After seeing Norman in concert, the teenage Charles Thompson IV started dressing like his “idol.” Adopting the stage name Black Francis, he helped form the Pixies in Massachusetts in 1985; two years later, the band released the EP Come On Pilgrim, a title that references a catch phrase Norman used onstage. Black and producer Steve Albini discovered their mutual admiration for Norman in the studio. In the song “Levitate Me,” Black imitates Norman’s accent as he shouts, “Come on Pilgrim, you know He loves you!” Members of U2 introduced Black to Norman during the 1992-93 Zoo TV tour, and his solo album, 1998’s Frank Black and the Catholics, features a cover of his idol’s song “Six-Sixty-Six.” In fact, one could create the goofiest compilation album ever with Norman covers by Black, Petula Clark, Pat Boone, Jack Jones, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Cliff Richard, DC Talk and Sammy Davis Jr. During a break from the Pixies’ reunion tour, Black joined Norman onstage in 2005 for what was expected to be his final concert on U.S. soil. Charles Norman is a guitarist in Francis’ current backing band.

“Fans of contemporary Christian music often claim their heroes could be mainstream stars if they did not sing about Jesus,” Chris Willman, Entertainment Weekly’s senior music writer, wrote in a moving obituary to Norman, who died on Feb. 24, 2008. “Usually, that’s a lot of malarkey, but in Norman’s case, it happened to be true: A lot of his early work wouldn’t sound at all out of place between Wings and the Stones on a classic-rock station, if not for his (usually) righteous lyrics.”

Norman had some less-savory aspects to his character—including a reputation as a lothario, a manipulative boss and one who took sole credit for the accomplishments of others. But all that just made Di Sabatino feel more compelled to tell Norman’s tale.

The inside of Norman's Frisbee "survey disc"
The inside of Norman's Frisbee "survey disc"
Di Sabatino with his first film's star
John Gilhooley
Di Sabatino with his first film's star

“No one else is telling the story,” Dave Rolph says, “and it is a story worth telling.”

*     *     *

Shortly after Norman blessed Di Sabatino’s documentary film on his life in 2005, Di Sabatino received an e-mail from someone who attended one of the musician’s concerts, at which a 19-song Frisbee CD was being sold. In the liner notes, Norman wrote, “I have been asked to contribute to the film project by allowing the use of my music in the film. The songs on this CD are some of the songs that are being used. A few others are also in the film, but often used as snippets or short segments to back up Lonnie’s changing life and carry the story forward.” Norman asked listeners to tell him what they thought about allowing use of his songs in the film.

Di Sabatino says he had no previous knowledge of the CD. When he protested, he says, Norman “went on the offensive, telling me to take the music out of the movie.” Di Sabatino refused, since he believed the songs belonged to EMI. Norman then repackaged the exact same 19 songs and five more for a “new” CD titled Slinky. In the liner notes for that one, he called the earlier album a “survey disc” that drew “almost universal response—negative, which concurred with my private opinion” about using his music in Frisbee. “Personally, I never had any interest in allowing the use of my master recordings for the film, and I notified the director of this right up front, from the beginning, before the documentary had even been edited into final form,” Norman wrote. He claimed, “The original survey CD did NOT say, nor imply, that the 19 songs inside were ‘from the soundtrack to the documentary film—Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher.’ . . . I am not trying to damage the reputation or public image of the director/producer—but attempting to protect my own.”

According to Di Sabatino, Norman then did try to “destroy and derail the Frisbee project” by phoning officials at festivals and PBS stations showing Frisbee, demanding that his music be removed from the film. The filmmaker dropped the songs, not at the behest of the artist but of EMI, which turned down his petition to use them. Di Sabatino then created a new Frisbee soundtrack that, ironically, has won raves for its mix of known and obscure Christian rockers and folkies such as Azitis, the Search Party, Fraction, the New Creation, Silmaril, Agape and the All Saved Freak Band.

Norman then set his sights on derailing Di Sabatino’s next project, the filmmaker claims, first by refusing to go on camera—interviews with the musician in the film came from archival footage—then by telling those closest to him to stay away from Di Sabatino because the fledgling documentary was born out of a “vendetta.” Anger toward Di Sabatino and his project has turned up on Christian blogs, Norman fan sites and message boards as far away as the United Kingdom, where someone posted this Valentine on the music site: “This guy, David Di Sabatino, is a nut job who is out to destroy Larry’s memory with half truths, rumors and just plain lies.”

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