- Album release show: ‘Reverie’ in its entirety
- Reverie: a raw and raucous and messy affair
- Flesh And Blood, This World And The Next: The Funeral of Solomon Burke
- The Death of Willie Mitchell
- Producing Legends: Mose Allison, Harry Belafonte, and a poem from France
- Notes on Blood From Stars
- Funeral March: The Martin Luther King Parade, Los Angeles, 2005
- Going Down Slow: A Remembrance of Ray Charles
- Geek Love: Lorne Greene
- Thelonious Monk “Hackensack”
- The Ghost in the Song
Album release show: ‘Reverie’ in its entirety
My new album, “Reverie,” will release on October 11, and as such, I have been invited to perform that very evening at the historic Largo/Coronet Theatre in West Hollywood; and I have accepted. It is my plan to perform the new album in its entirety –all 14 songs, none of which have I ever sung from a stage– and with the core musicians with whom it was brewed, bottled, and corked.
I have no ambition to recreate the album in performance, but rather will scheme to use it as a point of departure. I learned a lot about the songs from committing them to ‘tape,’ and hope that they will speak for themselves at least as expansively in the blazing light of darkness that is the Coronet Theatre. I am, after all, at their service; and tremendously excited to see what will happen when my brothers and I put match to their cracked and dry tender.
I hope you will join us. Semi-formal attire is requested of all attending but will not be furiously enforced. We are, suffice to say, trusting each other, aren’t we?
— Joe Henry
Reverie: a raw and raucous and messy affair
Dear friends of the fourth estate. I thought it might be a good idea to bring news and announce my intentions to you directly, since time is short and we all are on a deadline.
I am here to tell you that I have a new album, Reverie, releasing October 11, 2011 on Anti- Records. It is my 12th full-length record, and my fourth for that esteemed Los Angeles-based label that thrives despite a tombstone as its parent company’s logo.
Reverie is an all-acoustic production, though I will confess to you (as I already have to my parents) that it is a raw and raucous and messy affair. It had to be: the songs animating its body are themselves disheveled and unsettled; stitched together like one living scarecrow made from five…its arms and legs of varying lengths, head held with bailing wire, but still determined to run in the Labor Day picnic’s race for charity, poor thing.
When the songs that make up this album began to identify themselves as sharing a central being, I started listening for its unifying voice that would direct me to the musical landscape upon which it might somehow flourish. I knew it should be stripped and lean but not demur, sonically speaking; in black and white, but not without red blood in its veins; and would best be conjured by a very few attending musicians, all friends as well. During a Thanksgiving dinner party at the home of drummer Jay Bellerose this past fall, Jay and I found we’d each been privately pouring over the Duke Ellington/Max Roach/Charles Mingus collaborative album entitled Money Jungle, on which the trio play a game of catch with love, fire and brimstone, becoming a single runaway train on its way to crashing a prom dance –the terse romanticism and dark beauty they intimately but loudly unspool seeming very much to the point of something I wanted to describe and believe inherent to my new batch of songs. To a man, all their conflicted and glorious humanity is on display, is what I mean; and I have pledged my allegiance to that posture.
As result, four of us –Jay, bassist David Piltch, pianist Keefus Ciancia, and me— along with engineer Ryan Freeland, met in my basement studio for three days of exploration in late January. I promised myself upon beginning that I didn’t care whether or not I came out of it with a finished album –with ten songs or two in my basket— as long as I laid my finger on something with a ghostly pulse that would whisper sweet affirmation back from across the great divide. My whole agenda was to feed songs into a fire and see them go up.
We set up not only in the same room, but as close together as we could physically manage; the noise we each made spilling heavily into the space of the others, committing us to full performances and blurring the lines between us. Additionally, and perhaps in response to the frequent anxiety I shoulder regarding noise in the ‘hood when producing other artists in my own studio, I left all the windows open –inviting barking dogs, fighting birds and postal deliveries all to stand and be counted, to be heard as part of the fabric of the music –the way I always hear it around here. Though rarely autobiographical in nature, none of these songs, in fact, exist apart from my day-to-day life that allows them; and as such, there is no silence to be found on this record, only the outer world rising to speak as the songs descend.
