DESPERATE NOISE Part 1

 

LOOKING BACK ON THE CAREER OF MUSICIAN FISH KARMA AND HIS MASTERPIECE SUNNYSLOPE

PART 1

It amazes me that a quarter of a century has passed since Fish Karma released his breakthrough album, Sunnyslope. Inspired in part by the seriocomic musician’s strained childhood in sunbaked Phoenix, Arizona, this underappreciated jewel has somehow sat in a dusty corner of music-dom all these years mostly unnoticed. Anyone who experienced their teen years during the horrible 1970s, especially in Phoenix, will find songs in this collection that will provoke both wistful sighs and molten rage.

Mr. Karma, whose real name is Terry Owen, got his start doing stand-up comedy in the early 80s at the University of Arizona’s Comedy Corner and other Tucson venues like The Tequila Mockingbird. Tucsonans of a certain age will recall the hilarious skits he wrote and performed with his frequent partner Mike Sterner. Occasionally accompanied on stage by a small, reputedly homicidal ventriloquist puppet named Dumbo, the pair brought audiences to their knees with innovative and extremely violent serial comedy sketches such as The Dr. Dumpy Show and Gomez & Gomez (“humor from south of the border!”).

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Owen, Sterner, and Dumbo hurt each other in The Dr. Dumpy Show

Owen also performed solo stand-up using groundbreaking approaches. One of these manifested as a musician called Fish Karma into whose performances Owen strung bizarre “jokes” (example: “have you ever been walking down the street when suddenly…your penis explodes?”) with even stranger three-chord songs (that Lech Walsea’s got a funny mustache / I’d like to see his ankles / I’d like to see his ass) hammered out on a bargain-bin acoustic guitar while garbed in elf shoes and a burlap gown festooned with twine and bottle caps.

Early appearance by Fish Karma

The Fish Karma act led to Owen/Karma collaborating with invincible Tucson country punk guitarist Al Perry (of Al Perry and the Cattle) to release a couple of cassette tape collections (To Hell with Love, I’m Going Bowling and Disco Entropy) through local studio Addled Records before ascending to CD-dom in 1991 with Teddy in the Sky with Magnets (Triple XXX Records). Many of Mr. Karma’s songs were vicious-yet-funny stabs at American consumer culture and its insalubrious offshoots (religious hypocrisy, gun violence, ignorance of all stripes). These three earlier collections were liberally sprinkled too with playful oddities, such as a love song to a cow, a meditation on the nature of those little white things you find in cans of pork and beans, and a tune exalting the women who shop at swap meets.

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Cow of my dreams / Full of milk and sour cream

It was about this time that certain music aficionados began to remark upon Mr. Karma’s distinctive singing voice. The Phoenix New Times described it as a “cross between Bob Dylan and a sick cow.” I would lean instead toward characterizing it as the kind of sound you’d obtain if you tied off Al Stewart’s scrotum and forced helium into his throat while waterboarding him. In other words, like the best aged cheeses, Karma’s voice is passionate and sincere, with a rich bouquet. An acquired taste worthy of the effort.

With Sunnyslope (1993), Karma made an evolutionary leap. While still  characterized by brutal satire of absurd qualities in American existence, the album also included songs with themes drawn more directly from Owen’s personal life, such as the suffocating stress of working in a video rental shop, the real-life psychic trauma of becoming trapped in the cultural backwater of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, the unique torment for a child to endure his parents’ drunken, insomnia-inducing party downstairs, and most powerfully, his painful experiences growing up in the Phoenix suburb of Sunnyslope.

As someone who lived in the same era and geography (I spent my teen years in Glendale, not far from Sunnyslope), I can attest to the soul-sucking hell Phoenix was at that time. Hunter S. Thompson wrote of Phoenix, “if there is in fact, a heaven and a hell, all we know for sure is that hell will be a viciously overcrowded version of Phoenix, a clean well-lighted place full of sunshine and bromides and fast cars where almost everybody seems vaguely happy, except those who know in their hearts what is missing…and being driven slowly and quietly into the kind of terminal craziness that comes with finally understanding that the one thing you want is not there.”

