Sunday, April 3, 2016

CD Review: Wild Man Fischer's An Evening With Wild Man Fischer (1968/2016)

An Evening With Wild Man Fischer
Larry “Wild Man” Fischer was a tragic figure, and an unlikely rock star. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and twice confined to a mental institution, the homeless Fischer roamed the streets of Los Angeles, singing his frequently made-up-on-the-spot songs for a dime for anybody willing to listen (and pay). Discovered by Frank Zappa – no stranger to weirdness for weirdness sake – the Maestro coaxed Fischer into the studio and produced An Evening With Wild Man Fischer, the album originally released in 1968 on Zappa’s own Bizarre Records imprint.

Zappa and members of the Mothers of Invention offered sparse instrumental accompaniment behind Fischer’s fractured vocals, the producer capturing the essence of Fischer’s street performances in the studio. The ambitious double-album offers up 36 songs, some no more than short, sharp stream-of-consciousness rants while others are insightful, revealing, autobiographical poems set to minimalist instrumental backing. The album has taken on an almost mythological status since its release, with scarce vinyl copies selling in the neighborhood of a C-note (if you can find one). Long out-of-print, An Evening With Wild Man Fischer has received its first-ever CD release courtesy of the good folks at Gonzo Multimedia in the U.K.

An Evening With Wild Man Fischer

Kids, I’m warning you up front – An Evening With Wild Man Fischer is not an album for the faint of heart, Republicans, the uptight, the elderly, politicians (Democrats or Republicans…Libertarians should be cool with it!), those who cringe at outsider art, the unsophisticated, those who don’t like rock ‘n’ roll, rednecks, hillbillies, or them whats believe that Frank Zappa was one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. Zappa knew exactly what he was doing when he took a mentally ill street person into the studio in the halcyon days of 1968 to record an album he was certain that his corporate minders would find confusing and ultimately dislike.

The lawyer-approved language above notwithstanding, An Evening With Wild Man Fischer is a challenging but oddly entertaining listen. Larry’s Fischer’s voice can be alluringly hypnotic, but is just as frequently shrill, off-balance, and entirely non-melodic. Take one of his best-known ditties, “Merry-Go-Round,” a simple sing-a-long that digs its way into your cranium like a sentient corkscrew, leaving you humming or chanting the so-called chorus for hours after ingesting. Fischer’s vocal yelps, whoops, and croons are remarkably lacking in embarrassment, allowing the artist to let go with a carnival-like, free-flowing lyrical stream-of-consciousness that rivals that of Zippy the Pinhead.

The Madness & Ecstasy

Zappa mixed a combination of street and studio recordings to make An Evening With Wild Man Fischer, capturing the singer in his native environment (singing songs for a dime on the sidewalk), embellishing the latter recordings with studio gimcrackery like tinkling piano keys, random percussion, and strange noises not unlike his own Lumpy Gravy LP. “The Madness & Ecstasy” is a spoken word piece with unlikely instrumentation and features a rant by the late Kim Fowley – himself a notorious Hollyweird character – as well as an appearance by L.A. DJ Rodney Bingenheimer and a brief recitation by the all-girl groupies outfit the GTO’s (Girls Together Outrageously – when will that album receive its long overdue release on CD?)

After the five-song introductory “The Basic Fischer,” the first disc slides into straight, unaccompanied Fischer performances caught on tape in the studio. Songs like “Which Way Did The Freaks Go,” “I’m Working for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics” (which name-checks LBJ, Ronald Reagan, and baseball legend Sandy Koufax), “Cops and Robbers” (an intriguing story-song with a doo-wop chorus), and “Monkey Versus Donkeys” (with a distinct 1950s rock vibe) all display Fischer’s itchy performance style, his often created-on-the-spot lyrics half-spoken, half-sung in his trademark simplistic manner and accompanied by random hollers and mouth noises.

Frank Zappa & The Taster

Fischer rewrites Buck Owens’ classic 1966 hit “Think of Me” as the leering “Think of Me When Your Clothes Are Off” before veering into Dylanesque folk with “Taggy Lee,” Fischer banging atonally on the guitar in an approximation of Mr. Zimmerman’s more nuanced acoustic strum. He jumps quickly into the 1950s-styled, doo-wop inspired “Rhonda,” following, perhaps, Ruben & the Jets as his muse. At one point in the recording, Fischer asks “I’m getting paid for this ain’t I, Frank?” which is followed by Zappa patiently replying “yes you are.” The second disc opens with “The Taster,” which features Fischer fronting the Mothers of Invention, Zappa’s fluid guitar lines perfectly accompanying the singer’s bouncy, rapid-fire, and somewhat off-kilter vocals. With “Story of the Taster,” Fischer explains the previous song and his attempt, at age 16, to create a new dance craze along the lines of “The Twist.”

Fischer’s “The Rocket Rock” is another teenage fever-dream, the first song he remembers writing, a curiously derivative ditty that quickly devolves into a rambling Fischer story. “Dream Girl” was written in the pop style of the early 1960s, performed a cappella by Fischer in his best Pat Boone crooning style, accompanying himself in a faux female voice for background vocals. Fischer outlines his hopes and aspirations with “Why I Am Normal,” a two-and-a-half-minute conversation where he sounds almost coherent. “The Wild Man Fischer” story continues the previous train of thought, the song an autobiographical one-act-play with Fischer portraying himself and various characters from throughout his life. “Circle” is another Mothers-backed track, musically a swirling whirlpool of psychedelic rock upon which Fischer embroiders his lysergic-tinged lyrics and strained, shouted vocals.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Frankly, An Evening With Wild Man Fischer probably isn’t for you. Although the argument over whether this is art or not is, quite frankly, inconsequential. Wild Man Fischer circa 1968 was a bleak reflection of a society beginning its slow, inevitable decline towards decay and collapse, a slide towards oblivion that continues, albeit at a faster pace, to this day. But Zappa perceived a glimpse of society’s failing humanity in Fischer and his cockeyed songs, and sought to capture them on tape for posterity. That Fischer and Zappa would eventually fall out was pre-ordained, but with An Evening With Wild Man Fischer, the singer and producer proved that there’s a little rock ‘n’ roll in all of us.

Fischer was the original model for the rock ‘n’ roll outsider, the first in a line of artists that includes Roky Erickson, Wesley Willis, and Daniel Johnston. While he didn’t have Roky’s melodic skills, or the everyman appeal of Willis, Wild Man Fischer perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the era and inexplicitly managed to eke out a career, of sorts, recording and sporadically recording until his death in 2011. His most notorious and least self-conscious work, An Evening With Wild Man Fischer is a brilliant, disturbing portrait of outsider music, Fischer an artist with big dreams that never let a lack of talent get in the way of his ambitions. Grade: B- (Gonzo Multimedia, released March 18, 2016)

Buy the CD from An Evening With Wild Man Fischer

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