The three days yielded ten songs, and that could’ve felt complete enough all considered, had I not turned both greedy and giddy. That, and I realized our friend Marc Ribot was due to be passing through town in March, and a few songs left waiting might be well served by his particular and wiry racquet; thus we convened for an additional afternoon with Marc’s acoustic guitar replacing the piano as the story’s tragic-but-lovable supporting character, and then I rolled the credits the following morning with some lost-world underscoring from singer Jean McClain, and a brief soliloquy given air and a smear of lipstick by Patrick Warren’s pump organ.
I did allow myself one final theatrical touch, made possible by the kindness of a new friend and the marvel of technology: after packing it a proverbial trout sandwich for the journey, I sent the song “Piano Furnace” to Dublin and the great singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan, for whom I had just produced an album –and of whom I am justifiably enamored— so that she might lift a few words from my wobbly shoulders, and illuminate them with her indelible spirit.
And then the curtain came down.
What remains is an album more lifelike –fuming and nervously ticking— than any I have perhaps ever managed. It speaks about time, I now notice (though not exclusively, and not because I have recently turned 50, I honestly don’t think): the way that it bobs and weaves and cracks wise…is a subtitle to all circumstance and conversation; the uninvited guest attending our every quiet moment and dinner dance, both pushy and unshakable.
This is not a complaint, I hasten to add: time is the great river that reminds us we are buoyant, after all, as its moving current lifts us by the chin and just off of the balls of our feet, while we scrape and strain to dig our toes into the sandy ground. It is the source of morality and joy, all sorrow and desire; the price of our determination and the measure of surrender; the falling star trailed after by gypsies; and I am not convinced that any song exists without some knowing nod in its direction.
I am nodding, then –to time, but also to all the love, hope, despair, and revelation that stands naked inside its weather. Time marches on, yes; but it hikes us up onto its wide shoulders in passing, if we are willing to ride, offering a staggering view of the horses.
AFTER THE WAR
STICKS & STONES
TOMORROW IS OCTOBER*
ROOM AT ARLES
EyeS OUT foR YoU
THE world AND ALL i KNOW**
Produced by Joe Henry
Recorded, mixed, and mastered by Ryan Freeland
Joe Henry – acoustic guitar and vocals
Keefus Ciancia – piano
David Piltch – upright bass
Jay Bellerose – drums
Marc Ribot – acoustic guitar and National ukulele (*)
Patrick Warren – pump organ (**)
Jean McClain – backing vocals
Lisa Hannigan – vocals (†)
Flesh And Blood, This World And The Next
Solomon Burke’s Funeral, 10/22/10
I got up early this morning, put on a black suit and drove through a pissy rain, past the airport, to Gardena in south Los Angeles for Solomon Burke’s funeral.
It was held at the City of Refuge, a large and predominantly African-American church in a blocky, stucco structure built in the ’80s. I arrived early, and people drifted about, solemnly greeting friends and family while the king of rock and soul’s touring band, Soul’s Alive, murmured quietly over hymns in a contemporary gospel style, as if playing under a sermon already in progress. Blind organist Rudy Copeland, who had been Solomon’s one handpicked member of the “Don’t Give Up On Me” recording band, riffed and bounced, looking so much like a skinny Ray Charles it was impossible not to stare at him. (Note: Rudy had been a close friend to Marvin Gaye, and told me years ago that he’d left Marvin’s house only thirty minutes before Marvin’s father returned, disturbed and armed, on that fateful day in 1984, having left his pal with the warning, “Don’t fuck with the old man, now. He’s in a bad way.”)
I had arrived early and was sitting alone off to the side in meditation, but got up to greet Andy Kaulkin, who’d signed Solomon to Anti- Records and given me the job as Solomon’s producer. As the service was about to begin, we were both ushered to special seats held in front and just to the side of the area reserved for family.
As the front pews got more crowded, I gave up my seat to another employee of Anti- Records and joined Tom Jones and his son/manager Mark, who had arrived late and with whom I’d planned to sit, having spent the evening before in the studio together. We were taken to the front row, and seated just to the left of the rose-covered casket.
The service was 2 and a half hours long, included many eulogies, some spontaneous gospel singing; some shouting, some wailing, a fainting, and a daughter who hopped on the balls of her feet and spoke in tongues as punctuation to her scripted remarks. The highlight for me was Rudy’s bluesy Hammond B-3 instrumental of Thomas Dorsey’s “Precious Lord (Lead Me On).” He played it like Ray would have, kicking it heavy on the bass foot pedals, and shouting his own encouragement: “Tell the story, son!”
