Howard Fishman (photo Carole Cohen)
by Seth Rogovoy
(October 1, 2010) – For a guy who has won the praise of critics from the New York Times to the New Yorker, the Village Voice, and NPR’s Terry Gross, Howard Fishman has done a pretty good job of not becoming a household name. With a half-dozen albums to his credit, and another three coming out this month [October 2010], Fishman finds himself in that all-too-increasingly-common-and unenviable position of being a critic’s darling while successfully avoiding, however inadvertently, the mainstream commercial spotlight.
While Fishman doesn’t make commercial music, neither is he inaccessible or an obscurantist. With considerable musical accomplishments in cabaret, musical theater, rural music, New Orleans, Gypsy jazz, Western swing, and indie rock, Fishman could easily be a cult artist in any one or more of those fields. Instead, he’s a cult unto himself.
Fishman’s three new recordings won’t do anything to solve the problem of how to pigeonhole him as an artist. To generalize crudely, as one must and as Fishman does himself, “No Further Instructions” is a travelogue in song based on a journey he took through Romania and Eastern Europe; “Better Get Right” is a tribute to his former hometown of New Orleans; and “The World Will Be Different” is an intimate breakup album in the tradition of “Blood on the Tracks,” Bob Dylan’s “divorce album.” (Every singer-songwriter worth his salt has to make at least one of those.)
So where does that leave Fishman, and where does that leave a listener? How to get one’s head and ears around this seemingly inexhaustible wellspring of creativity? (In addition to writing and playing music, the West Hartford, Conn., native is an actor, director, and theater scholar specializing in the works of Eugene O’Neill. He has worked with the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Long Wharf Theatre, and was a member of the 1998 Lincoln Center Director’s Lab.
He has composed a folk-jazz oratorio, “We Are Destroyed,” loosely based on the story of the Donner Party tragedy of 1846, which has been staged at Joe’s Pub in New York City, the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, and the Pasadena Playhouse in Los Angeles. And, judging from the artwork that adorns his three new CDs, he is also an accomplished painter and photographer.)
A clue can be found in a project Fishman embarked upon a few years back. Howard took it upon himself to reinterpret “The Basement Tapes,” one of the most enigmatic yet influential artifacts of the rock era. Fishman dug deep, unearthing songs that Bob Dylan and the Band had recorded in the late 1960s near Woodstock, N.Y., that to this day have never enjoyed official release. [Since the time of this writing, they have enjoyed a public release.] Fishman recorded many of these as well as better-known ones and performed them in a series of high-profile concerts at Joe’s Pub that garnered widespread media attention (all before one of the best songs from that period, “I’m Not There,” which Fishman recorded, was used as the title for Todd Haynes’s surrealistic Dylan biopic).
Just as “The Basement Tapes” are a veritable treasure trove of musical genres and styles, ranging from nursery rhymes to Anglo-American folk songs, psychedelic blues, Beat poetry, country music, bluegrass, and rock, revealing of Dylan’s omnivorous musical appetite, so too does Fishman’s work boast a kaleidoscopic palette of sound, resulting in his wide-ranging projects, totally suited for our era defined by attention deficit disorder. But just as the eclectic sounds of Dylan’s Basement Tapes cohere, ultimately, as Bob Dylan music, so too do the recordings that comprise Fishman’s trilogy make a statement greater than the sum of their parts, musical and otherwise. They speak to a sensibility spanning much of the history of twentieth-century American popular music in the broadest sense of the term, as well as embracing European influences, which of course have always played an important role in American music.
But Fishman’s is also a highly individualistic sensibility, not unlike Dylan’s and akin to other cult artists including Lou Reed, Jonathan Richman, Leonard Cohen, and David Bromberg. Like them, Fishman is no mere revivalist or traditionalist. He’s a chameleon-like vocalist, who purrs menacingly like Cohen on some of the darker songs on “The World Will Be Different,” croons on others, and flaunts his comic side wherever possible, sometimes in a single phrase or other times in an entire song, such as “Garbage (Burn Things)” on “No Further Instructions,” a punk-rock rave-up about a firebug who likes to burn trash, whose motto is “Garbage is as garbage does/ Garbage will be what garbage was.”
The lines that delineate his three new albums aren’t impenetrable walls. The albums speak to each other — “A Ghost” on “The World Will Be Different” contains a sizzling, Gypsy-sounding violin solo played by Mazz Swift that could have fit comfortably anywhere on “No Further Instructions”; likewise, the jagged rhythms, Balkan-style horns, and minor-key melody of “(Take Me Back to) New Orleans” on “Better Get Right” would be right athome on his Romanian album. And “It Won’t Be Long” from “The World…” is gospel-inflected Southern soul of the sort one might expect to hear in the Big Easy.
Like any good travelogue, “No Further Instructions” reveals as much about the writer as it does about the subject. While the songs, for the most part, presumably document what Fishman experienced in Romania — including plenty of ugliness, corruption, xenophobia, and poverty, along with the romantic beauty of the countryside and the timeless appeal of traditional village life — they speak as much about the narrator as they do about the place. The same goes in large part for “Better Get Right”; aided by the Biting Fish Brass Band, it evokes the sounds of the second line and Mardi Gras. But underneath the musical celebration retracing the steps of a Northerner falling in love with his adopted hometown, it’s always clear that no matter how immersed in the culture he becomes, he will always be a foreigner. “I can hear music/ But something is wrong,” begins one song, ostensibly addressed to a woman, but on another level addressed to the spurned lover that is the city of New Orleans and its alluring culture.
It is precisely that balancing act between intimacy and distance, between love and alienation, that unifies all three albums and that is at the heart of Fishman’s art — what gives it its characteristic resonance and what invites listeners to join the party or come along on the journey to another time and place, to a heart of darkness and light.
This essay first appeared in Berkshire Living Magazine, October 2010.