He was too kind. The few good memories I have of Phoenix are to do with leaving it. My (fairly typical) middle-class Phoenix neighborhood was populated by goblins. A large Mormon family lived a few doors down from my house. Its members were deeply suspicious of neighbors and kept to themselves as they stockpiled food and automatic weapons for Armageddon (one of the kids living there showed me their prepper storerooms). In the blood-colored home directly across the street from mine, a lanky, dull-eyed, muscle-shirted boy, in the course of a family quarrel, used an axe to chop down his sister’s bedroom door and try to murder her. Across the glass-strewn alleyway behind my home was a toothless woman with a vinegary odor who always wore a nightgown and flip-flops outdoors and had horny growths on her small toes. When I took out the trash to the bin in the alley, she often would appear out of nowhere and block my path and cackle at me, saying things like “You got human shit in those bags, doncha?”

The horn-toed woman had some family relationship to the people living next door to her, and one of the kids in that family, an awkward boy with stiff, oat-colored hair named Dutch (the boy, not the hair), was an erstwhile friend of mine in seventh and eighth grade.  His divorced mother, for reasons I never understood, coddled a malignant hatred of my own mother and would start arguments across the alley over imagined slights. Dutch’s delinquent older brother, whose name escapes me, used to viciously abuse him. Once, while Dutch and I were doing something in the driveway of his house, the older brother appeared and, for pleasure, hurled a fistful of real darts at Dutch, striking him several times in the arms and stomach.

The neighbors living in other houses up and down the block were similarly grotesque. The depth of the horror of living next to them cannot be truly appreciated without taking into account the withering heat in which it occurred. You can’t understand the summer heat in Phoenix unless you experience it firsthand. The average temperature three months of the year is over a hundred degrees. A month can go by without a drop of rain falling.

It’s the kind of heat that settles onto your shoulders like a huge bag of gravel, permeates your bones, burrows into your lungs like fire.

I recall summer days, standing in the dead grass and dust that comprised our front yard, frazzled from the deafening roar of the cicadas in the palo verde, squinting upwards into the blinding blue sky searching desperately for the comfort of even a hint of cloud. That fucking sun just…wouldn’t…stop…shining.

To pass the time, children would gather dry grass, wrap it in newspaper, and smoke it. Other indigenous hobbies: Flinging oranges from the nearby orchard at passing cars. Searching vacant lots for scorpions to set ablaze. Having swordfights with the huge, dangerously spiked fronds of century plants. Near our house was a Salt River Project canal. It was periodically drained, leaving thousands of mutant fish to die and decay in the sun, such that along with the relentless heat, the stockpiled weapons, the roar of cicadas, the horn-toed woman and axe-wielding teenagers, our neighborhood was bathed in the ever-present miasma of rotting fish.

For precocious teens trapped in such a ridiculous pressure-can, few avenues of escape could be found. One was to adopt the stylings of a temporally and geographically distant culture, and melt one’s synapses with drugs, drugs, drugs.

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Aping the youth culture of the sixties

From this sort of milieu emerged the raw emotion and nihilistically absurd impressions on display in Karma’s Sunnyslope CD.

Below are descriptions and sample lyrics of some of the key songs on the album, followed by the complete words to the astonishing eponymous track Sunnyslope.

Girl, You Got to Love Your Man:  Pre-post-feminist song about how girls, despite the disgusting behavior of their “men,” are required to keep loving them. He may not know your clitoris / from a hole in the ground / if ignorance is supposed to be bliss / he’s the happiest guy for miles around / he’s full of primitive desires / and lots of bestial urges / if you want to rent Gone with the Wind / he brings home Nazi Kung-fu Nurses / But girl, you got to love your man

Rockin and Rollin with Little Baby Jesus: Send-up of all those fucking self-congratulatory songs rock stars used to record describing their climb to fame. We found someone who said that he would manage us / for a nominal fee / his name was Mr. Iscariot