The whole service climaxed with a rousing version of “When The Saints Go Marching In,” which included the choir, a 2nd-line-style brass band marching through the isles, and everyone in the pews clapping and singing along. One enthused member of the parish rushed over and plucked Tom Jones from in front of his seat, pulled him near the casket where the family had crowded around, and handed him the wireless mic, commanding him to “take this brother home, Tom!!!” Tom reluctantly but graciously sang a few lines and then handed back the microphone, but remained standing with the family.
Once the singing throng had wheeled the casket out the side door to the waiting hearse, I greeted a few people and worked my way out toward the parking lot, stopping to talk to Tom and Mark (the former giving in to perhaps a dozen requests for cell phone photographs), who also seemed to be trying to slip away.
“You going on to the cemetery?” Mark asked me. I said I wasn’t, and I could tell he was envious. They hadn’t planned to either, I don’t imagine, but too many family members had latched on to Tom and said they were grateful he’d be going the last mile with them.
The precession of cars, limos and the hearse had the whole exit out onto Rosecrans Avenue blocked, but I slipped my car out a back service driveway and bolted. I drove the 2 or 3 miles back to the 110 Freeway and headed north towards downtown.
The rain had stopped, and the sky was a brilliant autumn blue, with thick grey clouds fracturing the golden light; the freeway wide open. I sailed ahead and as I did, I cued up “Don’t Give Up On Me” at the beginning and turned it loud.
Towards the end of song 4, my own “Flesh And Blood,” about twelve miles into my drive home and as Solomon started to twist on the words “more real than this, mo-mo-mo-mo-more reeeeeal that thiiiissss,” I saw from just behind on my left, a dark car –a hearse— surge forward. It passed me, changed lanes and then settled down to the speed limit, just in front of me.
I recognized the driver and the vehicle, as I had just been talking next to it for almost 30 minutes: it was Solomon. But there were no other limos in sight, and no other cars appearing to follow. No headlights or flagged hoods; no cops. Just the big black wagon, with red roses on a massive casket visible through the rear window.
I assume that the distance to a cemetery near Solomon’s home in Westlake Village (if indeed that’s where they were headed) was just too far a distance to drive it in formation; but that still didn’t explain the absence of any other cars, after I had seen so many lining up to roll out.
There was just me and King Solomon, flying along the freeway, while inside my car Solomon himself continued to rant and rave in song: “More real than this!!”
After a few moments the hearse veered off onto the 101 north, and I continued on toward Pasadena. I watched as Solomon merged right, and then doubled back on the ramp stretching west. He arced right over my head and quickly disappeared out towards the far valley.
Photo courtesy of Sergi Fornols
THE DEATH OF WILLIE MITCHELL
These are dark and death filled days we are inhabiting. As optimistic as I feel about the new year ahead—and I do, for reasons I can’t exactly account for, feel an alignment of stars—the past week has rattled anyone with their heart and mind connected each to the other, as words and pictures rise from the shook ruins of Haiti. Many of us are scrambling for ways to offer help (never mind the crazy uncle we had hoped was safely locked in the attic, who speaks of “the devil” like he was an actual man that might be approached…a corrupt quiz show mastermind to Haiti’s desperate, floozy contestant); but more of us sit slack-jawed and dumbstruck in the face of true, televised catastrophe.
Before the earthquake, however, there was another shudder that passed through some of us, and I hope its relevance isn’t forgotten for long—that being the death in Memphis on January 5th of producer/arranger/songwriter/Hi Records founder Willie Mitchell.
If all Mr. Mitchell had contributed to life as we knew it in the 20th century was producing Al Green’s “Love And Happiness,” that alone might have warranted the sitting president to Air-Force-One-it to Memphis and lay a wreath on the steps of Royal Studio, at the corner of S. Lauderdale Street and E. Trigg Ave.
But of course, that wasn’t all that Willie Mitchell contributed. He defined an era by forging a sound that lent groove and grit to smart, introspective songwriting—slyly hinting at the lusty impulse driving so much of that wise reflection. One listen through Ann Peebles’ seminal song cycle “I Can’t Stand The Rain,” for example, is proof enough that comprehensive minds were indeed at work, crafting not just an endlessly seductive batch of recorded song, but a fully-formed belief in The Spiritual and The Sensual as equal partners in a marriage.
