, who was arrested after police say they found meth in his vehicle, gives one indication of why we are dealing with it again. Some of the chemically-addicted are no longer able to handle ‘normal’ life stressors. The suspect named in the report said he began using meth again ‘to help him handle his long work hours.’ This is one of the tragedies of the small-town, arrest-our-way-out of the drug dilemma approach  — it seeks out the arrest (since arrest ‘prove’ we are doing something) instead of what is best for the community (treatment for individuals trying to work and overcome addiction).

One thing is certain about meth — it is highly addicted, and once entrenched in a community — it is very difficult to eradicate.

Books, like Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff, help explain why.

Painful Memoir

Like all parents, Sheff wants a great life for his son, instead though by his early 20s, the boy (Nic) is a hardcore meth user. The book offers a peak into the devastation that the boy’s addiction has on his parents and siblings. Since the story is told through the eyes of the father, readers get a better feel for the rollercoaster ride of hope and despair a family member endures when dealing with an addict.

Since it is a father’s story, after an opening hook of a college kid gone bad scene, Sheff quickly details his son’s childhood in the opening chapters. Included in this fairly quick sketch is the typical childhood — sports, events and outings. It is marred early on by his parents’ divorce, and the resulting long-distance parental sharing arrangement imposed by the court, but all-in-all his childhood feels very typical.

However, like many kids in the modern era (this was published in 2009), Nic was exposed to drugs at a young age. His first introduction into drugs are cigarettes, marijuana and alcohol — all before the eighth grade. What makes this more intriguing though is the author explains how he was gullible enough to believe it would not happen to his child. And, as the father learns he was too trusting. He relays an event to prove this — at a sleepover, when he thought his son and son’s friend had the flu — he later learned they were sick from being drunk.

This is one of the strengths of the book. It presents, in what feels like real time, the slow revelation of Nic’s illicit drug use, as the author realizes he’s failing to protect his son.

Understanding Addiction

Peppered throughout the book are significant sections about the drug itself. This is a testament to the father’s desire to understand why his son cannot shake the habit. Readers will walk away with a new appreciation for just how devastating the drug is to the brain — and how the drug destroys it to the point of creating a never-ending trap for users. This is one reason long-term rehab sessions are often required for meth addicts.

But, the father is not without fault –nor does he pretend to be. He openly admits to smoking marijuana with Nic when the boy was 17. Although, the father is empathetic — and open to some drug use — by the end of the book, he, like many others, reaches a point where he is no longer willing to solve Nic’s addiction.

Throughout this journey, the author does not hide his anger, fear, hate, and overwhelming love for his son. In the end, through all the drug-related disappearances and relapses, the father finally realizes he’s not the solution.

Nic must find his own way out.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5. The book effectively captures the emotional rollercoaster ride family members of addicts face. Many of us in Preble County have faced this. The book is filled with all the expected approaches to solving addiction: AA meetings, rehab, medication and therapy. But, mostly, the book is a story of hope.


Afterthought

Why Does Meth Appeal To Rural Counties?

This article from 2001 about Preble County gives three clues: inexpensive high, availability of raw materials, and the ability to turn a large profit from small investment. Our isolation also helps. Those wishing to learn more about the meth problem in rural towns can read Methland.

Categories: 8th congressional district, Books I have read, drug addiction, drug use, My America, Preble County

‘Party Politics’ Reminds Us Why The Masses Cannot Be Trusted With Democracy

Published in 1980 Party Politics: Why We Have Poor Presidents by Leonard Lurie provides a strong argument why our Two Party political system does not work — and, according to the author, was never the intent of the Founding Fathers.

The book begins with why the Founding Fathers were opposed to a political party approach of governance and ends with suggestions on how to get back to a more democratic system of electing our presidents.

Those chapters are for people who enjoy political theory — the nuts and bolts of political machination — but it’s the chapters squeezed between the theories that more people will enjoy. These chapters are crammed full of succinct political analysis for each president from George Washington to Richard Nixon.

And, the chapters have enough sass, rumor, gossip and history to pull in even the casual reader.

Image Over Substance

With the exception of a few presidents, the author is not impressed with those we’ve elected. He is even less impressed with the political machinery that placed them in office. So even a president as popular as Dwight D. Eisenhower fails under Lurie’s microscopic examination. He notes Eisenhower’s political indifference, wasted opportunities, obsession with golf and the president’s inability to take on Party powers to remove Richard Nixon from his ticket. Lurie also notes,

Eisenhower represented the replacement of substance with image — the president as a symbol, the presidency as a reward. The party philosophy of winning at any cost had resulted in mere popularity becoming a qualification for nomination.

A feeling that resonates today with the current administration.

I’m Gonna Be President

By the end of first chapter, it’s apparent that Lurie is well read and very knowledgeable. His command of U.S. political history is stunning. But, just as impressive as the obscure historical nuggets he pens are the quotes Lurie uses to open the chapters. For example, this quote from famed ACLU Lawyer Clarence Darrow:

When I was a boy I was told that anybody could become president. I’m beginning to believe.

As one reads, it does become obvious that few things have changed in the political scene — at least as far as the mechanics. One reoccurring theme is voter apathy. In the race against Republican Warren Harding and Democrat James Cox voter were so uninterested that less than 50 percent of them participated. A phenomenon repeated multiple times both before, and after, that election. But, as Lurie notes, this is not without some advantages.

Republican leaders had come to rely on the fact that vast numbers of voters saw little reason to make the effort necessary to record for themselves any candidates.

And, and one political operative from Harding’s team noted — people will take what they are given:

We live in a hard-boiled age. No man in this country is every called to the Presidency by the clamor of millions. No man is so great in our democratic society that his name excites the masses.

Harding consistently ranks as the worst U.S. president (until recently) and possibly the most interesting thing about his scandal-riddled presidency was his affair with fellow Ohioan Nan Briton — Briton alleged Harding fathered her child.

We’ll Decide, They’ll Vote

I don’t care who does the electing as long as I do the nominating — Boss Tweed

The most important theme of the book, though, is how the American public does not truly have a say in the presidency. This reality has been proven, and written about, by scores of theorists. But, as Lurie notes, one reason is the party nomination process which bypasses the average voter — by permitting a relatively small group of individuals to decide which candidates will seek the presidency. And, this works because

…people accept government, they obey rulers, precisely because as an unorganized mass they easily fall victim to the predators living within their midst.

Nothing Really Changes

As he discusses the Reconstruction Era, Lurie notes how the appeal to patriotism was strong enough to quell any decent American from supporting a Democrat — a Party that was involved in suppressing the Black vote in that era. But eliminating the Democrat vote did not bring out the best in the GOP he asserts, noting,

Without the fear of political opposition there was no need to provide decent candidates, or even candidates who projected the image of decency.

In our current age of hyper-gerrymandering, it almost feels like he is writing about today.

Rating 5 out of 5. I rarely review political books this highly simply because too many become weighted down in political theory. But, this book is a nice mix of political theory, historical facts, rumors, gossip and lively narrative. Lurie has also written two books on Richard Nixon.

Categories: Books I have read, My America