Singer-songwriter Paul Howeth is an unknown. He’s lived in obscurity for most of his adult life — he has no job, and before recently becoming homeless, was surviving off disability payments in a cramped apartment with his longtime companion Diane and their three pets.
The musician, who’s probably in his late 50s or early 60s, looks much older. He’s been battling mental illness his whole life, which has made things tough.
Despite difficult circumstances, he’s been working on his first album with Bucks Burnett, the owner of 14 Records and Cassette Museum, off-and-on for the past two years. Burnett discovered Howeth nearly 40 years ago and had been wanting to make an album ever since, but it kept getting pushed back.
After recording some of the first tracks a year and a half ago, Burnett started playing them for people in his network. Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck, formerly of REM, who formed the band The Minus 5, have said they would be Howeth’s backing band on future recordings. McCaughey even offered a working title for the album: “The Fundamental Genius of Mr. Howeth.”
“Paul’s songs come from a particular place that, to my ear, is extremely unique and soulful,” McCaughey said via email. “To that end, I think that simplicity is a huge part of the great depth in his writing. If that sounds redundant, it isn’t to me! I look forward to adding some (hopefully appropriate, and not unnecessary) bits of fairy dust to some songs, and also seeing what Peter (whose taste I obviously trust) might hear as appropriate additions.”
And Chris Penn, the owner of Good Records must have also been impressed; he booked Howeth for his first-ever scheduled performance on Saturday, April 1.
A hesitant-looking Howeth took the stage at Good Records in front of a room of about 30 people. He’s been doing open-mics since his 20s but never played to a room of people who were there specifically to see him.
The crowd seemed captivated by his music; it was dead silent. Howeth’s gravely voice was steady and sharp despite his nerves, and his poignant lyrics shot through the large space.
Howeth was booked for a 30-minute set, but played less than 15 minutes. He got up out of his chair and walked off stage after his third song. Burnett asked, “Wanna do a couple more?” to which Howeth replied, “Nah, I’m too nervous.”
Howeth is open about his diagnosis of manic depression. It’s made it tough to function at times and even tougher to make it in the music industry.
“Paul is not really very cognizant of detail and doesn’t have his shit together, in any regard, unless he’s writing a song,” Burnett says. For example, he missed the interview for this story and is largely unreachable. At the time of the interview, his cell phone — a model from the 1990s — had only three minutes left. It doesn’t receive texts or email.
Calling the motel’s mainline where Howeth, Diane and their pets are staying didn’t yield better results. Even the staff couldn’t track him down despite knowing where he lives and having seen him just 10 minutes prior.
“I’m really surprised he missed the interview,” Burnett says. “He’s never done an interview before and was really looking forward to it.” Burnett doubted whether Howeth would actually make it to his show at Good Records.
If anyone knows Howeth, it’s Burnett. They’ve been friends for almost four decades. They met in 1979 when they were both young musicians, about the same age, living next door to each other in Arlington. They struck up a conversation, and Howeth asked Burnett to check out some of his songs and paintings. Burnett was blown away.
“My jaw dropped. He struck me as extremely intelligent, sharp-witted, a genius-level lyricist, and a unique rhythmic guitar player,” Burnett remembers. “He’s also a graphic artist. I was knocked out by his art. [I said], ‘You’re like the Picasso of Arlington.’”
Burnett offered to buy some of Howeth’s paintings. “‘I can’t sell you any art,’ he said. ‘I buried it.’ I said, ‘What do you mean you buried it?’ He replied, ‘I wrapped it really carefully in wire and dug a hole in the backyard and buried it,’” Burnett relates. “He had no reason for burying his art, just felt like it was the right thing to do. That’s when I knew I as dealing with a level of genius that had some troubled waters with it.”
“It’s all improved significantly with proper medical help and he’s learned a lot of management techniques,” Burnett says. “He’s been doing great for a long time. It was a thrill to finally start work on this album.”
Unable to work and subsisting on government checks, Howeth and Diane don’t own a car, computer, or a cell phone with an internet connection. There was a situation with their former apartment, and they couldn’t afford legal representation, so they just left.
Burnett found out about Howeth’s situation in a roundabout way. He reached out to Howeth to finish recording his album, and Howeth told Burnett to give away the tracks they had already recorded. It was bad timing, he was losing his apartment and would likely end up on streets. So, Burnett swooped in to help, setting Howeth up in a motel and securing a permanent apartment for him just last week.
On Saturday it was undeniable that there’s something special about Howeth. Dressed in a baggy T-shirt touting San Antonio’s tourist attractions, and hair flopping into his eyes, he looks rough and tumble and sounds it too; his voice is something like a freight train rolling over craggy boulders. Nothing about his appearance or artistry is trained or polished, and that’s what makes him so relatable. He delivers his lyrics with emotional acuity that isn’t learned. It’s his life experiences and his truth coming through in the music, and it’s hard not to feel things when he’s singing.
Burnett relates that local DJ Mark Ridlen was moved to tears. “Last night I saw a grown man cry after his set. Another told me his music affected him more deeply than any music he’s heard before. Twenty people were raving to him about how great his music was. He believes he was terrible,” Burnett says.
After the show Howeth said he was disappointed in the performance. “The last song was awful. It’s usually upbeat and kind of funny. I turned everything into Wagner; it’s very grim. It’s like a mixture of the Monkees and Wagner.” Howeth explains, “I want to do happy songs; I’d like to do a children’s record. I’m always doing sad songs. People would always say they’re dark. Lou Reed was an influence.”
To illustrate his predicament, Howeth related a story about seeing a pharmaceutical pamphlet in his doctor’s office. “Richard Dryfus was saying, ‘I love my manic depression.’ I’m not there yet.”
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Burnett is dead set on making Howeth’s music and art career happen: buying him art supplies, recording his album, making connections for him and getting him gigs, reluctant as Howeth is. It’s been a long time coming.
“I know how reclusive he is. If I don’t document this guy, no one will ever hear his songs. They’re so great, they must be documented and preserved. I don’t care how well they sell,” Burnett says.
A day after the performance Burnett reports that Howeth is co-operating with the plan. “I got him to agree to play more gigs,” he says. “Finally convinced him he has to do it a lot to get better.”
Maybe the stakes were too high at Good Records for his first night with press and well-known local music people in attendance. “Get me some gigs that don’t matter,” Howeth told Burnett after the show. “I’ll do better if it doesn’t matter.”