The end may have begun inside New York's Marquee Club in 2002, when Joe Firstman put his hands around the neck of his star-making music manager, Michael Lippman, at an industry party.
He wanted in. Denied entry, Firstman grew belligerent, flicking a bouncer's earpiece onto the ground. Lippman came out of the party furious at the scene his artist was creating. When Lippman jabbed a finger in his face, Firstman pounced.
He still bears faint scars under each eye from where he was tasered; already nearly blackout drunk, Firstman tumbled into complete dark. He came to sometime later.
“I woke up two hours later crying in the back of his limousine,” Firstman recalls. “It was like some shit in a Kubrick movie.”
All this occurred before his debut as an Atlantic recording artist, 2003's War of Women. On tour, he opened for artists including Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson, and Jewel.
Despite the attack against him, Lippman wasn't ready to abandon this obvious talent. He still believed in this young man who had just arrived from the Piedmont of the Carolinas.
The son of a guitar-picking, weed dealing, Jewish Vietnam vet father and a Carolina country girl mother who would become an opera singer and later disappear to Israel, the 20-year-old Firstman had descended upon Hollywood via an $18 Greyhound bus ticket from Charlotte only two years earlier.
Wild and green, he rented a room in a bungalow on Santa Monica and Cahuenga. Soon enough he and his brand new band ruled the music clubs of the Sunset Strip. He possessed a throaty yowl and an unbridled musicality. Songs poured out of him.
Atlantic Records signed Firstman in 2002. Ensconced at a baby grand piano in a Franklin Avenue apartment above his favorite bar, La Poubelle, he wrote nearly 200 songs.
There were attempts to bridle him. The record company wanted to package Firstman; he refused to do so much as a music video. On tour, he rarely sang a song the same way twice — sometimes the songs were unrecognizable from their recorded versions.
Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman, who played on War of Women, saw a kid who was as brash as his talent was outsized.
“Atlantic, and even his manager, I had a feeling none of them had any idea what they had on their hands,” Gorman says. “I just saw a kid with way too many ideas, way too many songs, and way too much inspiration and talent to be anything a record company could deal with in 2002.”
“He was such an asshole and I loved him for it,” he adds. “People said he was so arrogant, but his arrogance was not from a place of fear and insecurity…. He had greatness and he was surrounded by buffoons and he was angry and I can't blame him.”
War of Women went on to sell only 60,000 copies; a paltry number in that go-go era.
“It wasn't that I didn't want to compromise,” Firstman puts in. “I wanted good strong clear ideas presented to me…I wanted to protect my project, and I wanted to fail on my own terms, if failure was to be my lot.”
Firstman and Atlantic parted ways with more than a hundred songs left unreleased. Lippman abandoned him shortly thereafter, Firstman says. Lippman was not available for comment, but Firstman said the manager's reasons for finally giving up weren't hard to discern. “Because it wasn't happening,” he said. “Because I was an animal.”
He took a job as music director on Last Call With Carson Daly. There, he wrote and played every day, both with the greats like Quincy Jones and with a handpicked band that included jazz lions such as Thundercat and Kamasi Washington. At the same time, he ran a jazz club with actor Danny Masterson that attracted big names to its stage.
When the TV gig ended in 2009, Firstman took to the road. Having burned through a million dollars, by his own estimation, his first Hollywood dream came to an end.
He arrived in Hollywood a pauper and went away the same. But then his second chapter began.
He pared down what he had left to a one room house he'd built in the artist community of Todos Santos, Mexico, and very large truck that would soon log hundreds of thousands of miles en route to hundreds of small club shows and bar gigs throughout the U.S.
He focused on writing better songs. His early music was wildly exuberant, frenetic; his work became more raggedly-simple and truthful. He's become a soul singer of a different sort — drawing from his Charlotte roots.
He largely disappeared from the national spotlight, but few musicians who ever met him forgot what they heard.
“The number of musicians and songwriters I've talked to over the years whose radar he is on is astonishing,” Gorman says. “He's sort of this great enigmatic character.”
Firstman has come in from the wilderness. Over the last year, all that old unreleased material finally saw the light of day — eleven volumes of self-released EP's, which seem to have found an audience.
He plays the El Rey tomorrow night. The man who once looked like a teen idol is now wild-haired and hard-eyed. He wears an Old Testament beard and sings in a swirling, prophetic lyricism: “You ain't a mystic if you don't drink wine, or break bread in mockery of circular time.”
Colombian poet and sometimes drinking friend of Firstman's, David Horacio Rosales, praises the singer as a “sophisticated primitive.”
“This out-of-the-woods, wild, green, wooden charm in his persona and music,” Rosales says. “A guy who reads Lorca, knows poetry, reads Montaigne, listens to reggae and old rancheras….Yet he sounds like a talented young man who is still in love with his just-discovered gifts.”
Firstman went from playing Disney Hall to OB's Bar & Grill. He does not see this as a fall from grace.
“When it comes down to it, you have to be great,” Firstman says. “And you can't be great unless you've played all those stages. Not always under the lights and the perfect sound — you've got to be great, just right there, to yourself. It falls on you.”
Joe Firstman plays the El Rey tomorrow, Nov. 27 with Pearl and the
Pipes Canyon Band