Acclaimed playwright/songwriter/performer Dan Fishback announces his new EP. Ill I: Laughing with Lizards will be released on February 16. Watch the official hand-animated video for “Laughing with Lizards” here [directed and drawn by Dan Fishback; edited by Sean Puglisi].
Dan Fishback on the project: “Ill I: Laughing with Lizards is the first of three short albums documenting feelings and impressions from my life as a chronically ill, queer Jew in an age of rising fascism. Ill (the word “ill” with a capital “i”) speaks to dysfunctional imbalances, not just within my own body, but within the body politic, and this first collection focuses on that political disorder. The subtitular track, Laughing with Lizards, explores the grief of witnessing injustice and the solace of knowing that ours is not the first generation to fight against overwhelming political cruelty.”
Playwright and songwriter Dan Fishback is perhaps best known for a performance that never happened. In 2017, the American Jewish Historical Society abruptly canceled a staged reading of his musical Rubble Rubble, citing his advocacy for Palestinian human rights. While Rubble Rubble’s cancellation provoked controversy, it was only one moment of crisis in Fishback’s ongoing artistic inquiry into the forbidden shadows of Jewish and queer life in the United States.
Fishback began performing in New York City in 2003, finding a home in the Lower East Side’s anti-folk scene and releasing several albums, both solo and with his band Cheese On Bread, which dropped its most recent recording The One Who Wanted More in 2018, along with a video for their song “Bad Friend,” directed by legendary underground queer filmmaker Stephen Winter, and featuring trans cabaret legend Justin Vivian Bond.
As a playwright, Fishback is known for comedic political theater, in which multiple time periods frequently collapse into each other, exploring legacies of historical trauma. The Material World, which found a family of Jewish socialist immigrants confronting the promise of Soviet utopianism in the 1920s, was called “quietly revolutionary” and “the best downtown musical in years” by Time Out New York in 2012, and his 2009 play You Will Experience Silence, which reframed the Chanukah story in the context of the Iraq War, was called “a forceful, often hilarious reflection on the politics of American occupation” by the Village Voice. Fishback’s 2011 solo performance thirtynothing confronted the then-under-discussed history of the early AIDS epidemic, and sought to understand the meaning of gay mass death for gay men who were children in those terrifying years.
In 2013, spurred by the political questions inherent in his thirtynothing project, Fishback founded The Helix Queer Performance Network–a programming platform designed to bring queer generations together and redress inequities in the world of queer arts and culture. He directed Helix’s slate of intergenerational festivals, workshops and public events through the platform’s conclusion in 2020, including La MaMa Experimental Theater’s annual festival La MaMa’s Squirts: Generations of Queer Performance, which continues today, now curated by Alexander Paris.
Fishback has myalgic encephalomyelitis–also known as chronic fatigue syndrome–and hosted the podcast Sick Day with Dan Fishback from 2018 through 2019. His work continues to engage with Jewish and queer political crises, always with a historical element, and with a newfound emphasis on disability justice, marked by Fishback’s experience as a high-risk person in a world that has ended collective efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID.
A few weeks after Trump’s election in 2016, I read that the Zionist Organization of America’s upcoming gala would honor Trump’s notoriously fascist advisor Steve Bannon. I immediately began laughing at the absurdity–a Jewish organization praising an antisemite for supporting Israel, while that same antisemite was empowering an unprecedented explosion of domestic antisemitism. But this laughing soon melted into crying, as my fear of fascism overwhelmed me.
I described this on social media, and asked, “Is there a Yiddish expression for laughing at fascism because it’s ridiculous, but also crying because it’s terrifying?” To my surprise, a friend responded that there basically is. To laugh out of bitterness (rather than joy) is lakhn mit yashtshterkes, literally translated as, “laughing with lizards.” Upon reading this, I was overwhelmed, not only by the surreal, mysterious beauty of the image, but by the tangible sense that my ancestors had gifted me with cultural wisdom, to prepare me for that moment. The problem was that I couldn’t readily access those gifts, because I did not speak Yiddish. Like so many members of so many displaced peoples, I dream in a language I do not speak.
