In 10 years there will be books written about Ezra Furman. The numerous think pieces already in existence will no sooner turn into full-length expositions, analyzing how the subversive songwriter, raised in Evanston, reignited the fire and the fury of a gilded era of rock and turned it into a manifesto for new generations.
When: 8 p.m., Jan. 7; (also appearing at Lincoln Hall Jan. 12)
Where: SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston
There will be discussion of Furman’s onstage persona, as much exploring the red lipstick and pearls as the gritted teeth spewing out not-so-pretty realities of being an outsider, living through someone else’s idea of sin, and finding your way after crawling through tunnels of anxiety. There will be talk of Furman’s “A Guide for the Perplexed,” an online platform that channels all those feelings into off-the-record conversations with fans. And there will be a look at Furman’s polarizing identities, exploring the relationships of gender fluidity and devout Judaism while living in the sacrilegious nebulous of rock music.
Until then, Furman is the one writing about a musical hero. After releasing 2015’s blowout album, “Perpetual Motion People,” Furman has been in a “productive hibernation” from music, working on an upcoming installment in the 33-1/3 series that will study “Transformer” by Lou Reed.
“[Lou Reed’s] a rough guy to spend time with, mentally. He’s a very troubled person. …But he’s also really interesting, the way he flirts with stardom and spurns it utterly and is so oppositional. You can see why he’s the godfather of punk,” says Furman, dialing in from a Brooklyn café where he has holed up studying the nuances of the city and its heroes from back in the 1970s.
Furman’s own six records — solo and with backing bands, The Harpoons and The Boyfriends — have borrowed much from this chronology, often compared to the largesse of The Velvet Underground, David Bowie and Chuck Berry with fingers in the pots of doo-wop, folk pop and blues rock. Furman’s Twitter tagline, “rock ‘n’ roll, but not like the rest,” about sums it up.
The first iteration of the band, Ezra Furman and the Harpoons, was born in 2006 along with fellow students at Tufts University where Furman had enrolled to study literature and creative writing.
“I always wanted to be a writer. I just found that songs were my favorite medium. They let you get to the point the fastest — nothing gives me as much feeling as a song, or as quick. I couldn’t beat it, so I joined it,” Furman says, comparing the songwriting process to unrelenting, primal urges. “I tend to freak out when I put pen to paper.”
One of the most recent examples is “The Refugee” on last summer’s “Big Fugitive Life” EP, a time warp of a song wrapped up in weepy violin strings that explores the story of Furman’s grandfather who escaped the Nazis, while also relating to today’s international refugee crisis.
“I sat on it for a long time,” admits Furman, only writing it after the elder Furman had passed away. “I thought it was kind of audacious to try and talk about a story that wasn’t my own to tell. But my dad said to me, ‘Well if nobody tells a story that’s not his or hers to tell, then nobody would tell a story.”
The Syrian refugee crisis also weighed heavily on the artist. “I thought it’s too urgent. We are living through another time where huge amounts of people need international assistance. We can help more than we could then,” continues Furman, who in recent months, has also written songs about Ferguson [Missouri] and made vehement statements on social media about human rights. “I think that at some point I started to see my music as a way of expressing empathy for the vulnerable, among other things. It’s one thing I hope to do with my songs.”
Furman recently moved back to the Chicago area in a way to be reconnected to supportive networks. “The Jewish community here has been tugging at my sleeves for a couple of years,” Furman says, while also noting there has been support from the music community.
After posting on Twitter about wanting to start a local punk band, Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace responded in kind. “I would love to do that with her; she is kind of a hero to me,” says Furman of the transgender punk rocker, not really sure if the project would ever happen, but perhaps seeing another new chapter looming.
“I write more songs than I release, and some could certainly be loud, punky songs. We don’t do many of those in my band, but it would be fun to play shows like that anyway. Sometimes I just get in a mood of I want to play rock and roll fast and loud and be ambitionless about it.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.