“Outsider art” is an odd category. It denotes artists who work so far outside the mainstream that they attract a cult following at best. Their work deviates so farm from conventional norms of structure and in many cases even basic ability in the usual sense that it is easy to dismiss and see only exploitation and mocking of the afflicted – yet there are those who prize the artist's unique worldview. Clearly it's possible for someone to have the sensibility and drive to become an artist without having the talent to back that up, but on the other hand there are artworks which “work” (or not) despite breaking rules of conventional form and, in this case, musicianship. Also, the line between artistic talent and mental illness can be very thin indeed.
Case in point, Larry Wayne Fischer, better known to the public as Wild Man Fischer. Born in 1944, he was sent to a mental institution at age sixteen after threatening his mother with a knife (an incident recreated on the cover of his first album) and was diagnosed with both bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia. Released from the hospital, homeless and estranged from his family, Fischer performed his self-written songs on San Francisco street corners for a dime at a time. Fischer came to the notice of Frank Zappa, who signed him to his own label (Bizarre Records) and produced a thirty-six-track double album, An Evening with Wild Man Fischer in 1968. The album had a cult listenership but minimal commercial success, selling around 12000 copies. (For an alternative view, see Dave Marsh's no-stars review in The Rolling Stone Record Guide, which describes the album as brutal, not funny except to the immature and a deleted embarrassment in music history.) However, following an incident in which Fischer threw a glass, barely missing Moon Unit Zappa (who was a baby at the time), Zappa severed relations with Fischer. (The rights to An Evening... remain with the Zappa estate, represented in this film by his widow Gail, who to this day have declined to release it on CD. A quick look at Amazon Marketplace as I write this tells me that a second-hand vinyl copy will set you back around £75.)
After several years in the wilderness, Fischer returned, his 1975 single “Go to Rhino Records” becoming that label's debut release and making John Peel's Festive Fifty. Fischer then worked with the duo Barnes and Barnes (real names Bill Mumy, who had been the original TV series Lost in Space as Will Robinson, and Robert Haimer), who produced two albums, Pronounced Normal (1981) and Nothing Scary (1984) and also a 1986 duet with Rosemary Clooney, “It's a Hard Business”.
Derailroaded takes us through this history, with interviews with Fischer shot in 2003/4. It's a not a pretty picture. Fischer is by now in his late fifties, still living on the streets or in grotty hostels. His older brother David, the only one of Larry's immediate family to be interviewed, visits and helps out, but none of his family are willing to have him live under their roof – though later, after disappearing for a while, Fischer is living with his terminally ill aunt Josephine, who is clearly close to him. At times in this film, Fischer is clearly not on medication and in a paranoid state. Yet at other times, in some concert footage he's clearly having the time of his life. Like many bipolar creative people, he relies on the manic highs, or “the pep”, to create. The crushing lows of depression are the price he pays for this. At the end of the film, Fischer has been admitted to an assisted-living facility and is on medication – but he has lost the pep. A sad ending, though it's doubtful how much longer a man then approaching his sixtieth birthday could have survived any other way.
As well as those mentioned above, interviewes include some of celebrity fans of Larry's, Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh and Weird Al Yankovic, plus Solomon Burke (who gave Fischer his Wild Man nickname), plus two of his friends, Freak (interviewed while being given a Fischer tattoo) and Fugly the Klown. Frank Zappa appears in archive footage.
This is a disturbing film, up there with Terry Zwigoff's Crumb in the way it shows how mental instability and dysfunction can generate distinguished – or at least singular – work. (I'll also mention in passing the 2006 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, about the similarly bipolar and schizophrenic musician in the title, but I haven't seen it.) At times, such as when Fischer is in the midst of an on-screen paranoid episode, you question why you are watching this...though the film treats Fischer with tact and respect. There's also some question about truth, as Fischer's memories of his own childhood are in many places contradicted by David Fischer's own account – Fischer clearly blames his mother for most of his ills. If anything, the film is a little too biased in Fischer's favour – we could have done with Dave Marsh on here, or someone with a similar opinion – and some of the interviews seem a little too celebratory of a clearly troubled man's wild and wacky antics. (There's even a man who has preserved one of Fischer's turds, admittedly one produced inside a closet rather than a toilet bowl.) But if this documentary raises more questions, and some troubling ones at that, it's all the better for it.
