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

Larry Norman
Larry Norman

In the beginning, there was Larry Norman. He was the first Christian artist I ever got passionate about and it was hard at first. In 1978 when I became a Christian, his albums were not freely available even though the high point of his recording career was the period 1972-1977. So there was something mysterious, and mildly romantic, in trying to hunt down his vinyl albums and discover his back catalogue.

A year after I was saved I glimpsed the distant dancing figure of a leather jacket clad Larry Norman for the first time, bouncing about the stage at Greenbelt as he made a guest appearance at the end of his best friend Randy Stonehill's Sunday night set. A year after that performance I sat all day in a spot near the front of the mainstage reserving my space for Norman's evening performance. He came armed with a battered guitar, a dry sense of humour and a lot of pain. He was going through divorce from his first wife Pamela but what I didn't know, as I stood listening to him sharing, was that the singer/songwriter had already started a relationship with Stonehill's wife Sarah. But more of that later.

Let's just say that I have spent much of my life as an admirer and fan of Norman's music. Like other fans I have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous and endless badly recorded live albums and a seemingly endless flow of compilations of the same old songs as Larry's website/label Solid Rock kept some cash flowing in during his years of ill health but hardly helped Larry's musical reputation. Keeping up my enthusiasm for the Jesus rock pioneer's music hasn't been easy. Nothing has matched his '70s output for creativity and quality. A couple of albums 'Tourniquet' and 'Stranded In Babylon' have come close but examining his released output as a whole, it has largely been an exercise in finding the flecks of gold in a torrent of dross.

Live, though, Larry continued to hold his own so the 'Stop This Flight' concerts in the mid '80s still had some spark. And I've lost count of the number of times an evening listening to Larry talk and play songs on his acoustic guitar has mesmerised me. In concert, Larry consistently laboured to share the Gospel with his audience. Jesus was always at the heart of his live shows. I can remember after the Bradford gig of the Friends On Tour, Larry announcing that he was happy for anyone to come and chat to him about Jesus but not to bother if all we wanted to do was to talk about music. He then exited from the stage and walked through the audience.

There are hundreds, probably thousands of people who will tell you their stories of Larry Norman and his warmth and kindness. Meeting him would sometimes overawe some fans. I can remember taking an Irish fan to see Larry perform in Birmingham and introducing her to the singer after the show where she promptly burst into tears and couldn't speak. Larry was very understanding. Perhaps this happened to him a lot.

For long periods of his career his music was difficult to find in the shops. In the early days he would complain about record label censorship and executives changing the running order of albums or removing songs. He would constantly portray himself as the thwarted artist. His music would be hard to find because his catalogue is spread across a number of different labels. His best music from the '70s only became widely available in the UK in the early '80s after he started working with Chapel Lane. After that relationship ended, finding Larry's music was mainly through mail order or at gigs and the occasional distribution deal through a Christian label.

And then there was the arrival of CD and the internet and the establishment of the online store where Larry systematically released everything he could find. It became a cottage industry and his very large tape archive was plundered for dozens of releases which left me wondering how many versions of "UFO" a fan could possibly want.

Each CD booklet brought with it sleevenotes and essays. Larry would sometimes use the sleevenotes to reminisce about times past and in doing so would sometimes play fast and loose with the facts. I lost count of the number of times I have been told that Beatles producer George Martin worked with Larry on 'Only Visiting This Planet'. It's even hinted at on Larry Noman websites. But it isn't true. The album was recorded at George Martin's Air Studios but Martin didn't do any production work on 'Only Visiting This Planet'.

Cutting through the myths to get to the facts of Larry's life and ministry can be very difficult. Larry has always been surrounded by rumours and would often joke about them in concert. He was disingenuous about his image. He portrayed himself as an artist railing against the commercialism of the mainstream record business whilst also placing himself as an outsider to the Church.

I interviewed Larry a number of times and he was always charming and friendly and I enjoyed our conversations. He had a reputation for being difficult with journalists but he was always fine with me. However sometimes he would be difficult to locate to set up an interview. It felt as though God was using the experience to teach me perseverance! After countless phone calls I remember tracking him down to a hotel in London and arranged to meet up with him only to receive a call at 4am cancelling the interview. When I was first married, I had been phoning Larry for a couple of months to set up an interview and finally he called my home. My new wife had no idea I'd been trying to set this up and was so surprised when Larry called that she thought it was me playing a joke!

Over the years I have met a lot of people who have worked with Larry Norman and been told various colourful stories about their experiences. Gradually, a picture of erratic behaviour emerged while some people close to Larry hinted at darker things going on. Whilst the Christian rock icon was alive, whole swathes of Larry's life and history were left unresearched and undocumented. In the aftermath of his death in February 2008, I created some special radio shows to pay tribute to Larry. Though the participants I assembled obeyed the social adage that it's not good to speak ill of the dead, there were hints of people's unrest about Norman's business and personal relationships.

In April 2008 I was in Nashville interviewing Tom Howard, an artist who had been signed to Larry Norman's label Solid Rock in the '70s. The conversation inevitably turned to Larry and the break up of Solid Rock Records. The next evening Tom invited me to a gathering at Ray Ware's home. Ware is a long time friend and manager of Randy Stonehill. The song "Venezuela" was written about him. The evening was a celebration of Larry's life by some of his friends. In the room was Larry's first wife Pamela, artist friends like Howard, Stonehill and Phil Keaggy and former staff members from Solid Rock including Norman's former manager Philip Mangano and documentary film maker David Di Sabatino. The evening began with us singing some of our favourite Larry songs and people sharing affectionate stories. Old photos were passed around which provoked further memories, food and drink was shared and it was an evening to remember.

Most of those gathered had been interviewed by Di Sabatino for his documentary film 'Fallen Angel: The Outlaw Larry Norman' and the second half of the evening was taken up with a showing of an early cut of the film. For those who haven't seen the final cut, the main premise of the film acknowledges that Norman was a creative pioneer of Christian music marrying a radical message of discipleship to rock'n'roll and powerfully chronicles how Norman's music had touched people across the world. Plenty of time is devoted in the film to pay tribute to the music and Larry's commitment to spreading the message of Christ. But then 'Fallen Angel' went on to document, through a series of interviews, how not everything in Larry's lifestyle was consistent with the message he shared.

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

Di Sabatino's previous film 'Frisbee' told the story of a hippie preacher Lonny Frisbee from the Jesus Movement era who was fundamentally at the heart of the development of both the Calvary Chapel and Vineyard churches and yet struggled with homosexuality and ultimately died after contracting AIDS. It appears that as well as a fascination for the early years of Jesus music, Di Sabatino has a passion for telling what he terms "biblical stories" where God will use flawed and broken people to carry out his work. As a matter of theological truth and church history many believers struggle with this fact. But as Di Sabatino's powerful films sought to show God used Norman and Frisbee in amazing ways despite their moral failures. There's nothing new in this revelation, of course. The Bible is full of such histories and some of the greatest figures in the Bible struggled morally. But it is still a contentious subject.

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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!

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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

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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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