Ace of BASS
When he’s not globe-trotting with Fishbone, Norwood Fisher lives in Santa Monica, gigs around Venice and jams in Trulio Disgracias
By Michael Aushenker
Call him the Ace of Bass.
Call him the Fisher King.
Most of all, call him if you want to get an A-list jam session going.
Fishbone founding member John Norwood Fisher, also the longtime engine behind side group Trulio Disgracias, has long been known throughout the rock world as a sensei of the bass guitar.
In the 1980s, the laid-back longtime Santa Monica resident helped define alternative music long before “alternative” was a rock station format or even a record store section. Back when he and frontman/saxophonist Angelo Moore formed Fishbone in 1979 and quickly became associated with fellow Los Angeles music scene wildmen the Red Hot Chili Peppers, perhaps only The Clash had routinely mélanged so many genres into one protean brew.
“Looking back, the music scene of the ‘80s and ‘90s seemed pretty conservative,” says Lev Anderson, who, with Chris Metzler, created the 2010 documentary “Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone.” “There were great African-American funk/rock bands in the ‘70s, but by the time Fishbone rolled around, they seemed to be the only ones in [white-dominated] rock beyond Bad Brains, and later, Living Colour.”
“His bass playing skills have surpassed every level that I thought it would climb to as kids, and I can say that he is one of the best I’ve ever known,” says Moore. “Yeah, he’s pretty badass and really good.”
In a 2012 profile for Bass Player magazine, Elton Bradman likened Fisher’s “hyperactive thumb and inventive lines” to the Chili Peppers’ Flea and Primus bass-thumper Les Claypool and opined how “in a perfect world, Norwood Fisher and Fishbone would be superstars; a shining example of what can happen when smart lyrics, pop songwriting, stellar musicianship, a once-in-a-lifetime frontman and a ridiculously badass rhythm section come together in a spicy, pan-genre gumbo.”
Many L.A. musicians attest to this. Anthony “Brew” Brewster remembers the group’s air-tight rhythm section long before he briefly played keyboards with them in the 1990s.
“Before I joined the Untouchables in 1985, my group 8-Ball did hundreds of shows with Fishbone, Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Untouchables,” recalls Brewster, currently playing Wednesdays at Harvelle’s in Santa Monica with House of Vibe All-Stars. “Watching Norwood and [former Fishbone drummer] Fish play together was amazing. They played as one instrument.”
“Fishbone had one of the most diverse sounds,” says another L.A. music scene contemporary — Lucky Lehrer, drummer of first-wave punk band The Circle Jerks. “Norwood drew competently from ska, R&B, soul, funk and punk to create a unique style which the band blended with witty lyrics.”
As cinematic witness to their sanctum sanctorum, Anderson discovered many truths about the group.
“Norwood is certainly the anchor for the band,” he says. “Fishbone would never have formed or stayed together if not for his near-Herculean efforts. It is his baby, and while it has grated on his band mates at times, he’s taken on the responsibility.”
Mighty Long Way
Since Fishbone formed as a collective of South Central African-American teenagers messing around with musical instruments, Fisher has always followed his muse.
“I feel like the most fortunate musician in the world to be able to carry the integrity of my teenage years into my adulthood,” Fisher says.
Anderson says that being bused to the Valley in the late 1970s as part of school desegregation efforts opened up new musical horizons for Fisher and his bandmates.
“That experience was one reason they are sort of musical and cultural pioneers of the first post-Civil Rights Era African-American youth,” Anderson says. “They influenced so many bands by bringing the punk to the funk, and made it cool for black kids to slam dance and stage dive.”
Fishbone did not record their first album — a self-titled collection featuring standouts “U.G.L.Y. (You Ain’t Got No Alibi)” and “Party at Ground Zero” — until 1985, by when the group had narrowed down to core members Fisher, his brother and drummer Philip “Fish” Fisher, keyboardist/trombonist Chris Dowd, guitarist Kendall Jones, trumpeter “Dirty” Walter Kibby II, and Moore.
“Fishbone, throughout the years, have been able to hang their hat on their live performances,” Anderson says. “Mostly due to the band’s musicianship and workman-like effort approach to touring, but also to Angelo’s immense charisma and talent onstage. He is sort of like a combination of Johnny Rotten, Frank Sinatra and James Brown all rolled into one.”
Fisher and company had a genre-blending sound at a time when music labels and listeners alike kept their punk, funk, pop, metal and soul separate.
“We were oblivious to how unique it was,” says Fisher, who recalls “the floodgates to a certain experimentation” exploding after the 1976 arrival of the Sex Pistols, followed by New York’s Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads and California punk bands Black Flag, Fear and The Dead Kennedys. “It was all of those things were what we were feeding on.”