Larry “Wild Man” Fischer died on 16 June 2011 of heart failure, aged sixty-six.
Plexifilm's release of Derailroaded is dual-layered and in NTSC format, encoded for all regions. As this is a documentary, it has been exempted from BBFC certification. (It previously had a limited cinema release without a certificate.) I very much doubt that Derailroaded would have much appeal to children, but parents and anyone likely to be offended should note that the film contains several uses of strong language and once (in a fairly graphic sexual reference) very strong language and would most likely earn a 15 certificate if it were submitted.
The DVD transfer is in 4:3. Clearly originated on video, it's an adequate transfer but nothing to write home about. Archive footage is in decent shape, including some home movies from Larry's childhood. Oddly, the clip of Fischer's appearance on Rowan and Martin's Laugh In (something remembered by many people who know nothing else about the singer) is letterboxed when when its original ratio would have been 4:3 as well.
The 2.0 soundtrack is mostly monophonic, though some of the music tracks played display some stereophonic separation. There's also the occasional surround effect, as in the animated “Bouillabase” sequence. (As an aside, An Evening's opening track “Merry-Go-Round” features several times and plays over the end credits. Now that it can be licensed, please could Medium Cool be reissued with this track reinstated on its soundtrack?) English subtitles are available for the feature only, and are yellow in colour.
The extras begin with two commentaries. The first is by director Josh Rubin and producer Jeremy Lubin, known collectively as The Ubin Twinz. This is quite an informative talk about how they became aware of Fischer's work, and the difficulties of making a film about a not-always-stable subject. The second track is made up of Fischer's telephone conversations with Josh Rubin, extracts from which appear in the film. This is actually the seemingly unedited contents of Rubin's answer machine, complete with date and time stamps, at least one wrong number, and some brief messages from other people as well as the Fischer conversations. These are quite edgy, with Fischer mostly lucid but at times liable to blame everyone (including the filmmakers) for ripping him off. Even when he's laughing and joking, you can sense a barely controlled rage there.
The remaining extras are deleted and extended scenes, mostly quite brief and listed separately on the menu – there is no Play All function. In order they are “The Great Amitaba Escape” (2:15), “Larry Sings 'David'” (0:51), “Weird Al Sings Wild Man” (0:42), “How Did You Say It, Josh?” (1:13), “'Circle' Alternate Version” (0:38), “Larry Sings 'Jimmy Durante'” (0:58), “Larry Sings 'Don't Be a Singer'” (1:27), “Bouillabase Animation by Pat Moriarty” (1:54), “Spotlight on Fugly” (0:55), “Take a Trip with Josephine and Larry” (3:19), “Larry at the Zero One Gallery” (1:08), “Oh God Please Send Me a Kid” (1:02), “Larry with Miguel Ferrer” (1:31), “Interview with Rudy Ray Moore” (25:03) and “Larry Sings 'My Sweet Little Cathy'” (2:55). Some of these are performance clips, some of them with Fischer solo, with a backing band on “My Sweet Little Cathy”. Some of them are quite revealing, such as “Take a Trip...” where Aunt Josephine and Larry talk about LSD and Larry describes his one and (probably fortunately) only acid trip. (And I hereby apologise for incorrectly describing Larry in the Medium Cool review linked to above as an acid casualty.) In the longest item, the Ubin Twinz travel to meet Rudy Ray Moore on hearing that he is a huge fan of Fischer's – only to discover that he had never heard of him. They then discuss his reactions to hearing the music for the first time.
And finally I leave you with “Merry-Go-Round”.