My Long Strange Trip with Larry Norman

A couple weeks ago, I watched (and blogged about) the David Di Sabatino documentary film, Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher.  David was kind enough to drop me an email after that post, and kinder still to send me a copy of his more recent film, Fallen Angel: The Outlaw Larry Norman.

It’s odd that I ever got into Larry Norman music when I was in high school, but I did.  In spite of growing up in a mainline Congregational church and having to this day never heard a Randy Stonehill song (as far as I know), someone turned me on to Norman’s music and I loved it.

I didn’t get the millenial theology, that’s for sure — famously, Norman’s song, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” was used in the campy Christian rapture film, A Thief in the Night.  And Norman’s music didn’t sound like the other Christian rock that my evangelical friends foisted upon me: Petra, White Heart, and Stryper.

Instead, Norman’s music sounded more like my favorite music: Led Zeppelin and their ilk.  His songs were often driven with acoustic blues rhythms, and his lyrics were shockingly raw:

Gonorrhea on Valentine’s Day,
and you’re still lookin’ for the perfect lay.
Why don’t you look into Jesus,
He’s got the answer.

That was all a bit of a neck-snapper for this nice, white suburban boy.

The fact is, it was clear to me even in the 1980s, when I was listening to Norman’s music on cassettes in my 1976 Ford Pinto hatchback that he was from a different version of Christianity than I.  I wondered what, if anything, I had in common with the Christianity that he was singing about.

I wonder that less today, but I am even more fascinated by Norman, Frisbee, and the Jesus Movement revival in the 1970s.  Fallen Angel isn’t particularly kind to Norman, but only because it tells the truth.  Like so many other gifted artists, he was tragically flawed and left a wake of broken relationships (including an unacknowledged son in Australia) and sour business deals behind him.  Throughout the many interviews in the film, the main feeling among those interviewed seems to be that they’re shaking their heads and wondering what-could-have-been.  And, not coincidentally, that’s almost verbatim what Chuck Smith, Sr. says at Lonnie Frisbee’s funeral in that film.

Both Frisbee and Norman died pretty much alone, far from the adoring throngs of fans that they’d known in the 1970s.  Maybe they were abandoned by the church (as they both claimed), or maybe they pushed the church away by their strange and sometimes abusive behavior.  Or, most likely, it was a combination of the two.  But, in any case, I’ve found both of Di Sabatino’s films to be poignant and tragic, and to open a window into an aspect of recent Christian history with which I was previously unfamiliar.

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    • http://zoecarnate.com Mike Morrell

      Dude, the Jesus Movement is fascinating – and something we could all learn a lot from. There’ve been some good scholarly monographs published in the past 10 years that probably have some good info. I also collect exuberant, tacky-covered, primary-source books from that era.

    • Garrett

      At the original Cornerstone Festival outside Chicago I saw someone ask Larry for his autograph. He said he wouldn’t give one but he did draw a picture of a dog on the guy’s hand. Not so much this incident but the passion in his music has been a great influence on my walk with Jesus.

    • Tim Nelson

      Norman truly was one of the few artists from that era whose music has transcended that particular time. So much of the music that I listened to in that genre during that time is now like fingers on a chalkboard, but Norman’s stuff somehow remains fresh for me. I wasn’t too shocked when watching Fallen Angel, having heard vague references from other artists and having read tidbits in various CCM articles over the years. Di Sabatino’s film does paint a good picture of a tortured soul, one that might fit very well into, say, the book of Genesis. Looking back I often wonder how much of my theology has been shaped by having literally whole albums of his ingrained in my memory. “love is a corpse we sit and watch it harden we left it oh so long ago the garden”

    • http://homebrewedchristianity.com tripp fuller

      I am a huge Larry fan. I bought the documentary and thought it was pretty selective when it comes to the people who have been around him. Of course until he died I took road trips to see him every time he was on the east coast with my grandma. He would remember our names and talk to the fans for a long time after the concerts (which could last up to 4 hours). The day after I proposed to my wife we took a road trip to see Larry and he let me sing with him (something on my bucket list). I am still pretty confident in being able to play larry songs for a couple hours without repeating them….even some pre-mil. songs. Any way, that has very little to do with the post or movie but Larry is awesome.