When Willie Mitchell passed away last Tuesday, I happened to be working on a film soundtrack in my basement studio, in the company of none other than Solomon Burke whose latest album (yet to be released) was the last full project helmed by Mitchell.
Solomon was visibly rattled at the news of his friend’s passing, if not completely surprised. He shared a few stories with all of us in attendance about how tough a taskmaster Willie Mitchell had recently proved to be, badgering The King of Rock and Soul into dozens of passes at even single lines within a song, ever on the lookout for that perfect landing, that nuanced reading that says something more, with rhythm and inflection, than mere words can articulate; something that illuminates.
“I made Al Green sing that beginning ”I-y’I-y’I-y’I—” for six weeks straight when we were cutting ‘Let’s Stay Together,'” Mitchell scolded Solomon, “and I got a house full of Grammys to back me up!”
Solomon kept singing.
When I last heard from Solomon Burke four days ago, he was in his Lincoln Town Car, en route from Los Angeles to Memphis, Tennessee for Willie Mitchell’s memorial service, held just yesterday. I’m not exactly sure why he chose to drive that punishing distance rather than fly, but if I were Solomon, I might have done the same. Sometimes, even a king wants to feel humble.
January 14, 2010
South Pasadena, CA
Mose Allison, Harry Belafonte, and a poem from France
It would seem that, even here in Southern California, autumn is upon us. It may reach 74 degrees today, but the morning was grey, damp and a mere 56; and it takes little more encouragement for me to disappear wholly into the fall’s implicit mandate.
I have been invited to become more consistently present on this, the airwaves of our time, and I will try my best to do so. What might you want to know? I swear I don’t have any stock tips: all my money is tied up in a dog racing venture in Palm Desert. (They race in the dark and cool of night, chasing only cardboard cutouts. No rabbits or recent reality show runners up are injured in the course of an evening’s festivities.)
Try this: I have just finished producing a record for the great jazz singer and songwriter Mose Allison, and that was one for the books. I spent nearly a year baiting him into the basement of the Garfield House; but once here he, at 82, seemed quite content to abandon his sworn oath never to record another studio album.
Likewise, I started what promises to be a more sprawling, multi-layered venture with Harry Belafonte (you heard me). He is also 82 and could likely kick my ass and your dad’s, even if we weren’t fighting fair. We have thus far recorded only one song together –a collaboration with the great Baaba Maal, of all people- and I would suggest that my association with Harry has already proved life changing.
I expect to be touring in earnest in March of ’10, and am looking forward. In the mean time, there is much to do, and I will do it; but mainly my goal will be to keep the holidays at bay. They slide in so devilishly once a grey afternoon but lets its guard down; but I prefer this strange suspension: when one season is down and still being counted out, while the comer is still anxious and panting in its corner, awaiting the inevitable. That’s when the air really smells like something.
P.S. A drft of a poem to follow
Piaf’s house at
La Frette stands
It is crooked
and looks to be
made of shells.
up to the gate
as if progress
were a tide
might soon pull
out and down
into the muddy
police dog, thin and
gray at the
walks the dirt yard
the wire fence,
and barks at
By Joe Henry © 2009
(La Frette du Seine, France)
Notes on Blood From Stars
Greetings from Bay City, Michigan: The Land That Time Forgot. I spent yesterday, the release day of “Blood From Stars,” in the company of my wife’s 98-year-old grandmother, swatting flies and sipping gin martinis like it was 1967. The air is sweet and breezy, but there is shadow and a fine dust settled over this place that defies even my regular big city reality; though as long as Mrs. Willard A. Fortin and the Tanqueray hold out, I will stop here when I can.
A release day always feels something like a birthday: you walk around, buzzy, imagining that everyone who sees you —even the moody clerk at the post office— recognizes there is something special about you. No matter that it doesn’t last. Nothing does; but new songs in the air liberate one to be awake to the next wave of What Next.
What next? I wouldn’t dare speculate from this sleepy corner of N. Dean Street (beyond tomorrow’s flight on to New York City and a rendezvous with a certain oxtail ragu that —I’ve been assured— has my name upon it). Enough for now to say that “Blood From Stars” still feels very much a living thing to me: like a coffee pot still brewing; a bird lifting; a long line-drive still suspended above the grass —maybe or maybe not within the reach of someone’s outstretched arm; like one of those microbes that mutates because they’re being observed. And I hope it will strike some of you thusly as well.
