Essays

ICEMAN ELSEWHERE

Photo by Julietta Cervantes

ICEMAN ELSEWHERE

By Howard Fishman

April 26, 2018

I loved “St. Elsewhere” when I was a kid growing up in West Hartford, CT. Every Wednesday night, without fail, I would tune in to Channel 30 at 10pm, and watch the show. “Elsewhere” had a true ensemble cast that worked together to draw subtleties of humor, sensitivity and depth out of their finely-drawn characters and from the smart scripts that stretched plotlines out over entire seasons (rare in those days). Like its stylistic cousin “Hill Street Blues,” “Elsewhere” was a moody, downbeat soap opera; death and heartbreak were ever-present. There was something meta about it too, before that word came into common parlance and practice; as far as ratings went, it was a failing show, always in danger of being cancelled, set in a failing hospital, always in danger of being shut down. A melancholy air infused the show, an underdog sensibility that made one root for both the characters and the series itself. Every time it was renewed for another season my early-adolescent soul rejoiced. When the show finally did reach its end, after six seasons, I was broken up about it. It had only been five years since the finale of “M*A*S*H” and here I was saying goodbye to what felt to me like another surrogate family (interestingly enough, another bunch of doctors).

The cast was a mix of veterans (led by Ed Flanders, Norman Lloyd, Christina Pickles, David Birney, and William Daniels) and young then-unknowns (Ed Begley, Jr., Mark Harmon, Howie Mandel, David Morse, and Denzel Washington). Their characters seemed to really communicate with one another, to truly inhabit the make-believe world they’d been cast in. I was unexpectedly reminded of this when the curtain came down on the current revival of “The Iceman Cometh” (now at the Jacobs Theater on Broadway) and I looked at my program for the first time to learn that the actor who had so uncomfortably and unconvincingly portrayed Denzel Washington’s foil in the show had been none other than his erstwhile “Elsewhere” cast member, David Morse.

How could this be? These two fine actors had established a rapport over six long seasons of that show, more than three decades ago. They shared a rich, nuanced history. “Elsewhere” may have finally lost its terminal battle against a popular mandate for more light-hearted entertainment, but it had been a noble fight, fought with gusto and lost with dignity. These guys had spent years giving something they cared about all that they had. Of course, Washington’s career had burst forth after “Elsewhere” in glittering Hollywood style, while Morse’s has been less visible, mostly spent playing character roles like his sad-eyed, quiet George Washington in “John Adams,” but this bit of casting for “Iceman” would seem to have been, on paper, an inspired choice: the former cast-mates reunited once again in another ensemble piece with no less than life and death as its subject, this time pitted against one another as Larry Slade and Theodore (“Hickey”) Hickman, two old friends meeting up again for the last time.

Before delving into the particulars of Morse’s performance, it should be noted that playing Larry Slade is no easy assignment for any performer. Even seasoned O’Neill actor Brian Dennehy seemed to struggle with the role in Robert Falls’ majestic revival at BAM, three seasons ago. While it’s a fact that whomever is cast as Hickey has always received top billing (owing, perhaps, to Jason Robards’s early, career-making turn in Jose Quintero’s landmark 1956 mounting at Circle in The Square -- a production that effectively gave the Off-Broadway movement its first teeth), the case can and has been made that Larry Slade is the more demanding of the two roles, and that it is he, and not Hickey, who is really the protagonist of the piece. Larry is simultaneously the audience’s guide and the playwright’s mouthpiece. He is the one who espouses O’Neill’s most philosophical views, asks his most existential questions, states (and restates) his main themes. Larry is concertmaster here, first chair violin. He has, by far, the most dialogue of any of the eighteen main characters. Aside from Rocky (the bartender whose job it is to oversee the establishment in which the play takes place), and the somnolent Hugo (a drunk who spends much of the play in a barely-conscious stupor), Larry is the only character who remains present for the play’s action throughout. He is the only character who is witness to the entirety of the proceedings, which -- even in this trimmed version -- still clocks in just shy of four hours.