    • Korey

      Loved his music. I too found much more there than the conventional Christian music of the 80s and 90s (but I can think of some others too). Larry came and performed at a tribute concert for a college classmate of mine who was a musician and huge fan. Larry even recorded one of the young man’s song for a tribute album. I found a little longer description of this in the first comment at a Larry Norman obituary http://blogtown.portlandmercury.com/2008/02/larry_norman_rip.php. Looks like the album is even on Amazon to this day http://www.amazon.com/Bootleg-Tribute-Pierce-Various-Artists/dp/B00000JFWZ/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1264006794&sr=8-2

      In addition to Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus, the great song you quoted, these jump to mind: The Outlaw, I am a Servant, Song for a Small Circle of Friends, Sweet Sweet Song of Salvation, One Way, Pardon Me, and The Great American Novel.

    • http://www.lovefiercely.blogspot.com Cathryn Thomas

      I had pretty much all of Norman’s records, loved his stuff, even though yes, there was some questionable stuff. Oh, i’ve gotten to hear Tripp Fuller do some of Norman chunes on his geeter, and i was impressed. (Hi Tripp… ;-)
      I’m looking forward to seeing it when it comes out. Thanks for posting.
      Gotta admit, Larry was a brilliant lyricist.
      shalom, cathryn

    • http://www.toddlittleton.net Todd

      We hosted Larry for a concert while I was serving as Assoc P/Youth Minister. He was to sing in the worship service. Arrived late and forgot his words to, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” Shared lunch with him. Fascinating and certainly flawed – as we all are.

      Love me some Larry music.

    • Erick Altburg

      Well, I saw the movie, a few times in fact. It doesn’t give real answers to the questions it raises.

      A hand full of people are making claims that seem awkward to me. This claims aren’t back-upped with facts. It’s a one sided view at things.

      Not once is Larry’s view at a given subject presented. That says enough I think.

      Besides that, on the Unclerandslist (Yahoo group) a guy asked a question to David Di Sabatino. He asked if David really said in the past that he ‘would get even’ with Larry. David answered ‘yes’, and some other stuff. It’s still up, you can read it yourselves. That does it for me. This movie is made by a man who hates Larry’s guts, an acts likewise. He could have presented so much other stuff, but choose to follow this damaging road. I’m sorry for the good people who lent their name to this movie, but I think they should have known. Sad.

    • Barry Williams

      Ah, the Norman crazies have struck again.

      I have watched with some disdain a group of rabid Larry Norman fans diss and shuck this movie from afar. And it is disgusting. This fellow above is one of them.

      They are very much like the man himself, having lost their way in their infatuation (bordering on psycho worship) for Larry.

      I saw this film in San Jose. The filmmaker collected a number of people who worked with Larry, and said some pointed things. So, unless you believe he paid them to do so…or scripted the thing, how in the world can he make people say all these things about Larry Norman?

      The film says that larry was used of God, but ultimately lost his way. And I think that is true if you ask many of the people involved. This is a great film. Eventually the crazies will understand that.

    • http://pastorbobcornwall.blogspot.com Bob Cornwall

      Larry Norman was a different sort of Christian musician. His theology, as seen in his music, was dispensationalist millennarianism. But it was different. I saw him perform in Portland back in the late 70s. He told us that the local Christian bookstore wouldn’t sell tickets to his concert — didn’t think he was dignified or a good Christian.

      I enjoyed his music because he stood out from among the cast of characters at the time. He was sort of a loner — did his own thing. Obviously he wasn’t perfect, seemed rather surly on stage, and yet you enjoyed the experience. On the surly part, he’d say something in a deadpanned way — it was quite funny, but you weren’t sure you should laugh.

