You Make Them a Million, They'll Toss You a Dime
by Jay Allen Sanford 04.13.07
"In San Diego , people don't recognize me. There's no pressure to record any more." I'm in a downtown Burger King and the person telling me this knows about pressure. Long before David Peel, Weird Al, Mojo Nixon and The Rugburns, Larry "Wild Man" Fischer was carving out his own distinctive niche in the history of rock 'n' roll novelty and cult music. A street singer living on the obscure fringes of the L.A. subculture, in early 1968, Wild Man would sing anyone an original song for a dime. He offered these improvised and somewhat off-key ditties to anybody who'd listen, serenading unsuspecting passerbys with his most singular brand of certifiable loonyness.
Wild Man had been in and out of a few mental institutions, but he cut a charismatic figure, barely keeping his voice below a shout as he sang about his life, his dreams, his girlfriends, his family disowning him and any other subject that came into his head at any given moment. Disturbing and introspective songs, with lyrics which made it frighteningly easy to understand the sadness and desperation of Wild Man's merry-go-round world. Already a cult figure among the city's rock 'n' roll intelligentsia, Wild Man came to the attention of another musical madman with an eye toward the satiric and outrageous: Frank Zappa.
Zappa had just recently begun his own record label, Bizarre, and something about Wild Man's rants intrigued him. In a move which seems strange even for Zappa, he put Wild Man in a recording studio. And let the tape roll. And roll. Wild Man couldn't play any instruments, though he'd occasionally pick up a guitar and pound on it for sonic punctuation. He rapped and sang to empty air, about his mother and mental hospitals, about fame and circles and how he could move so fast that not even a cat could see him. Zappa filled up a double album of material and then brought in The Mothers to record some musical accompaniment for a few cuts. The GTO's (Zappa's groupies-turned-rock-stars) and wunderkind producer Kim Fowley helped out, and thus was born the album "An Evening With Wild Man Fischer."
"Frank was really nice to me," reflects Wild Man. "He gave me a lot of advice, about the music business and everything. A lot of people who'd made fun of me suddenly treated me with respect, you know? They couldn't believe I'd hooked up with him! We kidded around on the album about me being bigger than the Beatles, but for awhile I thought it might really come true." Released in late 1968, "Evening With" was somewhat of a sensation, with songs like the a cappella "Merry Go Round" destined to become Doctor Demento staples. "Circle," with The Mothers, was even put out as a single, and Wild Man began playing fairs and clubs all over the country. "There would be, like, thousands of people there cheering, calling out my name and singing along. They'd keep clapping for hours after I finished." Rolling Stone even lent credibility to Wild Man's growing rep with a positive review of "Evening With," saying that the double album "captures the total being of one strange member of the human community."
Wild Man freely admits he had trouble coping. "At the peak of my fame, it was scary. I couldn't go anywhere. They'd all yell 'Wild Man, Wild Man!' At first I kind of liked it, but after awhile it drove me nuts! I got tired of it." Then he and Zappa had what Wild Man calls a "falling out." "One day I was over his house. And he said something rude, I forget, like 'Why don't you put your money in a bank' or something. He was bugging me because I wasn't, like, as rich as he was and living in a big old house...I threw a jar or something. And it missed him but he was still all yelling at me and everything. His wife or daughter came in and he said I almost hit them, and then he kicked me out."
Wild Man would sing about his relationship with Zappa in later songs. He still complains that he never made money from the album and he can't recover the rights to his own masters, which are currently controlled by the late Zappa's wife, Gail. Yet he surprised most everyone by bouncing back in a big way. Then-fledgling Rhino Records was just working toward their first album release, and it was decided that an LP of new Wild Man music would be their premier project. Wild Man had already penned their theme song, "Go To Rhino Records," and next came the full length stream-of-consciousness experiment known as the "Wildmania" LP.
"Looking back, it wasn't very good," Wild Man says now. But many were impressed with it nonetheless, including one Bill Mumy. Mumy was and is best known as Will Robinson on Lost In Space, as well as other child-star turns on Twilight Zone and various TV shows and films. At the time, he aspired to be a musician with his band Barnes And Barnes (purveyors of the infamous novelty hit "Fish Heads"). Mumy was also recording for Rhino, and he invited Wild Man to do a joint project with him.
