Fishbone’s Angelo Moore and John Norwood Fisher do their own thing at Venice Spring Fling
By Michael Aushenker
On a crisp upstate New York evening in November 1988, a boisterous group of us Cornellians, eligible to vote for the first time, walked en masse to Robert Purcell Union on North Campus to choose our next president. To the eventual dismay of many of us, Papa Bush ultimately won that election. But on that specific night, we were amped to leave the voting booth and head down to an intimate, dive-y joint on the Ithaca Commons called The Haunt to see a band from my home town.
That Los Angeles band was Fishbone. The way this genre-mashing group performed the muscular soul and metal-and-brass-shellacked punk-funk from their contemporaneous album “Truth and Soul” left us sweaty, out of breath and in awe of how simultaneously tight and loose they were as they set the place on fire, with vocalist Angelo Moore casually flipping a 360 in place, hanging off the ceiling’s wooden rafters and stage-diving into the pit. I haven’t seen a better live performance since, and that’s not hyperbole.
Moore, a legend of L.A.’s 1980s alternative music scene, headlines Saturday’s 5th annual Venice Spring Fling music festival under the moniker Dr. Madd Vibe. Also on the bill: Fishbone founding member and bassist John Norwood Fisher, leading his long-running side project Trulio Disgracias (which in the 1980s routinely included members of punk-funk buds the Red Hot Chili Peppers).
It isn’t the first time either has performed at one of organizer Milton Rosenberg’s biannual beachside concerts.
“There’s nothing better than a beach party,” Fisher says. “We can perform, we can face the water. When I can look beyond the palm trees and see the break, and I look beyond that and see where the sky meets the ocean … it’s living the dream, man.”
Rosenberg — “he’s Venice-style, man,” Fisher continues. “He’s authentically Westside. The thing is that he keeps coming back with it, and he has an organic growth. It’s not like he’s going to Snapchat and bringing [corporate sponsorship]. It’s Venice; the whole world knows Venice.”
Joining Moore and Fisher on the Spring Fling bill: the unrelated Barry “The Fish” Melton of Woodstock psychedelic rockers Country Joe and the Fish; reggae/hip hoppers Krooked Treez; Venice-based dance troupe Ya Harissa Bellydance Theatre; jazz act the Azar Lawrence Quartet; oddball reggae shakers Jah Faith and the L.A. River Swim Team; East L.A.’s Casa de Calacas; and Venice hometown heroes Meet Me at the Pub, who mash up ska, reggae and rock. The pop-up festival also features dancers, artists and children’s activities.
Moore and Fisher have just returned from a nine-date East Coast Fishbone tour that covered New Jersey, upstate New York and the Hamptons.
Fishbone has toured South America and Australia, played across Europe countless times and even has their own hostess/translator in Japan.
“I like Japan. I like France,” Moore says. “It’s just a little more eclectic. America is great and everything, but it’s kind of linear.”
The prolific Moore has been nurturing his Dr. Madd Vibe alter ego across four albums since 2000 and also leads side groups Brand New Step and Missin Links.
It’s the South Central-spawned Fishbone, however, with which Moore and Fisher have buttered their bread.Beginning as teenagers in 1979 with “Party at Ground Zero,” “U.G.L.Y. (You Ain’t Got No Alibi) and other songs that would appear on their 1985 self-titled debut EP, they later honed their sound to a metallic-and-brass polish on “Truth and Soul.”
The rambling-yet-compelling “The Reality of My Surroundings” (1991) — a faltering big-label push to propel Fishbone to the same stratospheric commercial heights achieved by the Chili Peppers’ “Blood Sugar Sex Magic” — nevertheless yielded a succession of candy coated power-pop gems.
Music heads who grew up in L.A. in the 1980s remember how energetic, innovative and influential Fishbone was in paving the way to Billboard’s charts for alternative acts such as Jane’s Addiction, the Chili Peppers and Nirvana. More directly, the ’Bone more than anticipated Vernon Reid’s all-black rock act Living Colour and the huge mid-‘90s pop-ska wave led by No Doubt (Gwen Stefani was a longtime Fishbone fangirl and brought in Moore to cut the saxophone parts on her solo album cut “Fluorescent”).
“Alternative wasn’t even a term,” Fisher says of when Fishbone took off. “We missed out to putting a name to it. We let the journalists call it. I called [Jane’s Addiction leader] Perry [Farrell] and [Chili Peppers bassist] Flea and said, ‘Dude, we didn’t name it.’”
