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Fishbone: Black and Bruised

Fishbone has been waging war against its record company and even its fans in an effort to get its music taken seriously

Fishbone

Fishbone

Steve Eichner/Getty Images

What goes through my mind when I’m up there? I feel free, man.” Angelo Moore, the hyperkinetic lead singer and saxophonist with the Los Angeles black-rock wildcats Fishbone, is explaining what buzzes through his brain when he’s blitzing across the boards, ricocheting off the walls and swan diving off the PA stacks into the crowd at a typical ‘Bone gig. “Maybe I got some pressures,” he says, “but I don’t feel none at all when it comes down to it. The vibe at our shows is always a positive thing. Even though we may be talking about negative shit.

“I’m sweating out the poison,” Moore declares proudly, sitting in a Hollywood coffeehouse and twirling the handle of his trademark plexiglass walking stick. “And I’m with my band, my clan of soldiers. Fishbone soldiers. We go across the nation, spreading the word.”

Suddenly, Moore bolts out of his seat. “I got to read you this poem, man,” he says. “Hold on while I get this book out of the car.” He dashes back into the room and starts reading in an excited voice:

“Fishbone soldier fights the war on discrimination/On the pigeonhole floors/Fishbone soldier on the stage of life/To die once again by a rock & roll knife/Fishbone soldier holds in his pain/So that in due time he can release his insane.”

Moore’s ode to Fishbone courage continues with references to strife at home, in the ‘hood and in the press: “Fishbone soldier is a trouper/’Cause controversy is his funky fate…. Fishbone soldier fights the stereotype/Say it loud, I’m family and proud.”

Moore brings it to a dramatic finish: “The hit, the dance shit is a rerun/It can end any day on the one/But this is my music, this is my gun/It’s like no reality/This is for fun/Fishbone soldier.”

Moore is not just blowing self-adulatory smoke. Fishbone — Moore, singer and brass man Walter Kibby, guitarist Kendall Jones, keyboardist Christopher Dowd, bassist Norwood Fisher, his brother and drummer Phillip “Fish” Fisher and new guitar recruit John Bigham — has been in a nonstop state of war for years, locked in an accelerating battle against frustrated ambition, cruel indifference and outright racism. The band members have crossed swords with their record label, Columbia, traded punches with fascist skinheads on the road and endured homeboy shakedowns by the L.A. police. They’ve released only three albums in seven years and have been totally ignored by AOR radio, yet some members of their own race have accused them of selling out to the White Rock Machine.

The Reality of My Surroundings, its first album in three years, is the sound of Fishbone fighting back hard. It is a frenetic, clenched-fist hour of patented Fishbone polyglot rock — demented ska, thrash funk, souped-up Sixties soul, sex-mad boogie — that is celebratory in its defiance and unyielding in its zero-hour urgency. Dowd says a friend of his described the album as Fishbone “singing the blues, the black-and-blue blues.”

Black and bruised is more like it. Best known for their manic stage energy and giddy jump-cut sound, the members of Fishbone have always spiked their good times with straight talk. They called their last album Truth and Soul. But with Reality, Fishbone is serving notice: The cartoon days are definitely over.

“It bugs me, man,” growls Norwood. “People think we’re some kind of traveling Negro circus. Bingo Long and His All-Stars. All entertainment and no mental stimulation.”

His brother Fish cites as an example the black model who appears in the video for Reality’s second single, “Everyday Sunshine”: “She told me, ‘It’s really nice to hang out with you guys, because — I must be honest — when I first met you, I didn’t think you had a clue about what it really means to be black.’ And the thing is, that was not the first time I’d heard that.”

But, Jones argues, “anybody who knows us from the early days knows that we have never changed our politics. You might see some new clothes, a new hairdo, but the music is the same, the message is the same. We are not separatists. We want everyone to come in peace, but we also want them to become educated.”

The problem is, as anyone who has seen Fishbone live can attest, digging that message is a lot like reading the lyrics plastered across the side of a train — as it zooms past at 150 miles per hour. “I know what you mean,” Jones admits. “People always ask us, ‘How are they going to get the message when you’re going at warp speed?’ Well, you gotta join us at warp.”

