Friday, June 8, 2012

Fishbone's "Truth and Soul" and Excluded Middles

Back when I was in high school, desegregation of public schools through busing was still a unilateral practice. Based on my street address, I was bussed across town for three years as a representative of the middle-class, white population from the south side. At the end of my junior year, however, busing was deregulated, and I had the opportunity to attend a local high school for my senior year. The campus was about ten minutes from my house and had a quality band program at the time, so I was more than happy to make this change.

One of the last musical gifts I got from my crew before bussing ended was Fishbone. Fishbone is a band unlike any other, and Truth and Soul, my entry point in 1988, is the finest in their catalog. It’s where the band balanced out their disparate influences into a playful, but serious, mix of thrash, funk, and contemplative songwriting. The single from this album was a cover of the Curtis Mayfield song Freddie’s Dead, and if you were lucky you might have caught it on 120 Minutes at about 2:30 in the morning.  The charisma and oddness that the band naturally exuded in this video froze my idea of what Fishbone was.

They are still around (although in a slightly different form) and have done a lot of great work since, but in retrospect, I was fortunate to have been introduced to the band through Truth and Soul in 1988. The album had a devout cult following at both schools, so when I felt like an outsider walking into cliques that had already been in place for years, it served as a salve. In the long term, however, I can say I got on board with Fishbone before the music industry ground them down to a knub of what they could have been.

The story of their struggles with public visibility is well documented in the recent documentary Everyday Sunshine, which is quite extraordinary in its own right.  The movie's recounting of Fishbone's early days reveals that the band was a cultural product of the same desegregation and busing policies that had moved me across town. Their actual experience, however, was much different and more difficult than mine. Fishbone’s members were bussed across town as representatives of Los Angeles’ lower-income population. The band emerged in their local neighborhood garage, musically navigating their own exclusion and integration into a middle-class, primarily white population.

This situation is subtly documented all over Truth and Soul.  In addition to its brilliant pacing, quirky charisma, and astounding musicianship, it is also obvious that Fishbone actually stood for a certain mode of social existence under a particular historical condition. Their lyrics were often overtly political, but carried with it subtle overtones of hope for reconciliation.

Despite their genius, and the undeniable artistic success of Truth and Soul, Fishbone remained decidedly outside of the mainstream and they fell between the cracks in 1988. When No Doubt came on the scene in the late 90s, I was appalled at how readily the music press labeled them as innovators when they were so obviously copping Fishbone’s best work. However, the visibility that No Doubt brought to the post-punk ska sound has helped to preserve the freshness of Truth and Soul. After all this time, I consider it to be Fishbone’s classic, defining record.

1 comment:

  1. I remember you got me hooked on Fishbone back in HS, too. Thanks for that, by the way.