      Hey Tripp — you’ll have to do some Larry Norman at Theology after Google!

    • http://kevinwaynesongs.com Kevin Wayne

      Here’s a fascinating convo between myself and Mr David DiSabbatino. Watch what yu’re doing, & who you ally yourself with! David didn’t want this posted on Facebook and he moved to get it removed from my account:

      http://kevinwaynesongs.com/FallenAngel.docx
      http://kevinwaynesongs.com/FallenAngel.htm

      • alancoughlin

        Kevin,

        Your link is no longer resolving correctly. Can you please e-mail me your file so I can read this conversation you had with DDS? And let me know if I can have your permission to quote it or post it on http://www.thetruthaboutlarrynorman.com.

        Thanks,

        Alan Coughlin

    • Erick

      @ Barry: sorry, I’m not a big Larry fan. But I know the filmmaker and his motivations. What the heck, he even told this several times in public.

      In a recent radio interview David himself stated that he didn’t include certain people in his movie because their interview would not have supported the story. I think that makes it clear enough. A one-sided movie which doesn’t answer the questions it raised.

    • Kevin

      Erick- That’s all David and his supporters have in their defense: That those of us who dislike the film are rabid Larry fans who care more about his image than the facts. Without that, his whole house of cards falls down.

    • DJ

      The crux of this tragic matter for me is that for some reason DDS knowingly left out of his documentary is that LN self acknowledged he had bipolar disorder, a mental health condition that can cloud and distort a person’s thinking and judgment dramatically. It is reported that people close to the family were aware that there were ongoing mental health issues with several members of the Norman clan, so this is a valid line of inquiry.

      Bipolar Disorder can cause terrible, terrible disruptions in the relationships of those stricken with it and lead to the very kinds of behavior that the video describes LN in having displayed.

      This begs a question. Why didn’t DDS go into this question??? In the video for some reason instead of exploring how this factor may have lead to and might explain some of the objectionable behavior DDS highlights that was out of line with the general sense of who LN was that most people held, DDS simply discounts and dispenses with this entire line of inquiry, using one of the on-camera interviewees to say having a mental disorder is no excuse. What a narrow and ignorant approach for DDS to take! This flies in the face of state-of-the-art medical understanding of mental health, and thereby makes it impossible to see this documentary to be considered complete, even-handed or fully objective.

      Also since LN himself talks in some of his videos about how earlier in his life he had a very harsh understanding of how God operates and later came to an understanding of a graceful and loving God which changed his outlook entirely, why didn’t DDS talk about this and how it might have effected his behavior at different points in his life??? From what I could see it caused LN to soften and become more compassionate as his life drew to a close.

      DDS carries this further by the false implication of the film that LN was somehow living in isolation and out of fellowship in his later days. This seems to be entirely based on restricting the input to only those who were upset with LN. Even if DDS was having trouble getting interviews with LN or people who were closely connected with LN, it doesn’t warrant falsely implying that LN was totally isolated and living a sad life.

      Why did DDS take such a judgmental approach when he does such a beautiful job of giving Mr. Frisbee the benefit of the doubt for his shortcomings in his other documentary??? One thing that is evident from listening to DDS is that he got very personally involved in a drawn out conflict with LN while LN was still alive, trying to get interviews and info from LN about the matter.

      Its a shame that he couldn’t find the journalistic gumption to put aside his personal feelings and try to explore and understand how these tragic events might have come about or applied Christian grace and instead adopts a simplistic narrow judgmental stance. Very distressing.

      I took a prebeliever to see this film, thinking it might draw them closer to Jesus, but instead it just spoke poorly of how believers treat one another and turned them off — how disappointing!!! I don’t think the film is finished and really achieves its goal of telling a ‘bible story’ and won’t be finished until DDS is able to make it more objective, whole and complete. Then it would truly be a ‘bible story’ and a God-story of unmerited grace. DDS started on something that I think is worth doing and I hope at some point he’ll finish it.