Ill I: Laughing with Lizards is the first of three short albums documenting feelings and impressions from my life as a chronically ill, queer Jew in an age of rising fascism. Ill (the word “ill” with a capital “i”) speaks to dysfunctional imbalances, not just within my own body but within the body politic, and this first collection focuses on that political disorder. The subtitular track, Laughing with Lizards, explores the grief of witnessing injustice and the solace of knowing that ours is not the first generation to fight against overwhelming political cruelty. Hope Hurts, which I originally released as a music video in 2020, further digs into the intergenerational struggle of the Jewish left, expressing exhaustion at our defeats but insisting upon hope despite absurd odds. A gentle interlude, Yr Beautiful / It’s Dangerous zooms into the dark, intimate details of political violence, depicting the aftermath of a homophobic street assault through the longing eyes of the survivor’s ex-lover. The dark rock track Take It All Away winds through a lifetime of violence–experienced, inherited, and witnessed–in an insistent prayer to move beyond that pain. The collection ends with the orchestral lullaby The Beautiful Part–a self-reminder that moments of progress are always fleeting and that justice will always require vigilance.
The music video for Laughing with Lizards, which I animated by hand, brings some fun to these themes of trauma, injustice, and resistance. My protagonist, a young Jewish leftist, creates a golem (a sort of android protector from European Jewish folklore) from mashed potatoes, shaped like one of her shtetl ancestors. She and her Bubbe Golem go on adventures in Brooklyn, using the Bubbe Golem’s magic powers to right various wrongs. (They turn an I.C.E. detention center into an abortion clinic, they turn a cop into a baby goat, etc.) While the video was finished before last year’s October 7th Hamas attacks and the ensuing Israeli bombardment of Gaza, the video’s climax features the Bubbe Golem attending a Jewish solidarity rally for Palestine, where she confronts a Zionist counterprotester and heals him of the pain that distorts his thinking. The gesture is part of a long history of left-wing Jewish resistance to Zionism–a phenomenon that grows more powerful and urgent by the day.
Ill I: Laughing with Lizards marks my first solo recording in over a decade, and, to be honest, I spent much of the last several years assuming I would never record again. I have myalgic encephalomyelitis–also known as chronic fatigue syndrome–a disease that punishes my body for intense exertion. The process of recording an album is physically grueling, and as my condition has worsened, my future in music seemed more and more unlikely. And so none of these songs or videos would exist if it were not for my producer Matt Katz, who invited me into a recording process built around my own limitations. The result has been slow-going, but illuminating and rewarding, thanks to Matt’s kindness and omnipotent musical talent.
All of these themes of history, trauma and illness collide in the Ill I: Laughing with Lizards album art by Avram Finkelstein, the legendary artist and activist who co-created many of the most iconic images from the early AIDS activism movement, including SILENCE=DEATH. The album art is a detail from his stunning 2023 mural, Tourist (BRAF V600E Mutation J/6), in which a drawing of the January 6th insurrection (with graphite marks distinguished by Avram’s hand tremors) is overlaid with a similar graphite rendering of Avram’s own cancer cells–as though Avram’s cancer is invading the Capitol building. When you are sick, and the world is also sick, it can all feel like the same thing. I am lucky to have a friend like Avram, who has fought these battles before, just as I am lucky to have ancestors who have fought and learned and left their gifts for me to find along my own way. Ill I: Laughing with Lizards is a collection of songs about living through dark times, but these songs also insist that we are not alone, that we are not the first, and that we are not the last.
ll I: Laughing with Lizards track listing:
Laughing with Lizards
Yr Beautiful / It’s Dangerous
Take It All Away
The Beautiful Part
Ill I: Laughing with Lizards credits:
Music and lyrics by Dan Fishback
Produced by Matt Katz
Mixed and mastered by Corey Tut
Album art by Avram Finkelstein, “Tourist (BRAF V600E Mutation J/6) (Detail)”