Editorial note: The following is a guest post from our friend and Live Fix contributor Moira McCormick who recently saw the new Fishbone documentary Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone and caught a gig by the band in L.A. And here’s a preview of what awaits Fishbone-heads as the film debuts in Chicago and Fishbone plays live tomorrow night, Dec. 10, at the Bottom Lounge.
LOS ANGELES—“Fish-bone is RED HOT! (clap-clap) Fish-bone is RED HOT! (clap-clap) Fish-bone is RED HOT! (clap-clap)”…
The revved-up chant beloved of those who love Fishbone is bouncing off the walls of the Bootleg Theater in downtown L.A. – Fishbone’s hometown – where the durable funk-punk-ska-soul-metal-pop band has just finished a warp-fueled set on this balmy late-October eve, their trademark anarchic energy undiminished after 30-plus years (and counting.)
Fishbone will, of course, retake the stage of this 1930s warehouse-turned-arts-center for a raucous encore – their shoulda-been-a-huge-hit “Sunless Saturday” – before the packed room resounds once again with, “Fish-bone is RED HOT! (clap-clap) Fish-bone is RED HOT! (clap-clap)”…
A couple hours earlier at the Bootleg, the chant was ringing out on a movie screen in the opening moments of “Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone,” a new documentary (premiering in Chicago tonight for a one-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.) The L.A. screening of “Everyday Sunshine,” – an inventive and absorbing chronicle of the band’s multifaceted history – was followed first by a Q & A with filmmakers Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler, along with Fishbone founding members Norwood Fisher and Angelo Moore; and then by the intimate live set.
The appropriately-surnamed actor Laurence Fishburne narrates Fishbone’s tale, a blend of archival live footage and interviews, animation, home videos, TV news clips, music videos – and testimonials featuring many of Fishbone’s more commercially successful followers, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers, No Doubt, and Primus.
In tracing the band’s inception in South Central Los Angeles through their present-day incarnation, the narrative continually emphasizes Fishbone’s utter uniqueness. “It wasn’t rock, it wasn’t metal, it wasn’t hip-hop, it wasn’t funk – it was just some different shit,” states rapper Ice-T, who later stresses, “There was no ‘pre-Fishbone.’” At a time when the term “alternative rock” had come to mean “jangly white-boy guitar-pop bands”, Fishbone were the true alt-rockers.
“Everyday Sunshine” limns the historical context of the band’s formation, first by citing the 1940’s migration of Southern black folk fleeing the racism there for sun-soaked Los Angeles – only to become “confined to the flat, hot grid of South Central, Watts, and Compton, a legacy of segregation maintained by the LAPD.”
Then, mandatory busing in 1979 aiming to integrate the L.A. school system brought South Central kids to the overwhelmingly white schools of the San Fernando Valley, riling up bigoted white parents (depicted brandishing hate-filled signs sickeningly reminiscent of decades-earlier protests) – and bringing together bassist Norwood Fisher and singer-saxophonist-unrestrained id Angelo Moore.
Moore was a rarity at Woodland Hills’ Hale Junior High – a black student whose family actually lived in Woodland Hills – and he eagerly sought the companionship of Fisher, the South Central street kid who “scared the shit out of everyone,” as founding member Chris Dowd (keyboards, trombone, and vocals) puts it.
They bonded over mutual love of funk, in particular Parliament-Funkadelic bassist (and force of nature) Bootsy Collins, and one day Moore asked Fisher if he could join the fledgling band that the bassist and his brother, drummer Phillip “Fish” Fisher, had recently formed.
Fisher’s response was to yank a pomegranate (Moore insists it was a persimmon) off a nearby tree and smash it into Moore’s face before acceding to his request – the memory of which leading the present-day Fisher to marvel, “He asked me to be in my band – Angelo, one of the greatest front-men of all time!”
Next to join were guitarist Kendall Jones and the aforementioned Chris Dowd, who themselves had bonded over their mutual feelings toward punk: they loved it “as much as kids in the Valley,” according to Dowd. “We became each other’s musical allies.”
