By Shawn “Speedy” Lopes
To hear Fishbone’s latest endeavor, The Psychotic Friends’ Nuttwerx, is to experience the glorious rebirth and joyous revival of one of the most fascinating rock (or is it ska? Punk? Funk?) ensembles of the past 20 years. The all-African-American band from L.A. that defied every simplistic notion of what an all-African-American band from L.A. should sound like, Fishbone has always tackled musical genres as the indomitable Jack Youngblood did opposing quarterbacks who dared encroach on Los Angeles in the 1970s.
A trailer for the 2010 rockumentary “Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone”
It was in the late ‘70s, as a matter of fact, that the group’s original core members met through a busing program which took a number of junior high kids from the ‘hood to some of the more privileged schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. They might as well have been shipped to Neptune, says founding bassist Norwood Fisher.
“This was a whole ‘nother world,” he recounted in a recent phone conversation. “Just along racial lines, it was more divided than I could ever see. The white schools had better teachers, better books, better everything, all the way around. When I went back to the school in my neighborhood, it kind of hit me; I realized in the 11th grade that the books I’d been learning from were the same ones I read in the eighth grade in the Valley.”
In addition to having a well-furnished school and a broader, more advanced curriculum, the students there also seemed to be more well-rounded musically. Inspired and invigorated by their strange new environment, Fisher and company formed a band within a year’s time.
“When Problems Arise”, complete with real hula dancers, 1986
“I think we were just always open to all types of music because our families listened to a lot of other stuff,” Fisher says. “With the ska thing, I thought we invented it until Walt (Kibby, horn player) set me straight when he played bands like Selecter and English Beat for me. I never heard anyone play that stuff before us!”
Fishbone at the Big Mele 1993, Kualoa Ranch, Hawaii
The band kept its ears open to new sounds over the years through the wide-open transmissions of college stations like KXLU, where the members were befriended by their all-time favorite disc jockey, a radio personality Hawaii dial-fiddlers would know much later as Pinkie Passion (You can see her and the band in the movie Tapeheads; she plays the TV reporter).
After I inform Norwood we share a common acquaintance (Pinkie and I were both deejays at Radio Free Hawaii), the conversation picks up instantly. “That station you had there, that was the baddest station I ever heard, man!” he enthused. “You could hear some Frank Sinatra, then some 24-7 Spyz right after, and then Metallica or Funkadelic. It was deeper than college radio. It was groundbreaking; that’s the kind of vibe (Fishbone) was always on.”
I was lucky enough to be there with Pinkie when this hilarious interview took place in a tiny Waikiki hotel room. Props to Edge City Films for the fantastic video.
The band has always prided itself on being a tight bunch as well. That notion was put to the most severe of tests several years ago when former member Kendall Jones suffered a nervous breakdown and engaged in such dangerous behavior that Fisher, at the urging of mental health professionals, tracked Jones down and attempted to bring him home. Fisher and four others were charged with kidnapping and were acquitted only after a taxing six-week trial.
I ask him if he’s had any recent contact with Jones. “I’ve not talked to him since,” answers Fisher, apparently still pained by the ordeal. “Funny thing is, I just got off the phone with his brother. I imagine the egos are what’s keeping it from happening. His way of dealing with it is probably to not acknowledge or hear about life before the breakdown.”
It’s probably still painful, I offer.
“Yeah, for me too,” he admits. “It was a deep relationship before stuff happened. Back then, it was like us against the world, and now…” Fisher pauses for a moment. “When the time is right, it’ll happen.”
“Sunless Saturday” was one of the first hit songs on Radio Free Hawaii in 1991
As the ‘90s drew to a close, relationships within the band deteriorated and its chemistry vaporized as Fishbone’s musical vision scattered like buckshot. Recently, the band has added a host of well-travelled musicians, while keeping its core of Fisher, Kibby and zany singer/saxman Angelo Moore intact. The result is nothing short of amazing, as evidenced by their new album, quite possibly their finest recording to date.
Great cover of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everybody Is a Star” featuring Gwen Stefani, George Clinton and Rick James, from Fishbone’s then-current album
“When we come to Honolulu, you’ll feel the full power and get a true sense of where we’re going,” says Fisher. “The new guys are really starting to feel like ‘Hey, this is our band now.’” Then he chuckles. “Sometimes I can look at Angelo’s face when we’re playing and just know he’s having more fun than he’s ever had.”
Fishbone with Go Jimmy Go 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, Pipeline Cafe $16.50 (advance), $19.50, 21 and older
Dubbed from the Honolulu Advertiser, July 21, 2000