In Hollywood’s lurid pantheon of rock & roll mythology, there is really nothing to rival the enduring, sinister mystery surrounding the very ugly death of singer Bobby Fuller.
The Texas guitar slinger, best known for 1966 chart topper “I Fought the Law,” had dropped out of sight for approximately 12 hours that same year and suddenly turned up, in a parking lot at Sycamore and Franklin, dead in the front seat of an automobile. The corpse was slumped next to an open container of gasoline, skin badly discolored by chemical burns or bruising or both, tissue permeated by gas vapors, one finger pulled back so far the bone appeared broken and in an advanced state of rigor mortis.
Following autopsy, the L.A. Country Coroner’s office classified the death as “accidental, or suicide,” caused by “asphyxia due to inhalation of gasoline.”
Almost 50 years later, along comes I Fought the Law: The Strange Life & Death of Bobby Fuller, a new book by Miriam Linna, the noted rock & roll folklorist, former Cramps drummer (circa '76-'77) and Norton Records co-owner, written in an excruciatingly close collaboration with Bobby Fuller’s bandmate in The Bobby Fuller Four and surviving sibling, Randell. It’s a rich, detailed, unpredictable safari through the split-lip gauntlet of the 1960s music business. The feverish narrative — much of it extensive, almost stream-of-consciousness, first-person monologues from Randell — bristles with brawls, acid trips, sex romps and cameos by such unsavory local characters as Phil Spector and Charles Manson.
The genesis of the book goes back for decades. As a fan on a Southwest pilgrimage in the 1980s, Linna visited the Fuller home in El Paso, met Bobby and Randell’s parents, and struck up an acquaintance with Randell. “I have been in touch with Randell for quite a while,” Linna says. “He called me, distressed about certain assumptions being proliferated about the band. I went down there and had a heavy heart-to-heart with him, he was still really affected by this. Even before Bobby’s death, his half-brother, Jack, was murdered, left to die in the desert. I told Randell to write it down, get it all out. Next thing, he called and said ‘Work with me on this’ and we cut straight to the chase, got right into all the L.A. stuff.”
After conquering their hometown of El Paso, Fuller brought his band out to Hollywood in 1965. Signed to Del-Fi Records, The Bobby Fuller Four's bright, Southwestern, Crickets-tinged brand of bounce and roll was admirable, a regional sound which Fuller polished up. Had he survived, Fuller doubtlessly would have parlayed it further into a credible antidote to the British Invasion. But the business end of all this ambition and talent was one hell of a mess.
“In July 1966, Bobby had had it.” Linna says. “The band was going to break up, he wanted out of their recording contract, he wanted out of the group. He was going to go solo. They were all supposed to meet at [Del-Fi Records head] Bob Keane's, but Bobby didn’t turn up. Because he was dead.”
While the identity of Fuller’s killer or killers will likely never come to light, Linna and Fuller do reveal the not-so-closely guarded truth about the individual shot-caller who was solely responsible for the death. It was not Keane, nor was it Eddie Nash, the infamous nightclub thug whose name has been at times erroneously connected to the case.
“Randy had no idea [who was responsible] at all. He went into an incredible tailspin of depression, after this picturesque childhood — they had wonderful, loving parents — after the success of the band. For Randy, it was just an incredible battle, dealing with this loss, it’s just been years of an empty feeling. And there was also fear about retribution over the whole thing.”
“It was the ultimate catastrophe.” Linna continues. ”Randell tried dealing with the police force — but all the records have vanished. Why wouldn’t they?’ It was an ‘accident,’ so there was no investigation. The car was never fingerprinted, it was never impounded. After the funeral, Randell drove that car, with the gasoline fumes and body seepage, from Los Angeles back to El Paso. When he went through New Mexico that day, the temperature was 111 degrees.”
Now, at last, the truth comes out. “There is definitely a bombshell.” Linna said. “We have the name, we print it and we have it backed up by two other people, one was an enforcer and another guy from Pittsburgh, a real mover and shaker.”
There are more than a few additional bombshells detonated along the way, all further heightened by the between-the-lines reality of Randell’s shuddering, lifelong tide of anguish and Linna’s own evolving spectrum of shock and dread as research progressed; The book itself is consistently riveting and, while it could have benefitted from an editorial tune-up and the inclusion of an index, it is a landmark achievement. (So who ordered Fuller's murder? You'll just have to buy the book to find out.)
On Saturday, both Fuller and Linna are participating in a book launch event and signing at La Luz de Jesus, with a musical performance by The Randell Fuller Four (featuring Bobby Fuller Four drummer DeWayne Quirico) scheduled later that evening at Joe's Great American Bar & Grill in Burbank. It's the kind of unusual mixture of rock & roll resurrection and exorcism that could only go down in Los Angeles. Because, as Linna, a hardcore Brooklynite, reminds us, “You live in a really weird place.”
I Fought the Law: The Life and Strange Death of Bobby Fuller book release at La Luz de Jesus Gallery, 4633 Hollywood Blvd., Sat., March 7, 2:00p.m. to 5 p.m., followed by The Randell Fuller Four and Chris Montez at Joe's Great American Bar & Grill, 4311 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank, at 8 p.m. Book release party is free; concert is $15. More info.