Review of the Connie Converse biography

Howard Fishman just came out with a long-awaited biography of my aunt Connie Converse – a bedroom-demo singer-songwriter of the 1950’s, who worked in obscurity, disappeared without a trace in 1974, and then developed a cult following decades later.

Here’s my review of book (also posted on Amazon):


I am one of Connie Converse’s nephews, and as I read Howard Fishman’s To Anyone Who Ever Asks I was mostly delighted that such a thorough and consequential treatment of her life and work had  arrived. Even aside from this being about the Connie Converse I knew as a child, it is in many ways a remarkably successful and deep artistic biography. It is passionate, thoughtful, layered, nuanced, comprehensive, and above all both meticulously researched (in the main, with some exceptions) and beautifully written.

Fishman is remarkably well qualified to write this book, not just because he is a super-fan of Connie’s music, but because of his deep knowledge of music, particularly American popular music – not just the genres, but their interconnections and the often-spurious barriers separating them. He’s able to situate and explain Connie’s work not just with regard to her musical influences, but in the ways in which her work is sui generis and startling given her era and her environment.

I have to say that my relationship with the book is complicated – not only am I related to Connie, but I am (like many other family members and friends) one of the sources and interviewees that Fishman spoke and emailed with as he did his research. You’ll get a sense as you read the book that Fishman was obsessive about his subject and determined to track down every bit of detail he could, which is no doubt part of the reason that the book is so rich and comprehensive.

For me, this led to fairly absurd conversations as I tried to persuade Fishman that I really truly did not remember how many sinks were in the bathroom vanity of Connie’s rental apartment where I visited for a couple of sleepovers when I was eight or nine years old – nor did I remember (truly, please believe me) what color that bathroom countertop was.

And always lurking behind the questioning was the potential for a harsh judgmental reaction from Howard. It’s an interesting experience to have a stranger arrive, announce that they are writing a book about a relative who was near and dear to you as a child, who you lived with, and loved, and looked up to, and was schooled and mentored by, and who you knew even apart from this close family connection was objectively exceptional in a number of ways, and then have this stranger (who, remember, is writing about a person that they never have met) within a short period of time call into question whether you are *really* sufficiently devoted to your relative and her legacy? And if you were as devoted as you really should be, wouldn’t you be more responsive to emails and calls, and have more information to share, and remember things in more detail? I have no idea whether this rather bullying technique of interview-by-guilt-trip was generally effective or counter-productive as Howard’s research progressed. But as you read the book, you may note more than one occasion where Howard complains that sources who had previously offered interesting information could no longer be reached, or were not returning his calls. You might at this point be getting a glimmer as to what was going on.

Fishman’s tendency to mistrust and denigrate those in Connie’s orbit who he deems to not have been sufficiently devoted to her is not limited to what we experienced in interviews — it shows up repeatedly in the book text itself, marked by dismissive and suspicious phrases like “And if they’d been as close to her as they say they were…”. There is a strange dynamic of arrogance where Fishman, as a self-appointed obsessive biographer, feels ready to judge those who cared about Connie and find them wanting by comparison to himself (a man who, as noted, never met the subject who so occupied him).

With regard to memory: I think that among lawyers, journalists, psychologists, and biographers who deal with the realities of human memory it is commonly understood that if you interview people about evidently important events that happened last week you may find that recollections are incomplete, and different accounts are sometimes conflicting. Obviously this will be even more true if the events in question happened fifty years ago, and if those events are now understood to be momentous but might not have seemed so at the time. But this common understanding is for whatever reason not understood by our biographer, who seemingly has his mind blown every single time he runs across this phenomenon, and then often goes on to speculate ominously about what *really* underlies these discrepancies. At one point in the book he calls me out for having thought aloud in an interview about what I remember having happened, and my momentary questioning whether it happened that way or another way. There is also a constant refrain of sentences that begin like this one: “It seemed odd that their sons could not recall Converse’s moving out [..]”. Whenever you see the word “odd” in Fishman’s book, it’s a signal that a negative and suspicious judgment is being prepared, usually one about insufficient attention to Connie and the progression of her life. And as soon as Fishman finds something to be odd and unexplainable by his own lights, he searches hard for an explanation – very hard indeed.

While Fishman does an exemplary, thorough, and painstaking job of laying out what his human and documentary sources have been able to establish for him about Connie’s life, when those sources don’t give him complete answers he then gives free rein to dark speculations about both Connie and those close to her, which often revolve around novel theories about previously unguessed-at liaisons, mental health challenges, sexual orientations, and sexual proclivities and misconduct (which I won’t dignify or amplify by repeating here), which are thinly sourced but about which Fishman seems to have sudden and overwhelming intuitions. Fishman seems to privilege this freedom to speculate over any obligation to his subjects to get this stuff right. At one point, after several pages of such innuendo, he half-walks back and justifies himself with: “I have no reason to believe that there was anything going on [..] But my responsibility as a writer is to report what I discover, even in those moments when I can’t fully grasp its greater meaning”. Um, OK. All of the above probably matters most of all to family members and those who were actually close to the people involved who are being tarred by Fishman’s theorizing. For others, including Fishman, speculative tangents like this may further spice things up and sell more books.

More generally, though, Fishman’s drive for detail and his desire to get to the bottom of what happened in Connie’s life (whether via documentary research or guessing) actually is crucial to the success of the book. He most sincerely wants to understand how all of this happened, how the world failed Connie, what drove her, and what ultimately doomed her. And he is passionately obsessed with Connie’s artistry, understands it very deeply, and does an unparalleled job in communicating what was unique, brilliant, unexpected, and unprecedented about her work. On the purely artistic side of this work she could have no better advocate. My reaction to all this is inevitably a mixed one. (As I think about Amazon rating schemes, I’m forced to consider how to average 5+++ stars and 1— stars. I come up with 3 stars.)

I also resonate to Fishman’s broader theme of how many brilliant forgotten artists like Connie there must be out there – all those souls who were spectacularly talented, but for one reason or another just never got the lucky breaks (the breaks that are so familiar to us from celebrity interviews), and never quite found their way in the world. One irony is that although Connie was absolutely one of those unfortunates during her lifetime, she is no longer the best example. Connie Converse is not forgotten – thanks to many, including Fishman.

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