    • DJ

      Its worth noting too that Pamela Newman stated at the premier that LN had asked (and recieved) her for forgiveness for his behavior and DDS subsequently stated that he would not include that point in his film. He said he doesn’t believe Pamela that it happened and that Pamela is just saying that because she wants to believe it even though it isn’t true(?!?!?) While its readily evident Pamela has a very ‘large personality’ that doesn’t excuse deliberate exclusion of her testimony or questioning her credibility. If she’s not credible, why use part of her story but not another?

      DDS made a very transparent excuse not being able to include everything in the film, but actually it seems clear to me that DDS is very selective about what he includes and instead of letting a key figure — LN’s first wife — have her input in the story, he only included those parts of her story that would support his own point of view of how bad a person LN was. So far anyway — maybe we can hope for a more objective update.

    • DJ

      Ironically Daniel’s own evident mental health issues also support the point that LN probably genetically passed along some of his own mental health challenges. Sadly at the Cinequest showings Daniel took the line DDS had that mental disease was completely irrelevant — at the same time his own angry behavior from the stage made it obvious it is extremely relevant.

    • http://capthk.wordpress.com John D. Chitty

      All of the above just means that Larry Norman was truly “Rock ‘n Roll.” Not a white-washed pretender. A pretender, maybe…but white-washed, no.

      Can’t wait to order Fallen Angel myself.

    • http://www.alancoughlin.com Alan Coughlin

      I knew Larry personally for the last 25 years of his life. I can assure you that Larry did not die “pretty much alone” – quite to the contrary! Neither did he feel like he was “abandoned by the church.” And I can assure you all that the depiction of Larry in this film is false. There is a reason that most of the people appearing in the film are from 30 years ago. David Sabatino had to go back that far to find people that were so bitter about how their lives turned out after Larry quit helping them that they were willing to slander him on film. There are countless people that loved Larry deeply and respected him greatly that would be willing to testify to Larry’s impeccable character; people that are thankful to God for the example of love and obedience that he left for us to follow; people who were inspired by him and cherish his memory.

      Sabatino deliberately kept the truth from you. “The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him” (Prov. 18:17). The truth is coming. If you must see this film, watch it with a critical eye, and don’t become party to a false witness by repeating his unproven gossip.

      • Gary

        When did Larry change?

    • Derek Robertson

      See the truth about David Di Sabatino and the deception in his Fallen Angel Larry Norman movie.

      http://www.failedangle.com

    • Stephen Fritz

      I have an open mind about the whole thing because I never knew Larry, though I love his music. I’ve been trying to figure this whole thing out in my head. There are a lot of us out here who don’t know what to think of all this. But I do know one thing… it seems as though if someone dare ask a question about the documentary… they immediately get labeled as “Crazies” and the personal attacks begin. Why is that? Are we still in high school or something?

      I’m sure I’ll get labeled now, but I honestly have nothing to do with the ‘failedangle’ website, or Larry… or DiSabatino (other than we are FB friends). I’m just a dude trying to make sense of it all. And personal immature attacks on anyone who might have a question is not helping any, y’all.

    • Kevin

      Steve; Who’s the one levelling the attacks? David has even been invited to comment on the Facebook page for Failed Angle & he’s refused. But he deletes other people’s posts on his page!

    • Timmy

      I once posted “Every Dylan needs an A J Weberman” and was forever banned from the FA FaceBook page.

    • Barri Srong

      Barry Williams – Definition of ‘crazies’ is anyone who doesn’t agree with Barry Williams. This movie’s character assassination of a dead man and posting it all over Youtube is a disgrace anyway you slice it.

    • Gary

      I haven’t seen the film yet. Here it is 3 years later and I’m still waiting for the updated version of this film. I’ve heard too much about how one-sided it is.


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