Walter Mencken 4 p.m., May 3
Locally-made John Lennon documentary film
Memories of Lennon, Rookie Card does the USSR, and an entry with Wild Man Fischer
Along with many vidiots my age, television was the teat that nurtured us all, and I was less weaned than most.
I recall "discovering" the Beatles on a Smothers Brothers show from October 1968 (which I recently re-watched, spotting a then-unknown Steve Martin). I immediately bought any and every magazine that featured their likenesses -- no small stack of reading material -- and immersed myself for the first time in abject fandom (well, aside from my short-lived obsession with the Banana Splits).
At first, I was a Ringo fan -- I think I related to the fact that he'd been small and sickly as a child -- and for Christmas 1970 my folks got me a drum kit. Just a little three-piece with a saucer-sized cymbal, a foot-shaped drum pedal, and a photo of three very Brady kids fronting the bass drum. (Temporary madness on my parents' part.) There are photos of me "playing" these '70s skins that day, as well as pics of me dressed in an army suit with a net-covered combat helmet, destined to wind up on A Current Affair or Court TV after I become famous or notorious for Lord knows what.
By Christmas '71, I was into rock, and I was into the counterculture. I may not have actually smoked pot or had sex or flipped off a pig yet, but I'd been reading about all that stuff in subversive magazines like Mad, National Lampoon, Playboy, among others that probably shouldn't have been so easy for me to get my 11-year-old hands on.
The Beatles provided the sound track to that Christmas, with my gifts comprising a collection of Fab Four albums and 45s I didn't already own. The band had split up, and that was all we talked about among my many Beatleholic friends (this was the first time my family had lived in one place long enough for me to accumulate something as exotic as friends!).
I remember tears in my eyes listening to "The End" on Abbey Road, knowing it was probably the last new Beatles song I'd ever hear. I felt swept up in emotions when I first heard John and Yoko sing "Merry Xmas, War Is Over (If You Want It)." The next holiday, when I received Lennon-style eyeglasses under the tree, I wore them with the faux army gear (snug, but still a fit), so I'd look just like John's character in How I Won the War (which I knew of but didn't see until the early-'80s advent of home video).
At 20, I was off on my own, 3000 miles away in San Diego, when the holidays rolled around. In early December 1980, I went to a showing of Fantasia, which I (an aspiring animator) had never seen. Sitting there in the big old Cinerama widescreen in Mission Valley,
I was awed by the incredible achievement of the animators and blown away by the symphonic sound. It was as if I was seeing magic unfold right before my eyes, a handmade creation birthed in the minds of the artists, musicians, and magicians and brought directly to life through the animators' fingers and onto the movie screen. It almost seemed a Christmas miracle to my jaded sensibilities, to be so enthralled, to catch a passing wisp of magic. I wanted to go on holding it, if for just a short while. I sat through two showings.
After daylight broke over Bald Mountain, with my imagination still reeling, I walked out of the theater, and the magic fell away.
Everyone in the parking lot had their radios turned up and were walking around as if dazed, talking and crying. The DJ was saying that John Lennon had been shot and killed. Nothing I found under the tree that Christmas could cheer me up.
Every year since, I dream of John Lennon on Christmas Eve. Sometimes we jam, once in a while he performs just for me or for a handful of people (a few times reunited with you know who). On occasion I interview him -- Everything I Ever Wanted to Know About Lennon but He Was Too Dead to Ask -- and once we hung out together at a Pink Floyd concert (John thought Dave Gilmour looked "like a well-fed wanker!").
No doubt, this Christmas Eve I'll dream about that most influential of dreamers again. Every time this happens, I find myself rediscovering the humanity, insight, and morality/mortality that he represents to me. Part of the reason I sleep late on Christmas morning is that I'm reluctant to say goodbye to him; I don't WANT the dream to be over, and I'm desperate to keep my hands wrapped around that elusive wisp of magic, for -- just -- a -- few -- moments -- longer.
JOHN LENNON: WHY WE LISTEN
A locally-produced documentary about Lennon, created in association with Southwestern College, is making its online debut this week. It’s told through the insights of four local musicians known for making music highly influenced by the Beatles in general, and by Lennon in particular: Peter Bolland (of the Coyote Problem), Bart Mendoza (the Shambles, Manual Scan), producer Sven-Erik Seaholm and singer/songwriter Michael Tiernan. Broken here into four parts, it includes audio and video footage of Lennon. Part 1:
Awhile back, somebody filmed Rookie Card's record-release party at the Casbah, where they took to the sidewalk in front of the club to perform the Beatles' "Back in the U.S.S.R." for an encore. Though some instruments are inaudible due to the amps being inside the club, there's enough acoustic headbanging to get the small crowd singing along.
