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Around the bend and back again with Fishbone

Wednesday, Apr 12 2000

Don’t call it a comeback,

I been here for years!

--L.L. Cool J, ”Mama Said Knock You Out“

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Heralded in their heyday as the great white hope of black rock & roll, Fishbone, who have traveled a long and rocky road back from semiobscurity, are the first to admit that they made some mistakes along the way. But with a new album, a new lineup, and a world tour just around the corner, the time may finally be right for Fishbone to grab the brass ring. (Not that they haven‘t been within reach before.)

”Right now,“ says co-founder and bassist Norwood Fisher, ”we may be the only all-black straight-up rock band with a major record deal that’s doing viable business. The media is gonna have to deal with us.“

Back in 1993, Fishbone were on fire. They had a coveted slot on that year‘s Lollapalooza tour, had wowed ’em on Saturday Night Live, and had a Spike Lee--directed video rocking the airwaves. With the success of bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Faith No More, Fishbone and their powerhouse blend of punkfunkmetal seemed to be next in line for MTV superstardom.

Then the shit -- or rather, a series of personal and professional catastrophes that would hobble the band for years to come -- hit the fan. For starters, their drummer, Norwood‘s brother Philip, or ”Fish,“ for whom the band was named, punched out their mentor-producer at CBSColumbia, and relations with the label (no surprise here) began to deteriorate. Then, in the midst of supporting a brand-new album on the Lollapalooza tour, they were told to rush back into the studio to cut a new one, seeing as their current disc was not selling as well as expected. They were dropped from the label shortly thereafter. Also, there was the sudden religious conversion -- some called it a freak-out -- of guitarist-vocalist-songwriter Kendall Jones, who left the band to move in with his zealot father, only to be kidnapped for deprogramming purposes by Norwood and his posse, who were later hauled up on charges. Other key band members, including Fish himself, jumped ship as well.

Meanwhile, vocalist-saxman Angelo Moore gets married and divorced and loses custody of his baby. What’s left of Fishbone are signed again, and again they‘re dropped. They flip, they flop, and eventually they’re left high and dry without a record deal, forced back into the clubs and stuck with a pile of professional and personal debt -- while the bands they‘ve inspired go on to sell millions. Events that would shatter most bands.

But Fishbone have never been known to give up a fight. As reflected in their marathon three-hour-plus, high-octane concerts, some members of the group, anyway, seem not to know the meaning of the word quit. As the bands who used to open for them (No Doubt, Reel Big Fish, Goldfinger) raced up the charts and scooped up MTV video awards, three of Fishbone’s founders -- Angelo, Norwood and vocalist-trumpeter ”Dirty Walt“ Kibby -- kept plugging away, slowly rebuilding the lineup and recording demos for their next assault. It took years of struggle and endless, grueling club tours to pay off the bills, but Fishbone finally landed their third major record deal and got back down to the business of making music.

But how? How did they manage to write -- save for a couple of burnin‘ covers -- a whole CD’s worth of amazing songs without the help of their two main songwriters? How did the Fishbone rise from the ashes?

Read on.

In 1978, six young black boys were brought together by destiny and the large yellow buses of the Los Angeles Unified School District. And what could be worse for a kid -- worse than having to go to school in the first place -- than having to wake up an hour early to get transported across the city to a new junior high school, far away from the familiar turf of your neighborhood, only to be confronted by a parking lot full of strange new nemeses?

The Fisher kids, Norwood and Philip, grew up first in the Slauson area and then, as teenagers, on the Westside, at La Cienega and Cadillac, and wanted nothing more than to hang in the ‘hood with their pals, explore their love for funk music and screw around on their instruments. ”Me and Fish, being brothers, had been playing together since he was 4 and I was 6,“ reflects Norwood. ”I had a guitar at 6 and was playing bass lines on it. Around the time I turned 8, my cousins traded me a real bass for my weight set. They said, ’You ain‘t never gonna lift no weights!’ They was right.“ As Norwood switched from guitar to bass, Philip, dubbed Fish by his friends, hammered away on the drums. Then they were shipped to Siberia . . . er, make that Woodland Hills. The Valley.

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