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.
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.
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.