King Bobby

Bobby Fuller billed himself "The Rock & Roll King of the Southwest." His reign was short. He dropped acid, died young and left behind some of the wildest rock guitar ever.

"Bobby had a habit of remaining distant from the rest of us and wouldn't communicate when we played," 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." His next Exeter release was a cover of a song his brother Randy found on an album by the Crickets, Holly's backing band.

Even in the early version, "I Fought the Law" is an irresistible recapitulation of everything rock 'n' roll was supposed to be. Replete with the line "robbing people with a zipgun" (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 Fuller's performance, which is rough, tender and comical 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.

It was 20 years before an American rocker walked this ground again, when roots avatar Bruce Springsteen released his sparse album Nebraska. By then, however, irony had invaded our consciousness like rust; we knew too much about outlaws and myths, so that only the sadness remained. Still, there was a gasp left in Fuller's performance. In 1989, when Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega fled into the Vatican embassy in Panama City, and invading U.S. troops settled down to wait, soldiers set up a PA system in the street before the embassy and blasted the dictator with American rock 'n' roll. When "I Fought the Law" figured prominently on their playlist, a weird circuit was completed. The "I fought the law" part of the lyric may have been what mattered most to early listeners, but a literal-minded person--like an Army intelligence officer--would recall the couplet's other half: "And the law won."

"I Fought the Law" hit No. 1 in El Paso and Tucson in 1964, and Fuller started billing himself as "The Rock & 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 Valens, but he had a roster of active surf artists including the Lively Ones, the Centurions, and the Sentinals.

Fuller walloped the vets 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, Fuller's single "Let Her Dance"--the same song he'd painstakingly worked out in El Paso--garnered the band's best sales to date. The difference was partly because of the cavernous echo he 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 calm effect, like a 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 doubleheader stint at Disneyland that year, and attributed it to LSD. Looking at the pictures of Fuller in Kicks and 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 '66, the band, now dubbed the Bobby Fuller Four, charted nationwide with a reworked version of "I Fought the Law." 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, lower 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 interpretation in Kicks, I dug out my Ace CD of the Mustang singles, 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's 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.

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