And like Franklin Roosevelt, voice cracking over the airwaves during perilous times, I’ll tell you straight up and now that I know better times are ahead for all of us. And I am grateful to anyone out there in the dark who might be listening.
19 August, 2009
The Martin Luther King Parade, Los Angeles, 2005
My family and I spent several hours yesterday at the corner of St. Andrews Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard. We went to join our fellow citizens in celebrating the life and legacy of that boulevard’s namesake; to rejoice in the progress that he has inspired, lo these many years since his brutal murder 37 years ago; to engage in some positive action rather than succumb to the passive discouragement I expect to feel from this week’s other national spectacle. And I returned home bitterly disappointed -not in the buoyant display that was presented in that neighborhood, but in how little support the rest of the City of Angels had to offer the participants and the parade’s organizers.
It’s crushing to observe how rich is the interest and sponsorship for events like Hollywood’s annual Christmas parade and Pasadena’s Rose parade. They get network television coverage, bleacher seating and Everybody Loves Raymond cast members. For his troubles, the late Dr. King got a few local merchants and community groups in late-model sedans, several middle school drum lines, and a flatbed truck advertising Smart & Final BBQ accessories. That, and (of course) a fleet of motorcycle cops poised and ready in case the reverie got out of hand. (For it is written: wherever two or more are gathered in His name…there shall be policemen on motorcycles.)
In the midst of a bitterly contested war on par with Viet Nam, and a blood-letting of the funds for many public programs, can we not as a major city rally more notice and enthusiasm in memory of a man who dedicated his life —and insured his demise—on behalf of peace, justice and basic human dignity?
Of course we can’t. And I was fully ashamed long before I heard that the tab for Bush’s upcoming inaugural festivities would top 40 million dollars. As a nation we apparently have no trouble finding that kind of chump-change when what we’re celebrating is an out-dated, “faith-based,” race-specific nationalism inspired by fear, anger and an insatiable lust for building up our empire and Taking It On the Road. We’ve triumphed over due process, don’t forget, with a mandate and political capitol to spend.
As my son and I squeezed along the crowded sidewalks on Monday, a young black man passed me and muttered under his breath, “If you ain’t black, get off the f**king track.” And who could blame him? As far as he’s concerned, I should just stick closer to my own parade route, distinctly north of this one. After all, it’s been made perfectly clear to him —and long before yesterday—what it really takes to get the rest of America cheering and on its feet.
South Pasadena, CA
18 January 2005
GOING DOWN SLOW
A Remembrance of Ray Charles
In 1967 I was six years old and my family moved from Charlotte to Atlanta, leaving behind all kinfolk and everything I knew to be familiar. In our new house I shared a room with my older brother Dave, and we went to sleep every night listening to a white Bakelite Phillips radio. I had never had a radio before, and listening to the disembodied voices issuing from the nightstand was to me like looking at the images of dead World War I soldiers through my grandmother’s stereoscope. (In her collection there were several pictures of decaying foxhole comrades, faces frozen in death grimaces and with their leathery skin and gums receding from their teeth. I don’t know why she had them.) Every singer I heard —Jim Reeves, Ray Price, Dusty Springfield, Jimmy Dean, Henson Cargill, Johnny Cash—sounded to me like people who were already dead and reaching out from beyond the grave. If not the singers themselves, then certainly their messages were from the next world. These were coded messages from God, like the ones delivered by people who went into religious trances and spoke in tongues like some of my aunts did.
I felt vulnerable and up-rooted as I lay in the dark, the room smelling strange and unlived in. A nearby streetlight showed through the tops of the curtains and formed what looked to me like a pair of slanted eyes in an upper corner of the room —a kind of visitation—and my mother had to stuff towels into the gap between the curtain rod and the ceiling.
Memory has compressed time and all of this I remember now as if it had been a single long night: the smell of new paint, the slanted eyes, the late innings of a Braves game interrupted by the news of the death of Judy Garland, her little-lost-girl voice playing softly behind the announcer’s, still wishing upon a rainbow. And then, finally, signing off the evening’s broadcast (there used to be an end to them), there was Ray.