The Customer is Always Right: Trigger warning for anyone who has worked in a video rental store. Oh my God / I can see them through the window / a mass of undifferentiated flesh / goggling in wonder / they don’t know what they want, but they know how to get it / standing at the counter with their mouths open wide / they’re customers / and they’re always right

My Parents Are Having a Party: The thought-stream of a child unable to sleep because his parents are having one of those awful parties that parents had back in the seventies. Someone drops a glass / And everybody laughs / I wish that they would all just go away / Peanuts in a bowl / Herb Albert on the stereo / the one with the whipped-cream lady!!!!

whipped cream

The record with the whipped cream lady

Dick York: Describes the unique perturbation you felt if you watched TV in the seventies at the time actor Dick York was replaced by Dick Sargent in the role of Darrin Stephens, Samantha’s husband on Bewitched (I was genuinely troubled as a child by this switch; it was disturbing that none of the characters seemed to notice Darrin had obviously changed). Sam pretended nothing was wrong / President Johnson didn’t say a word / And that’s when I first turned to drink

Sam pretended that nothing was wrong

 

SUNNYSLOPE


My generation came of age in the seventies
But that did not yet preclude us
From aping the youth culture of the sixties
Devoid of any understanding or context

Long, tangled masses of unkempt hair
Kneehigh boots and buckskin vests
Black t-shirts from last night’s Tull concert
Smoke stones tethered to our necks
Five-finger bags hidden in our socks
Black Beauties wrapped in cellophane
Airplane glue and Strawberry Boones Farm
And don’t forget the four-way windowpane
We were a brotherhood of losers
United by ignorance
Slouching toward Bethlehem with handfuls of dope
Though we fashioned ourselves society’s rebels
It was all just a dismal, pathetic joke

And the sun did shine
And the sun did shine
In Sunnyslope
There was no hope
Toward transcendence we did blindly grope
But we got left behind
In the swirling dust
Like broken-down cars just gathering rust

I can still remember when the Stones came to town
In 1978
Like lemmings we waited in the outdoor ticket line
For two whole nights and three whole days
Up against the wall in the unbearable heat
Weak with hunger, we had nothing to eat
To pass the hours we spent our time
Tripping on homemade acid
Laced with strychnine
Sewage bubbling up out of a pipe in the wall
Cups of water begged from McDonald’s clerks
Rainbows in the pools of oil
Passing motorists who would honk and curse
And some fan had fashioned a photo collage
And held it aloft for all to see
There swathed in her diamonds and fur
Bianca Jagger laughed at me

And the sun did shine
And the sun did shine
In Sunnyslope
There was no hope
Toward transcendence we did blindly grope
But we got left behind
In the swirling dust
Like broken-down cars just gathering rust

And I can still see the kids
At the side of the canal
Cooking crayfish in old coffee cans
Setting brush fires in vacant lots
throwing oranges at cars on Black Canyon
Bodies pulled from the U-Totem dumpster
Caliche soil and tumbleweeds
Cicadas droning in the dead palo verde
The asphalt bubbling beneath our feet
The inbreed people working dead-end jobs
Swollen by fast food and alcohol
Breeding listless replications of themselves
Wandering aimlessly through Christown Mall
Their yellow lawns littered with auto parts
Ethnic flagstones
Cheap, broken toys
And every other Friday when the paychecks would come
The bars would echo with desperate noise

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***
You can find Sunnyslope and other of Fish Karma’s works on Amazon, iTunes and the usual platforms. His new CD, Time to Say Goodbye, will be released by Alternative Tentacles on June 8.

Fish Karma’s website, which contains information not only about his music but also his paintings and writings (such as the play Hump, an amusing reimagining of Shakespeare’s Richard III), can be reached here: http://www.fishkarma.net/

Part 2: An Interview with Fish Karma

 

***

“Eidswick (The Language of Bears, 2017) portrays his protagonist with great depth; Strait is a stoical combination of grit and emotional vulnerability. In addition, the author artfully raises provocative questions about the fraught relationship between race and institutional power. Finally, there’s plenty of gripping action here, cinematically depicted.” – Kirkus Reviews

 

 

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