"At first he didn't tell me who he was," Wild Man offers. "I was in his bathroom and I saw all these pictures of him with Doctor Smith and the Robot and I said 'Wow, this is that kid from TV!' But it didn't look like him!" Mumy became one of the few to infiltrate the select ranks of Wild Man's circle of friends. He produced two very strange Wild Man albums for Rhino. "Pronounced Normal " was, according to Wild Man, "Billy trying to make another Sgt. Pepper!" Layered with texture and psychedelia, it includes Wild Man covering Brian Wilson's "In My Room," perfectly moving and poignant since Wilson and Wild Man share a lot of the same psychological problems and proclivities. "I'd talk to Billy on the phone, and he'd be writing down everything I said. Then he'd turn that into lyrics and we'd write the songs." Similarly, the duo also recorded "Nothing Scary," which included a song written just for Wild Man by Gerry Beckley of the group America (whom Mumy had worked with). "He wrote me this ballad, 'All I Think About Is You,' because he liked my first album. I said 'are you sure I should be doing this?' Billy said 'Yeah, yeah, it'll be great for your career! You'll finally have a big hit record!' " However both Rhino albums sold poorly and before long Wild Man, a good bit grayer, heavier and more tired than he'd been a decade previously, was without a record label.
"I still get royalties from songs of mine they use, like on the Doctor Demento Christmas record. Not much but a little. People think I must be a millionaire, but I have absolutely zero money. I never made any. Everybody else seemed to, but I hardly made a cent. I'm not good at the business side of things. I got screwed every time." A comprehensive overview of Wild Man's recorded output is unlikely, since Gail Zappa has publicly proclaimed her unwillingness to release the "Evening With" masters, citing it as a poor example of Frank's work. Wild Man kept landing in off the wall projects, however. One new friend and compatriot named Mark Mothersbough, then of those robotic spudmeisters known as Devo, recruited him for an afternoon. "Mark mainly did it to shock his friend, one of his camera people, a big fan of mine. He had me and this girl sing 'Fun With Your Body' with this weird Devo stuff. He was gonna use it for something but it got turned down."
An even more unlikely pairing came out of his friendship with Bill Mumy. Mumy's close friend, actor Miguel Ferrer (who occasionally records with Mumy in a makeshift band), was a fan of Wild Man's. As was, it turns out, Ferrer's mother, the legendary Rosemary Clooney. "She listened to my records and liked them a lot and said she wanted to do a song with me!" Wild Man still marvels at the notion. "Rosemary wrote this song 'It's A Hard Business,' Billy produced it, but it was never released, It went 'You make them a million, they'll toss you a dime.' The story of my life, too! It was Rosemary getting all these things off her chest about the music business, but her manager didn't want her to do it." When pressed for details, Wild Man adds "She had a reputation for having mental problems, too, and I don't think he wanted her to be associated with me, Wild Man Fischer. But Doctor Demento played the song a few times. It got requested a lot."
Except for the occasional concert, Wild Man withdrew almost completely from the music industry around 1985, and he's still disputing royalties owed by Rhino and Paramount (his lawsuit against Paramount was covered in Variety and elsewhere). He moved to San Diego to get away from the city where almost everyone seemed to know who he was. "It's such a tough business, music. They're sharks, they'll eat you alive. It's such a money world out there. I decided I'd made four albums, it was fun while it lasted but it was the end of the road." Moving around between low key and low budget downtown hotels, he quietly became a San Diego street fixture, though he introduced himself only as "Larry" so people wouldn't connect him with his still somewhat famous Wild Man persona. In August 1988, Bill Mumy came to town for the big San Diego Comic Book Convention, along with a few musician friends, all of whom were also moonlighting as comic book creators. Their new band was called Seduction Of The Innocent, after a famous 1950's book which had tried to cite comics as the source of all juvenile delinquency. "Billy said 'Why don't you sing with us? You'll have a good time!' It'd been a long time since I'd played live." Was he nervous about the prospect? "I'm always nervous."
Wild Man was coerced onto the stage long enough for an incandescent set which included his doo wop ditty "The Taster" and an a cappella rendering of "Merry Go Round" ("I'm getting a little sick of that song" he now says about his best known tune). The crowd was rowdy and responsive, even those who weren't familiar with Wild Man. His ever increasing volume, enthusiasm and his spasmodic on-stage body language proved infectious, and the audience handed Wild Man the most earnest and sustained applause of the evening. It was a rare performance, one of only two dozen or so "pro" gigs Wild Man can recall playing (he'd backed out on many more, becoming so undependable that few bookings were offered to him after so many no-shows).