The whole crew nearly falls over in amazement when, on cue, a jet soars overhead on its way to land at the airport, its roaring engine drowning out the final notes, identical to the original Beatles recording. The camera catches a shot of the jet and then swings back to everyone losing their minds over the supersonic synchronicity.
Finally, here’s “Crying For John Lennon,” by local singer/songwriter Hargo and produced earlier this year by none other than “Let It Be” producer and accused murderer Phil Spector.
AN ENTRY WITH WILD MAN FISCHER
I have dozens of answering-machine messages from Larry "Wild Man" Fischer, onetime Frank Zappa protégé and Doctor Demento perennial. We became friends while he lived at various downtown flophouses in the late '80s and early '90s.
Fischer made occasional public appearances, including a 1988 performance at the San Diego Comic-Con with Bill "Lost in Space" Mumy's band.
I helped the filmmakers behind DeRailroaded, a new documentary about Fischer, track down film footage of the concert. I was thanked for my efforts with a (collect) call from Fischer, whom I hadn't heard from in several years.
"They made a comic book about me," Fischer announced. (The Legend of Wild Man Fischer, released last year, immortalized tales such as the time Fischer supposedly took a dump in a fan's closet.) We chatted about mutual friends, and then Fischer asked if I've played any of his records for anyone lately.
I reassured him that, yes, I spin his stuff a lot and, yes, my guests are always amazed. Okay, sometimes horrified, but always amazed. DeRailroaded recently aired on the IFC Channel and is now available on DVD.
YouTube clip below is a bit of animation created for the documentary, set to audio clips of Larry. All the imagery relates to his life and career. This is actually the full, unedited cartoon - only a portion of it appears in the DeRailroaded film.
The "mean bee" and "happy bee" drawings are by Larry himself. He drew the comic characters for me when he pitched a comic book series featuring his bi-polar bees (I think Flaming Carrot creator Bob Burden, a friend of Larry's considered publishing it). I lent the drawing to Rhino Records for a CD set I wrote liner notes for, only they never returned the art to me. I knew I shoulda sent them a Xerox.....
Long before David Peel, Weird Al, Mojo Nixon and The Rugburns, Larry "Wild Man" Fischer was carving out his own distinctive niche in the history of rock 'n' roll novelty and cult music.
A street singer living on the obscure fringes of the L.A. subculture, in early 1968, Wild Man would sing anyone an original song for a dime. He offered these improvised and somewhat off-key ditties to anybody who'd listen, serenading unsuspecting passerbys with his most singular brand of certifiable loonyness.
Wild Man had been in and out of a few mental institutions, but he cut a charismatic figure, barely keeping his voice below a shout as he sang about his life, his dreams, his girlfriends, his family disowning him and any other subject that came into his head at any given moment. Disturbing and introspective songs, with lyrics which made it frighteningly easy to understand the sadness and desperation of Wild Man's merry-go-round world.
Already a cult figure among the city's rock 'n' roll intelligentsia, Wild Man came to the attention of another musical madman with an eye toward the satiric and outrageous: Frank Zappa.
Zappa had just recently begun his own record label, Bizarre, and something about Wild Man's rants intrigued him. In a move which seems strange even for Zappa, he put Wild Man in a recording studio. And let the tape roll. And roll.
Wild Man couldn't play any instruments, though he'd occasionally pick up a guitar and pound on it for sonic punctuation. He rapped and sang to empty air, about his mother and mental hospitals, about fame and circles and how he could move so fast that not even a cat could see him. Zappa filled up a double album of material and then brought in The Mothers to record some musical accompaniment for a few cuts.
The GTO's (Zappa's groupies-turned-rock-stars) and wunderkind producer Kim Fowley helped out, and thus was born the album "An Evening With Wild Man Fischer."
Released in late 1968, "Evening With" was somewhat of a sensation, with songs like the a cappella "Merry Go Round" destined to become Doctor Demento staples. "Circle," with The Mothers, was even put out as a single, and Wild Man began playing fairs and clubs all over the country. Rolling Stone even lent credibility to Wild Man's growing rep with a positive review of "Evening With," saying that the double album "captures the total being of one strange member of the human community."
Wild Man would sing about his relationship with Zappa in later songs. He still complains that he never made money from the album and he can't recover the rights to his own masters, which are currently controlled by the late Zappa's wife, Gail.
Yet he surprised most everyone by bouncing back in a big way. Then-fledgling Rhino Records was just working toward their first album release, and it was decided that an LP of new Wild Man music would be their premier project. Wild Man had already penned their theme song, "Go To Rhino Records," and next came the full length stream-of-consciousness experiment known as the "Wildmania" LP.
A comprehensive overview of Wild Man's recorded output is unlikely, since Gail Zappa has publicly proclaimed her unwillingness to release the "Evening With" masters, citing it as a poor example of Frank's work. Wild Man kept landing in off the wall projects, however. One new friend and compatriot named Mark Mothersbough, then of those robotic spudmeisters known as Devo, recruited him for an afternoon, to record a song (still unreleased) called "Fun With Your Body."