Hickey, the “star” of the show, does not even enter until nearly an hour into the performance, at the very end of the first act. He arrives on a mission to relieve his old friends of their illusions, their “pipe dreams” about tomorrow that they individually cling to (i.e. tomorrow I’ll quit drinking; tomorrow I’ll go looking for a new job; tomorrow I’ll reclaim my former glory). Because of a self-imposed time constraint, Hickey moves quickly and appears sporadically, coming and going, until he finally delivers his epic, confessional monologue in Act Four. But it is Larry who watches the whole unfold; it is through Larry’s eyes that reality begins to twist and fragment in Acts Three and Four as O’Neill’s theatrical language somehow manages to seamlessly transition from easy naturalism to outright expressionism; it is Larry whose character undergoes the only real transformation when the play is through. As he says in his final speech “I’m the only real convert... Hickey made here!”  As the final, awful moments of “Iceman” play out, the teeming ensemble of bums and drunks snap back into place, reclaiming the exact, pathetic identities they’d inhabited at the top of the play. Despite the moral reckoning prompted by Hickey’s visit, by the end it is as if nothing whatever had happened to them (making one of Hickey’s final lines “It was a waste of time, my coming here” really hurt; it’s a shame that Washington threw that line away in the performance I saw).

Larry is O’Neill’s beloved “Old Foolosopher:” the cynical barfly who says he just wants to be left alone but who privately gets great pleasure out of being surrounded by his fellow bums -- a collection of eccentric characters referred to by one of their own lot as a “who’s who of dipsomania.” In turn, Larry is the object of affection to all. The bartenders love him, the hookers dote on him, his fellow bums admire him and his sage words of drunken wisdom. If Harry Hope’s seedy saloon was transported to 1970’s Los Angeles, Larry would be Charles Bukowski.

So, if this is Larry Slade’s play, and I think I’ve just talked myself into being willing to defend that position, what can be made of David Morse’s portrayal? In the performance I saw, Morse’s Larry starts and ends the play, bizarrely, as an outsider.  It is impossible to believe that his Larry is a part of this crew, much less the soulful center of it. In dress, appearance, and bearing, Morse seems to be channeling the late Robert Ryan’s take on the character as seen in John Frankenheimer’s magnificent 1973 film adaptation. Ryan was seriously ill with cancer during shooting, adding an extra layer of pathos to a deeply felt, superb performance that would turn out to be his final role (Frederick March is equally stellar in the film, as is everyone else in the ensemble, with the glaring exception of a grotesquely miscast Lee Marvin as Hickey). Ryan owned the role. But though Morse may possess a passing physical likeness to him in this production, the similarities stop there. Instead, Morse seems uncomfortable from the get-go, his hands constantly shoved deep into his pockets as though mechanically feeling around for a lost set of keys. He seems to take no joy in ribbing his fellow inmates at the bar; in fact, it seems as though he is acting in a different play altogether. His Larry seems to be nothing so much as an older version of Albee’s Peter at the zoo.. He seems disengaged, flat, strangely affected, and -- sad to say -- lacking in either warmth or charisma.

I don’t want to beat up on David Morse, who has proved himself again and again  in other roles. Perhaps the odd choices for Larry’s personality and bearing were not made by him. Morse’s cause is certainly not helped by the fact that he is often stationed at the extreme left or right of the action, most likely to emphasize his self-stated position of being “in the grandstand,” watching the proceedings from a objective standpoint. But the effect is confusing, and seems ultimately wrong-headed, as does the production’s curious sound design. Early in Act One--as Larry introduces his sleeping friends to the young interloper Parrot, taking care to flesh out the backstory for each-- the strains of an old Gilded Age parlor song are heard being ponderously plunked out on a piano. But where is the music coming from? There is an upright piano onstage, but no one is playing it. Oh, it’s underscoring -- the cinematic kind, awash in the sort of ghostly reverb used to cue an audience to understand that we’re in flashback mode. But while the drama is indeed set in the distant past (1912, to be precise), “The Iceman Cometh” is decidedly not a memory play. Larry Slade is not Tom Wingfield, wistfully gazing back at people and events that once shaped his consciousness. Inarguably, the exposition O’Neill gives to Larry in the early going of the piece can be rough sledding for both actor and audience, but the decision to try to lift the proceedings with this kind of musical sentimentality feels like an act of desperation, as though the production somehow does not trust O’Neill’s iron-clad dramaturgy to hold its own.

Good things can be said about the production: it certainly moves briskly, and director George C. Wolfe has a deft touch with regard to bringing out O’Neill’s comedy. This may come as a surprise to those less familiar with the play, but there is a lot in “Iceman” that is very funny, and this production makes the most of it. In fact, if one were to judge the play purely on the basis of the audience’s reaction during the performance I saw, one might well think it a silly comedy -- more “Cheers” than “The Lower Depths.”  Much of the rest of the cast acquit themselves well, especially Bill Irwin’s Mosher and Michael Potts’ Joe Mott, the latter receiving a well-deserved ovation for his speech that calls out the underlying racist atmosphere in Harry Hope’s saloon -- an issue that, happily, does not seem at all confused by the casting of Washington as Hickey.

