When he beat out Andy Gibb for “best new male vocalist” at last year’s Rock Music Awards, Stephen Bishop, 26, wasted no breath thanking all those folks who made it possible. But back at the hotel he gloatingly scribbled down a list: everyone in the music industry who had rebuffed him. Since it was seven hard years before he scored with his debut LP, Careless, and two spinoff Top 10 singles (On and On and Save It for a Rainy Day), Bishop’s hit list reached 50 names.
“I guess I’m a little bitter,” says the singer-songwriter. “But part of it was my fault. I was very, very pushy. I got a lot of people aggravated.” Then, displaying his touchingly insecure flip side, he concedes: “Boy, my songs were lousy back then. Of the 600 I’ve written, 450 are just total wastes.” The latter include such masterworks as I Feel So Miserable without You, It’s Almost Like Being with You and Mr. Green Jeans (“How come you’re out in the garden every night with Captain Kangaroo?”).
Even with this month’s second album, Bish, and final lionization by the Establishment, Stephen is unchanged: “Balancing the hip and unhip is real fun to me.” Along with his own soft rockers there’s also the oldie If I Only Had a Brain from his movie fave, The Wizard of Oz. And, publicly, he’s become more housebroken. When his label, ABC, laid on a celeb-studded Bash for Bish in L.A.’s Union Station, Stephen reports, “My smile muscles got real sore. I was going out of my way to be nice to everybody. I don’t want to treat people the way I got treated.” Besides, he’s found: “Whoever I meet and whatever I do, I’ll always think of myself as small-time.” That goes back to school, he says, “when I got pushed around and didn’t get the girl.”
That is one problem Stephen is seemingly now past. After a decade of “unrequited romances,” he is shaking down a New York-L.A. commuter relationship with actress Karen Allen, 26, who plays the antisorority coed in Animal House. They met when Bishop arrived for his strum-on role in the National Lampoon movie as a mournful folkie whose guitar is splintered by John Belushi. “The most special thing about us,” she says, “is that we love each other but are friends too.” “Oh, everybody says that,” he cringes before suggesting: “Put it this way: We’re not afraid to use the same toothbrush.”
Bishop developed his off-center wit (he’s described himself as “rock’s answer to Henny Youngman”) in San Diego. His insurance executive father and window-dresser mother were divorced when he was 5. “She could have starred in a sitcom with Eve Arden,” recalls Stephen. “I’d sing songs to her. She’d say, ‘That’s nice,’ and, right in the middle, go out and hang up clothes. I think she thought of me as background music.” At 14, Bishop listed his ambition as “professional songwriter” and co-authored a high school musical. He skipped college and headed for Hollywood with a suitcase full of songs like Kumquat on the Beach—”I was trying to be different, and I was.” It’s an overstatement to say he supported himself as a door-to-door lithograph salesman and parking attendant. He lived in a $110-a-month Silverlake apartment and for three years tried to conquer the L.A. music scene on a bike because he couldn’t afford a car.
Bish finally got his shot when Leah Kunkel, the wife of drummer Russ Kunkel and sister of the late Mama Cass Elliott, took a tape of his work songs to Art Garfunkel. Impressed, Garfunkel recorded two of Bishop’s songs (which are not unlike Paul Simon’s) that helped get him a record deal. “Garfunkel was like a tutor,” Stephen says thankfully. “He got a kick out of introducing me to big stars.” On Careless, Bishop was backed by Eric Clapton, Chaka Khan and Artie himself. “With machine guns,” deadpans Stephen, “you can get anyone.”
In fact, it was his disarming quality that prevailed, and while he was making his way in music Stephen also got acting cameos in films like Kentucky Fried Movie, Phantom of the Paradise and Sgt. Pepper. But singing and composing are his highest priorities, and he is now seeing a specialist to treat a muscular affliction in his jaw that interferes with his vocalizing. He works out of the L.A. canyon home he’s owned since December but hasn’t furnished, save for recording and videotape gear and a pool table. (“I could never see a lot of sense in paying for something to sit on.”) Though he seeks the artist’s recognition he feels he’s earned, Stephen finds fame genuinely discomfiting. “It’s like taking acid for the first time,” he observes. “And I only took it once—it was horrible.” He continues: “I could sell out, but I’m not in this business to make money music. I want to write for people I respect, not some jerk in Idaho who drinks a lot of beer and beats up people.” The types he truly admires, he says, are artists who “take chances,” like Randy Newman and Joni Mitchell.
Not that Bish necessarily regards himself all that seriously. “I’m a weird guy, but I’m a regular weird guy,” he maintains. And a bemusedly decent one. “I don’t want to be dishonest,” he allows, “with anyone but myself.”