Graded on a Curve: Wild Man Fischer, An Evening with Wild Man Fischer

The records of Wild Man Fischer were once a warped fixture in well stocked record bins all over the globe. He’s left this mortal coil, but as an early example of the often fascinating and sometimes frustrating world of “outsider music,” his reputation is assured. An Evening with Wild Man Fischer was his first stab at immortality, and to this day it remains his best. Never reissued, it’s a 2LP that’s more talked about than heard, but once experienced it’ll certainly never be forgotten.

These days, the desire to take a plunge into the backlog of musical eccentricity that’s accumulated over the years can provide a crazy trip, man, but there’s frankly so much of the out-there residing out there in the nooks and crannies of recording history that trying to gather a full picture of Weirdsville can be more than a little daunting, even for those with a few decades of listening experience under their belts.

Cynical views regarding outbursts of the weird often express how they are mainly attempts at gaining attention in a crowded musical landscape (and sometimes that’s correct), but a general truth regarding expressions of the artistically bizarre is that for every example that rises to prominence, there are many more that never make it beyond the fringe. Indeed, quite a few only find the smallest release or even remain in the vault to be discovered years later through the insatiable thirst of obscurantist researchers.

That’s not the case with Larry “Wild Man” Fischer, one of the first “outsider” musicians and a one-time oddball fixture in the Los Angeles scene. In a sense he was in the right place at the right time, specifically the second half of the ‘60’s, an environment that placed a high value on strangeness, considering it all rather “far-out.”

And Fischer was far-out, or maybe better put, his personality was legitimately far outside societal norms; he was institutionalized at age sixteen and was later diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. So, if not exactly the type of far out that the ‘60s zeitgeist was looking for, Fischer’s need for expression, manifested in short and extremely basic pop-influenced a cappella songs performed for dimes on the swingin’ Sunset Strip and elsewhere, resulted in a fair amount of attention from the youth movement congregating in L.A.

It also brought him into the sphere of Frank Zappa, a man deeply connected to the ‘60s anti-establishment state of affairs while also being openly critical of the herd mentality that crept around it, and the result of this relationship produced 1968’s An Evening with Wild Man Fischer, one of the more intriguingly strange albums to ever see release in association with a major record label.

That company was Warner-Reprise, a rather forward-thinking company that in keeping with the mood of the time had given Zappa carte blanche to curate a pair of sub-imprints Straight and Bizarre. The names given to these labels were meant to reflect differences of accessibility, but as things progressed the distinctions between the two became a little blurred.

Along the way the Mothers of Invention leader instigated some very fine music, a few titles dripping with eccentricity, Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band’s Trout Mask Replica being a prime example. But nothing Zappa put his stamp on was more out-there than An Evening with Wild Man Fischer, a release that like Trout Mask Replica was a 2LP set.

It was also Fischer’s debut, though it’s a coming out party that represents Zappa’s influence as producer and cultural commentator as much as it reflects the Wild Man’s often prickly outsider personality. His later work for Rhino did a solid job of documenting his status as a tweaked song-fount, but the recordings found on Evening represent a much different, frequently quite disturbing experience. Due to the state of Fischer’s mental health, Zappa’s hand as producer, involvement so heavy that in the end the whole thing connects as an extension of Frank’s mindset as much as it details Larry’s sensibility, can feel more than a bit like exploitation.

But what rescues it from the realms of the predatory is the clarity of Zappa’s consciousness of the whole situation, which situates itself as the album progresses as a commentary on the friction that can result from one person’s need for expression and desire for fame and the interests of folks looking to somehow profit from those individuals, whether they be in eager young bands or dudes just hanging out on the Strip hawking songs for ten cents each.

The result of this friction is commonly that hopeful artists get a chance for success. Sometimes this pays off, but far more frequently it finds them used and then tossed aside. Bummer. But that wasn’t Zappa’s intention; the pair remained close until Fischer’s erratic behavior caused a rift that was unfortunately never repaired.

What lingers however is how An Evening with Wild Man Fischer doesn’t really attempt to make a seductive case for the man, refusing to depict him as an endearingly weird guy who’s in the end not all that different from the oft-dangerous generalization that is “one of us.” Instead it reveals him warts and all, presenting a man whose lust for expression and communication can often get on other people’s nerves, and detailing an imagination that can easily detour into scenarios often downright uncomfortable, if thankfully only existing in Fischer’s mind.

Zappa’s tactic as producer is to capture Fischer in a variety of situations; on the street performing, in the studio interacting with Zappa and giving a cappella renditions, but also on one song “The Taster (fancy version)” working with the Mothers of Invention. He then manipulates the results onto four sides of vinyl that while divided up into individual tracks impact the listener like extremely bent suites.

Side one is a journey into sound collage with added percussion from Mother Art Tripp. This first segment also finds fellow Zappa satellites the G.T.O.’s and So Cal mainstays Kim Fowley and Rodney Bingenheimer providing a commentary on Fischer that, instead of really celebrating the guy, transforms into a somewhat troubling exposé on the underbelly of late-‘60s L.A. cool.