And what of Washington, the reason that this production exists in the first place, and the reason that most will see it? He is excellent, probably the most likeable, charming Hickey ever seen (and that includes Robards, who brought more than a touch of menace and darkness to a the role that will always be his). Even when Hickey is at his most gratingly self-righteous, Washington is impossible to dislike. He is simply a delight to watch, and when he finally delivers his confession in the final act, he does so seated downstage center, breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to us, spinning his tale with bravura storytelling technique, casting us under his spell. The audience eats it up. This is what they came for.

Sadly, the promise and potential to be mined in the reuniting of the former “Elsewhere” stars for this production bears no fruit. When Washington leaves the room for the last time, he takes with him all of the air in this production.The play’s real punch that is the remainder of the action -- and indeed, O’Neill’s very thesis, his scathing indictment of latter-day humanity-- lands not as the knockout blow of a heavyweight champ, but rather as the harmless swat of a featherweight, a neat little ribbon to tie up an otherwise pleasantly diverting evening at the theater. The end of “The Iceman Cometh” should send us careening down into O’Neill’s bottomless, spiritual void, what should be an exhilarating, harrowing, plunge. Instead, we’re left safely peering in from the outside, safe, satisfied, unscathed.


Simple Gifts

With (L to R) Ron Caswell, Mazz Swift, Kevin Louis at The Vermont Arts Exchange. Photo by Matthew Perry

With (L to R) Ron Caswell, Mazz Swift, Kevin Louis at The Vermont Arts Exchange. Photo by Matthew Perry

It’s a snowy day in mid-March and I’m thinking about my friends in the Bennington, VT area, and the annual pilgrimage I made up there for the better part of this century, almost always around this time of year.

It all started with an email I received in early 2004, from one Matthew Perry, head of an upstart arts center called The Vermont Arts Exchange. Matthew and his then-wife had just returned from attending a concert I’d given with my band at Mass MoCA in the Berkshires, and he wanted to know whether there was any way I might be convinced to bring them north, to help kick off the first season of what they were calling The Basement Music Series, at their home in The Sage Street Mill in North Bennington.

“You won’t get rich here, ” Matthew wrote. “We don’t have the sort of budget that Mass MoCA does.” While he could only offer a modest fee, he could promise a large experience, including a home-cooked meal, a cozy stay at the local B&B, and an audience that would be deeply engaged with what we did. Matthew was an artist himself, he explained. For him, it was about forging relationships, creating community, and supporting art that was outside of the mainstream. He also mentioned that, if we liked, he’d take us for a hike in the woods the next day.

Our show at the VAE was a blast, and I came back again and again, for ten consecutive years. The shows were always magical, the audiences eager, excited, and ready to embrace (and match) whatever enthusiasm I brought them. I presented new material, pulled together new ensembles, showcased work in progress. A level of trust was established that allowed for this sort of openness, year in and year out. I always felt that I was among friends, able to relax and dig in, which -- for me -- is the most conducive environment for performing there is. It felt like a home away from home.

Here's a clip of the cacophonous opening of one show there, complete with swinging lightbulb. Joining me here were Mazz Swift (violin), Kevin Louis (trumpet), Mark McLean (drums), and Ian Riggs (upright bass):

Sometimes, spring would arrive early, and I would hang out with Matthew's chickens in the backyard (the source of the eggs that he and his family served us for breakfast).

One year, our tuba player Ron Caswell payed a visit to their coop:

Those chickens would figure into another memory a few years later, on a day when were doing a matinee show for kids, following our evening performance from the night before. An adventurous 4-year old named Leah arrived early with her Mom, and went out to look at the birds. She chased one chicken and caught it, hoisting it up into her arms. An explosion of squawks and feathers ensued.  

At the show, Leah was brave enough to join us onstage, helping us out with “Take Me Out To The Ballgame:”

A few weeks later, Leah’s Mother sent me blown-up photos, which have been on my wall ever since:

On the back is the letter Leah dictated to her Mom:

“Dear Howard Fishman,

I liked being up on stage with you. I liked playing with the chickens. I hope you play again soon somewhere else near us. What is your favorite song? I paint on my Buddha Board. Do you like to paint or make art? What is your favorite color? Who is your best friend?

