Al Perry and Fish Karma reflect on decades in the desert
Phoenix was built on a desire to buy and to have. People can own acres of land on the side of a mountain, and they can go to the outlet mall to pick out all the finest furniture and accouterments to fill their homes. At the same time, there are misfits — the artists, the hipsters, and the anti-establishment underground folks. And there are those who like Arizona and want to make the place a little better, even though they have legitimate complaints about the state of the state. And it's those people who can make this place homey, and almost a little cool.
Two musicians who epitomize those people remain largely unknown to most Phoenicians. Their names are Al Perry and Fish Karma. Both grew up in Phoenix, migrated to Tucson as young adults, left and explored other states, and eventually ended up back in good ol' Arizona.
Perry is admired for his versatility and songwriting abilities, which are undisputedly influenced by his eclectic taste in music. (Perry is likely to listen to jazz, country, surf rock, and punk, one right after the other, without skipping a beat.) His compositions include old-fashioned love songs and heartbreakers, as well as songs that may sound like Americana on first listen but really are quite different from that, particularly in the lyrics, in which he pontificates on everything from cactuses to running on his knees.
Fish Karma (born Terry Owen) is also known for a unique style, albeit a bit more infamous. His vocals may be described as a cross between Bob Dylan and a sick cow. Musically, he's a mixture of metal, hard rock, country, and punk, with a hint of folk. He's worked with former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon, whose air of strangeness could not help but rub off. His lyrics are poetic, though, and give a spot-on analysis of his observations.
The two met one fateful night at a restaurant/live music bar called the Tequila Mockingbird at the El Con Mall in Tucson. The story goes that Perry was working as a bartender, and Karma was performing a Delta blues parody in a burlap sack. Perry, being a blues purist, was offended. According to Karma, Perry would make daiquiris in a loud blender while Karma performed. From there, the details become fuzzy, but in an odd twist of events, a conversation about Poland's political situation brought the two together as friends.
Perhaps the most important and striking thing about the two musicians is their astute observations on society — especially their derisive criticism of consumerism. Karma's first album, released in 1984 and titled To Hell With Love, I'm Going Bowling, was released on Perry's Addled Records label. Perry also produced the album and co-wrote some of the tracks. It includes the songs "God Is a Groovy Guy," "Kill the Commie Bastards (Teen Anthem)," and one of Karma's best known tunes, "Swap Meet Women."
While the pair's commentary on society could easily refer to the entire nation, they distinctly describe Arizona. They've both written songs inspired by Sunnyslope, lamenting a broken-down society, mirrored in the abundance of dilapidated cars and unhappy people in desperate situations who seemingly have nothing left to turn to besides the crap fed to them by corporations.
"Ever since the postwar period, the whole theme of consumerism has been blatant in our society," Perry says. "It's really true in Phoenix, where you have no sense of community and a bunch of transient populations. It's too hot to really go and hang out in any sort of town square, even if there was one. So it all got centered around regional shopping centers and strip malls. When you see it, it's more obvious than it might be in other places. When we were kids, I didn't go outside and play. I would sit inside and watch TV. And then when you got old enough, you'd go hang around in Christown mall."
Karma thinks Phoenix was shaped both by a lack of common history and a desire to push toward economic "progress," no matter what the cost.
"Something about the heat exacerbated the perception of the consumer condition, and living just to purchase things. Al and his friends in Phoenix came out with this publication called Mall Life, in the '80s. You can look at Mall Life, which was intended as satire, and look at a catalog now, and it's almost the same thing," Karma says. "What was satirized then has become the prevalent mode of consciousness. I'm exaggerating slightly, but not a whole lot. It's almost eerie. Things that seem so obvious targets for ridicule are now just accepted without any question whatsoever. There really was no alternative [to mall culture], because everything was springing fully grown. Someplace like the Valley Art Theater [which opened in 1938] — to me, that seems like an ancient Hohokam monument."
To understand what made these two who they are, one must acknowledge one undeniable influence: The Wallace and Ladmo Show. Seriously. Karma says the local children's show (which aired on Channel 5 from 1950 to 1989) is "the primal force behind everything." It projected a sharp sense of humor, and talked to kids in a way no one had ever talked to kids before, thus shaping an entire generation of twisted Phoenicians. Karma even tells a story of going to see Wallace and Ladmo do a live appearance in the Phoenix area. He was so excited that, after it was all over and the pair said goodbye to the adoring crowd, he got into a car with a couple of friends, and followed Wallace and Ladmo's van up to Prescott for a repeat performance. He was about 19 at the time.
Karma and Perry are not the type to aspire to commercial success. Karma says that though he loves songwriting, he's not an especially talented musician. When he does want to write a song, he must describe it to the "real musicians" so that they can create the "complicated chords" necessary for the song to be heard and understood by other human beings. He can't play half the material he's written.
It's ironic because though many in Phoenix may not recognize their names, there are many who will have heard a song or two by Perry or Karma. Robin Wilson and Scotty Johnson of the Gin Blossoms often close their acoustic sets with a rendition of Karma's "Sunnyslope" because, Wilson says, "In my brain, when I think of the Sonoran Desert, I hear the music of Meat Puppets and Fish Karma."
Though Perry and Karma left Arizona to live in other states, they both wound up back in Tucson. That move was driven by desire and a feeling of belonging. "I'm always drawn back to this place," Karma says. "I don't know what it is. At least for me, there's a pull here."
Perry agrees. "It's home . . . It's really that simple. Tucson's a real easy place to live. It's a real easy place to come back to. You just slip right in. There's no struggle involved."
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