One of the great things about college radio – at least back then – was that you could play anything you wanted to. I had a late night radio show where pretty much anything hit the airwaves depending upon my mood, whether it was progressive rock, powerpop or comedy. Since there were no commercials – and since I refused to play the news that was recorded and scheduled for the top of the hour – four hours of programming was a shape-shifting blob of whimsy.
Except for times when I would play a lengthy prog tune (often an entire album side) to buy myself time for a snack and a bathroom break, the world was my aural oyster. The station was serviced by most record companies, although thanks to collegiate theft, we usually had to bring our own vinyl. The station was usually staffed by the DJ and no one else, so many of the classics disappeared not long after their arrival.
One album that didn’t was An Evening With Wild Man Fischer.
Look at that cover. And this was an effort blessed by Frank Zappa? If you’re a college DJ in the early 70’s, you have to put that on the turntable. And when you did, the first thing you heard was a deranged man yelping the refrain of “Merry Go Round” over percussion supplied by paint buckets and tambourines. You really don’t want a song like this stuck in your head:
Come on, let’s merry-go, MERRY-go, merry-go-round.
Merry-go, MERRY-go, merry-go-round.
Video: “Merry Go Round”
And it just got stranger from there. Of course, when you’re young and immature, you’re not thinking to yourself “here’s a guy who’s obviously suffering from a mental disorder; this is sad“. No…you’re playing this for anyone who will listen and laughing your asses off in disbelief that anyone this atonal actually had a record deal. Given the times, an itinerant street poet dumping his thoughts into a microphone was perfectly acceptable. This was the counterculture, after all.
But in reality, Larry Fischer was a man suffering from both acute schizophrenia and manic depression who had been institutionalized as a teen and now took to the streets selling songs for a dime whenever he felt the pep (his word for muse/inspiration, likely when his manic side kicked in). Soon his window of fame with Zappa would close, although he would later get more notoriety via Dr. Demento and by collaborating with Barnes and Barnes; he was also immortalized in comic form.
A quarter century later, on a much bigger stage, the entertainment industry would use William Hung for its own amusement in a far sicker display of public humiliation. But then again, as all television producers have learned, Americans will do anything to get on television, including debasing themselves, in pursuit of what is mistaken for celebrity. Several of the most popular shows on television are based upon the concept of people exposing their faults or fabricating a lifestyle to feed the voyeuristic, isolationist society that we have become. H.L. Menken once said that “nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public“. I don’t think he realized an entire industry would be created in the process.
But these celebretards are all too eager to volunteer. Larry was drafted.
Knowing all that I do about Frank Zappa, what was once a benign thought is now a curious question. Was Frank simply flipping the bird to the pop culture establishment by posturing Fischer as a street poet genius while putting some coin in his and Larry’s pockets? Or was Frank so prescient about the banality of pop culture that this was simply another absurdist cash cow, a latter day Elephant Man who would be carnival-barkered to the public for a short shelf-life and then disposed of when done?
Larry released three records for Rhino, but this original album has never been issued on CD because Gail Zappa owns the rights. (Apparently, Larry once threw a jar at her daughter’s head, terminating his relationship with Frank. Gail can hold a grudge.)Ironically, last week I stumbled across a documentary about Larry’s life entitled Derailroaded. While waiting for my copy to arrive, I hit the Internet on Friday in search of some reviews and comments about the film, which is how I learned of his passing on June 16th.
Larry Fischer, dead at 66.
The words rest in peace have rarely been more appropriate.
And just as was set to release the above post, I learned that The Big Man has sadly left us as well. Clarence Clemons died last night from complications following a recent stroke.
I’ll let Bruce Springsteen’s words say it for me:
“Clarence lived a wonderful life. He carried within him a love of people that made them love him. He created a wondrous and extended family. He loved the saxophone, loved our fans and gave everything he had every night he stepped on stage. His loss is immeasurable and we are honored and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly forty years. He was my great friend, my partner and with Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music. His life, his memory, and his love will live on in that story and in our band.”