“Going to some of the punk-rock gigs, and bein’ in the mosh pit, was a really good reason to go berserk,” says Moore, who sported a Mohawk at the time. “You’re mad about the racism out here in the Valley, you the only black family out here, you got people every once in a while drivin’ by, callin’ you a nigger…that kind of shit gets to you every once in a while, man. When I got hip to slam-dancin’? Oh, I was all up in the mosh pit. Tryin’ to expel them demons.”
The film tracks Fishbone’s odyssey crashing the milk-white Los Angeles punk scene, blowing headliners off the stage before headlining themselves, becoming the hottest band in L.A. – and being snapped up by mighty major label Columbia Records while still in their teens. Fishbone’s self-titled debut, an EP that includes band classics like “Party at Ground Zero” and “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” (more on that one later), was released in 1985, when they were barely out of high school.
What “Everyday Sunshine” doesn’t touch on at this point is the story behind the band’s name, which was related to me by Norwood Fisher and Chris Dowd backstage after their first Chicago appearance(at premier showcase club Metro) – “a characteristically bacchanalian set” (as I noted later in the Fishbone profile I did for Creem magazine, in which I wrote that they sounded like “Funkadelic meets the Specials at Frank Zappa’s house and they all go to a Black Flag concert where Judas Priest is the warm-up act.”)
Anyway, the origin of the band name, according to Fisher, came from an episode of the ’70s sitcom “Good Times” (a fifth-season installment called “Requiem for a Wino.”) “What’s that guy who played Benson named?” Fisher queried, and Dowd and I chorused, “Robert Guillaume.”
“Yeah,” affirmed Fisher. “Robert Guillaume did an episode where he played this wino named Fishbone. He faked his own death and went to his own funeral as his widow.
“He would never lift his veil, and then somebody lifted his veil and they saw it was him; everybody got all pissed off and started giving him shit, and so he was like, ‘When I was dead, everybody loved me – why won’t you love me now that I’m alive?’ and everybody started giving him more shit. Finally he got through to them, and he said, ‘Why don’t you tell me you love me?’, and then everybody started singing this song: ‘Fishbone, we love you, we love, you, Fishbone!’ And we said, what better name for a band?”
“You shoulda heard the other ones we made up,” put in Dowd.
Back to “Everyday Sunshine,” in which a present-day Dowd explains how the escalating L.A. gang violence of the mid-’80s, fueled by crack cocaine and essentially ignored by law enforcement, helped shape Fishbone’s exuberant, extravagant, socially conscious eclecticism.
“You grow up black in a neighborhood where you see people get shot and the police don’t show up, you look at the world in a different way,” says Dowd. “I think we stylistically went so many different places because we want to unify everybody.”
And along with critical hosannas, Fishbone did enjoy a taste of mass popularity, scoring several MTV hits, and landing an appearance on “Saturday Night Live” in 1991 – just before the release of their third Columbia album, “The Reality of my Surroundings.”
That LP – the only Fishbone release ever to crack the top 50 on Billboard’s album chart – spawned the feel-good, soul-deep song that became the documentary’s title, along with the marauding “Sunless Saturday,” which spawned a Spike Lee-directed music video.)
Fishbone also appeared at Lollapalooza in 1993, the same year guitarist Kendall Jones fell deeply under the influence of a religious cult led by his uber-Christian father – leading to “Everyday Sunshine”’s gripping illustrated sequence of the band’s attempted rescue of Jones, and Fisher’s subsequent trial on felony kidnapping charges.)
But Fishbone never achieved the next-big-thing status that so many believed – knew – was rightfully theirs.
As Primus bassist Les Claypool states near the beginning of “Everyday Sunshine,” “They should’ve been the band that went way beyond any of us that were influenced by them.”
Post-Kendall-crackup, the docu follows Fishbone’s continued attrition, as trumpeter-vocalist “Dirty Walt” Kibby quits, and then Fish – with founding members Fisher and Moore as the only original members left standing. “Norwood and I,” Moore reflects, as he’s driving along one of L.A.’s innumerable freeways, “are kinda like a married couple that wanta be divorced for a minute…but we can’t because we’re fuckin’ married.”
Angelo, for his part, is shown discovering a theremin while Fishbone is holed up in a recording studio with producer Dallas Austin, and becoming so enraptured with its ’50s-sci-fi weirdness that he makes it part of an electronic alter ego, Dr. Maddvibe.
