I grew up loving the Led Zeppelin my brother played constantly; the Queen and ELO and Fleetwood Mac my sister spun in her room beneath posters of the Bee-Gees and Steve Martin and, uh, Fleetwood Mac; the Cheap Trick and Joe Jackson that I had chosen myself. The youngest of three, in a house where pop music reigned (my parents played a lot of Neil Diamond on the oak console stereo, and for some reason we had two copies of The Beach Boys’ Endless Summer floating around), I came to love melody and concision. Even with Zeppelin, I gravitated toward Houses of the Holy and In Through the Out Door, full as they were of eclectic and hummable tunes. I have a faint memory, from when I was seven or eight, of hearing—and being electrified by—“I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” It wasn’t articulable, what I felt, but it was something like, I want to keep having the feeling I’m having while hearing this song.
It might have been my junior high friends who let me dub their cassettes of UB40 and The English Beat, or it might have been the certain songs from the copy of London Calling given to me Christmas of ’82, but I also had a thing for reggae and ska. My love for the rigid, disciplined groove (not loose, not like funk) is hard to trace. One theory: this kind of music, often played by exemplary musicians, gives plenty of space for delightful, seemingly extemporaneous “bits” to show up.
A detour to explain what I mean. There’s a scene in The Graduate where Ben tells his parents he’s going to marry Elaine Robinson and is going to drive up to Berkeley to see her. When his parents learn the details—Elaine doesn’t know of Ben’s plans and in fact she hates him—their delight turns to bemusement. “This whole idea sounds pretty half-baked,” Ben’s father says. “Not it’s not,” Ben replies. “It’s completely baked.” As he exits the kitchen where his parents stand bewildered, the toaster, which has been in the foreground for most of the shot, pops up its toast—a non-sequitur that also serves as an exclamation point on the scene. That “bit” perhaps stood out to me because of the formal discipline of the scene, from the camera’s relative stillness to the framing of the action. The toaster does what toasters do.
Grace notes like these are not what most people think of when they think of The Graduate. Yet for me it’s exemplary of what makes the movie work. In an essay about writing, though really it could be about any kind of art, Stanley Hauerwas tell us, “the truth is in the details, and it is the details that produce sentences that matter.” It’s the details, responding to and embedded in the flow of the work, that make the work of art recognizably human and communal. The inclusion of the toaster popping—whether by happy accident or intentional inclusion—is a grace-filled detail resulting from collaboration between actors, lighting crew, set designers, costumers, the DP, director, and editor.
And what is a band but a group of people committed to shared plans and collaboration? Near the end of The Clash’s “Revolution Rock,” it feels like the song is winding down after Joe Strummer’s declaration, “I’ve seen talent thrown away!” It’s here when the organ gingerly begins to evoke the melody, as if tiptoeing into a room of light sleepers. Strummer shouts, “The organ plays!” and it comes on in full confidence, as if to say, “You’re awake? Then GOOD MORNING!” I love that. What we don’t hear is the years of practice preceding a groove so well played, it affords bits like this to flourish and give the music its character.
So, Fishbone. I bought Truth and Soul, the band’s third release, right after it came out in fall of 1988—my freshman year in college. Listening to it again, for the first time in fifteen, maybe twenty years, was like visiting with a dear, lost acquaintance. The friends who introduced the band to me were themselves music fans and musicians. They helped me separate, with my ear, the drum line from the bass line, the guitar from them both. Whenever all three of us were in the car and Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing” came on, we ceased talking so we could turn up and hear the drum fill at the 4:22 mark, a detail I suspect most people don’t catch. This was for me a lesson in close hearing.
(The excellent documentary Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone describes the band’s origins and ongoing musical journey. It lays out their biography and position as under sung, ahead-of-their-time alchemists who mixed ska, soul, reggae, heavy metal, folk, funk, punk, and whatever else they had in the kitchen. It more thoroughly develops a picture this column will only sketch.)
The main thing is that Fishbone were six dudes who could play, and how they played made room for those small, wonderful bits that remind us music is made by people working together through and against their distinct personalities. On opening track “Freddie’s Dead,” a cover of and improvement on the old Curtis Mayfield song, there’s one, fraction-of-a-second horn blast, at around1:35, right after a barely heard “Hey!,” that slots right into the groove. In the same song, on what might be called the bridge, where everything but an unprocessed guitar and Angelo Moore’s freed-from-reverb voice drops from the mix—it’s not just the drama of the moment, but the extra chick-a of the guitar between “It could be such a beautiful world” (chick-a) “with a wonderful girl” that gives the desire expressed in the words its extra kick.
