Larry Norman: The David Di Sabatino's Fallen Angel documentary

Sunday 28th March 2010

Mike Rimmer chronicles the turbulent history of a Jesus music icon, a go-for-the-jugular film maker and his own encounters with both

Continued from page 1

So, whilst 'Fallen Angel' paid tribute to Norman's musical and ministry impact, it also didn't shy away from some of the more difficult aspects of his life. There was his troubled relationship with fellow artist and one-time best friend Randy Stonehill. There were the complications of Norman beginning a relationship with Randy's wife Sarah while Randy and Sarah were still together. And there were the broken promises made to Randy from Larry concerning the songwriter's publishing. Back in Ray Ware's house, I watched in astonishment as Stonehill broke down in tears on the couch as he watched himself talking about what he felt was Larry's betrayal.

But most devastating of all, the film also revealed that in the late '80s Larry Norman fathered a child, Daniel, in Australia after a relationship with one of his backing singers, Jennifer Wallace and that after Daniel's birth Larry refused to recognise the child and endeavoured to cover the matter up.

As news of the film emerged, an internet battle broke out between Norman's family and fans on one side and Di Sabatino on the other. Every time the Fallen Angel movie was mentioned furious internet exchanges would ensue. Larry's family led by brother Charlie Norman began to work tirelessly to block the distribution of 'Fallen Angel' and, when that failed, whip up hardcore supporters in an effort to discredit it.

When I announced towards the end of 2009 that I would be interviewing Di Sabatino and Jennifer Wallace on Cross Rhythms' Rimmerama programme, I immediately began receiving messages from Larry Norman fans, many of whom had never listened to my show before. Some fans even sent emails to the trustees of the Cross Rhythms charity and to the programme controller complaining about my choice of interviewees. They wrote demanding that the interviews not take place. One typical example from B Dukes read, "I hear on the grapevine that Mr Rimmer is a personal friend of the film maker Mr Sabatino so how can this be an unbiased programme?"

Through the decades Larry has attracted an international enclave of fans. Unfortunately a minority of these supporters have allowed a passionate enthusiasm for a man's art and ministry to mutate into blind obsession. Such fanatical fans struggle to believe that their hero could ever do anything bad. They simply cannot equate the impact Larry's music has had on their lives with the flawed disciple Randy Stonehill, Jennifer Wallace and others spoke about in Fallen Angel. In the strange realm of the Larry Norman fanatic David Di Sabatino is regarded as little less than the Devil! On receipt of the emails, I endeavoured to assure my detractors that my "friendship" with Di Sabatino comprised of one radio telephone interview, one meeting with him at the evening at Ray Ware's house and the radio interview about the documentary which you're about to read. Prior to that we had spent a while having Facebook conversations about the film. So with the support of the Cross Rhythms ministry. the radio interviews went ahead. In view of the quantity of emails I had received I decided to use much of the interviews with Di Sabatino and Jennifer Wallace to put some of the fans' complaints about the film - that Wallace's claim of an affair with Larry was a fiction, that the critical elements in the film were "revenge" because of past disagreements Di Sabatino and Norman had had over the earlier Frisbee film - to my interviewees. Unfortunately, such a hard journalistic approach did not meet with the approval of Di Sabatino. After the programme the film maker, gave vent to his anger. After the show he sent me some messages on Facebook condemning me for a lack of journalistic integrity or skill. He then de-friended me on Facebook, not wanting to have anything more to do with me.

Now, to document this whole Christian arts and media soap opera, I set out here an edited version of the Rimmerama interview.

In the beginning, Di Sabatino was a Larry Norman fan. Said the film maker, "I was fascinated by Larry like you were. I was 14 years old and heard the song 'Rock That Doesn't Roll' and was just really moved by that. For me this combination of counterculture, questioning everything that came down the pipeline and its embrace of Christianity was very, very appealing. So I loved the music and I was a fan of the guy. Over the years though, I kind of drew nearer and took a look and found that there was a story that wasn't being told. And when I did the Lonnie Frisbee feature, which got a little bit of success, I thought, well maybe we should do Larry next? And it was just a natural progression."

