Artists: Wild Man Fischer

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GONZO WEEKLY #167: Jon meets Neil Nixon

Me and Wild Man Fischer go back a long way.

When I was in my late teens I was living in Bracknell, Berkshire, for reasons that I will not go into here, not because  they are anything about which I am particularly ashamed, but because they are convoluted and not very interesting. At the time my favourite reading was the first two volumes of a three part encyclopaedia of rock music, the third volume of which never actually came out.

I was a lonely, introverted sort of bloke, and - although I didn't know it at the time - a manic depressive desperately in need of treatment that I wouldn't get for another twenty or so years. I disliked my job, and spent much of my time in a dream world where I wrote and sang songs in my head, because I had no real way to record them, and no prospect of getting one. For reasons that I don't altogether understand, I spent much of my free time sitting on Reading railway station, either daydreaming about becoming a singer in a world where the peculiar songs that populated my head would actually be the sort of thing that people wanted to listen to, or reading Volume Two of my increasingly battered rock music encyclopaedia over and over again.

I was particularly fascinated by the work of Frank Zappa and the peculiar coterie of artists that were associated with him. Artists like Captain Beefheart, the GTOs and Wild Man Fischer. The latter was particularly fascinating to me.

Larry Wayne Fischer was born in Los Angeles, California, United States and attended Fairfax High School. Fischer was institutionalized at age 16 for attacking his mother with a knife. He was later diagnosed with two mental disorders, severe paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Following his escape from the hospital (he said no one ever bothered to take him back there), Fischer wandered Los Angeles singing his songs a capella for 10¢US each to passers-by. Discovered on the street by Frank Zappa, Fischer became an underground concert favourite. Zappa was responsible for Fischer's initial foray into the business of recorded music, an album called An Evening with Wild Man Fischer (1968), which contained 36 tracks, some of which contained minimal musical accompaniment by Frank and members of The Mothers of Invention, while most are simply accurate representations of Larry's street performances (sung and spoken).

Fischer's unhinged behaviour caused Zappa to drop him from Bizarre; during an altercation with Zappa's wife Gail, Fischer threw a glass jar which smashed dangerously close to the couple's baby daughter Moon Unit. "I thought from the first day I met him that somebody should make an album about Wild Man Fischer," Zappa said in 1970. "But when you're working with somebody like him, or people who are out there, the problems that arise after the album is completed sometimes become too much to bear."

I spent much of the next twenty years trying to get hold of this stuff, and finally got the GTOs album in the mid 1990s, but it wasn't until the Internet age that I finally managed to get hold of Fischer's massively unhinged debut album, even though it's signature song had been sampled on 'All you Need is Love?' by The Justified Ancients of MuMu, which was (and is) one of my favourite records.

In the middle of the last decade I discovered a remarkable movie called Derailroaded. The following synopsis is from Wikipedia.

"The film chronicles the life of Wild Man Fischer, an outsider artist who went in and out of several mental institutions when he was a child. During the 1960s he was a street singer in L.A., which gave him a cameo appearance in Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In in 1968. The same year Frank Zappa gave him the opportunity to record his first album, An Evening with Wild Man Fischer. Fischer's eccentric personality provided some truly unique music, but his mental problems rapidly ended his career. Fischer suffers from paranoia and schizophrenia and thus became impossible to work with, despite the best efforts of other artists (Barnes & Barnes, Rosemary Clooney,...) to help him. So despite his cult reputation Fischer remained a poor street musician until the end of his life.

The film makers tell Fischer's tragic story thru archive footage, interviews with people who were once associated with him and also interview Fischer himself. According to the directors they were having dinner in a restaurant when suddenly Fischer started talking about his career and all the amazing things he did. Unimpressed the directors went home and tried to check whether these tall tales were true, only to be shocked that they were! They tracked Fischer down and decided to make this documentary film about him. As it turns out Fischer is a poor street artist who occasionally performs, but lives alone with his psychological problems. He sometimes visits his aunt and the film makers also interview Fischer's brother. Near the end of the film Fischer is hospitalized and put on medication. This makes him less aggressive, but also takes away his energy and willingness to perform."

Fischer died a few years later.

Zappa's widow, Gail, declined to release An Evening with Wild Man Fischer on CD because overall it does not reflect well on her husband. But Gail, Fischer and manager Herb Cohen are now dead, and Gonzo has managed to get the rights to put the album out legally on CD for the first time..

This album is now seen as a classic of Outsider Music, defined by Wikipedia s being: "the term used to describe songs and compositions by musicians who are not part of the commercial music industry who write music that ignores standard musical or lyrical conventions, either because they have no formal training or because they disagree with conventional rules. This type of music, which often lacks typical structure and may incorporate bizarre lyrics and/or melodies, has few outlets; performers or recordings are often promoted by word of mouth or through fan chat sites, usually among communities of music collectors and music connoisseurs. Outsider musicians usually have much "greater individual control over the final creative" product either because of a low budget or because of their "inability or unwillingness to cooperate" with modifications by a record label or producer."

So I telephoned Neil Nixon, author of a Gonzo book about peculiar records to talk about Outsider Music in general, Wild Man Fischer in particular, and along the way discovered that I, myself am an Outside Musician. Enjoy....


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