OXOX Leah”

 

Speaking of making art, one visit to the VAE featured an event at which the cost of admission included a pre-concert dinner, served in the homemade bowl of one’s choosing. Dozens of colorful ceramic bowls had been created and donated by VAE art students. I picked this beautiful blue one, and have used it for my breakfast just about every morning since then:

IMG_3415.JPG

Natural, delicious, farm-fresh food has always been something I associate with my visits to Vermont. Dr. Bob Hemmer, VAE’s longstanding volunteer A/V set-up man, go-to-guy, and all around provider of good vibes, has been growing and harvesting vegetables at his home in neighboring Shaftsbury for years. On one occasion, Bob mentioned his varieties of heirloom garlic, and he saw my eyes light up. A few weeks later, a package arrived for me in Brooklyn -- a large paper satchel bursting with bulbs from four or five of his different strains, a gift that he would repeat in years to come.

Dr. Bob's garlic

Dr. Bob's garlic

Bob’s two daughters, Rachel and Katelyn (you can see them playing their recorders with us on stage in the photo with little Leah), presented me with these drawings when they were still quite young -- they hang on my wall too:

Mathew Perry always tried to make our visits special, and he really outdid himself one year when he made this hand-colored, poster-sized, original woodcut to promote the appearance of my brass band project, the Biting Fish. It now hangs on my wall, a priceless, one-of-a-kind gift he offered to me, another reminder of the depth and richness of my relationship to him and his audience at VAE:

Matthew has also sent me various artistic renderings over the years, which also adorn my walls in Brooklyn. Here’s a cartoon he send me one winter:

And a coaster he made in the VAE clay studio that sits on my coffeetable:

 

I’ve chosen to represent myself for most of my career. Not having an agent to serve as a buffer has engendered its fair share of challenges, but the freedom to entertain offers like the one Matthew Perry made to me way back in 2004 is something I cherish. A traditional music industry agent or manager might have passed on Matthew’s overtures. I accepted. I had a good feeling about him. Trusting my gut led me to connections and memories that continue to enrich my life to this day.

Here’s one last drawing of Matthew’s that accompanied a check for my appearance one season. That money is long gone, but this drawing I see every day -- along with the woodcut, photos, and letters from children on my wall, the coaster on my table, the bowl I use for my oatmeal, and Dr. Bob’s latest crop of garlic (which I just used this afternoon for my lunch). Matthew Perry was wrong. I did get rich performing at the Vermont Arts Exchange. It’s just a different sort of wealth -- one that can never be spent, can never be taken away, and that brings thoughts of joy and warmth that will never end.

Drawings by Matthew Perry

Drawings by Matthew Perry

Here's a little slideshow from my annual trips up to the VAE:

Heroic Odets

 

En route to The Theatre at St. Clements on West 46th Street in Manhattan last night, I mentioned to a friend that I wasn't sure I'd ever seen a truly great production of a Clifford Odets play, and that I'd never seen a revival of the relatively obscure one we were about to see -- Rocket To The Moon. I'm happy to report that both facts changed immediately as the lights came up on Harry Feiner's inspired set, and The Peccadillo Theater Company began its soulful, stirring staging of this neglected 1938 piece.


So often, in remounts of Odets, it can seem like the performers are acting in different plays; this actor thinks he’s in a 1930’s gangster movie, that actress thinks she’s Mae West on the vaudeville circuit, etc. More often than not, the proceedings are a total disaster, the performers and the material seemingly at odds with one another and both falling flat on their faces, hard. The result, in my experience, is never pretty, and often much worse than that.

Such is not the case here. The Peccadillo’s production is a delicately masterful ensemble endeavor. While there are stellar individual performances throughtout (as well as a couple of curious casting choices), it would be unfair to single out any one actor. The entire cast gives absolutely everything they have to the whole, and because of this, the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts. Every actor is fully invested in the material, and the material pays back in dividends.  This is Odets the way Odets was meant to be.

A sort of ugly-duckling relative to O’Neill, Williams and Miller, Odets sits uncomfortably in the pantheon of great American playwrights, and praise for him (when it's even given) generally comes saddled with qualifications like “problematic,” “early promise,” “unrealized potential,” and “Hollywood sellout.” His language and his characters can be extreme; it could never be said of a single page of Odets dialogue that the words are dull or lifeless. If anything, they can seem to have too much life. They bubble over --  with enthusiasm, with slang, with aphorisms, with jokes, with philosophy, with nerve, with joie de vivre. Play it too hard, the whole thing explodes in wince-worthy cliches. Play it too soft, and it falls apart -- the actors simply get crushed under the weight of exposed plot and dated speech.

