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 3

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." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Mike Rimmer
Mike RimmerMike Rimmer is a broadcaster and journalist based in Birmingham.

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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.

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