Just Some Different Shit
Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone
Norwood Fisher, Angelo Moore, Chris Dowd, Dirty Walt Kibby II, David Kahne, Ice T, Larren Jones, Kendall Jones, Flea, Gwen Stefani, George Clinton, Mike Watt, Vernon Reid, ?uestlove, Dazireen Moore, Laurence Fishburne (narrator)
Los Angeles Film Festival: 26 Jun 2010
Looking out the window of his Santa Monica home, Norwood Fisher looks nearly serene. “I moved to the beach here,” he says. “It took me 10 goddamn years to get into the water and surf. It was a ghetto mentality, that surfing was some white boy shit and not for niggers.” Explaining that his resistance was “internal,” he’s pleased with his evolution: “Now that I’ve stopped drinking,” he smiles broadly, “Surfing has give me some of the most incredible joys of my life.”
That’s saying something. For Norwood Fisher is, of course, Fishbone’s founder and extraordinary bass player, a survivor of all sorts of incredible joys. In Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone, he looks back on his 25-year journey with the band, by turns self-reflective, frustrated, and philosophical. “Fishbone could be a band that doesn’t use profanity, goes and does the festival circuit, plays the oldies and rakes in a ton of dough,” he observes. “But we chose to try to forge new ground, go into uncharted territory on some levels. We are where we are because the path that we walk.”
“Where we are” is complicated, like everything about Fishbone. Appropriately, Everyday Sunshine offers a few versions of the band’s “story,” from band members to colleagues and relatives. Part biography, part cultural history, and part funky-form experiment, the film has generated such enthusiasm at the Los Angeles Film Festival that it’s been booked for an additional screening on 26 June. Its vibrant, unusual form is a function of its multiple approaches. While it includes interviews, family photos, and footage of the band’s electrifying performances, it also features animated sequences and competing accounts of particular events.
Certainly, Fishbone is legendary, as an eclectic and voracious, brilliant and groundbreaking band, combining musical styles in ever-new ways. As Ice T puts it, they resisted familiar labels: “It wasn’t rock, it wasn’t metal, it wasn’t hiphop, it wasn’t funk. It was just some different shit.” As such, it was utterly original. “There was no pre-Fishbone,” he adds, “It was just them. They get to wear that crown to the grave.” Also certainly, the band was infamously dysfunctional. Former manager Roger Perry says, “Had Fishbone been less of a democracy, they might have been a more successful band. But had they been less of a democracy, they wouldn’t have been Fishbone.”
In fact, none of the band’s many anticipated breakthrough songs quite broke through. Even if, as Branford Marsalis says, “The musicians get it, the other people don’t,” the band’s commercial success—their ability to make a living with their art—has remained elusive. The film suggests multiple, related reasons, as internal tensions are at least partly connected to broader social and political contexts, namely, the many forms of racism that shaped the band’s shifting outlook, output, and career.
From the start, Norwood and Angelo Moore were seeing things differently: where Norwood remembers pushing a pomegranate into his future frontman’s face, Angelo disagrees: “There was no goddamn pomegranate tree, this was a persimmon he smooshed in my face.” Norwood says he invited Angelo into the band he’d already started with Chris Dowd and Kendall Jones, but acknowledges Angelo’s version too: “I fully appreciate him and I think, ‘Wow, he asked me to be in my own band.’”
As Norwood walks the hallways of Hale Junior High—the San Fernando Valley school where he and other black students were bused—he says Angelo wore his hair like Prince and “smiled all the time.” More odd than ingratiating, that flamboyance appealed to Norwood nonetheless. Today, Norwood squishes his frame inside one of those familiar all-in-one desks to remember Angelo passing him notes, in “Bootsy speak.” “Roto-rooter all day bubba!” The film animates this flirtation and other early images of the band, insinuating the combination of fantasy and mutating memory that fuels the legend. “We’d get together and play and just jam,” says Norwood, producing “a spontaneous reaction.”
The music and the live show, especially, are phenomenal, by all accounts. The reasons for the band’s intermittent stalling and sputtering differ, as do descriptions of the series of departures that eventually left only Norwood and Angelo as original members. The film offers various perspectives on Kendall’s depression in 1993, followed by his immersion in a religious cult, as well as the band’s unsuccessful effort to intervene and the suit Kendall brought against them and his former girlfriend Anna Loynes. The band’s troubles afterward include substance abuses and personality clashes, stories that parallel those of other bands of the era. Perry Farrell says the industry’s response to so many “crazy people” (Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love included) was to say, “Screw it, no more freaks. Let’s get a little girl, put her in a video, and make lots of money.” The film illustrates his conclusion with promo shots of Britney, Christina, and the Spice Girls—letting you remember how these industry fabrications turned out.
As much as Farrell’s explanation makes sense, for Fishbone, the context was always race, too. From the band’s start in 1979, it was a hard “fit.” Gwen Stefani—who knows something about marketing a mixed-race, mixed-style band (success tip: front with a white girl), notes that Fishbone was caught in between, “not really in the black world, not white enough for white people.” Angelo remembers that when he encouraged black people to come hear the band, they resisted: “We’re not trying to hear any of that stringy-haired white boy music. It’s just frustrating when your own people don’t want to come and represent.” Columbia, who signed them out of high school, was never able to find a promotional strategy that embraced the band’s many facets. And it wasn’t long before band members grew tired of edicts to homogenize. Over the 1987 video for “Back to the Beach,” featuring Annette Funicello, Norwood remembers, “Kendall felt we were getting too cartoonish with our image.”
As the band changed shape, lost members and reformed, it also came to terms with a number of contextual factors. Norwood cites the verdicts in the Rodney King trial as crucial for one of these reformations. “That killed a certain part of your hopefulness and your sense of justice,” he says. “That was like, ‘The system does not work for you, black man.’ It definitely changed us as people and it had a profound effect on our art and our music as well.”
More impressionistic than informational, the film mostly relies on you to know and keep up with these changes—it’s not a concert film, it’s not a detailed history, and it provides precious few instances of the band at work, on stage or in the studio (this makes the performance scenes that are included that much more exciting). Angelo laments the losses, remembering that he imagined the band “like a family or a gang: you see each other for as long as forever is supposed to be.” He and Norwood are still working to keep their family together. “Norwood and I,” Angelo says, “are like a fucking married couple that want to be divorced for a minute, but can’t because we’re married. This thing wasn’t working out, but we got kids. That’s the music.” And for that, we can all be grateful.