Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Calling From A Star: The Merrell Fankhauser Story (2014) Book Review

Merrell Fankhauser is a singer, guitarist and songwriter known for his work in several bands, including The Impacts, The Exiles, H.M.S. Bounty and Mu (usually written as MU), as well as his solo career. In 2014, he published an autobiography detailing his musical and personal journeys, which are largely intertwined. Titled Calling From A Star: The Merrell Fankhauser Story, it contains plenty of interesting anecdotes, just as you’d hope from a music memoir. And because his career in music has spanned many decades, the book is also, in a sense, a history of the music industry and the changing tastes of the public, particularly regarding surf and psychedelic rock, told from a personal perspective.

The book goes largely in chronological order, and in the first chapter, when discussing his family, he mentions how both parents had musical backgrounds. “There was always music in our house, everyone sang and danced” (p. 7). Sounds like the perfect start to a career in music. Also there was an adventurous spirit to his family, as displayed in his story of their trip to California, particularly the way they avoided road checkpoints. And that too clearly had an impact on the course of his life. Interestingly, as he was growing up, his focus was on airplanes as much as it was on music. But after saving up to purchase a guitar, he soon landed his first gig, which was at the local theatre with a clown. A funny start, to be sure, but also a telling one, for his career has had a rather unusual trajectory. And it is anecdotes like this one that make the book an enjoyable read.

The book describes the progression, point-by-point, of his career, giving information on the various configurations of his bands, and the releases of his many recordings. Mistakes were made early, regarding questionable agents and lack of contracts, but he doesn’t dwell on them in this book. There is generally a positive feel to his tale. And you get the sense of him learning as he maneuvers his path through the music business, beginning with his first band The Orbits and then getting into The Impacts, the band that had the original “Wipe Out” song. The book contains the anecdote about how that song came about, and how, still being teenagers, Merrell Fankhauser and his bandmates failed to think about contracts regarding songwriting credits. Frankhauser writes: “We still had no recording artist agreement, at that time we were only seventeen and we knew nothing about how to copyright a song. What we didn’t realize was that we had just signed over the complete rights to our songs to Hilder. Hilder told us that money had to be exchanged to make it legal, so he paid us each a dollar!” (p. 27).

There are lots of anecdotes about various songs and albums, like about Barry White playing drums during a recording session for one song, and how that record was left on the shelf when the label folded after the death of Bobby Fuller. Stories like that make me wonder just how many great songs are lost in that way and never heard by the public. But of course some tapes are later found and released, as Merrell Fankhauser mentions. And there are anecdotes about strange run-ins with the Manson family, about band members losing their possessions in a fire, about Merrell Fankhauser building a cabin in the jungle of Hawaii and living there for a time, and about having a heart attack and nearly dying during a gig. You know, rock and roll stuff. His personal and professional relationships were intertwined, as mentioned, because music has been at the center of his existence, and in later years his son played on a lot of his projects.

The book takes us right up to 2013, mentioning the many re-issues that his albums were receiving, as well as his newer projects. And there are lots of good photos throughout the book. The book could use some editing, however, for there are many errors, with Linda Ronstadt and Harry Nilsson’s names being misspelled and the word “to” often written in place of “too,” for examples. And there are several problems with punctuation. But it has been nearly a decade since the book’s release, and perhaps those errors have been corrected in the meantime. But even if they haven’t, Merrell Fankhauser’s life makes for an interesting and unusual tale.

Calling From A Star: The Merrell Fankhauser was released on September 2, 2014 through Gonzo Multimedia.

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