In the Frisbee documentary, Di Sabatino wanted to use Larry Norman's music in the soundtrack but, it's been reported, Larry wouldn't let him. Di Sabatino filled in the details. "I approached Larry with the Lonnie film and I said to him, 'Lonnie was the kind of guy who I think your songs would kind of fit. You're singing basically the storyline to his life; I think the storyline to your life too. I think you guys have a lot in common.' So initially he said 'yes' to allowing the songs to be used. The problem was that we never could be clear on who actually OWNED those songs (the publishing rights of Norman's songs are owned by a number of different secular publishers) so I was playing two people up against the middle. Because on the one hand I was looking to Larry for his support but I don't know that I really needed it because I don't think any of the songs that I wanted to use were his to give. I still think and I still maintain EMI Publishing own [most of] those songs. So I was talking to them and talking to Larry, getting one story from Larry, and it was really convoluted. So at the end when everything kind of derailed and EMI said 'no', I had already begun to the work on the Larry project. When Larry got wind of it and decided that he was against it, he started spinning this story that the reason that I was doing it was because I was mad that he had pulled the songs from the soundtrack."

Bizarrely, Norman released a kind of pseudo-soundtrack album, 'Frisbee', of tracks that were supposed to have been on the soundtrack of the Frisbee feature but weren't. Di Sabatino commented, "Now when he put out the soundtrack that ticked me off, because it was like we were talking about putting something out together and then he went ahead and started selling it at his concerts. But all that did was raise my curiosity. Why would somebody do this? Why would somebody who says they're a Christian pull a stunt like this? And then we started to get into it and I realised this was a long drawn out cycle of behaviour that he would pull. So that kind of became the sad story. I wasn't the only one. This happened over and over and over again."

How did David respond to fans who insisted 'Fallen Angel' was an anti-Larry Norman film? "I think the film is not solely those things," Di Sabatino countered. "I think from a Larry Norman fan's perspective they look at it as some sort of revenge motif; obviously that's how they're going to see it. But that's not what the film is about. The film is about a guy who deserves kudos for what he did, and we try to do that in the first 60 minutes. And then we tell the rest of the story, that there were things that were problematic in his life. So we tell the whole story."

So how does the film maker respond to those Christians who suggest there's no justification possible for dragging a Christian brother's name and ministry through the mud in order to make some point. "I would point out that the Bible writer who told King David's story, was he guilty of what you're saying? Because 5,000 years after the fact we still gain good information and spiritual knowledge from the fact that King David was a man after God's own heart but committed two of the most egregious crimes that you could possibly perpetrate. He committed adultery and then he had the woman's husband murdered. This is a story that we tell in Sunday School over and over again. I think the people who are complaining about [my film] need to go back to the Bible and see that about 75 per cent of it is negativity. It's the ongoing redemption of fallen man, through the wonderful grace of God."

According to 'Fallen Angel' Larry neglected to support his son and would not acknowledge him properly. Di Sabatino explained, "Jennifer Wallace is a woman Larry met when she was 18. She did concerts with him. She did background vocals for him. And then in the late '80s as her marriage was dwindling. . . I'm not sure the status of Larry's marriage at the time. . . they came together and conceived a child. And Larry made a lot of promises. Jennifer's story is that Larry pretty much left her literally holding the baby and whenever she tried to contact him he pretty much just neglected her."

Larry Norman: The David Di Sabatino's Fallen Angel documentary

Norman fanatics have suggested online and elsewhere that Di Sabatino has absolutely no evidence for this assertion. The film maker responded, "To say that there's no evidence - I just want to say this one simple thing: a court of law in Oregon has been petitioned and they have said there is overwhelming evidence because they allowed the Wallace family to see the will. They don't just do that with anybody! You have to have evidence suggesting that the son is actually related to the deceased. So there IS overwhelming evidence. If you keep saying there's not that doesn't mean anything. A court of law has ruled on this."