Somehow, The Peccadillo company and director Dan Wackerman have achieved a perfect balance. The pace feels musical, which makes sense and is something of a revelation. It is fortissimo and furious when called for, soft and legate at others (given this rare and welcome sensitivity, it’s a bit surprising that the sound design by David Thomas includes a jarringly anachronistic between-scenes soundtrack; this is a minor quibble).  

The cast finds the ridiculous, and they make it natural.  They find the outsized emotions, and run straight into them --  the way we all can do when faced with crisis.  The people in the plays of Odets are almost always people in crisis. This doesn’t make them lunatics, or buffoons, as they are so often (wrongly) portrayed. Sure, they’re a little neurotic; so are we.  Sure, words come out of their mouths that they immediately regret; they come out of our mouths too.  Yes, they can be grandiose, obnoxious, sentimental, irrational. So can we. These are not characters peopling a museum devoted to a clumsy, bygone era. They’re us -- imperfect, striving for understanding, desperate for love, dissatisfied, trying to make sense of the world, alive.

Wackerman and his actors do not condescend to Odets.  There are no tongues in cheeks here.  The company believes in the material, and so we do too.  They jump into the fire, and we follow them.  The approach here is one of humility, dignity, and respect, and it's moving and effective to watch.  The play is given the treatment it asks for, and we are all enriched for it -- audience, company, and playwright.

Bravo to The Peccadillo.  This is a production that deserves a much longer and more prominent run than the limited engagement it’s just begun. See it while you can.

 

FOOD THOUGHTS: Vaandag (NYC)

As anyone who knows me well will tell you, I get excited by food.

I spend at least as much time thinking about it -- ethically, nutritionally, aesthetically, culturally -- as I do eating it.  So, why not write about it?  I've been writing here about other non-musical passions for years now (film, theater, books, comics), so indulge me if you may -- I'm going to try writing about food.  I have absolutely no qualifications for same, other than the fact that I love it, I eat out at least once a day in one of the greatest food cities in the world, and I travel a lot for work (which offers even more opportunities for amazing and unusual food experiences than I have here in NYC).  So, let's start with...

 

 

 I've wandered past VANDAAG any number of times since it opened last summer, admired what I could see through the large plate glass windows, thought about the day's menu, with its uncomfortable (for me) mix of creativity and delicious-sounding combinations of fresh, local ingredients combined with a puzzling preponderance of dead animals in almost every dish.  I've always passed by.  Sam Sifton's review in The Times last fall did nothing to change my mind. (Truth be told, although he constantly evoked my ire with his constant near-fetishization of said dead animal flesh, I tried never to miss one of Mr. Sifton's columns and miss his food writing dearly).

Last month, I walked by once again, but something was different. It was daytime, just about noon on a Saturday. The sun was flowing into the restaurant's welcoming interior, and the menu featured brunch, with a number of appetizing, unusual, and vegetarian-friendly items.  Even though I was en route to Momofuku Noodle Bar, my at the time go-to food destination in the East Village (that's since changed, more on that another time), something made me deicde to give Vandaag a shot.

I was immediately glad I did.  While I don't have much of a vocabulary when it comes to interior design (see Sifton's review, linked above, for a good description), suffice it to say that the place certainly has an elegant, Scandanavian feeling to it -- clean, austere, simple, airy, a lot of light and wood.  It reminded me of many of the restaurants I ate in when I was lucky enough to visited Stockholm a few years back.  There's nothing fussy here, nothing cute, nothing smacking of anything remotely like the "speakeasy" vibe that's currently played-out everywhere (it seems) in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Neatly laid out on the bar were the sections of the day's New York Times (including the Sunday supplements).  What a fabulous, underrated service that is to customers who, like me, enjoy the ritual of dining alone on a regular basis as a kind of public solitude.  I eagerly borrowed a couple of sections for my table, and sat down with the menu.

 

I ordered and ate two things, both astoundingly well-prepared and delicious.  The smoked mackerel scramble was, essentially, what it sounds like, with a few beautiful touches -- accompanying the fluffy scrambled eggs (at least three, I would guess) and the tasty bits of smoked fish were a couple of dollops of yogurt, onions, green peppercorns and fresh dill. This was all served in its own skillet, with a giant piece of the house's hot, toasted, buttered, "Red Ale Bread" -- perhaps the best piece of toast I've ever had, outside of the garlic toast at Tequila Bar in Uzhgorod, Ukraine.