Except for the occasional concert, Wild Man withdrew almost completely from the music industry around 1985, and he's still disputing royalties owed by Rhino and Paramount (his lawsuit against Paramount was covered in Variety and elsewhere). He moved to San Diego to get away from the city where almost everyone seemed to know who he was.
Moving around between low key and low budget downtown hotels, he quietly became a San Diego street fixture, though he introduced himself only as "Larry" so people wouldn't connect him with his still somewhat famous Wild Man persona.
In August 1988, Bill Mumy came to town for the big San Diego Comic Book Convention, along with a few musician friends, all of whom were also moonlighting as comic book creators. Their new band was called Seduction Of The Innocent, after a famous 1950's book which had tried to cite comics as the source of all juvenile delinquency.
Wild Man was coerced onto the stage long enough for an incandescent set which included his doo wop ditty "The Taster" and an a cappella rendering of "Merry Go Round" ("I'm getting a little sick of that song" he now says about his best known tune). The crowd was rowdy and responsive, even those who weren't familiar with Wild Man. His ever increasing volume, enthusiasm and his spasmodic on-stage body language proved infectious, and the audience handed Wild Man the most earnest and sustained applause of the evening.
The San Diego Comic-Con show was a rare performance, one of only two dozen or so "pro" gigs Wild Man can recall playing (he'd backed out on many more, becoming so undependable that few bookings were offered to him after so many no-shows).
Few are aware that, while in San Diego, Wild Man appeared in Rugburns video - the clip was only televised once, on local public access TV, and remains virtually unseen.
Wild Man was offered the chance to appear in the Rugburns promotional video by Bob Duffy, a friend of the band that Wild Man met at the local record store Garage Rock. The video project was being cooked up for the band's major label debut on Priority Records, "Taking The World By Donkey."
The longform promo was shot in various locations around San Diego, interspersed with live clips and interview sound bites with the group, but it is Wild Man's running narrative which propels the oddball project. After airing the one time, nobody at MTV or VH1 was clamoring to show the video, and it was shelved.
Today, Wild Man can't decide whether he wants to ever record again. There is, in fact, some question as to who would even offer to do the recording. His fan base was never large enough to give him hit records, though his notoriety and fame was and is widespread, especially among Zappa's legion of admirers. His psychological problems, like those suffered by Arthur Lee of Love and other Wild Man contemporaries who've never quite adjusted to the world around them, make it difficult for him to deal with the idea of getting back into the music industry.
I asked him if he was happier then or now. "That's a hard question to answer," he offers after a rare and thoughtful pause (Wild Man's non-stop verbal barrage is, by his own admission, overwhelming to many). "I was younger. But now I don't have all the pressure, I'm not always trying to track down royalties and get work. My fame kind of subsided after the seventies. Now I don't get depressed as much."
He did enjoy San Diego and says "I'd like to spend the rest of my life here!" He also likes San Diego 's yearly comic book convention, and even hopes to become involved in comics some day, perhaps with his good friend and biggest rah-rah supporter Bob Burden (creator of the well known Flaming Carrot comic book). He's been drawing primitive cartoons all his life, including illustrations for the jacket of his own "Evening With" debut.
To Wild Man, finding kindred souls in the cliquish comic book community was like finally finding himself a home on the Island of Misfit Toys, with all the other social outcasts and decidedly quirky comic fans and creators.
"I like the people in the comic business," he says. "They take me for who I am and I feel like I can relax at a place like the comic con. They're different from people involved in the music industry. I like them better because...because I'm not doing business with them!"
If he were to record another album, Wild Man does have new material. "I wrote this song the other day, about this guy James, he used to be in The Penetrators. I met him at a bookstore." He then sings me the verse of another new composition, "Nobody's Happy":
"I'm walking down the street and nobody's happy
Yes they are, yes they are
No they're not, they're not happy."
He sings with alternating glee ("yes they are") and glum ("no they're not"). Up and down, back and forth, from depression to manic joy and back again.
Another autobiographical insight from a man who wears his heart, his emotions, and his entire self on his sleeve like perhaps no other performer in rock history.
Wild Man Fischer is happy. No he's not. Yes he is.
More like this:
- R.I.P., Larry "Wild Man" Fischer, Frank Zappa's Discovery — June 17, 2011
- The Day Bob Dylan Called Me, plus My Best, Worst, and Fave Celeb Interviews Ever — May 30, 2008
- My WORST Celeb Interviews, Edgar Winter, Corky Laing, Wild Man Fischer, & more — March 21, 2008
- Interviews: Corky Laing, Edgar Winter, Wild Man Fischer, Joey Molland/Badfinger, Mojo Nixon — March 11, 2008
- Tattoos that rock and Wild Man Fischer finally talks — Dec. 26, 2007