The irony is that as far as its career is concerned, Fishbone has long been stuck in excruciating slo-mo. In the years between 1988’s Truth and Soul and Reality, genre-busting kin like Living Colour, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Faith No More were reaping gold and platinum with their funk-punk-metal stews, but Fishbone was issuing stopgap EPs and spinning its wheels in business limbo – switching managers, changing booking agencies, arguing with Columbia about not using an outside producer for Reality.

But throughout all that, Fishbone managed to maintain an unshakable conviction in the popular appeal and healing qualities of its “party” politics. That conviction dates back to its chaotic origins in the late Seventies as an after-school jam orchestra messing around with P-Funk and Rick James covers. The “band” originally consisted of the future ‘Bones, plus about thirty friends — “gangsters, gangster girls, the nerds who could play flute,” as Fish puts it.

Membership eventually dwindled down to the core Fishbone crew, all in their midteens except for Fish, who was only in sixth grade when the group started. They set up shop in Norwood’s tiny bedroom, called the Aquarium, writing and rehearsing there virtually every day until graduation, when they hit the club circuit. The band’s 1985 debut was a six-song EP, but Fishbone already had more than sixty original songs.

Fishbone’s Columbia press bio claims that the band’s shotgun marriage of rock and funk was inspired in large part by its experiences in L.A.’s school-busing program. Five of six original members of the band first met on the bus that took them daily from South Central L.A. out to the predominantly white Hale Junior High School, in the San Fernando Valley. The sixth, Angelo Moore, lived a short walk from the school; his family immigrated to the Valley when he was a youngster. Together, according to the bio, Moore, the Fishers, Dowd, Jones and Kibby picked up on the hard-rock faves of their white schoolmates — Led Zeppelin, Rush — and mixed ’em up with the “down” sounds of Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and Funkadelic.

Not quite so, says Norwood: “Rush was about the coolest thing we found out. But my dad was always listening to rock & roll stuff. It wasn’t like a new experience.” He did get one thing out of that cultural exchange, though: “I learned to hate motherfuckers who told me Jimmy Page was better than Jimi Hendrix.”

In fact, by the time they knuckled down to serious business, the band members were attending high school back in South Central L.A., with all of its immediate musical and social influences. “The political stuff came from being aware of our surroundings,” says Jones, although it originally manifested itself in some twisted ways, like “V.T.T.L.O.T.F.D.G.F.,” on the first EP, which stands for “Voice to the Land of the Freeze-Dried Godzilla Farts.”

“You’ll never get the message to that song,” Jones says, laughing. “When Norwood wrote it, he introduced it to the band saying, ‘Man, I’ve been hearing about all these Nazi right-wing groups on the news saying the Holocaust was staged. So what if America said it never dropped two atom bombs on Japan, that it was actually Godzilla popping a couple off?’ Only Norwood would come up with something that out.

“We tried to take our thing, our politics, and put it with humor, make it funny so people would listen,” Jones continues. “And it was wrong. You try it that way, and it just cheapens everything you’re trying to say. So we went back to the real shit.”

On The Reality of My Surroundings, that means the bristling agit-funk of “So Many Millions” (“The reality of my surroundings do not point to the sky/So why should I even try [when there’s nuthin’ out there to be]”); the simple eloquence of “Asswhippin’,” forty seconds of screams and whip-crack sound effects that speak volumes about the domestic violence and police brutality in black life; and “Junkies Prayer,” a frightful litany of crack hunger and self-hate that reads like a suicide note.

Fishbone’s dilemma now is how to be heard and understood in mainstream pop society when many of the group’s fans just think it’s a great, goofy night out and its own people, for the most part, can’t deal with the group at all. Last year the band played a free show in L.A., in commemoration of Malcolm X. The turnout was overwhelmingly white, with blacks from the local neighborhood mostly standing in the back, baffled by the freak scene onstage. “I could see ’em back there,” Moore recalls, “wondering what these guys are doing. ‘Are they selling out to the white man? Or are they just lost?’ “

After more than a decade together, the Fishbone soldiers are still caught between their race, their rock and a hard place – and determined to bust out. “When we first started, our whole thing was to get everybody to unify in the house,” Dowd explains. “Black, white, whatever. Feel like brothers. Because even then we realized the system works to keep people separated. ‘You mean shit like this doesn’t happen in your neighborhood?’ It’s a matter of making people aware of each other’s cultures.”

Kibby puts it more directly. “All we’re saying is, ‘What’s happening in your town?’ ” 

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