I also ordered the Hete Bliksem, or "Hot Lightning," just because it looked so extraordinary on the menu.  While I am a 99% of the time pescatarian -- and even then, only if the fish is wild, and only once in a while, so let's call it a 75% of the time vegetarian -- I will make exceptions every once in a while if the dead animal being served is an essential part of a dish that I want to try, and if said dead animal is local and free range.  VANDAAG's "Hot Lightning" is described as crisp fingerling potatoes with bacon, apple and stroop syrup.  A dash of hot pepper makes it hot, and the syrup makes it sweet.  It sounded like something fantastic that I had to try on this Saturday early afternoon to accompany my smoked mackerel, and I wanted to honor the chef by ordering it as envisioned which, in this case, meant eating a little bit of bacon. I went for it, and I have to say that the dish is indeed extraordinary and worth getting, but next time I will not feel the slightest compunction about asking them to hold the bacon; while the intensity of the hot pepper and sweet syrup complement the crisp potatoes in an exotic, unexpected way, they completely overwhelm the flavor of the pork, rendering it into little tasteless bits of chewy flesh added for -- what, exactly?  Texture? I don't think so.  More likely to appease the foodie masses who happen to be in love with all things pork at this moment (see: bacon vodka, bacon chocolate, bacon ice cream, ad nauseum indeed).

 

* * *

I've been back to VANDAAG several times since, and have continued to sample the menu (it changes daily), including the excellent seasonal pickle pot; the outlandishly good roasted chestnut soup (my friend and musical cohort Russell Farhang correctly compared the taste of it to fallen leaves on a chilly, sunny autumn afternoon); the decadent French Toast with pine, cranberry and stroop syrup; and the roasted sunchoke omelet (the only near-miss for me, but that may be simply because I'm neither an omelet guy or an artichoke guy; so why did I order it? I don't know).  I couldn't help but feel that the Stroop Wafel, a small, thin caramel-filled treat, would be even better served warm.

The service is always excellent, and the experience being there in the daytime is just delightful.  I do wish that they'd opt for better music, but I'm aware that this is a disease most eating establishments have -- they simply don't know how to leave a patron's ears alone.  If I'm with someone, I want to talk quietly between bites.  If I'm alone, I want to read.  Either way, I do not need nor want any thumping music, thank you.

I have yet to dine at VANDAAG in the evening, but it's absolutely become one of my favorite daytime places to eat in the East Village. If you're in the neighborhood, stop in. I might just see you there!

 

 

THINGS I THINK ABOUT: Bookstores

 

 

 

I've got an idea. 

What if independent brick-and-mortar bookstores charged an entry fee -- say a dollar --  and used the proceeds to enable them to level the playing field with online retailers in terms of pricing?

What if independent music and record stores did the same thing?

What if every retailer that sells something that could be had for less on the internet did it too?

* * *

I was browsing at The Strand last night, and I found a newly published book I wanted to read.  It was marked 10% off the retail price of $29.95.  Engaging in a common, if somewhat undignified, modern ritual, I pulled out my smart phone and checked to see what it would cost to buy it online at amazon.  I happen to despise amazon but, times being what they are, I wanted to see what my options were.

Amazon lists the book, brand new,  for $16.45.

And so ensued the ethical debate: support The Strand and pay a whopping $10 more for the book, or save the $10 and order the same book online, further hastening the imminent demise of great bookstores like the very one I was standing in? 

It seems like a no-win situation.  As much as I love The Strand and all it stands for, that's a huge margin of difference in price...and that's only one book.  Let's say I bought five or six books (not uncommon for me -- The Strand is a dangerous place), and let's say the same price differential applied, on average.  Using this calculation, I could spend $135.00 at The Strand, or I could spend $67.50 for the same books online.  Do the math.

So, am I (are you? are we all?) expected to subsidize the small, independent little guy simply because we know it's the proper thing to do?  I'm onboard with this in principle, and perhaps if one of my songs got placed on Grey's Anatomy I would...without question. But, like most people these days, I'm mindful of my finances. Paying a third more for exactly the same product seems, well...unsustainable.  This is not news. It's why bookstores and record shops and other Old Media outlets are disappearing faster than you can say Digital Monday.

I want The Strand to have my money. I really do. I'm willing to give them a little more than I'd spend online. Just because. I think that they deserve it, simpy for the service they offer me by having a physical store for me to browse in. That's absolutely worth something to me.

