I’ve never told the complete story of my involvement with the band Fishbone before. In the past few years however, I’ve experienced a bit of shade thrown at me, some subtle and some overt, by other people who’ve had involvement with them in the time during and after my own. Typically this has involved downplaying or minimizing my involvement, sometimes accompanied by humble bragging about involvement of their own. My reaction to this has always been to just keep quiet. Not only am I not big on what could be construed as tooting my own horn, there was a lot of conflict caught up in that time. But I’m tired of holding my peace, I’m thrilled that the band’s classic lineup is back together, and excited that they seem to be experiencing somewhat of a resurgence. I figure 20 years is long enough, and I’m allowed to have my say, as best I can recollect it.
Growing up in the 80’s, Fishbone was the band that broke my musical world wide open. As a kid I listened to run of the mill rock, and then metal, and then punk and hardcore. Then I discovered Fishbone. Through them my musical landscape expanded in all directions. I discovered The Specials, War, Funkadelic, Miles Davis, Native Tongues hip hop, Curtis Mayfield, Mandrill and much more. And their live shows – good lord their live shows. You had to be there to understand why just the announcement of an upcoming show would induce stomach butterflies. They were full-on experiences, those shows. Black people, white people, old people, young people, punks and rockers and everyone else went to the Fishbone show, were all inducted into the Familyhood, and left with smiles on their sweaty faces.
Over the years, times grew tough. Inevitable success never materialized as promised. Shows went from Lollapalooza main stage to Bob’s Bar & Grill. Members started leaving. One joined a cult, and things got really weird. They put out an understandably angry album, followed by an uncomfortably angry tour, and I checked out, feeling like the magic had gone.
Fast forward to 1997 and I started looking for them on this thing I was working with called the internet. I found a tiny fan run mailing list and immediately joined. At the time its membership was less than 50 people. In it I found kindred spirits. Not long after joining, the person running the list announced that they’d soon be graduating from college and, no longer having access to the university servers housing the list, they’d be shuttering it. I did a bit of research on how to run a listserv and offered to take it over from him to keep it alive.
I administered the list for years. Over that time it grew, first to a few hundred, then many hundreds, of members. I built and constantly updated websites promoting it and the band. I designed list Familyhood shirts I sold on early print-on-demand online retailers at cost. The band became aware of, then involved in, the list. Someone on the list organized a Familyhood “reunion”, and dozens of list members from around the world flew to California to meet one another and hang out with the band. I hadn’t the money to go, and pored over pictures from the event wistfully.
The singer’s management contacted me, and I wound up recording and managing the filming of two performances for a solo album of his alter ego, Dr. Maddvibe. The band’s new record label reached out to me, bringing me into the fold to manage online street teaming for their new album and tour, and asked me if I’d be willing to take over their official online presence in the band would allow it.
The bass player’s then significant other reached out to me, concerned about some of the players the band had gotten involved with to handle their online presence. They were set to tour the southeast, and she asked me if I’d be willing to meet up with them before a show to discuss helping them out. Despite there being no show in my hometown of Atlanta I agreed, and my wife and I drove the 4.5 hours to Charleston – the closest show – to meet up with the bass player and singer prior to their gig.
When we arrived at the venue I explained to the staff, who clearly hadn’t been informed of my coming, who I was and why I was there. I set up my laptop on the bar and waited – and waited. Eventually the bass player came out to see me and then, for a few moments, the singer. It was clear from the jump that what was happening was obligatory at best. The bass player gave humored me for a few minutes. The singer seemed annoyed at my presence. No one else in the band acknowledged me at all. Nothing was accomplished.
We headed to our hotel, me dejected, my wife doing her damnedest to make the best of the situation. That evening we went back to the venue to discover that despite having been assured otherwise, we weren’t on the guest list. We bought our tickets, admittedly grudgingly, and for the first time ever I watched a Fishbone show from the back of the room. The venue was half full at best.
Shortly after this the band was dropped from their label (again). The singer let go his management (or she let him go, I’m unsure). The bass player and his significant other split up. The person they’d brought on to handle their online presence fucked them over, and for awhile that became the hot topic on an otherwise fairly quiet mailing list. Eventually the band hooked back up with the son of the producer who’d helped them make their early seminal records, and he created what was finally a good online presence for them, complete with a bulletin board. Between the bulletin board and then the rise of MySpace and then Facebook, the list slid into obscurity… and I was fine with that. I’d spent so much time, so much energy, so much of my own money trying to bolster this community and band that had meant so much to me, and it had all gone so weird and wrong.
A few years later a filmmaker contacted me. He said he was making a documentary about the band, and he wanted to interview me. After some soul searching, I declined. Despite having been pretty involved in the band for a number of years, despite having a credit on a commercially released CD and video,I didn’t really even know any of them. And, honestly, I still had a bad taste left from it all. But I didn’t want to badmouth the band, so I told him that I didn’t feel like I’d have anything meaningful to contribute. He expressed surprise at this, but accepted my response once I reiterated that I wasn’t interested. Once again I felt conflict. Part of me wanted to tell my story, to finally get a little acknowledgement. Another part worried that I would inevitably say something shortsighted and later regret it.
Eventually that documentary was released, and through it I learned a lot about my own experiences. I learned just how dark a space the band was in during the time of my Charleston visit. I learned of them nearly breaking up several times, of substance abuse, of anger and fear and failure and manipulation and plain old poor decision making. It helped me contextualize my own experiences into the bigger picture. I realized that the band themselves had been victims of circumstances the shrapnel of which had also hit me.
There’s a saying that goes “Never meet your heroes. They’re sure to disappoint you.” I suppose that can be true, but in my case, I met my heroes, and I learned that heroes are just humans too. I realized that for all of my involvement with the band, I had no idea how much they themselves knew. I’d just naively assumed that all these other people in their orbit had received their blessing to contact me, or had at the very least told them of their intention to do so. For all I know, the band never knew their label reached out to me, or that I was the one organizing street teams. And at the time I hadn’t known that things between the band and the label had already become controversial (other than one marketing person alluding to the band being a bit “difficult” and wondering if I held any sway with them, which I obviously did not). Relationships, business and otherwise, had been falling apart. The band had a whole bunch of fucked up shit swirling around them and I was almost certainly barely a blip on their radar.
The band appears to be in a better place now. Beyond all odds the classic lineup, save for one soldier, is back together, and they’re out there playing those classic songs they all created together decades ago. And best of all, they look genuinely happy doing it. They’ve come through the darkness. I can’t wait to take my son to see them for the first time ever on the 21st in San Francisco (“Dad, will they play Everyday Sunshine and Ma & Pa?”). I hope he can meet them. I hope that maybe one of them remembers me, or at least pretends to. But even if they don’t, I think it’s going to be a great time. Had you told me in 2005 that I’d be taking my son to see the original lineup of Fishbone, I would never have believed you. This isn’t the way I ever expected this experience to end, but I’m sure glad that it is.