This brings him into frequent conflict with the rest of Fishbone, particularly his till-death-do-us-part bassist bandmate. “I don’t want to be in a band with Dr. Maddvibe — I want to be in a band with fuckin’ Angelo,” gripes Fisher at one point. “I’m forced to be in a band with Dr. Maddvibe. Who I don’t want to be in a band with!” But Fishbone survives, despite the continued existence of Dr. Maddvibe.
The more commercially successful Fishbone followers interviewed in “Everyday Sunshine” have their own theories on why Fishbone never made it really big, as so many had predicted; what they boil down to are things like “too black for white people, too white for black people,” and so forth.
But what comes through most indelibly during the course of the film is simply that the band was just too good for its own good, given the prevailingly unadventurous and prejudiced tastes of the average rock fan. No Doubt’s Adrian Young observes, “If it’s not simple enough for the masses to grab onto, it’s too much for people to handle, musically.”
Living Colour’s guitarist extraordinaire Vernon Reid points out an unfortunate paradox. “Fishbone was such an incredible live experience: as good as the records are, nothing comes close to seeing Fishbone live” – which limited their ability to make a record a hit. And as original producer David Kahne delicately notes, “The system didn’t work for them like it did for other bands.” (Translation: if Fishbone had been white, the system would have worked just fine.)
But Fishbone has persisted and grown over the decades, personally as well as musically. “Everyday Sunshine” sports delightful footage of Angelo Moore Heely-skating, sax-duetting, trampolining and more, with his adored young daughter Cheyenne; and includes close-up sequences of Norwood Fisher commanding a surfboard.
Says the mono-dreadlocked bassist, “I had a very ghettoized mentality that surfing was some white-boy shit…ohhh, I’m glad I got past that one. Snowboarding and surfing are two of the most incredible joys of my life.”
The band has recently released a new seven-song EP/album, “Crazy Glue,” on the independent label DC-Jam, and they’re now touring with their current lineup: original members Fisher, Moore, and Kibby, along with John Steward (Fishbone’s drummer since 1999), guitarist Rocky George and keyboardist-vocalist Dre Gipson (both having joined in 2004), and new trombone player Jay Armant. And as evidenced by their blowtorch-hot set in L.A. last month, they are as jaw-dropping as ever live (Moore, by the way, must have an aging painting of his voice up in his attic.)
At L.A.’s post-screening Q&A session, an audience member – who says he’d first seen Fishbone when he was in high school – queries bluntly and admiringly, “How can you be standing here?” To which Fisher replies, “We came up believing in punk rock, believing in funk – George Clinton is still being George Clinton; the people I admire stayed on their road,” and Moore puts in, “I tried selling out a couple times, but it didn’t work; shit just stayed the same. You just might as well be yourself, anyway.”
Fisher adds, “If we played oldies, we could do the fair circuit. [We chose] the harder road, but we’re still trying the write the story for the next 20 years. I hope.”
And as Angelo Moore philosophically observes in “Everyday Sunshine,” “When Fishbone still plays, that’s a prayer answered right there. May not be exactly the way I wanted, but it’s there…Who said anything’s gonna be easy, anyway?”
Fishbone were in the news just a few weeks ago, when nitwit Republican congresswoman Michele Bachmann was a guest on NBC’s “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” House band the Roots played the ditsily mendacious Rep. Bachmann to her seat with a wickedly brilliant musical choice: a lyric-less snippet of “Lyin’ Ass Bitch.”
She, of course, was oblivious, though subsequently there was something of an uproar. Norwood Fisher addressed the flap with the following official statement: “Although I may not be a Michelle Bachmann fan, I wish her no harm. In my opinion, you better be able to take a joke when you run for political office…Political satire comes in many forms; I’m honored that something my band wrote as teenagers can be applied to the political process in the new millennium.”
Special thanks to Moira for giving us the Fishbone scoop and you get a full listing of Everyday Sunshine screenings here.
SATURDAY, DECEMBER 10, 2011 – 9:00PM
Doors 8:00 PM / Show 9:00 PM
18 & Over, valid ID required for entry.
What’s Your Fishbone Story?
Have you seen Fishbone live? Got thoughts on the new roc doc? Let us know what you think and we’ll share your story during a future episode of Live Fix Radio.