King Bobby

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 like polka, salsa and conjunto. It's gotten easier just to say what roots doesn't cover: music on the charts or MTV, apparently, and anything making significant money. Roots music, then, is largely performed by people who wouldn't know a Buzz Bin clip from a cheap haircut. But a just-released set of recordings by 1960s Texas rock 'n' 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 more influential; it was the springboard for the visceral pop sound bands like the Ramones, the Cramps, and Southern Culture on the Skids recycle. If it also represents the first stirring of a patchwork style that would eventually water down all regional differences and give 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 (Del-Fi), critic Dave Marsh runs through the variety of styles Fuller mastered in Texas between '61 and '64--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 'n' roll. None of the other Texas bands of that time, 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 10 in 1966; 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 Del-Fi set has dribbled out on bootlegs; Norton Records, a small New York reissue label, released El Paso Rock Vol. 1 several months ago, a single disc that covers the same ground as Shakedown!; and the material from Fuller's original Del-Fi albums has remained in print on Rhino and the British imprint Ace. 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, whose title at Del-Fi is "Director of Creative Services." 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 local 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 'n' roll when he wasn't working in a strip-mall 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 the same New Mexico label Hunter used, Yucca; his second effort, "You're in Love," shot to the top of the playlist 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 he could play fast songs like Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba." While Randy liked Valens, the first Chicano rock star, 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 died in '59, was a natural influence. He'd blazed a path out of Lubbock, Texas, by experimenting with home-recording techniques, melding disparate styles--the syncopation of R&B, the longing twang of country--into dreamy, upbeat songs. 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. Petty had presided over Holly's seminal early recordings; along with Lee Hazelwood in Phoenix, he was plying uncharted sonic waters, amplifying, syncopating and redoubling country music. He cut two Fuller sides, but the results were lackluster. Fuller returned to El Paso and immediately began beefing up his own 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 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.

"I Fought the Law" kept the band on the road for the rest of Fuller's life, playing stadiums, state fairs and roller rinks from Phoenix to Las Vegas. The band played New York, which Fuller hated; it played L.A. 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.

In Kicks, Melody Patterson, the young blond 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 & roll that he & the band could produce," she writes. "Deep pounding throbbing instrumentals you could feel all the way into your vagina!

"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 them.

"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."

The BF4's last Mustang session in '66 yielded the Motownlike "The Magic Touch," 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 onstage.

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, bruised and doused with gasoline. He was 23.

A coroner's report stated he 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 Fuller's murder. A recent episode of Unsolved Mysteries suggested he died of a drug overdose at a beach party; Linna, who is working on a Fuller biography, calls that ludicrous--how, then, did his body end up battered, and in the car? 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 'n' roll tale. In the end, it was synthetic music, especially as evidenced on Shakedown! and El Paso Rock Vol. 1--a melange of styles he plucked from the air that vibrated around him. But if it was synthetic in the derogatory sense, then the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and every Brit glam rocker who would soon rifle the American songbook and thrill the little girls in El Paso made Bac-O-Bits look authentic.

In his El Paso bedroom, Bobby Fuller scribbled lyrics about beach parties he'd never seen; his themes, like those of Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson, who did not surf and was afraid of the water, are fables. Still, they wormed themselves into the burgeoning American consciousness until almost every teenage boy believed he'd spent at least one afternoon twisting in the sand with Annette Funicello or running from the cops. You could say the acid killed Fuller, but if, when success finally came and it wasn't enough, he retreated into a different kind of vision, he was only doing what this country's great minstrels had often done; in the end, it's all moonshine. Already disaffected, with images of beach bunnies and outlaws collapsing in his mind, it's hard to see how Fuller would have squinted through the rest of the '60s anyway. Maybe that's just as well. Had he lived to hear the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"--a song dripping with irony--he would have been disgusted.

At the height of its brief fame, the Bobby Fuller Four appeared in a quickie beach movie, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. Arriving at the set, Fuller was desolated to find that he was obligated to lip-synch someone else's song. Yet in a way, Bobby Fuller was the ghost in the invisible bikini. And his contrivance, ambition and guts may be as close as we'll get to the source of all great popular art.

Most of Bobby Fuller's Mustang recordings are available on Del-Fi's I Fought the Law and KRLA--King of the Wheels (1-800-99-DELFI or DEL-FI@primenet.com). Kicks #6, the issue of Miriam Linna's magazine with the Bobby Fuller story, is available for $7 from Norton Records, 1-718-789-4438.

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