Wednesday, February 27, 2008

In Brief: RIP Larry Norman and Rightward Bound

--Paste staff writer Andy Whitman has a very good obituary for Larry Norman, the pioneer Christian rock artist who died Sunday of heart failure at 60. So also does Chris Willman for Entertainment Weekly. My familiarity with Norman is limited, but I know Whitman and Willman are making valid claims about his historical significance. He was Christian contemporary music before it (or the Christian music industry) even existed, and 1969’s Upon This Rock was definitively the first album of its kind. Even when Only Visiting This Planet came out in 1972, evangelicals were only just beginning to build a grassroots industry for Christian folk, rock, and gospel—albeit one that, unlike Norman, remained separate from “secular” music. It wasn’t until later in the decade that Christian music began to merge with mainstream labels and became a highly profitable enterprise.

In the DVD extra scenes section of the documentary Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?, there is a clip of Norman during a question-and-answer session at Cornerstone from earlier this decade. The clip is only a few minutes long, but he talks about playing with numerous classic artists during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s—Janis Joplin, Buffalo Springfield, and so forth. This includes the claim that Pete Townshend listened to Norman’s mini-rock-opera “The Epic” and became inspired to write his own rock-opera, which later became 1969’s Tommy. As Whitman writes, Norman was “prone to fanciful tales that bore little or no relationship to the truth,” and this is likely an example. He was also rather paranoid, and (if I remember correctly) was reluctant to give interviews to mainstream media outlets out of deep distrust for their agenda.

Still, Whitman’s right in suggesting that current Christian contemporary music artists can learn a lot from Norman’s “emotional directness and honesty,” and the fact that he was willing to tackle controversial material. Perhaps even more importantly, he was musically innovative, and influenced non-Christian artists as well. The fact that Frank Black of The Pixies—a group that largely set the tone for modern “alternative” rock in the 1990s—considers Norman as a key influence speaks volumes. The Christian music industry may have made a lot of money in the past three decades, but it’s sorely lacked groundbreaking creativity; looking to what Norman accomplished artistically, and how he did it, can only help.

--I just received in the mail a copy of Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s, which I’ll be reviewing for PopMatters. Although I haven’t had the chance to yet begin it, I noticed something that is encouraging. Rightward Bound is an edited volume that is attempting to provide a historical overview of the “conservative revolution.” The paperback edition is $19.95. Therefore, while Harvard University Press is publishing the book first and foremost for an academic audience, it is also potentially accessible to non-academics.

And I can only applaud that. Many academic books are going to have an inherently limited audience due to the technical nature of their subject matter, and that’s fine; it’s a necessary component of academia, after all. The cost of academic books is another prohibitive factor that is sometimes unavoidable. So when a university press like Harvard is willing to publish an introduction of sorts to new scholarship on the conservative movement in the ‘70s, and offers a reasonable price on the paperback, that’s good news. I’ll likely post my pre-review opinions of the book later, but I was glad to see those two things straight away.

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