Ray Charles has been from that moment forward an unearthly presence in my life; speaking to me in a stage whisper, from just out of frame, like a long-gone great uncle in a tintype photograph whose old letters you have just discovered. And on this night in 1967, as I lay trembling in the bunk above my brother (who seemingly slept through everything) the song Ray sang was “Yesterday.” Even then, I believe, I knew that what he was getting at was a brutal recognition of mortality —his and mine. It wasn’t just a song about lost love, as it was when a young Paul McCartney sang it, but a grown man’s realization that time has slipped quietly from beneath him and will continue to. Just why, he couldn’t say; but though the singer grappled with his own responsibility in the matter —as if accepting some might allow him a margin of control—it was clear that time would not stop consuming itself, and there were plenty more “yesterdays” on the books than would be “tomorrows.”
“Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be,
There’s a shadow hanging over me…”
I was terrified. Ray wasn’t sugarcoating anything for the sake of an audience hoping to be entertained. He infused the lyric with a funereal finality that I, even at six and a half, couldn’t fail to recognize.
I “got religion,” as they used to say in North Carolina, in a big hurry. And if it was fear and panic that put me on my knees (as it does many) it didn’t defuse the joy of my new-found salvation: I began to listen the way my mother studied the letters of the Apostle Paul, looking for every kernel of understanding that might be a lamp along my own musical journey. Music became my religion and songs my lexicon. Ray Charles was a church elder.
We moved to a suburb north of Detroit just as I was to begin high school, and by then I had immersed myself deeper into Ray’s canon and all of the elements it contained: roadhouse R&B and storefront gospel, Nat Cole, Fats Waller, Blind Lemon and Frank Sinatra. And Bing Crosby and Charlie Parker. And Rosetta Tharpe. And Leadbelly, Perez Prado, Hank Williams and Chet Atkins. It was all in there as surely as Miles Davis encompassed Louis Armstrong and Marlon Brando, and Bob Dylan constructed a persona by fusing Woody Guthrie, Arthur Rimbaud and Cassius Clay. I understood the truth of that alchemy long before I knew it took genius to achieve it.
And that’s an awful word, genius. It sounds vaguely dirty, and it is certainly an anchor around the neck of anyone it tries to describe; for they want to take flight, and we want to trap them in amber, lest they double-back and forsake the investment we’ve made in them -tarnishing the good name of the pageant and embarrassing its sponsors.
As I sit here this morning at my long table, though, the Genius that is Ray Charles has trapped himself in amber by becoming what I first mistook him to be, through his disembodied voice years ago: dead. He has wholly contained his earthly self by allowing the trajectory of his arc to describe all at once a beginning, middle, and an end; by connecting one horizon to the other. And by so doing he has left the rest of us behind to make a narrative out of the non-linear; to form a lasting image of him that will continue to sustain us through our desperation.
And these are truly desperate times. It has been less than 24 hours, as I write this, since Brother Ray has departed, and our nation cannot be roused from her 21-gun rewrite of Ronald Reagan’s own arc into amber just a few days ago. The girl can’t help it. We have become too deeply invested in Reagan’s charade of a benevolent America, and its mask has allowed us to make convenient war upon a sad and brutalized region, killing on behalf of our own adolescent desire for comfort and dominance, sparing only those who would agree to desire as we do. “Believe it because you need to,” seems to be Reagan’s legacy; and it would appear to be enough for many people who find the deaths of young soldiers and even younger civilians to be fair trade for spreading the gospel of western might and consumption. And all forgivable because we’ve had the piss scared out of us.
But we’ve always been afraid. Of darkness and change, of new paint, slanted eyes, Judy Garland, stereoscopes, foxholes, aunts who speak in tongues and, finally, of death.
When I picked up my twelve-year-old son Levon Ray from school on June 10th and told him the news of his namesake’s passing, he said without pause, “Sorry, Dad. I’m sorry your road sign is dead.” He understands that abstraction very well because it barely is one.
Ray Charles has, in fact, been my eternal signpost since long before I knew I would ever be in need of such a thing. Ray couldn’t protect me from rough roads or bad directions, or from the bitter truth of mortality, but what he did do was reaffirm for me that there is beauty in life’s brevity, and a lusty joy to living in spite of it. I mourn him but I can accept his death because he always spoke to me in the only way that the Eternal Servants of God can address the mortal: with the disembodied voice of the long-gone.