There are so many of these moments on the album, in songs that are both spacious and sonically dense, in melodies that my limited vocabulary can only call “catchy.” That “catchiness” scratched my pop music itch, but it’s the improvisatory moments that leap out. It takes cats to be able to lock in, as they do on “Question of Life” and call-and-respond not just in their voices but through their instruments. Truth and Soul’s songs are composed and produced—in a studio, with a budget for extra takes—but the performances bring to mind something the jazz drummer Ralph Peterson once said:
“…a lot of times when you get into a musical conversation [i.e., a jam session] one person in the group will state an idea or the beginning of an idea and another person will complete the idea or their interpretation of the same idea, how they hear it.
That’s what the organ does on “Question of Life,” “completing” a line the sax plays earlier. It’s what Fishbone’s panoply of voices does throughout the album. Five of the band members sang well enough that they might have been a premiere doo-wop group had they been born a few decades earlier. Take “Mighty Long Way,” a rock song I didn’t love back in the day, but which I love now. The five singers trade verses like the Jackson 5 or the guests on a Funkadelic track. The form is 70s-inspired rock, loping along and celebratory. Its message: “Me and my friends go a mighty long way.” Its best lyric: “It breaks my ass like a windowsill.” I don’t know what it means, but it makes me smile.
This is something else admirable about the band: its vaudevillian, comic spirit. Listen to “Modern Industry,” from the band’s debut. My friends and I quoted the lyrics to each other, as some will quote Monty Python. You can hear Fishbone’s ability to mimic vocal types (rock’n’roll DJ, surfer, preacher, Danny Elfman). The song (and video) are a little antic, going for the laugh even at the cost of ethnic insensitivity, a complication compounded by the fact that Fishbone were, and are, comprised of black men.
Truth and Soul was the first recording by the band that brought their blackness into my consciousness. It was certainly the first CD I bought that wasn’t by white people. That isn’t to say I didn’t know they were African Americans—I had all their earlier stuff on cassette, and I could see—but through this album I reckoned with what that could mean. The liner notes informed me that “One Day”—a song about waiting (for redemption? justice? mass awakening?)—was one of three tracks recorded on MLK’s birthday. And the words for the remarkably spry “Ghetto Soundwave” could have been written last year or last month: Verse one: “There’s another cry of murder / Policeman shoot down baby brother.” Verse two: “A father tries to feed his family / They came here to find their opportunity.” Verse three: “Another bourgeois politician / Hears our plea but does not listen.”
“Slow Bus Movin’ (Howard Beach Party)” was the song that most directly and angrily addressed racism and, well, my culpability in America’s racist legacy: “Round and around and around they go / The bus is goin’ mighty slow/ Brothers in the backseat, Caucs in the front.” The word “Caucs” was too much for one of my friends, who otherwise loved the band, since it—he helpfully pointed out the subtext—implied that all Caucasian people were, you know, ahem. He claimed reverse racism and was truly outraged. Yet the song doesn’t make a lot of sense as protest, if for no reason than its music—a hoedown of goofy movie-Western music. Songs like this confirmed for the dismissive that Fishbone were a novelty act.
Maybe because they were young, Fishbone’s intentionally socially conscious songs suffer from self-seriousness and incoherence. They were just on the other side of twenty when they recorded Truth and Soul, and like most young people addressing social issues in their art, they were full of what Yeats calls “passionate intensity.” At their best, Fishbone’s careening, offhand facility enacted together, for me maybe only, the melody my ear was drawn to and the tight groove that gave space for spontaneity. And sometimes, on this, their first “adult-themed” album, they synthesized both “truth” and “soul,” as they do in “Ma and Pa,” a song that specifies the kind of problems “Ghetto Soundwave” paints in broad, generalized strokes. Here we see that Reagan-era trope—the “breakdown of the family”—through the lens of a narrator feeling for his little sister during “Ma” and “Pa’s” marital discord. The chorus’s protest, “Hey Ma and Pa / What the hell is wrong wich y’all?” feels real because it doesn’t feel forced.
I saw Fishbone in spring of ‘89, in the barely controlled chaos of maybe the best live performance I’ve ever seen by anyone, ever. Not a mosher myself, I stood enthralled as Fishbone’s mostly white fans manically bashed each other, sang along, crowd surfed while mimicking with their hands trumpets and trombones, and emerged from the pit bloodied and punch-drunk. I wasn’t thinking of the “black” experience in this country and the “truth” Fishbone was trying to get me to recognize. I was thinking of having a good time. (No question the band wanted to have a good time, too.)
The “truth” Fishbone sang about came through only in glimmers. Nevertheless, those glimmers introduced a kid from Orange County USA to a world past the suburbs he registered as normative living. (It would require a few more years and a number of other artists, writers, and friends to help me see a fuller and more devastating reality.) The “soul,” however, shone through loud and clear—in the careening panache the band’s talent embodied, in its overflowing life. As the angel admonishes Angelo in “Question of Life,” “You musn
t wrong the right / You musnt dark the light / You must dove the vulture / You must do or die.” You must dove the vulture! That’s a bit of language play I’ve always thrilled to, a grace note in the midst of an album full of them. The double drum roll that soon follows it still sends me on my way.
Next Week: Les Miserables