Robert Morgan Fisher
Notes for a Novel
Let’s pretend our arms are threshers
This alfalfa soft as a prisoner’s prayer
Lay back in the paddock, green stalks clenched between our teeth
Kenny said he’d race me from here to there
– From “Harold Examiner”
Epic brilliance. Masterful and expansive writing from one of the bravest purveyors of narrative songwriting.
Some storytellers just get better. Their stories get more mysterious and brilliant, their details more unexpected yet relatable, the effects more surprising and poignant. He’s one of these. Long one of the best storytellers-in-songs around, he’s upping the ante now, with songs like “Kissinger,” “Harold Examiner” and “Do You Want To Go To Mars?” that show a potential for storytelling in song most songwriters never even consider, let alone attempt. He not only swings at pitches others would let fly by, he hits them out of the stadium.
Whereas the story of many modern songs doesn’t progress much beyond “I love you, why don’t you love me?” he tells stories that are rich with the reality of life as we really experience it: injected into a sensory-overloaded future both miraculous and crass, we bring to every moment the knowledge of what’s come before mixed with the madness of all that is. Dreams, aspirations, old TV shows, outer space expansions, tainted patriotism, childhood memories, fantasies, mysteries, romance — it all comes together with the crazy logic that is our modern consciousness.
Take “Harold Examiner,” for example. He gives us, in few words, a sense of time and place as explicit as any novel, with music and madness intertwined with unfathomable American tragedy and violence:
This was back when Camarillo was a dumping ground for crazies
State Hospital, Charlie Parker’s grim defeat
The Rolling Stones had just been busted
Tet New Year Indochina – living hell
Summer of love mortally wounded at a motel out in Memphis
Finished off at the Ambassador Hotel
It’s writing as rich as writing gets, relating a lovingly detailed tale of young kids inadvertently harboring a pot plant, and laughing with retrospective sad humor at the drama of it all. And then, like modern life itself, it’s reduced at the end to only a dim spark of remembrance, ultimately minimized, obscured and trivialized by the mass, oceanic onslaught of perpetual information:
I hardly ever read the paper anymore
None of the news seems to make a lick of sense
And anyway I think we’ve all gone well past the point
Of ever making ever any meaningful amends
Sure, we know RMF writes novels, short stories, screenplays – and his brilliance for narrative shines in all. But to do it in song the way he does, that’s a rare talent. Like the protagonist of his great song “Mr. Schwinn,” written with Darryl Purpose, who for fixing bikes has a real gift, Robert Morgan Fisher’s got a gift for telling stories unlike that of most humans. His great economy of language full of both grace and grit intersects ideally with his gift for spinning yarns, as it was once known, weaving stories in songs that turn us all into children, eager to know where this one leads, and how it ends.
His stories reflect recent (though already distorted and exploited) history, as in the epic “Kissinger,” which details with no lack of humor and resignation the real story of this war criminal awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s an expansive, astounding narrative – told in precise language broken up by brutal humor well-suited to the subject. He associates Kissinger, for example, to the government-sanctioned Nazi experiments of Dr. Mengele without contrivance or apology:
I know these rhymes ain’t tight, though you know I’ve really tried
So how ‘bout we just end this verse with Josef Mengele?
He was a “Doctor” too, Josef Mengele
– From “Kissinger”
It’s a long song, and necessarily so, as three verses would not suffice to match the magnitude of malevolence attached to this one man. Dylanesque in its ambition, extended over eight verses, it’s tied together and propelled perfectly by the great guitar riff of infamy which rings around the question which concludes each verse: “But what of Henry? What of Henry Kissinger?”
That he would end this collection with a cover of the great iconic ghost tale “Big Joe Phantom 405” makes a lot of sense, as this multi-verse tale, written by Tommy Faile, and later expanded by Tom Waits and RMF himself, seems a model for the kind of songs that Mr. Fisher, and few others, write. It’s an especially American epic, a ghost story on wheels built on motion and mystery. It shows that long songs – not unlike long movies – are welcome if they keep moving forward, keeping us compelled to listen to the very end, to find out how it all turns out.
It’s an album tenderly produced by the legendary Chad Watson, who not only brings his own multitude of musical prowess on bass, piano, mandolin, guitar, euphonium and even trombone to the mix, he also brought some famous friends, like Janis Ian (with whom he toured as bassist for several years). She sings a lovely and gentle counterpoint to the touching melody of “Do You Want To Go To Mars ,”which also features heavenly pedal steel by the great Dean Parks.
But it’s all about the vocals, as these are stories with words you don’t want to miss, and Mr. Watson wisely elevates the resonant RMF baritone throughout, always pointed in its details and declarations, a kind of hybrid of Johnny Cash and Jack Webb in its crystalline clarity and confidence. His voice is the calm in the eye of the storm, the unwavering presence which never lets go of the mast even when passing the strongest sirens.
And Robert sings these new songs with gentle valor, reflecting the wisdom and charity of the greatest bards and troubadours through the ages, from Homer to Hank Williams and beyond.
“Don’t You Want To Go To Mars?” is a great example of the man’s genius. It’s a song about a modern family, with the father raising a gifted son alone with mom off in Iraq, turning their earthly sorrows far beyond this world towards the promise of the heavens. Another intimately focused human tale, it connects the vast scope present in all these songs, that place where darkness meets light in the collision of our violent past with a transcendent reach into the future:
There’s a slave ship in 1688
Sailing cross the stormy Middle Passage
There’s a space ship in 2028
Like a silver bottle carrying a message
– From “Don’t You Wanna Go To Mars?”
He’s a man of many words, and his verbal virtuosity throughout is dazzling. Yet as expansive as some of these songs are, rich with dense detail, others are as simple and direct as a father’s love for his son, as is the lovely “Granted,” co-written with Darryl Purpose. Written for Robert’s first-born son Grant, who plays piano on the track, it’s in waltz-time, under three minutes, and tells, to a delicately alluring tune, of a parent’s ultimate acceptance of our place in nature:
Saving my seeds for the next harvest
Pulling up weeds like I’m an artist
God’s grand design — now I understand it
And I’m resigned to how He planned it
– From “Granted”
His vocals throughout are powerful, and his voice sounds beautiful entwined with that of the great Julie Christensen, who duets with him on “We’ll Buy A Flag,” which touches on the cheapening of patriotism better than just about any song ever. Singer-songwriter Dave Morrison’s vocals are also warm and rich on a song centered on the fixing of his own instrument, “Morrison Fixed His Guitar,” a great song of enduring faith and friendship. And on “Oughta Be A Highway,” co-written with Darryl Purpose, we get great harmonies by one of the great harmonizers, none other than John York of the Byrds.
Some of these songs are officially “companion songs,” as he calls them, because they have matching short stories which relate these narratives in prose. But all of them have the richness that comes with wrapping a song in such a complete story and with realized, believable characters. His dexterity with fiction has led to some of the most inventive and poignant songs around; the unbound capacity of his imagination is always matched with a tender, human poignancy, and it’s in that place, the intersection of boundless imagination and tenderness, that these songs of Robert Morgan Fisher’s live. In a time when many artists deliver precious little, he brings more than you’d ever imagine. And then some.