South Pasadena, CA
GEEK LOVE: LORNE GREEN
In 1966, as a 5-year-old living in Atlanta, I loved songs without thinking about them as a matter of any choice. I listened to them the way I ate a jelly sandwich: eagerly, and soon ready for the next one. I’m fairly certain that I didn’t think of a song, initially, as something that someone had imagined and then constructed, but rather like a thing that was mined, like salt. And like salt, I didn’t yet feel the need to go actively in search of songs: They were on every table, waiting to be savored.
My dad worked for Chevrolet and drove company-issued cars. Tape players were new to automobiles, and Chevrolet provided-for demonstration purposes-their own tapes consisting of a strange assortment of popular songs, bridged together by promotional voice-overs espousing the virtues of the latest coupes and sedans, Malibus and Biscaynes. This was the only tape we had in the car and it had as its climax a track featuring TV star Lorne Greene, who played Ben Cartwright on Bonanza, a Chevrolet-sponsored Western series. Greene performed a spoken-word song called “Ringo,” which tells the story (in first-person narration, against a big-sky cowboy soundtrack) of an Old West rider who discovers a man that had been shot and left dying in the desert. After nursing the wounded man back to health, the two men go their separate ways, only to come face to face years later when Greene’s narrator has become a sheriff and the recovered man a feared, ruthless outlaw. When the inevitable showdown happens, the gunfighter spares the sheriff’s life in payback of his long-ago kindness, only to be gunned down moments later by the sheriff’s posse. The sheriff, realizing there had existed an undetected spark of good in the hated fugitive, hangs up his star in disillusionment, leaving it literally on the grave of the outlaw.
Greene’s deep baritone seemed ominous in the dark of the backseat as we drove home from a Braves game, or a rare dinner out. It scared me, to tell you the truth, because the song was really about mortality-the character’s and mine. Ringo was a misunderstood renegade-evil in deed, but ultimately moral, just and redeemable. And destined, like all of us, to die anyway. I took it all in because it was there in front of me as insistently as the long drive home.
In our “formative years,” few of us know we are being …formed. And I certainly didn’t know that many TV actors were cranking out cornball fare simply because they could. What I heard and took to my heart was song-as-narrative, singer-as-actor. That’s why, I guess, by the time I was coming of age and the singer/songwriter movement was happening, the song-as-confessional that was the code of the road couldn’t touch me. My heart was already spoken for. I didn’t care about songs being vehicles of autobiographical expression anymore than I cared about being a bubblegum teen angel. I had already learned that songs were short stories-small films and character studies.
When I finally moved on to more artful versions of this discipline than “Ringo,” to songs by Randy Newman, John Prine, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan and even Fats Waller, it was because I’d already been primed. Lorne Greene may have been Sunday night’s prime-time TV attraction, but for me, in 1966, he was God’s messenger. And he seemed to be saying, “Who do you want to be: Bobby Sherman or a gunslinger?”
(Courtesy of: CMJ New Music Monthly Issue 117, October 2003)
Thelonius Monk “Hackensack”
The music of Thelonious Monk is, for me, purely devotional and endlessly life-affirming. And I am devoted to it, as Monk was my doorway into jazz. In fact, I still remember where I was standing, at 15, in a friend’s makeshift photo darkroom when he dropped the needle on “Hackensack”, the first track on Criss Cross (still my all-time favorite). I was electrified by its playful melody, its willful dissonance, and its swinging take on the blues. Not to mention the lightning communication between Monk and his altoist Charlie Rouse: the greatest marriage of sense and sensibility since Duke Ellington found Johnny Hodges. In fact, no one save Ellington composed more melodies than Monk that sound now so utterly inevitable. I am reminded of the quote from Picasso where he said, “When I was 22 I could paint like Rembrandt, but it took my whole life to learn to paint like a child.”
To me, “Hackensack” is the sound of a man completely in control of his powers, but down on his knees like a kid, painting with his fingers.