Slow Bus Movin’
Besides packing an overall upbeat musical vibe, half of Fishbone’s third album, “Truth and Soul”— “Howard Beach Party (Slow Bus Movin’),” “Ghetto Soundwave,” “Subliminal Fascism,” “Change,” “One Day” — has unfortunately proven very prescient about racism in America.
“It’s kind of sad that these issues have not been addressed in humanity. As a songwriter, I think, ‘Okay, I’m still relevant,’ but it’s not the kind of relevance I want to have. That’s unfortunate for us as human beings,” Fisher says.
“We would hope that a song like ‘Ghetto Soundwave’ can find some relief from cultural significance. At some point we should be like, ‘Oh, that’s what old people went through.”
Sonically, “Truth and Soul” united Curtis Mayfield (the opening “Freddy’s Dead” cover), ska flavor (“Ma and Pa,” “Question of Life”), sweaty funk workouts (“Bonin’ in the Boneyard”), solemn gravitas (“Pouring Rain,” “Change”), Bad Brains-esque hardcore (“Subliminal Fascism”), faux country-Western (“Howard Beach [Slow Bus Movin’]) and metal-tinged grooves (“Mighty Long Way,” “Ghetto Soundwave”) all in one polished package. This was in 1988.
“They embraced punk and metal and ska to create a style all their own even if they were difficult for the industry to market or digest,” Anderson says.
That includes Fishbone’s label, Columbia Records. When producer David Kahne returned to produce their follow-up, there was a real label push with 1991’s “Reality of My Surroundings” to propel Fishbone to MTV airplay and the level of radio ubiquity that the Chili Peppers had just achieved with “Blood Sugar Sex Magic.” Despite the refined pop sounds of “Everyday Sunshine” and “Sunless Saturday,” the ambitious “Reality” failed to reach a mass audience.
The 1990s saw Fishbone albums (“Give a Monkey a Brain…,” “Chim Chim’s Bad Ass Revenge”) courting an ever-shrinking broad relevance as the band delved deeper into eccentricity. By the 2000s, a litany of line-up changes had metastasized as the fiery Fishbone fought to go forward as a creative unit.
By the 2000s, Moore lived with his mother in the Valley while supporting a teenage daughter.
That’s when Anderson and Meltzer approached Fishbone about making what turned out to be a very illuminating documentary; as raw and honest a portrait of the band as possible.
“They approached us and I was not into the idea,” Fisher continued. “I had the thought in my mind that you had to be an old ass man and I wasn’t old enough to be in that story.
However, the filmmakers’ previous documentary on the Salton Sea, narrated by John Waters, won over Fisher, a big Waters fan.
“We started on a journey,” Fisher says. “There was no question it’s gotta be real.”
Despite the documentary’s sober honesty, Fisher believes it was a risk that paid off: “Our older fans have something they can take to introduce their children and their nieces and nephews to the band. They show them the video and then they take them to the show.”
Some history you can’t rewrite. Fisher continues moving forward, keeping Fishbone and Trulio Disgracias grooving.
The Legacy Continues
In May, Fisher’s Trulio Disgracias — hot off a residency at Harvelle’s last year — joined Moore’s Dr. Madd Vibe in topping the bill for the annual Venice Spring Fling, just as they did in 2006.
Along the way, Fisher has been very good to his fellow Westside musicians — even rival bass players!
Louiche Mayorga, founding bassist of the Venice punk group Suicidal Tendencies and currently of Luicidal and Horny Toad, has a history with Fisher dating back to when Bill Fishman, director of the video for Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized,” also directed Fishbone’s “Everyday Sunshine” clip.
In 2011, Mayorga came under the employ of the group.
“I had fallen on hard times and a buddy of mine, Shawn London, was doing sound for Fishbone on the road,” Mayorga recalls. “He offered me a job, setting up the stage for Fishbone. I was stoked.”
While on tour, Mayorga marveled watching Fisher perform “Bonin’ in the Boneyard” and “Ma and Pa.”
“Norwood’s playing blew me away,” Mayorga says. “I remember looking at him thinking how could he play how he does and hit certain notes and basically get ‘that sound’ playing bass so low and making it look so easy.”
Mayorga credits Fisher for inspiring him to form Luicidal. He sums up Fisher’s legacy with a single observation: “Did you know that his white Peavey bass from early Fishbone is hanging in the frickin’ Smithsonian Institute of Arts and Music in Washington D.C.? Put that in your pipe and smoke it!”
Trulio Disgracias plays the Punk Rock Barbecue at 2 p.m. on Aug, 30 at the Liquid Kitty, 11780 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A. Call (310) 473-3707 or visit thekitty.com