Almost thirty years ago now, I was watching late night British TV (at a time when this meant not watching much at all) and came across a recording from Wales’ Brecon Jazz festival, featuring an American singer-songwriter-piano player called Dave Frishberg. I’m not a particular jazz fan, but something about Frishberg blew me away: his material was quirky and literate and cool, and his croaky/mellow delivery was full of flavour. I rapidly bought all the Frishberg recordings I could find (in those pre-Internet days, this didn’t mean much either) and ever since then, I’ve listened to his work just about more than to anyone else’s. His name seldom comes up in mainstream conversation – frankly, no one I mention him to has ever heard of him – but I’m hardly the only Frishberg freak either: as his website recounts, The New York Times described him as "the Stephen Sondheim of jazz songwriting", and The London Daily Telegraph called him "a Woody Allen of song".
At Hugh’s Room!
It’s been one of my longest-held ambitions to see him perform live, but it’s not easy. He turns up in New York every few years, but I’d only ever find out about it when it was unfeasible to get down there. He now lives in Portland, and performs more often in that part of the world; I’ve considered building a trip to Oregon around a Frishberg performance, but the plan’s never coalesced. Anyway, Frishberg is 78 now, and I’d reconciled myself to never seeing him. I still mentioned it once in a while though, most recently just a few weeks ago when we saw Randy Newman perform here in Toronto. Newman’s another terrific musician, with a fabulously varied songbook and a gorgeously caustic style, and it occurred to me while watching him how much he has in common with Frishberg. But, I said, I know I’ll never get to see him.
So on Sunday April 3rd I was leafing through the Sunday Star, and I happened to look at an ad for Hugh’s Room on Dundas West and Roncesvalles, and it said Dave Frishberg was performing there the following day. And I was shocked of course, in a way I think that impeded my ability to react. I checked the website and it said it was standing room only (obviously I’ve been making a mistake not monitoring Hugh’s Room, a place I’d never been to and was only dimly aware of), and I sort of thought, well, it probably won’t work then. I knew my wife wouldn’t be able to go with me, and in my stunned state I wrote it off. But then the next day I called the place for more information, and then I decided to go as long as this one friend of mine, who I thought would appreciate Frishberg more than most, was available to go with me. But he wasn’t, so I wrote off the idea again. Except of course I didn’t; as the time drew closer, I snapped into action, jumped into a cab and headed over there.
Shaking his hand
And of course all my uncertainty was nonsensical – standing room only or not, I was able to sit myself at the back on a barstool in a nice little spot with a perfect eye-line, and I didn’t mind being by myself at all. Especially because, during the intermission, Frishberg came to talk to someone in my vicinity, and I was able to shake his hand as he passed by. He performed just about all the songs I would have wanted (a couple of them were also on the program for that long-ago appearance in Wales, and of course I’ve heard them countless times since) and it was profoundly satisfying as few things can be. I don’t think about the past a lot – I have ambitions and wishes of course, but they come out of who I am now, not who I was then. But I’ve always had a proprietary feeling about Frishberg, as if he were a quasi-secret resource who somehow helped me get from there to here. So the evening had a deep sense of confirmation, if not quite of closure.
To tell you the truth, I think the years are catching up with my hero a bit. I’ve literally never heard a performance with so many missed notes, forgotten or flubbed lyrics, and several instances of having to start over. I have several Frishberg live albums, and his performances there seem effortlessly well-controlled; in Toronto, he occasionally seemed challenged even to make it to the end of the song. Which was a little poignant of course, but then as I said, he’s 78. It was a long road to that handshake.
What Now, Little Man?
Writing this four days later, I still feel in a way as if I were sitting on that barstool. Obviously, I have Frishberg songs playing in rotation in my head. But I’ve also been dogged since then by a certain eeriness. I’m not sure I have any ambitions, not serious ones anyway, that predate my ambition of seeing Dave Frishberg. I’ve been lucky – I’ve visited most of the places I wanted to, all else in life is good. A disproportionate number of my wish-list relates to movies I want to see, but over the past few years, with the technology explosion, I’ve cleared off a huge chunk of those too, and there’s not much urgency attaching to those that remain. Since watching Dave Frishberg, I’ve been dogged by the sense that I might find myself stagnating. What now could ever have the same effect as that late night program, triggering a thirty-year desire? Honestly, I can’t think of anything that would grab me the same way, and if it did, well, this is the age of access and connectivity; why would I wait thirty years, unless I was consciously depriving myself, which would merely be contrived?
No doubt, this is a literary-sounding conceit, the kind of thing that might occupy and lead astray the protagonist of a novel, but which only emerges to the surface of real life when you have too much time on your hands. But then, I reflect, it’s not really about ambitions, or the passage of time. It’s about how art and artists create narratives for our lives; they create for us a mental architecture we could never have created for myself. I could never define how, but I’m quite sure that if I’d never heard of Dave Frishberg, my mind would be somehow different, in a worse way. If that’s not an operating definition of a hero, I don’t know what is.