So, here's my idea.  Monetize what is now a free service. Let Old Media stores charge admission. A buck. Wouldn't you pay a buck to browse in The Strand for as long as you like? I would.  For a buck, you have access to their entire inventory. You can pick the books up, look at them, feel them in your hand, read a page or two. You can talk to the knowledgable staff, ask their opinion, shoot the breeze.  For a buck, you can be physcially surrounded by the greatest words ever composed from the greatest minds from all corners of the world.  And the best part? You're not obligated to buy anything while you're in there. But if you DO, it will be priced competitively with online retailers, because we all agreed to pay a buck for the privilege.

Wouldn't this be a great way to give those suckers (amazon, et al) some pause, even a run for their money?

I don't know the economics, so this may be a naive idea.  How many people walk into The Strand every day?  A thousand? Two thousand? Would every one of those people contributing a buck provide enough economic cushion to the retailer to allow for quasi-online prices?  And what about the little guy with the little shop in the litlle town in the country, who gets a dozen customers in per day? That owner probably won't be able to compete. But maybe the economics in the little town in the country are different?

* * *

All I know is -- I  love bookstores. The physical ones. And record stores (where they still exist).  I want them to stick around. I always want to be able to go and browse in them, and I'm willing to pay a premium to do it. But an extra 30% is asking a lot.  Something has to change about that calculus, and soon, I would think.

Give a dollar to get in to The Strand? Absolutely. All day. 

Wouldn't you?

Suze Rotolo

"The main thing is you are your own self”


Suze Rotolo started showing up at my gigs about a decade ago, always with her husband Enzo, always waving and smiling on her way out the door.   

Once, at the now-defunct Bottom Line, the club’s legendary impresario Allan Pepper pulled me aside in that inimitable way of his, and said "You know who that is, don't you?"  I did not.  "She’'s a very important figure in the Village scene, she's heard all the greats," he said, sotto voce. "It’s a very BIG deal that she's a fan of yours."  

It wasn't until I watched Scorsese's No Direction Home that I made the connection.  There she was --  the woman who'd been showing up to my gigs all these years:  Suze Rotolo, the girl on the cover of Bob Dylan's Freewheelin' album.

In 2008,  I received an invite from Suze’'s publisher to perform at the launch party for her book A Freewheelin' Time. I felt honored, and I wrote to ask her what role she wanted my music to play, and whether -- given the context -- she wanted me to play Dylan songs at the event.  

She replied: "I always felt, from the first time I saw you hanging out with a bass player in Washington Square Park a number of years back, that you had your own voice, yet there was an alluring connection to all that other stuff that American music is made of. I bought your album and talked it up to friends, who agreed with my take: original yet recognizable and with a great band.  I know you covered the “Bootleg Series [sic],” I haven't heard it and I'd like to, but the reason I thought you would be a good choice is because I like your work, your arrangements, and musicians. I have three albums of yours and think they are really fine. In other words, Dylan covers is not the point– was not why I thought of you– but I was concerned you might think so. What you have to do with me, is simple, I like music that is good and true (it isn't easy to find in the glut), no matter the genre. You are your own self and that is the bottom line, whether you are singing your own songs or interpreting 'Oh Death.'  This is longer than intended, but email does wonders overcoming shyness. I’d be happy to hear what you have to say or if you want input in choosing songs. Otherwise I'm fine with Howard Fishman as is.”

Thus began an all-too-brief friendship that lasted until Suze's untimely death in February.  I played the party, some time after we went together to hear Allen Toussaint at Joe’'s Pub. As I'd hoped he might, Tousaint played his cover of Dylan’s 'Mama You Been on My Mind.'  "Everybody says 'Don't Think Twice' is such a great song, but I like this one better," she told me with a smile.   Sometime soon after, I went to her gallery show to see her work, and we continued to talk over email until not too long ago.

My last correspondence with Suze was about the trilogy of records I put out a few months ago. As usual, she had such perceptive, and such unique things to say about my music, things that I will always treasure.  She wrote about the juxtaposition of my lyrics with my music in the context of color:  "Put red next to blue and the blue recedes, creating dimension: they don't blend, they give an illusion of dimension on a flat surface. So it could possibly be with your lyrics and the music: they don’t 'blend'. The words jut forward, then come the breaks and the music takes over…The main thing is you are your own self” she concluded. “Warm salutes, Suze."

