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Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, July 24, 2000

Courtesy Merrell Fankhauser
Wizard of Mu

Merrell Fankhauser, guitarist
who wrote and riffed surf classic
'Wipe Out,' embraces life after a
near-fatal heart attack


By Burl Burlingame


THE light, the light. He was drawn to it, as irresistible as water flowing downstream. The light flared along the darkening horizon of his consciousness, spots of warmth as night fell.

Merrell Fankhauser opened his eyes, saw only the concerned faces of his bandmates, the cruddy ceiling tiles of a backstage dressing room, felt a fist of pain seize upon his heart.

"I'm going out," he announced, and Fankhauser pitched out of his chair and died on the floor. His spirit left his body, floated through the ceiling and drifted dreamily over the rock 'n' roll audience milling outside.

It was 1987. He was 43 years old. A sunny, working musician, Fankhauser was best known as the guitar guy in the Impacts who penned the surf classic "Wipe Out." He was the legendary leader of south-California jangle-rock bands The Exiles, HMS Bounty and Fapardokly, guru of the cosmic try-anything band MU, and a California-desert-to-Maui-jungle transplant who lived by a waterfall, studied Buddhism, absorbed Hawaiian creation legends and boned up on mysterious lost continents.

Courtesy Merrell Fankhauser
The Impacts, with Merrell Fankhauser, second from
left in the front row, made surfari music history
with the hit, "Wipe Out."

Fankhauser is also the guy who, according to the book "Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll," kept missing the brass ring: The Surfaris covered "Wipe Out" and had the bigger, money hit; his other bands achieved both critical acclaim and record-label indifference and non-existent distribution; he scuffled for gigs in sunny California and Hawaii while blissfully unaware of Merrell Fankhauser cults a'bloom in the dank corners of Europe, where a brisk business in pirated recordings flourished.

And so here he was, doornail-dead, stiff as a mackerel, sprawled on the Congoleum of a California bandstand dressing room, a suitable, pitiable end for an Unknown Legend, don't you think?

Fankhauser's left arm had gone numb while playing on stage, he began gasping for breath, he stumbled offstage in the midst of the gig, in complete denial of what was occurring, and died.

Knocking on Heaven's door, he was giddy with the splendor of the beckoning light in his blood-starved brain, while someone else eventually wised up and dialed 911.

"Man-o-man, I was lucky," recalls Fankhauser, alive today -- you didn't think this interview was conducted by Ouija board, did you? -- "There was an ambulance crew next door getting coffee and they hustled me to the hospital. It was touch-and-go all night, they told me later. It wasn't cholesterol as such that led to the heart attack. They found a weird projection into the artery that blocked the blood. It spasmed, man."

His father had died at 51 of a heart attack, so wishing to avoid the same fate, Fankhauser slowed down a lot, watched his diet, exercised properly, and got up the nerve to ask his nurse for a date. They're still together, and she even got her own heart operation recently, a regular cardiac couple.

Happy to be alive, Fankhauser began to embrace the art of living.

The search for MU

"Everything, everything, whatever it was, I appreciated it," said Fankhauser, whose first name is pronounced Merle, as in Haggard. "Life was sweeter, music got deeper, simple things had more meaning, every journey was more important."

Inspired, he cut back on touring and continued recording, and dug out some demos he had recorded during his stay deep in the Maui jungle, with equipment cast off by the Quicksilver Messenger Service. "Dug out" is not a metaphor -- he located the tapes in the weed-choked, abandoned cottage, inches from a brackish pond.
Merrell Fankhauser performs on Maui

He also renewed a friendship with producer Bill McEuen, whom he had met in 1980. McEuen's Aspen Recording Society's work with Steve Martin's movies and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's records was impressive, and the two have a fascination with the cultural mysteries of oceanic societies. But their orbits didn't intersect again until Fankhauser began working on a grand personal project inspired by the lost continent of Mu, the Pacific version of Atlantis.

"I thought his vision was incredibly cool," said McEuen, who agreed to shepherd the project to completion. "And the music was trippy. A psychedelic masterpiece. Plus -- and it's a big plus -- Merrell is one of the most genuine musicians I've ever met. He's the real deal."

The first problem was those old tapes. They were recorded on Ampex stock notorious for getting as sticky as Scotch tape.

"Turns out there's a Ampex plant in Burbank that can bake them in an oven for 24 hours, and then they're usable -- for a few days," said McEuen. In this manner, gems such as lead-guitar solos by the now-dead Quicksilver guitarist John Cipollina could be saved.

"Most of it, though, was recorded after 1992," said Fankhauser. "It grew and grew. Bill thought it would be a cool trilogy, a three-record set."

The music is densely layered and relentlessly melodic, and favored by McEuen's pristine sequencing and production techniques. Artists sitting in included Cipollina, singer Dean Torrance (Jan and Dean), pianist Nicky Hopkins (Rolling Stones), "string wizard" John McEuen (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), keyboardist Jay Ferguson, drummer Ed Cassidy (both from Spirit), sitarist Divino Smith and dozens of others, including McEuen himself enthusiastically whacking a tamborine. Both the subject matter and the grandness of the songs made it all seem rather ... epic. A pop-music record in Cinemascope and Sensurround.

"The master tapes take you right into another world," says McEuen. "Musicians just love Merrell's sense of melody and structure."

"Oh, at one point we had so many strings it was like a Moody Blues record," chuckles Fank- hauser. "We backed off on THAT!"

