The term "roots" music has come to mean almost everything that's good and older than the day before yesterday, including rockabilly, swing, soul and ethnic forms such as polka, salsa and conjunto. It's almost gotten easier to just say what roots doesn't cover: music on the charts or MTV, apparently, and anything that's made significant money. But a recently released set of recordings by 1960s Texas rock and roller Bobby Fuller should make us reconsider those terms.
The music Bobby Fuller made with his band, the Bobby Fuller Four, is as great in its way -- as rootsy and thoroughly American -- as all the soul songs of the same era, and equally influential; it was the springboard for the visceral pop sound that bands such as the Ramones, the Cramps and Southern Culture on the Skids have recycled. If it also represents the first stirring of a patchwork style that eventually watered down all regional differences and gave us John Cougar Mellencamp, for a time it was a beautiful mongrel.
In the liner notes to the Fuller collection Shakedown! The Texas Tapes Revisited, critic Dave Marsh runs through the variety of styles Fuller mastered in Texas between 1961 and 1964 -- ballads, rockabilly, surf and a dead-on Buddy Holly imitation -- and concludes with what could be an epitaph not just for Fuller, who died young under mysterious circumstances, but for rock and roll. None of the other Texas bands of that era, he writes, "tried to do this many things, much less tried to record it in their parents' house." That's the essence of Bobby Fuller's story: a tinkerer hunched over his twin Ampex tape decks, as mad as Thomas Edison or Les Paul, sparking like a firefly. (****)
If Fuller is remembered at all today, it's for "I Fought the Law," his Mustang Records single that nosed into the top ten in 1966 (two early versions of "Law" are on Shakedown!); it was covered by the Clash 14 years later, and can still be heard on oldies radio. But Fuller was no one-hit wonder. Over the years, some of the material on the new two-disc set, which was put together by Del-Fi Records out of Los Angeles, has dribbled out on bootlegs, and a couple of years back Del-Fi itself released two of Fuller's original Mustang records -- The Bobby Fuller Four: I Fought the Law and KRLA: King of the Wheels -- on a single CD, The Bobby Fuller Four. (***) These discs contain a number of songs -- "I Fought the Law," of course, along with "Wolfman," "Saturday Night," "Thunder Reef" and "Take My Word" -- that are found in an earlier form on Shakedown! Fuller has been a beacon to incipient rockers, not because he did one thing well, but because, as Marsh suggests, in his unorthodoxy he represents an age when people were unselfconsciously reinventing themselves. It was a time when teenagers from landlocked El Paso played credible surf guitar, and all that really mattered was the big, subversive beat.
Many of the details of Fuller's life are recounted in the Shakedown! booklet by Del-Fi staffer Bryan Thomas. Unfortunately, his comments are disturbingly similar -- word for word in some quotes -- to an article by Miriam Linna in a 1988 issue of her small magazine Kicks. Neither Linna nor Kicks is credited by Del-Fi, or by Thomas. Linna did an extraordinary amount of research on a subject no one else cared much about at the time, and she deserves recognition for it.
In Linna's Kicks account, Fuller's origins seem thoroughly ordinary. He was born just outside Houston in 1942 and, after a sojourn in Salt Lake City, resettled with his family in El Paso in 1956, where his father worked for a natural gas company. Through his high school years, he toyed with drumming, jazz and drag racing. Impressed by fellow Texan Holly, he learned guitar and experimented with rock and roll when he wasn't working in a music store.
According to Linna, Fuller and his pals spent a good part of the early '60s hanging out at the Lobby Bar in Juarez, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso. Bluesman Long John Hunter was the Lobby's featured attraction, and Fuller sometimes sat in on drums. He also began issuing home-recorded singles on Yucca, the same New Mexico label Hunter used; his second effort, "You're in Love," shot to the top of the play list at El Paso's KELP, standing on the shoulders of Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison.
