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