A different kind of sound

And then there was that subject matter. Fankhauser is cheerful and optimistic and wistful without being simple-minded, and the lyrical thrust is -- let's face it -- about a mythical lost continent and how groovy it must have been.

Throw in some flying saucers while you're at it, plus environmental noises like surf and waterfalls and rain spattering percussively on forest leaves. It was not an idle whim when a Buddhist monk gave Fankhauser the honorable Tibetan name of Lodru Jantso -- "oceans of consciousness."

Imagine, if you will, the faces of caffeine-buzzed record executives as this blissful project was being pitched, in a playlist-dependent era of Nirvana angst-grunge, the misogynistic rage of rap, the blistering slabs of stadium rock, the stuttering and muttering of techno.

Read their lips: Hippy. Dippy. Trippy. No mosh pits at a Fankhauser gig, but there's likely a fair amount of soul-kissing and cloud-watching. Pass. Pass. Pass.

Courtesy Merrell Fankhauser

"Geffin Records was interested for a few minutes," offers Fankhauser. "Everyone wanted it scaled down. But mostly they just didn't get it at all. It couldn't be described in two or three words."

As Fankhauser and McEuen tinkered with the project, Fank- hauser was swept up, like a blast of cresting karma from the past, in the craze for surf music following the release of "Pulp Fiction."

"The fans in Europe had kept me alive -- my family is Swiss, do you know? There's a village so full of Fankhausers in the Alps it's called Fankhauser -- oh yeah, so when 'Pulp Fiction' came along, our old stuff with the Impacts and The Exiles was re-released and compiled, and we even reformed the bands and gigged. It's good that music is finally being taken seriously."

Fankhauser even began a syndicated radio show called "Surf Music News," carried all over the United States except, of course, on Oahu, the surfing capitol of the world.

So Merrell Fankhauser wasn't exactly sitting on his thumbs waiting for the world to discover his passion for Mu. This Mu fixation, mind you, isn't just an excuse for sci-fi lyrical rambles. Every culture and society has a legend of a golden land -- Eden, Atlantis, Camelot, Avalon, Valhalla, Lake Wobegon -- where humans live in harmony and bliss, and which was lost forever. What rings with emotional resonance is the loss of Paradise, not Paradise itself.

There was a time in the groovy haze of the hippified '60s when it all seemed possible to smile upon your brother, and as a certified '60s survivor and tie-dyed-in-the-wool ex-hippie, Fankhauser feels the loss of those tantalizing visions of a world that is possible, yet just out of reach. A light that beckons in the darkness.

Which is likely why, when these way-too-weighty issues are brought up, Fankhauser tells the tale of dying in a crummy dressing room at a long-forgotten gig.

And he and McEuen have managed to release the record at last. "Return to Mu" weighs in nearly an hour and a quarter, 18 songs, and the musicians managed to shoehorn the gist of the likely-shelved trilogy on a single record that still sounds blissfully epic. The Japanese version on Captain Trip records is now in the stores, the American release on Sundazed will be soon (they're identical, by the way). The Germans are releasing it both on CD and on audiophile vinyl. The cover is painted by Maui artist Loren Adams, another Mu devotee. And there's a Web site:

Fankhauser is in the islands playing gigs here and there. A few days ago, he played at a Willie Nelson fund-raiser for the Tibetan Dharma Center on Maui. With a crowd of 4,000, and Willie K and the Planetary Pulse Band rocking along, they all launched into -- yes! -- "Wipe Out."

"Whoo-hoo!" remembers Fank- hauser. "Ol' Willie Nelson can really play a bitchin' surf guitar lead! Girls were running on stage and diving off into the audience. So cool."

Did Willie Nelson hear "Return to Mu"?

"He did. I played the record for him."


"I asked him what kind of music he thought it was. Willie said it couldn't be anything other than Merrell Music. Merrell Music! That's what it is to Willie, ha ho!"

Many moods
of Mu all grand

Bullet Return to Mu: Merrell Fankhauser (Captain Trip)

By John Berger
Special to the Star-Bulletin


"Epic" is the best one-word description for Merrell Fankhauser's ambitious musical celebration of the antediluvian continent of Mu. The album brings to mind Donovan's 1969 Top 10 hit, "Atlantis," and Kirk Thompson's Lemuria project of the late '70s, but Fankhauser surpasses them both with the depth and diversity of the music he employs in his 18-song, 73-minute magnum opus.

The annotation explains that the Hawaiian islands are the mountain peaks of the submerged continent and that Fankhauser moved to Hawaii/Mu from Los Angeles in 1973. His lyrics speak at various times of the ideal civilization that was lost with Mu, of his new life in a Hawaiian jungle, and possibly of contacts with survivors or heirs of the ancient culture.

Fankhauser's use of diverse genres makes for fascinating, if challenging, listening. Hints of the Beach Boys, Moody Blues, Gordon Lightfoot and Todd Rundgren are juxtaposed with bits of Indian, big band, "New Age," acoustic rock, hard rock, and hapa-haole music. It all fits together without lingering too long in any one genre. Fankhauser's relaxed, engaging voice becomes the touchstone as the musical odyssey continues.

The arrangements and the richness of the productions make his work particularly interesting when heard on headset or through a high-quality system. There's enough going on in the arrangements to keep them interesting through repeat play; they also work well as ambient mood music.

Fankhauser's compositions aren't conventional pop-chart fodder, but several seem perfect picks for mainstream airplay and eventual commercial success.

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