Budd Mishkin may be the only guy in Park
Slope who listens to singer-songwriter Bulat Okudzhava on his
morning runs through Prospect Park.
Then again, Mishkin is probably also the only guy this side of the Ural who spends his days tracking box scores and his nights moonlighting as a one-man cover band of a Russian folk great.
To most New Yorkers, Mishkin is the smooth-voiced sportscaster for the cable news channel New York 1, who hosts the nightly call-in program, "Sports on 1."
But this veteran sports reporter’s true passion comes from crooning the songs of the late Okudzhava, who Mishkin describes as the Jacques Brel of Russian music.
Until recently, Mishkin, 44, limited his Russian songstering to the privacy of his own home, but the reporter-cum-minstrel finally went public last March when he was invited to take center stage at the Cornelia Street Cafe, in Manhattan’s West Village.
"I know what you’re thinking, ’Just another sports guy doing Russian folk songs,’" Mishkin told the crowd, indicating that the rarity, not to mention comedic potential, of an American sports reporter taking time out to strum the sensitive tunes of a dead Russian singer wasn’t missed on him.
Mishkin will be taking his show on the road again later this month when he performs in a program titled, "Borscht in the USA" at Makor, on the Upper West Side.
"I always had a desire to play this music publicly," Mishkin told GO Brooklyn during an interview in the Park Slope apartment he shares with his singer-songwriter wife, Peri Smilow, and their 4-month-old daughter, Allie.
Picking up his Martin guitar, Mishkin starts strumming a few chords of James Taylor’s "Mud Slide Slim" before moving over to "Myee Za Tsenoy Ne Postsyeem," or "For the Price We Will Not Halt."
Even for those who don’t understand a lick of Russian, the simple tunes convey a sense of longing.
Mishkin, who describes the songs as "simple, beautiful, and poetic" says they are about struggle.
"If you read between the lines, he’s talking about the difficulties of their lives, the emotions of their lives," Mishkin says, describing the lyrics of the singer-songwriter who was one of the first performers during Russia’s post-Stalin years to sing about everyday life rather than just odes to the Communist Party.
After the Cornelia Street Cafe gig, Mishkin got a write-up in the Daily News and soon started getting calls from Russian immigrants in Bensonhurst and Brighton Beach asking him to perform.
He enjoys those events.
"They all know the songs and they all sing along," he says. "You don’t have to explain who Okudzhava is. It would be like walking into an acoustic crowd here and having to explain why Bob Dylan is important."
Asked if he finds hosting his nightly sports gig and performing music similar, Mishkin’s wife interjects.
"He’s an incredible storyteller, it’s what makes him a great entertainer," Smilow says.
Raised in upstate Monroe, N.Y., Mishkin has the music biz in his blood. While his grandfather hailed from Russia and settled in the Bronx, his father spent a decade in the once-thriving, Jewish resort mecca of the Catskills where he opened a bungalow colony named Mishkin Cottages.
While the cottages went belly-up, Mishkin inherited both an interest in entertainment and a knowledge of his roots.
Traveling to the former Soviet Union as part of a six-week study tour while a junior in high school, Mishkin met a Russian teenager in Leningrad who shared his passion for the Beatles. The two started playing guitar together and it was then that he was introduced to the music of Okudzhava.
He returned to Russia in 1979, on a study abroad program while a student at the University of Pennsylvania, and returned in 1992, when he went with a Reform Jewish group to lead Passover seders at newly created synagogues.
Mishkin doesn’t necessarily expect the Makor audience to have the entire Okudzhava canon at their fingertips (the venue tends to attract a young, single, English-speaking Jewish crowd), but he is diligently preparing and studying the songs on his subway ride to work in the morning.
Asked if fellow sports reporters find his hobby a bit, well, offbeat, Mishkin says a lot of people have things they do outside their professional life.
He adds, "It’s not like I’m going out on tour."
Mishkin will perform his "Borscht
in The USA: Budd Mishkin Sings the Music of Bulat Okudzhava"
on Tuesday, Sept. 23, at 8 pm, in the Steinhardt Building at
Makor (35 W. 67th St. in Manhattan). Tickets are $12. For more
information, call (212) 601-1000.
"Sports on 1" airs Monday through Friday, at 11:30 pm, on Time Warner Cable’s channel 1.