Mike Rimmer chronicles the turbulent history of a Jesus music icon, a go-for-the-jugular film maker and his own encounters with both
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One of the strategies of the Norman fanatics has been to use the internet to attack Di Sabatino on a personal level. The filmmaker has vigorously fought back, often dismissing those who disagree with him as idiots. From his passionately held perspective, he has uncovered the truth and he is reporting it in his movie.
But just as there is a swirling whirlwind of myth and half truths around Larry Norman, the same kind of accusations and counter accusations have closed around Di Sabatino. For example, it was reported that Di Sabatino sent emails out to people interested in the Frisbee documentary saying that he would "get even with Larry Norman". Di Sabatino responded robustly, "I never said that! That's a Larry story again! You're taking that from his fans. Larry spun the story! Mike, that's what Larry did, you know; he spun stories because he was worried. The day that I told him that Randy Stonehill sat in my living room was the day that the gauntlet was thrown down and from then on, people in my emails. . . all sorts of stuff going on. I NEVER said I was going to 'get even'. What good does that do?!"
During a break in the interview while music was being played, David protested about my line of enquiry. "Why don't you ask me next when I stop beating my wife? I mean, there's no way of answering these kinds of allegations! They come up with them because for whatever reason they loved Larry. And I get that! I'm a fan! I loved Larry too! I know that's hard to believe but these things are true. So no amount of looking at my life and seeing if I did this or did that is going to make this stuff any less true. So these questions to my character and to my ability and stuff like that. . . I mean, what are people trying to do; trying to dissuade themselves from the fact that any of this stuff is true? You're going to be disappointed at the end of the road because we did our due diligence. And it's not me saying these things in the interviews, it's his friends, the people that worked with him."
In the '70s Norman formed Solid Rock Records and signed a number of talented artists to the label. It was more than business though, it was community. There was a booking agency, Norman had Phillip Mangano managing him and together they came up with a vision to raise up artists to be truly creative and take the message of Christ into a mainstream environment. The film features testimony from some of those closest to Larry that an incident occurred where Solid Rock staffers became convinced that Larry was having an affair with Sarah Stonehill. In the early hours of the morning while Randy was away on tour, staffers discovered Larry's car parked outside the Stonehill residence and so knocked on the door. As they describe it, a lot of time passed and eventually Sarah and Larry answered the door and were confronted.
A staff meeting was called and it was at this memorable meeting that Larry, rather than bowing to the concerns of his fellow artists and the Solid Rock family, chose to strike out. With accusations against his co-workers, he began the process of winding up the Solid Rock operation and the dreams of the artistic community came crashing down.
At Ray Ware's house, after the early cut of the movie was shared, there was an opportunity to give feedback which led to further discussions amongst former friends and co-workers. To a bystander like myself, I felt quite sad that 30 years later, these friends and colleagues were still trying to make sense of it all. They sat and remembered, told their side of the story and quizzed each other, trying to unravel how it could have gone so wrong. The indications were that Larry did not want to be confronted about his relationship with Sarah. The story that he told in concert and elsewhere is that his first wife Pamela often was spiritually flaky and unfaithful to him. Talking to Pamela on that evening, a different picture emerged.
Pamela talked to me about her youth and the strength of her Christian upbringing and her passion for evangelism. Asked point blank about her reputation for affairs by me and then later by Solid Rock staffers, she denied being unfaithful to Larry and pointed out that she has been faithfully married to the same man for the last 30 years since she remarried after her marriage to Larry fell apart.
Into the night, the conversations continued. There was talk of the airplane accident. In many on-stage reminiscences Larry claimed that on a flight part of the roof of the cabin hit him with such force that he suffered mild brain damage and that this accident stopped him from working coherently after the late '70s. Philip Mangano, who was seated in the next seat to Larry, denied that it was that serious. So was the accident and brain damage another example of another piece of Larry Norman mythology? It appears so.
Listening to the debate of his former colleagues, it seemed that anything concerning the larger-than-life Christian rock pioneer was possible. One thing is certain. That meeting in 1980 with Solid Rock colleagues signalled a spiritual and creative decline for Larry. De Sabatino observed, "I think that meeting in 1980 was pivotal. I think he talked about it for the rest of his life in liner notes but more so to the people that were involved. I don't think that he ever could understand why this group of people would question him in the manner that they did. And all they were doing was looking for answers. But Larry didn't take kindly to that. I think some of the personal difficulties that he had and some of the bad theology that he held left him open to thinking that he was above any of that. I think that sowed the seeds of his own fall."
One of the major subplots of the film is the relationship between Larry and Randy Stonehill. It began with a deep friendship and musical collaborations but it ended in tears. Randy seemed a broken man talking about Larry in the film, particularly talking about his dispute over publishing rights. Di Sabatino responded, "It's tremendously sad. There were a number of times when we talked about it that the camera would stop and we'd just kind of shake our heads and look at each other. I can't speak for Randy but I will say that he was tremendously gracious to Larry. It wasn't in bitterness that he told this story but he believed that in order to rehabilitate some of the stuff that Larry had spun about himself, in order to make him a true human being, some of the stuff needed to come out, you know? And that'll sound funny to people that are shocked that any of this stuff is coming out but in order for Larry to be a true human being some of the air needed to be let out of the bag of wind that he had blown up for himself. Randy believed that. He said that independent of me, and I remember the day he said that and I said, 'That's exactly what this movie's about.' In a way this is the best thing that could happen to Larry because in the end I think that he will sell more records than he did while he was alive. But he needed to be taken away from this kind of nonsense that he had spun."
Di Sabatino continued, "You have to think about this; Larry was the midwife for Randy's salvation. He was there when God entered that room. Something supernatural, I believe, happened between these two guys. When Randy first came down from California and stepped into Larry's kitchen, there was a bond there. Larry was Randy's mentor. He taught him how to be on stage. He gave him the platform. This was a friendship that he really appreciated and I don't think he understood exactly why there needed to be such a radical break. I don't think he ever understood that. And Randy's song, 'Even The Best Of Friends', was reaching out to Larry and saying, 'Okay, look, we can't avoid our twisted history here. Maybe we'll never be able to unravel it. Let's just put it aside and move on.' But that just never happened. I think Randy breaks down because he realises [the opportunity] that was lost."
Over the last two decades, one had to admire the way that despite his declining health, Larry continued to minister. Fans loved the way that he told stories, spent time admonishing them to follow Christ and undoubtedly made an impact. However, the evidence is overwhelming that Larry Norman was a man whom God loved and chose to use despite his deep flaws.
Those Norman fanatics who dismiss the evidence and instead mount virulent attacks on the 'Fallen Angel' documentary and its director show that they too carry flaws which need healing. And from the brutally rude tirades in defence of his work it seems Di Sabatino too needs to allow God's grace and forgiveness to get to work. Such a need could be extended to me, of course. Creative endeavours, be they the making of rock music, the directing of films or the producing of radio programmes, all contain within them a tendency to flatter the ego and blind the zealous creative spirit to other viewpoints and perspectives. My hope and prayer is that this article doesn't add to the tangle of accusation and counter-accusation that has engulfed the 'Fallen Angel' film. May all of us be delivered of our anger. As Larry once wrote, "Don't ask me for the answer, I've only got one/That a man leaves his darkness when he follows the Son."