If it’s starting to sound like Zappa hijacked the man’s debut for his own concerns, that’s not necessarily untrue, but Fischer is such an intense presence that it’s never really not apparent why this whacked excursion saw release. And the guy was given the opportunity for a more direct approach later, so it’s not like he got the shaft. But while I’ve enjoyed Fischer’s Rhino material, records that do a solid job of imparting the artist the Wild Man became, to be blunt those records lack the overall impact of his first album.

And An Evening with Wild Man Fischer provides ample room for Larry’s songwriting gush. It’s in the more relaxed moments, particularly on side two, that his talent for a ditty is best expressed. Concise tracks like “Cops and Robbers” and “Monkeys Versus Donkeys” are actually quite catchy if reliant on the unsubtle qualities of the songwriter’s vocal chords. When he’s calm he’s serviceable, but his more animated self often brings a barking rant that listeners either adjust to or don’t.

One of the most striking aspects of the record’s studio based material is how it contains self-confessed elements relating Fischer’s background. This includes far from flattering info, most revealingly the tumultuous relationship with his mother that’s described on “The Wild Man Fischer Story.” This situation led to his institutionalization after an attempted stabbing of his mom, an incident lampooned on the album’s cover.

But the biographical chatter also tips off the man’s influences, which range from Chubby Checker to Paul Anka to Ricky Nelson to Buck Owens. In a nutshell, his sources of inspiration are quite normal and even straight-up square. As outside of the mainstream as he was, what Fischer loved most was a good tune. And he crafted a couple, his knack even resulting in a collab with Rosemary Clooney in 1986. That must have felt something like vindication for a guy. While ultimately accepted, he was still perpetually thought of as an outsider.

“Merry-Go-Round” opens side one of the record, the song essentially serving as Fischer’s late-‘60s calling card, sorta his local hit single if you will (it was in fact issued on 45 by Reprise in ’68). It’s so simple it’s childlike, chanted with a gusto that jives best with Art Tripp’s circus-like percussion, and as it becomes something of a touchstone across the record’s four sides, its familiarity turns out to be something of a mixed blessing.

As previously stated, An Evening with Wild Man Fischer is a presentation of the full man. Fischer is an artist, but his charms are finite. In the outsider-singer-songwriter with mental problems category he’s much more interesting than Wesley Willis but far less talented than Daniel Johnston. Zappa clearly understood this, and he expressed Larry’s limitations as well as his ability to wear out his welcome. This comes to the fore in “Wild Man on the Strip Again,” a rather harried track where one bystander derisively shouts at Fischer (“you’re insane!”) and another amused onlooker encourages him (“get it on, brother, get it on!”) and pays for a tune.

Side three opens with “The Taster,” and it’s quite likeable as a full-band change of pace from the man’s solo busking mode, amplifying his rawness as a vocalist and contrasting it with the sturdy pop-psyche backing of the Mothers. Fischer thrived on collaboration, later working with Barnes and Barnes of “Fishheads” (“roly-poly fishheads”) fame.

While the music of that pair didn’t really do any great harm to the Wild Man’s Rhino stuff, the fact that Barnes and Barnes never really climbed out of the novelty music bag (a polite way of saying their music’s no great shakes) means that those records are only gonna get so good. An Evening with Wild Man Fischer gets extremely good, however. Zappa was on a major roll during this period, and the way his creative juices blend with Fischer’s outlandish zest makes for an often riveting listen, though one that can get more than a little challenging.

So it’s definitely not for everybody. An album that includes the twisted combo of morbidity and misogyny that is “Jennifer Jones” is certain to turn off as many people as it converts. That’s another charge that can be leveled against Zappa; that he could’ve used a little more editorial discretion. This, more than most outsider albums, can be accurately assessed as a freak show. But hey man, it was the ‘60s, so let’s cut everybody some slack.

Due to that rift mentioned above, An Evening with Wild Man Fischer has never been given the go-ahead for reissue, a decision that now stands with Zappa’s widow Gail. This is a drag, but since the record sold well enough to get a repress in ’74, copies aren’t impossible to find, though outside of good luck they will be pricey.

Periodically during the CD-era there were rumors that it was finally going to come out on that format, causing a lot of Zappa-nuts (many of which just have to have everything) to get all worked up into a tizzy over finally laying paws on a remastered copy. But it was not to be. And now the CD-era is over (though yes, quite a few of them are still getting manufactured.)

Frank and Larry have both passed, and whatever issues they had were buried with them. So there’s no time like now for a fresh vinyl reissue of this album. But it’s also worth noting that some art-objects gain part of their allure through an aura of enduring obscurity. After consideration, that’s one of the most endearing aspects of a journey into the weird, and An Evening with Wild Man Fischer is one of the grandest voyages of all.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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