I first met Howard Fishman on the Bedford Ave. L train platform back in around 1997 or 1998. I was then running a popular musical open mic night at the Charleston Bar & Grill on Bedford, and I went up and handed Howard a postcard, and said “You should come over and perform”.
He glared at me.
“Naw, man, I don’t need any open mic night”, he said, “I’m hot shit down in New Orleans and I’m lookin’ for payin’ gigs…”
Okay: he didn’t say he was “hot shit” in spoken words, but he tried damn hard to convey that psychically.
“Nevertheless, you are playing in the subway right now,” I somehow didn’t say.
From these auspicious beginnings emerged a friendly professional relationship that’s lasted many years. He was nice enough to perform in my American Vaudeville Theatre (at substantially less than his usual fee) in 1998 (see a clip of that here); I caught his act at the Algonquin Hotel sometime after that; he came and played at my vaudeville show on the Showboat Barge in 2007; I tried to help him get a reading of his musical about the Donner party at a certain downtown venue around the same time (now there’s a “feel-good” idea for a show!).
Howard and I share an enthusiasm for what Greil Marcus called “The Old, Weird America” (as well as origins in Southern New England, the birthplace of so many excellent frauds). But, like that other excellent fraud Bob Dylan (one of Fishman’s heroes), ironically, Fishman’s “imposture” comes in the form of a search for the genuine, the plain, the simple, the truthful by someone whom, just like us, springs from the benighted modern age. If the voyage goes deep enough, if the impersonation is complete enough it ceases to be a pose, and feels more like a transformation. It shouldn’t be surprising that his background is in theatre. Years ago he was enrolled in Lincoln Center Theatre’s director’s program and he is an expert on the early works of Eugene O’Neill. He loves old time American music and he doesn’t really make concessions to commercialism or the prettiness of form. Like his heroes Dylan, Lou Reed, and Leonard Cohen, his voice is a cowlick that won’t stay trained. A rusty farm implement. I’d rather hear a voice like that than 10,000 contestants on American Idol.
By now, you get me. He’s stubborn. His voice is stubborn. He’s the kind of guy who did a project a few years ago where he covered all of Dylan’s Basement Tapes, including the out-takes. A few days ago he demonstrated just how pig-headed he can be by releasing three separate record albums on the same day. I remember a few years ago, Bruce Springsteen released two records on the same day, and it was considered a big risk. I can see Howard’s friends and colleagues all advising him not to do this. I’m sure that’s why he decided he had to.
The records are No Further Instructions, a musical chronicle of his travels through Eastern Europe, Better Get Right, a brass-backed tribute to New Orleans (which is where the Connecticut native launched his career) and The World Will Be Different, an uncharacteristically personal break-up album. I’ve played some of the cuts, and they’re great.
If you want to see him live, he’s opening at the Abrons Arts Center tonight, and will be playing there through Saurday. For full info go here.
Yes, many are now aware of what a terrific musician Howard is, but few know of his directing talents. And like his music, not one to go small. I considered him the Cecil B. Demille of ’90s downtown theater. Yesterday, he did a tune from each album on wnyc – good stuff!
Yes, yes, Howard is terrific – kudos for highlighting him. I can’t wait to get my hands on his 3 new releases (can’t see his shows, alas, cuz I’m in a show – isn’t it always the way). PWP met him around the same time you did, through that Lincoln Center Director’s Lab connection – he directed a short piece for us at an event we held at the late-lamented CHARAS/El Bohio. What a talent – and an old soul voice. We’re hoping to work with him on a project next year…
That’s a show I would love to see!