I was so fortunate to meet Howard when I did. He was already in what would turn out to be the last chapter of an incredible life. By the time we began our conversations he was bed-ridden, but that didn't stop his ever-engaged mind. Our visits and phone calls were brimming with his ideas, inventions, humor, artwork, insights and stories– and could he tell a story! I didn't usually speak much, or so it felt. I’d just toss something out there– Did you know so and so? Where you somewhere or other? What happened after that?– and the stories would flow. His memory was sharp and spilling over with funny side notes and little known facts, while the main stories managed to stay on their long windy course, usually ending in a surprise.
I realized that that’s how Howard saw the world– full of surprises. It’s who he was, with his beautifully optimistic and curious mind holding the course despite the physical conditions that became its new reality. By the time I met him he was being fed through a tube, having lost the ability to eat when throat cancer robbed him of his saliva glands. He was suffering from Depression, the remnants of the mood disorder which abruptly sidelined his journalistic career at its height. And he was no longer walking. But this chapter in his life was merely a footnote of a life robust and engaged, active and influential.
A few quick stories–
Howard was a great ping pong player and loved to play. He told me about the night he announced on his radio show that he and his guest were so good they could beat anyone. He declared for all challengers to come to the ping pong joint on Broadway after the radio show, late into the night, and over 20 people showed up to lose to him and his guest.
Then there was the story of Allen Klein (then the head of Apple records and manager of John, Ringo and George) cashing in a favor by making Howard go with him to the Ravi Shankar concert George Harrison was putting on at Carnegie Hall. The rub was that they both hated Indian music. They sat in the box, in chairs right behind George, and elbowed each other. Half an hour into the show, between their whispered remarks, they broke into a giggle fit and couldn’t stop. Allen fell out of his chair. They spent the rest of the concert trying to hide “the high school giggles,” as he described it, from George.
And there was a story he told me which began, “So John called me up one day, because Bob had a problem and he thought I could help.” It’s an incredible one about the advice he gave Dylan about how to deal with the handful of crazies, led by AJ Webberman, who were picketing Dylan’s brownstone and sifting through his trash. “Invite him in for a private conversation, but just him.” Howard advised and it worked. The small group, now decapitated, lost its steam. Weeks of harassment ended overnight.
And then there’s the blowout party thrown for him in LA after he won the Academy Award in 1972… But I’ll stop here, at just the tip of the iceberg.
Howard was someone with an opinion. He was open and honest, stubborn, never star-struck, and his gregarious personality combined with his curious nature making for a powerful combination. He could zero-in on the crux of a problem and ask a disarming question casually. He was non threatening yet full of chutzpah. He often told me tips I should use to get past the façade, should I ever find myself interviewing celebrities.
A minute later he would be showing me the way he’d been able to create beautiful mini bas relief sculptures out of the foil from alcohol swab packets, or the handful of uses he’d created for the other mundane medical ephemera which surrounded him. He drew portraits on styrofoam cups, he designed better shaped spoons for taking medicine, straws were interconnected and twisted into a bouquet… He may have founded a new school of In-Patient Outsider Art.
In his final weeks, visiting him in hospice care, I realized the unique relationship Howard and I shared. I was already a friend of his sons, and now I got to meet his long-time girlfriend, his extended family and close friends from all of the chapters of his life. Everyone had history with Howard– they knew him when. I, on the other hand, was the new kid, the chronicler of his stories, his rear-view mirror, his nostalgic instigator and perhaps the last close friend he made. I’d spent hundreds of hours with him, or I should say his voice, listening to the interviews which he somehow knowingly saved. I knew him as he was now, yet also, through the recorded medium, got to spend time with him in 1969-1972. And so there I stood in the hospital with him, when earlier that day his voice surrounded me while editing his conversations to produce the latest podcast. I felt proud that by digging through his past I had helped, or at the very least prodded, to give him perspective, and our conversations almost always included Howard saying, “You know, I’ve had a great life, I really have.”
Over the few short years we knew each other, Howard came to mean a great deal to me. His sudden decline in health came too soon– I wanted more stories. I, along with a legion of friends, family and fans, will miss him dearly.
– Ezra Bookstein 5/7/2014