Beyond some solid studio work, Fishbone’s reputation rests on being one of popular music’s greatest live acts.
Perhaps the most dramatic twist in Fishbone’s storied career came in 2010 with the release of “Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone,” a documentary by Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler. The movie was shockingly candid and sobering, juxtaposing interviews with No Doubt, Flea, Ice-T and Perry Farrell singing Fishbone’s praises as alternative music catalysts and groundbreakers with the reality of the band: internal upheaval, a member’s lost years with a religious cult, and single-parent Moore apparently struggling, living at his mother’s house.
“People would start to come up, would say ‘I saw the movie, I didn’t know it was like that for you guys,’” Moore says in a measured delivery. “‘Is everything alright?’ ‘How’s your Mom?’ ‘Have you got a place of your own?’”
Due to internal band friction, Moore learned to play drums and other instruments himself so that he could find an outlet as Dr. Madd Vibe for songs Fishbone had rejected.
“You always want to keep that free-spirited feeling / Don’t let them turn your sky into a ceiling,” he rhymes.
In the 1980s, Fishbone was often aligned and associated with the Chili Peppers. Prior to guitarist Hillel Slovak’s overdose death and the success of “Blood Sugar Sex Magic,” the Peppers were a stylistically different, much wilder band that, musically, had more in common with Fishbone. The “Truth and Soul” track “Mighty Long Way” seems thematically reminiscent of the Peppers’ anthem “Me and My Friends” — both of them odes to the power of bro bonding.
“It was all going on around us. We would just pick up on it,” Fisher says. “We were really bros. We’re still bros. It ain’t the same [since the Peppers’ mammoth success]. But I still get up at Flea.”
Writing “Mighty Long Way,” I had my bandmates in mind, I had the Chili Peppers in mind, and Murphy’s Law,” Fisher says. “Perry Farrell was a part of that whole scene, Thelonious Monster, the Untouchables. It was a coincidence but comes from the same spirit. We all ran in the same circles.”
“We’d hang out periodically, but when it came to songwriting we never really shared some of those ideas,” Moore recalls.
“Truth and Soul” ranges musically from raunchy funk, overdrive punk and poignant ballads and thematically from religious introspection to condemnation of racism and oppression.
Moore and Fisher lament that tunes they wrote in 1988 remain so relevant in 2015.
“We would hope that a song like ‘Ghetto Soundwave’ can find some relief from cultural significance,” Fisher says. “At some point, we should be like, ‘Oh, that’s what old people went through.’”
“I put my head in a bubble, in my astronaut bubble, with my words and my instruments and black out the world,” says Moore of his daily survival ritual.
For the moment, the ‘Bone’s spine has their attention focused on Saturday.
“There’s nothing bad about Venice Beach,” says the Valley-based Moore. “I used to go out there and read poetry with my sax and blow my horn. When I feel it, out comes the poetry.”
Fisher, a Santa Monica resident of 23 years, has stronger ties to the area. Those include a history of jam sessions at The Brig, Danny’s Venice, and the now-defunct Air Condition Lounge in Venice; Harvelle’s and TRiP in Santa Monica; and retired Santa Monica haunts 14 Below and Temple Bar.
Fisher is concerned about the recent closures of Hal’s Bar and Grill, the WitZend and the Good Hurt.
“This is what makes Venice Beach Music Fest [and Spring Fling] more crucial than ever — bring live music to the community, but ultimately have local talent take the stage,” Fisher says.
Moore lights up when talk turns to his old stomping grounds: Melrose Avenue.
“Pink’s!” he shouts enthusiastically.
Fishbone is so L.A., they should get a hot dog named after them, I suggest. Moore runs with it, suggesting what that ‘Bone Dog should contain: “Onions. Collard greens. Corn. Corn bread.”
At one point in our phone conversation, I am put on hold as a down-and-out man accosts Moore on the street.
“Do you have a quarter?” I can hear him ask the musician.
“Hold on, hold on,” says Moore, fishing in his pockets before concluding, “I don’t even have a quarter.”
Come November, Moore turns 50. He’s currently nursing a knee injury from cumulative years of acrobatic performing and faces a $1.4-million lawsuit over an alleged stage-diving mishap six years ago.
And yet Moore resonates with an optimism not far removed from that of the super-cool, skinny mohawked dude in shades and a gray suit who, 25 years ago, I spotted walking alone down funky Melrose Avenue, just blowing his sax.
Venice Spring Fling runs from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Saturday on the Venice boardwalk near Windward Avenue. Free. Visit venicespringfling.com.