On the same Rimmerama programme as my interview with Di Sabatino Jennifer Wallace talked to me from Australia. She sounded just like what she is, an Australian housewife and mother trying to make sense of everything that was happening to her and her son. She explained how her relationship with Larry began. "When both of our respective marriages had finished, in '88 I did a tour for Larry in Australia. I think we did 28 concerts in 30 days in August of '88 and I organised those concerts for him."

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Reader Comments

Posted by Callum Beck in PEI, Canada @ 13:18 on Apr 19 2018

A fair and balanced presentation, imo. I met Dave in the early nineties, with another Norman fanatic. He was starting to question some of Larry's claims even then, and his questions seemed to have some substance. For me it was Larry's paranoia expressed in his lyrics and written comments that first made me question a lot of his claims. I loved the story line but realized he played around with the truth far too much. I met him about 2000 on PEI. He clearly loved the Lord and was an amazing evangelist and musician but he also had serious flaws which he unfortunately had trouble admitting. He needed some of Brendan Manning's and Rich Mullin's brutal honesty. Still love his music and have no doubt about his deep faith, but even if there may be another side to some of the accusations made in the documentary there also seems to be much of truth in it.

Posted by Nobody special @ 21:16 on Jan 6 2017

I'm a Larry Norman fan, who recognised he had a dark side. Ironically, the impact of the Di Sabatino film, combined with refuting material subsequently released by the Norman family, has been for me to see Larry in a more positive light.

You have to decide whether Di Sabatino was an unbiased investigator or a troublemaker with a camera and agenda. To me, this article places him in the latter camp. The most obvious question to Jennifer Lawrence is, are you sure Larry was the father? Could it have been another man? Far from going off the deep end when that question was asked, Di Sabatino should have asked it himself. Related is his willingness to make an entire film of accusations against Norman, yet get upset when tough questions are asked of him.

In the wake of all this the Norman family has released materials concerning Norman's divorce from Pamela and other matters. Anyone who sees the film should also consider these before making their minds up. Incredibly sad. /

Posted by Babs in Newton Le Willows @ 02:23 on Aug 9 2015

Phew! Those behind the Fallen Angel bore-fest had nothing good and true to say about Larry. Disgusting. Voices that could defend him remain silent. We will never divulge what he had to suffer in his harrowing dealings with them. But I know that I know that His Lord was for him more than any one of those folk could ever imagine. He knew that, too, therefore remained sweetly silent. Yay!!!@

Posted by Arlow Cain in Troy, Ohio @ 04:32 on Jan 20 2012

Ease up Christians. Either you love Truth or you don't.

Posted by Dave in UK @ 13:59 on Nov 30 2010

Difficult... Mike there is so much being said on both sides but there is at least one simple truth here. David Di Sabatino is the aggressor. Quoting King David is purely an excuse. What he is doing is not right even if he is correct. If a similar row was happening in our Church, instigated by an individual, they would need to either stop or quickly find another church. Maybe we all need to read the Gospels again.

Sometimes we justify attitudes in our media culture because we are not radical enough in our Christianity- perhaps that's why we're so anonymous. It is not cliche to say that if Jesus turned up and they asked him what he thought it would all be sorted out very quickly. He would not be interested in the sordid details. In fact anything of this nature breaks his heart. Perhaps he wasn't very involved in the production.

I suspect the challenge is that one of the privileges of being in the media is the right of free creative expression of different points of view, and yet we have killed part of our heart if we think that as Christians we have that right. James said the most difficult thing to tame is the tongue, with good reason, and we are not disciples unless we are willing to submit ourselves to that within an industry that will not.

David Di Sabatino, if he is a guy who cares at all about God more than success in the Christian sub-culture, will realise that he will have to give account and he's made a film which brings disrepute to God. Whether he's right is irrelevant. he may well be.