Fuller formed a band with his brother Randy on bass, who joined on the condition that he could play fast songs such as Ritchie Valens's "La Bamba." While Randy liked Valens, Bobby was obsessed with Holly. He insisted his band use Fender equipment because Holly had, and liked to unwind after shows by playing a guessing game using lyrics from Holly's songs. Holly, who'd blazed a path out of Lubbock by experimenting with home-recording techniques and melding disparate styles, was a natural influence. For Fuller, he represented a future attainable by wishing, puttering and leapfrogging over the dusty El Paso present.
In 1962, Fuller booked time at Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, New Mexico, where Holly had created many of his seminal recordings. Petty cut two Fuller sides, but the results were lackluster, so Fuller returned to El Paso and began beefing up his home studio. He was on his way to becoming a public recluse -- the boy who stood on the roofs of gas stations playing an electric guitar, telling the other kids to dance.
"Bobby had a habit of remaining distant from the rest of us," Jim Reese, his rhythm guitarist, recalled in a Goldmine article. "He always seemed to be in a bad mood, as if he was mad about something, but it beats me what it was."
Fuller and his band, the Fanatics, journeyed to California in 1963 for a monthlong stint in Hermosa Beach. They found themselves at ground zero of the surf music explosion, the most democratic pop turn until punk arrived 15 years later. Back in El Paso, he issued the melodramatic "King of the Beach" on his own Exeter label, scoring a regional hit in Seattle and Denver and even some chart action in San Diego. He recorded the fast and wistful "Keep on Dancing," which he'd later rework into the even more powerful "Let Her Dance" (and which years later would be covered by Marshall Crenshaw on Good Evening; "Keep on Dancing" is on Shakedown!, while "Let Her Dance" is on The Bobby Fuller Four). His next Exeter release was a cover of a song his brother Randy found on an album by the Crickets, Holly's backing band.
That was "I Fought the Law," and even in the earliest version found on Shakedown! it's an irresistible recapitulation of everything rock and roll is supposed to be. Replete with the line "robbing people with a zip gun" (Fuller later changed it to "six-gun"), it's a mating song for juvenile delinquents. In the Fullers' family room, James Dean and Bonnie Parker were thrown together in a puppy-love suicide pact, wrapped in Bobby Fuller's performance, which is rough, tender and comic all at once. It can be hard to hear this at first, because stepping into Fuller's world from the present is like walking into brilliant sunlight. When he sings "I Fought the Law," there doesn't seem to be an ironic bone in his body.
"I Fought the Law" hit number one in El Paso and Tucson in 1964, and Fuller started billing himself as "The Rock and Roll King of the Southwest." Later that year, he, Randy and the rest of the band returned to California, intending to stay and make it big. With their second audition for Bob Keane's Del-Fi label, they hooked up with someone with clout. Keane, originally a jazz clarinet player, had been in the music business since he signed Sam Cooke in 1957. His biggest act on the Del-Fi family of labels was Ritchie Valens, but he had a roster of active surf artists including the Lively Ones, the Centurions and the Sentinels.
Fuller walloped these veterans on the B-side of his first single, the pick-grinding instrumental "Our Favorite Martian" -- but in the welter of surf 45s, no one noticed. A few months later, however, "Let Her Dance" garnered the band's best sales to date. The difference between "Keep on Dancing" and "Let Her Dance" was partly because of the cavernous echo Fuller got at Del-Fi, where Keane used a former bank vault for recording sessions. Fuller took full advantage of the makeshift technology. The song is upbeat, but his vocals have a calming effect, like tropical fish in an aquarium. He'd finally leaped beyond his influences.
Around the same time, Fuller started dropping acid. Band members recall him acting strangely during a stint at Disneyland that year, and attributed it to the LSD. Looking at the pictures of Fuller in the Shakedown! booklet, with his prematurely receding hair and worried expression, it's hard to believe he would have found peace in hallucinogens.