Sometime around summer 1995, Wild Man was checking out Garage Rock, a local record store. "This guy Bob Duffy walks in, who used to work for Zappa. He says 'Hey, Larry, what are you doing these days?' I said 'Nothing. I can't take the music business any more.' He told me about this band he was involved with managing or something, The Rugburns. I left the store thinking, wow, this guy had it made, but he's really gone downhill! Who are The Rugburns?" On his next visit to the store, a clerk played a Rugburns album for Wild Man. "I liked it! I was getting into the record. Then I decided to buy it, I was curious!" After seeing the band play live for free at the Adams Avenue Street Fair, Wild Man declared himself a true blue fan of San Diego 's eclectic novelty-pop group.
"Their music made me feel good. It reminded me of when I was young, when I used to be able to get all kinds of people excited and stuff." On his next encounter with Duffy, Wild Man was offered the chance to appear in a Rugburns promotional video, a project being cooked up for the band's major label debut on Priority Records, "Taking The World By Donkey." "I thought Bob wanted me to do a music video with them, maybe write a song for them," Wild Man says, "but he said 'no, no, we just want you to talk about the Rugburns.' " The longform promo was shot in various locations around San Diego, interspersed with live clips and interview sound bites with the group, but it is Wild Man's running narrative which propels the oddball project. It has aired on local public access, but nobody at MTV or VH1 is clamoring to show the video. "That's a good thing," Wild Man says, laughing nervously. "I wouldn't want people to start recognizing me again!"
Wild Man was also a guest of The Rugburns at their recent Spreckles show backing up Jewel. "I looked like this street bum to everyone there, and they were wondering what the heck I was doing in the special Rugburns section!" Partway through the band's set, singer Steve Poltz thanked his family from the stage, and Wild Man experienced what he calls "The biggest stroke of jealousy I've ever had. His whole family was there, supporting him. I never had that. I had everyone screaming at me 'don't you dare do that!' My family told me I was too crazy. My mom kept having me committed. There was no encouragement. In fact, there was hatred toward me doing it."
Today, Wild Man can't decide whether he wants to ever record again. There is, in fact, some question as to who would even offer to do the recording. His fan base was never large enough to give him hit records, though his notoriety and fame was and is widespread, especially among Zappa's legion of admirers. His psychological problems, like those suffered by Arthur Lee of Love and other Wild Man contemporaries who've never quite adjusted to the world around them, make it difficult for him to deal with the idea of getting back into the music industry. I asked him if he was happier then or now. "That's a hard question to answer," he offers after a rare and thoughtful pause (Wild Man's non-stop verbal barrage is, by his own admission, overwhelming to many). "I was younger. But now I don't have all the pressure, I'm not always trying to track down royalties and get work. My fame kind of subsided after the seventies. Now I don't get depressed as much." He does however enjoy San Diego and says "I'd like to spend the rest of my life here!" He also likes San Diego 's yearly comic book convention, and even hopes to become involved in comics some day, perhaps with his good friend and biggest rah-rah supporter Bob Burden (creator of the well known Flaming Carrot comic book). He's been drawing primitive cartoons all his life, including illustrations for the jacket of his own "Evening With" debut. To Wild Man, finding kindred souls in the cliquish comic book community was like finally finding himself a home on the Island of Misfit Toys, with all the other social outcasts and decidedly quirky comic fans and creators.
"I like the people in the comic business. They take me for who I am and I feel like I can relax at a place like the comic con. They're different from people involved in the music industry. I like them better because...because I'm not doing business with them!"
A documentary film was recently released about Larry's life, "DeRailroaded: The Wild Man Fischer Story." If he were to record another album, Wild Man does have new material. "I wrote this song the other day, about this guy James, he used to be in The Penetrators. I met him at a bookstore." He then sings the verse of another new composition, "Nobody's Happy," causing most of the burger munching carnivores around us to pause and stare in our direction, some with hostility, some with nervous intrigue. "I'm walking down the street and nobody's happy, yes they are, yes they are, no they're not, they're not happy," he sings with alternating glee ("yes they are") and glum ("no they're not"). Up and down, back and forth, from depression to manic joy and back again. Another autobiographical insight from a man who wears his heart, his emotions and his entire self on his sleeve like perhaps no other performer in rock history.
Wild Man Fischer is happy. No he's not. Yes he is.