This is not a Larry Norman supporter berating an opponent. Please get the point. The Media has no God-given right to discuss publicly the sins of another any more than an individual. I'm not defending Larry, just saddened by the whole furore.

I suppose we need someone radical to come and shake things up a bit in the Christian Media...

Reply by MADA in Canada @ 12:34 on Mar 13 2014

Well said!

[report abuse]

Posted by Michael Lodahl in San Diego, CA @ 04:56 on Oct 13 2010

Thanks for the article. I've yet to locate a copy of "Fallen Angel" but would like to see it. I've been a lover of LN's music since I first heard a pirated tape back in 1972. But really, long before any of this stuff hit the fan, wasn't it obvious -- even just in his liner notes -- that Larry was capable of extensive self-promotion (no, self-aggrandizement) and rationalization? Everything was always someone else's fault. It became an awfully old tune. And yet I still love his music (esp. late 60s/early 70s) and admire his creativity. I felt he spent too much time and energy trying to present an image of infallibility -- even while his music could have gone so much deeper into human agony, sin, failure, etc.

Posted by Martin Hoerschelmann in Hamburg, Germany @ 01:15 on Sep 16 2010

Thank you for your side of the Larry Norman-story. Since the 80s I'm a fan of his music. But there allways remained a questionmark: Why did he say things like "I found out they were wrong"? (When they had said, he "slept around".) It's much easier to say: They ARE wrong. Why does he sing: "FELT like she left me for another man"? (And then again: She left me ...) Did she or not? I was curious. Now I have an idea of who this gifted man was. I still like to listen to Larry's great music. And yes, it's true: God is building his kingdom with normal humans. Like me and you.

Reply by Alan Cardwell in Belfast @ 15:42 on May 12 2013

typical that people read too much in to everything that Larry said. He was a human and gave up what would have been a lucrative career in secular music.....only for people to question and give their biased points of view

[report abuse]

Posted by Gary Sellars in Humble TX @ 15:12 on Aug 21 2010

It's sad to see such a bitter spirit from those who are claiming bad motives from those in the movie. If you're recommending graciousness, kindness and love, shouldn't you be showing it yourself? But you're not. You're showing the same kind of ugliness for which you're criticizing others.

That doesn't help your credibility.

Posted by Gary Smith in Cardiff @ 15:19 on Jul 25 2010


Thanks for your article we I appreciated. Like many others I was hugely influenced by Larry Norman's music. I saw him in concert and attended interviews etc.

On my first trip to Nashville I was delighted to see LN there but shocked at his ability to clear a room. Further discussion with friends indicted that they all had stories of unfortunate dealings and relationships with Larry. Indeed my OZ friends, even then knew of his exploits in their country. Obviously I was disappointed but my simple view was he was a man who HAD made some great music. As with many other artists of his age, such as Elton John and Paul McCartney, clearly his best songs (and his case_ performances where behind him. Did the flaws in his character impact my view of his earlier material? No. Why would it?

For his fans to try to defend his character is, I suspect, misplaced. For them to claim that he is vilified because he spoke out against the "system" is naive. I say this for 2 reasons, firstly because he embraced it whilst ever it embraced him. Secondly because others who have questioned its authenticity such as Rich Mullins and Charlie Peacock to name but 2 were always (and still are) celebrated by the industry.

Ultimately, we can never really know about the motivation of those involved in the film or that of LN (as ever enigmatic!). It should neither affect our capacity to appreciate his (at times) genius whilst recognising he was, as we all are, undoubtedly a flawed sinner saved by grace, a propogator of the Gospel and a pedaller, at times of mediocrity.

Posted by Steve L in Vancouver ,BC @ 06:49 on Jul 20 2010

Above all I am disappointed and disillusioned with Randy Stonehill's involvement with this film. Very sad.

The opinions expressed in the Reader Comments are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms.

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