Richard Shindell: Fishing
There’s something about Richard Shindell’s voice that just grabs me. I’m not sure where or when I first heard him, but WFUV is probably a pretty good bet. And it isn’t only the voice, it is the quality of the songwriting—deeply personal and complex songs, often written from unusual perspectives, like truck drivers, or kids who ran away to fight in the Civil War.
It turns out that Shindell and my good friend David went to college together. I don’t remember whether they knew each other personally, but I know that David was a big fan. A few years ago, when my friend turned 40, his wife Melissa decided to surprise him with a private concert by Shindell at a bar in New York. But because of his touring schedule, he wasn’t available near David’s birthday, so she tentatively booked the party for January 28, 2001. Melissa asked me whether it would be a problem, because it was Super Bowl Sunday. When she called, my team, the Giants, were fading, and Jim Fassel had made what we all thought was a ridiculous “guarantee” that they would make the playoffs. I told Melissa not to worry, and plan the party.
Of course, the Giants caught fire, and not only made the playoffs, but the Super Bowl. So, I was looking forward to seeing Richard Shindell up close and personal, but kind of annoyed that I was going to miss the Giants in the Super Bowl. The bar, though, had TVs, and the game was showing before the music started. Unfortunately for me, and my fellow Giants fans, the Ravens blew us out, and I was ultimately very glad not to have to watch the game and instead see a great show from Shindell, who was friendly, and, not surprisingly, wonderful.
None of which has anything to do with today’s theme, but I like the story. And I really like this song. There are some songs that are like perfect short stories in miniature. The songwriter quickly outlines the characters, the plot and the resolution, all in a few minutes. Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” is an example. Jason Isbell’s “Dress Blues,” is another. And “Fishing” is in this class.
It starts out as a very one-sided conversation, between an immigration agent and a Latino immigrant. The agent is trying to get the immigrant to turn on others—maybe the people who brought him to the country, or other undocumented immigrants. The agent uses the fact that his prisoner is a fisherman to try to forge common ground by sharing (symbolically loaded) fishing stories, while, at the same time trying to get him to “bite” on the bait that the agent has cast—the ability to stay in the country and protection for his “next of kin”—in exchange for cooperation.
Finally, the agent says, ostensibly talking about fishing, but really not:
Anyway, it's easy to bite.
You just take the bait
Can't snap the line
Don’t fight the hook
Hurts less if you don't try to dive.
In the last stanza, the fisherman finally responds, deciding to take his punishment rather than be a rat:
Señor, as you know I was a fisherman
And how full the nets came in
We hauled them up by hand
But when we fled, I left them just out past the coral reefs
They're waiting there for me
The fisherman’s nobility contrasts with the agent’s manipulativeness, and leaves little doubt where Shindell’s sympathies lie. This song gives me chills every time I hear it. Joan Baez does a good cover, too, on her “Gone From Danger” album.