This was her last email to me, and it occurs to me now that, in offering such elevated praise, she could just as easily been talking about herself.  It must have been challenging, at times,  to go through life known to so many as Bob Dylan’s Girlfriend. It’s probably why, until very recently, she kept such a low profile.

For those of us who knew her personally, who read her book, who felt her warmth, who knew her wicked humor and deep feeling and thinking about things, we know that she was, above all else, exactly those words that she honored me with -- her own self.  

Goodbye Suze, and warm salutes.  Your friend, Howard

The Beguiling Jonathan Richman

At the end of last night's Jonathan Richman show at the Bowery Ballroom, an unexpected thing happened.  After graciously giving two encores, our man put his guitar away, started for the exit, and then came back to the mic. He explained that something didn't feel right to him...that the show had had a lot of ups and downs, but it hadn't felt good to him, somehow.

"We don't play with any kind of plan," he explained (speaking for himself and drummer Tommy Larkins). "And tonight I was really feeling the lack of a plan. We try to keep things fresh...it's like bread: as soon as you take it out of the oven, it starts to get old. But," he explained, "I would rather fail like that than play the same stale thing every night." 

Anyone who's ever gotten on a stage knows what it's like to have an off night...to not be connected to the music, or to the audience, or (worst) to oneself. It happens, and it doesn't feel good.  But witnessing Jonathan Richman's palpable sense of confusion and unrest for not (in his mind) delivering the goods, to see him offer himself up like that in front of a packed house, was really something. One fan suggested he solve the problem by singing his song "Springtime in New York," and yes, he said, that might very well be just the thing.

He called Tommy back to the stage, unpacked his guitar, and performed the song with tenderness and real love for the audience and for the city, and all was well once again in the world.

This guy is unlike anyone else. I've had the good fortune to catch him a number of times over the last few years, and at each show have been completely floored by the intimacy he creates with the audience, by the spontaneity of his performance (the guitar flights of fancy, the lyric ad libs, the off-mic bits, the dancing!), by his total engagement in offering service to the crowd in the form of light, humor, warmth, gentleness and wisdom.  Sure, I could tell he was a little off his game last night. He started strong, but seemed to become preoccupied with his decision to instruct the venue to keep the A/C off. As it got warmer in the room, he began to worry about the audience's comfort, asking us if we were too warm, even as one of his songs railed against things like A/C and new housing developments and things that keep us from "the real."  He seemed to get confused, torn between following his conscience and his concern for the audience, and the show took a noticeable energy dive from there on in. Or maybe it was the decidedly un-Jonathan Richman-like song he sang about being a victim to other people's unkindness and cruelty (I don't the name of it, but my guess is that it was a cover of a Vic Chestnutt song; Chestnutt opened the show).

Whatever the reason, JR lost his groove about halfway through, and struggled mightily to regain his balance.  Seeing this guy, in his late 50's, veteran of thousands of concerts, care so deeply about trying to find his way back into the moment, was a real gift. Hearing his conviction that he'd rather fail in his dedication to the moment than be another nail in the coffin of true, live performance and risk and humanity, confirms for me -- once again -- that Jonathan Richman is a modern-day hero.

Go see him if, and as often as, you can. Tour dates are here.

Two Things You Should See Right Now

People often ask me where I draw my musical inspiration from, and I sometimes draw a blank. Reason being: most of the things that inspire me are not music.  Theater, film, art, literature, history, religion, thought...these are the things that really move me the most.

For me, there are few things worse than being stuck in the audience at a bad piece of theater, but the converse is also true: when theater is really effective, no other art form can touch it for the visceral, exciting, startling feeling it inspires. This week I had the opportunity to see The Goodman Theatre's production of O'Neill's DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, as good and imaginative a production as I've seen on Broadway in a long time.  Today I read that the show is closing early (May 24) because of bad box office receipts, mainly due to getting shut out of the Tonys (a travesty).  Even if there are some casting issues, I still urge you to go see it before it's gone forever.

 

In the musical realm (although there was a good deal of theater in this too), I had another opportunity to see Leonard Cohen perform last night in Waterbury, CT.  I caught him for the first time last October in Obernberg, Germany, but Leonard and the show have only gotten better in the intervening months.  He's absolutely at the top of his game: totally present, giving, and fully cognizant of his tremendous power at this late stage of his career/life.  He's in NYC this weekend, then has a few more dates in North America before he heads back to Europe. Amazingly, there are still seats left at many of the shows. Really, if you can, do yourself a favor and go and see Leonard Cohen. You'll never forget the experience.