Fish Tricks

The legendary Fish Karma blesses fans with a collection of long-lost recordings.

Fish Karma has played many roles: a rock 'n' roll star, a brilliant neurosurgeon, a groundbreaking scientist, a crimefighter whose valiant efforts have saved the world more than once.

Oh, wait--that was Buckaroo Banzai.

Well, Fish Karma has still had an illustrious career, at least here in the Old Pueblo. The showbiz bug took the first bite of his ass in the early 1980s, when he joined an ensemble comedy troupe at the University of Arizona. He soon struck out on his own, reaching for the stars on the celebrated stages of the Wildcat House and Tequila Mockingbird. From there, the sky was the only limit, as he found himself working alongside such renowned rock stars as Mojo Nixon and Jello Biafra, who says that Karma's music "is your basic FUGS-style electric grunge folk, and his lyrics feature some of the meanest put-downs of American consumer culture I've heard in years."

Now Karma has reached into the vault to create Lunch with the Devil, a new CD of previously unreleased tracks that cover almost two decades of Fish tricks. Some of the material comes from old studio recordings and some comes from recordings of his live shows. Assembled, the album charts the evolution of the artist, as Karma puts it, from "three chords going into four chords."

Much of the credit for the collection goes to local country-punk legend Al Perry, who had the foresight to record many of Karma's performances throughout the 1980s. Perry and Karma recently found the tapes in an old storage locker, blew the dust off and, through the magic of computer technology, cleaned 'em up. Karma is a little sketchy about the details, but he remembers "something about EQ and IG."

Perry, in his typical self-deprecating fashion, downplays his involvement with Lunch with the Devil.

"I only produced parts of it," Perry says from his new stately mansion in San Francisco, purchased with the proceeds from his masterpiece Losing Hand, which recently went double-platinum. "They just put my name on there to cash in. Anything you hear on the record that's good, chances are I produced it. The rest is swill. Actually, I think they were just throwing me a bone, so to speak, 'cause they never listened to any of my ideas. 'Oh, we'll put his name on there as producer, that'll appease the stinkin' control-freak'-type thing."

Longtime Fish fans are sure to be delighted by these long-lost treasures, including the classic works "Die Like a Dog," "Poodlecide," and the lustful ballad "The Thighs of Tammy Faye." They'll also find recent hits, including "Down to the Valley" and "Should I Shop or Should I Die."

The oldest track on the new CD is "Chicken Lips," an unforgettable number dating back to '82. The song is a shining example of Karma's ability to manipulate instruments in hitherto unknown ways. "It sounds like I'm playing some sort of exotic instrument from an Asian country," says Karma, "but it's actually a guitar that I got for $35 and it was really badly tuned."

Ah, those raw early days. Perry still remembers that dark night when he first saw Karma on stage, at El Con Mall's late, lamented Tequila Mockingbird, which in those days served as the irregularly beating heart of the Tucson music scene.

"I was bartending at this comedy night," recalls Perry. "Fish was onstage singing his song about Poland. I though he was the most brazenly annoying, obnoxious thing I'd ever seen, so I was instantly enamored of his brilliance."

Brilliant, yes, but even his closest friends acknowledge a dark side to his twisted genius. Sean Powers-Murphy, who plays bass on several tracks on the new CD, remembers tumultuous times in the studio.

"It was worse than Phil Spector," recalls Murphy. "At one point he even held a gun to Al Perry's head until Al could get the solo right. Al was reduced to tears."

Karma is quick to defend himself. "I flew into a rage because they were all spending time trying to tune into the same key or chord or some damn thing," he says, "and who has time for that? You turn on the machine, you play the song, you go the next one."

Perry doesn't mention the incident--perhaps it's just too traumatic--but he does say working with a talented genius like Karma can be a challenge. "He just never listens to any of my ideas, and I know much better than he does what is best for him," says Perry. "How could he know? That's what producers are there for, man! But he is only impossible to work with in that he can neither sing, play guitar or arrange songs. Other than that he's all right."

Several local shows loom for Karma, with an international tour in support of the CD planned for the fall. Like Dio, the rock legend whom he celebrates in his tribute "Dio Rocks," Karma says he just can't stop rocking.

"The other night at MacDaddy's, I thought: This is my last night sitting at a bar for endless hours," Karma says. "But you know what? The next day I got up and I started rocking again. I can't help it. It's a curse now."