In the first months of 1966, the band charted nationwide with a reworked version of "I Fought the Law" (found on The Bobby Fuller Four). It's easy to see why this version made the nationwide charts: Propelled by echoing, fast-strummed acoustic guitars and one incessant cymbal, it's turbocharged folk music. The echo, courtesy of the vault, leavened the song, giving it a yearning any Coke-drinking, Camel-smoking suburban teen would instantly feel. And there was something else: Fuller double-tracked his vocal on the Mustang single; on the second track, low in the mix, where the lyric is generally thought to be "I miss my baby and good fun," rhythm guitarist Reese, who was at the session, swears Fuller was singing, "I miss my baby and a good fuck."
After reading Reese's remembrance in Kicks, I listened again to the song, and there it was, plain as an unzipped fly. It's even clearer when you compare it to the earlier versions on Shakedown!, when Fuller is definitely singing "fun." That this has escaped radio programmers down to the present only proves that the best place to hide something is in plain sight. Irony favors the leer and pun. Fuller was brutally direct.
"I Fought the Law" kept the band on the road for the rest of Fuller's life, playing stadiums, state fairs and roller rinks across the country. The band played New York, which Fuller hated; it played Los Angeles double bills with Dick Dale and the Del-Tones; and it made live recordings -- something almost unheard of at the time -- at PJ's, a popular L.A. club.
The Bobby Fuller Four's last Mustang session in '66 yielded the Motownlike "The Magic Touch" (on The Bobby Fuller Four), a departure from Fuller's style that depressed him, he complained, because it didn't have his West Texas sound. Future R&B star Barry White was working for Mustang at the time, and Fuller reportedly couldn't stand what he represented: the manipulation of sound beyond what a single person or live band could play. Fuller wanted the trickery to do only so much -- to augment him, not take his place. He was further aggrieved when "Magic Touch" started getting airplay and he couldn't duplicate it on-stage.
Late one night in July of that year, Fuller was at his Hollywood apartment drinking beer with friends when he said he was going out to buy acid from a prostitute he knew. His driver and roadie, Rick Stone, told Linna he was at the apartment when Fuller left; when Stone awoke the next morning, Fuller wasn't there and neither was the Oldsmobile Fuller drove. Later that afternoon, Stone returned to the apartment and saw police cars and a crowd around the Olds. Fuller's mother had found her son dead inside the car, bruised and doused with gasoline. He was 23.
A coroner's report stated Fuller had apparently drunk gasoline, suggesting it was a suicide. Bob Keane called that "ridiculous." To this day, however, no one has come up with a credible motive for a murder. And that's where we leave the facts of the Bobby Fuller story.
What does his work mean beyond one glorious single? It's difficult enough to argue that his meager recorded legacy is rootsy, even though his story, smelling of come and gasoline, is the quintessential rock and roll tale. In the end, it was synthetic music, especially as evidenced on Shakedown! -- a melange of styles he plucked from the air vibrating around him. But if it was synthetic in the derogatory sense, then the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and every Brit rocker who would soon rifle the American songbook made Bac-O-Bits look authentic.
In Kicks, Melody Patterson, the young actress who played Wrangler Jane on the TV series F Troop, recalled seeing the Bobby Fuller Four in a Sunset Strip club at the height of its fame, when she was 16.
"Bobby would kick into some of the wildest, hardest rock and roll that he and the band could produce," she wrote. "Deep pounding throbbing instrumentals you could feel all the way into your vagina!
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"One of the big memories I'll keep until I get sloshed off to the old actors' home is of Bobby with his guitar slung across his back, a blue light on his face and a microphone in his hand. His clothes -- black slacks, white shirt -- stuck to him, transparent with sweat, while he crooned some slow sweet ballad. I swear to you he made eye contact with every babe in the joint, and every babe in the joint, including me, swore Bobby was singing that sweet song just for her.
"After the evening ended I was too pumped up to go home, so we went over to Ciro's to see this new group that was supposed to be pretty hot. They were called the Doors. They put me to sleep."
-- Robert Meyerowitz
(Shakedown! and The Bobby Fuller Four can be ordered from Del-Fi, (800) 99-DELFI or DEL-FI@primenet.com.)
***** Redwood roots
**** Live oak roots
*** Cedar roots
** Pine tree roots
* Bleached roots