THE GHOST IN THE SONG
I had a dream. A “vision,” I’m tempted to say. But that would sound too mystical, and make me sound like…I don’t know, like…Sting. Not something I can afford at this particular stage of my life and career. But damn it, I did have one, and it came out of nowhere. And the vision had a voice, and the voice spoke a word: Ornette. It didn’t need to speak the other word, for I knew. And the vision that had unleashed the voice knew I knew. I also knew what this vision was suggesting in regard to That Name That Needs Not Its Brother: I needed Ornette Coleman’s musical voice to complete the song with which I was at that precise moment struggling. Ornette. A towering figure in the history of modern jazz, and one of its chief architects. You can look it up yourself and that’s what it will say. Even he wouldn’t argue that, though he doesn’t volunteer such information himself; because he has always and only operated on a plane that exists far above the conventions of what is call “Jazz.” Jazz pretends, of course, to have no constraints. But in a world that presents itself as an ideal of freedom, Ornette has been too free for the likes of many. And he has paid a price for that, having been as much maligned as exalted.
I almost regretted the truth that I knew lay at the heart of my vision, because it seemed so dauntingly out of my reach. But…we of little faith. The Vision, as it turns out, also paid a visit to Ornette, who must have been, truly, more surprised by its revelation than I was. For even after hearing both of my names back-to-back, I feel certain that he was confused. Maybe he even tried adjusting the rabbit ears on his receptor through which he has, by all evidence, been receiving for years visions of bell-like clarity. Yes, perhaps he was confused. But he is not, by any estimation, a man of little faith. He is faith’s dutiful servant.
And he brought to me, finally, with very few questions asked, the emotional core of my song, and laid it at my feet -which were at that moment hovering inches off the ground. And that song had a voice, and that voice had a name…
Not all truth is funny. But that which is funny is true. I don’t believe you heard me. I said, what is funny is invariably, undeniably and inescapably just that: the truth. And just so, the truthful voice of Richard Pryor has been haunting me; dancing around my face like a bee; has turned my head like a strange smell, and has stopped me as quickly and as effortlessly as a spider’s web that I have just walked through. I recoil, out of balance, stymied by human frailty in the face of that near-invisible strand which is timelessly, triumphantly animal. We fear the animal. Hate its base motivations; hate its mindless destruction and arrogant reproduction. Hate its stench and compassionless, selfish resolve. But listen: The thing that you hate in others is almost always the thing that you really hate about yourself. More truth (I’m not making this up). But somehow Richard Pryor turned that reflection of himself upside-down and backwards, like one seen in a cereal spoon: the things that he loathed about himself he loved others for, recognizing in them a familiar human frailty and a timeless, animal urge to survive. No matter how foolish most people look doing it. Surviving, I mean. And to be sure, we do look ridiculous, even when we are doing it with a straight face and in nice clothes. We are animals, thinly disguised in spats and bowler hats, trying to hang on. Yes, surviving is rarely gracefully done, but it is beautiful to witness. And somehow, against all odds, Richard Pryor himself continues to survive. Not ten miles from where I now sit, collecting my thoughts, Richard is probably watching TV, napping, or cursing those who surround and help him. And they curse him back, I imagine, once they’ve left his room. But they love him, for being a contentious, frail, timeless, ridiculous, hateful and beautiful animal, who has somehow survived under the burden of almost unspeakable truths, giving us back, as clearly as a silver spoon, reflections of ourselves as people we can love and forgive.
The ghost of Richard Pryor (even though he is still in possession of it) has, yes, haunted me of late. I don’t know why, exactly, or why now. But there was no mistaking whose ghost it was when it arrived. Listen: When I began writing songs for my eighth record SCAR, one song presented itself above the others and began to dictate policy. As it started to unfurl, I recognized that the voice of the song, the first-person narrator, if you will, was not mine. I was being used. But then, I don’t as a rule write songs about myself. Not so’s you could tell, anyway, or at least not so as I can tell. I don’t mind it in other people so much (liar), but for me it feels like such a vain pursuit. How arrogant, to assume your ideas and feelings so meaningful to others that they must be expressed. I mean, Who wants to know?!!. So when I felt myself visited upon, occupied by the countenance of another —in this case Richard Pryor— it was natural for me to surrender to it. I was only too happy. Songs can then become rather like your teenage children: you can take credit for them, but they are more or less responsible for themselves and their own ambitions. Who wants to know?!! Perhaps your mother, I would respond. Especially if those feelings about to be expressed carry even a grain of what is supposed to be…The Truth. And songwriters, for some reason (and you know who you are) frequently believe they are trafficking in The Truth. I’m not sure who’s to blame for that. But almost nobody ushering forth any real and significant truth thinks that that’s what they’re doing. Or at least they wouldn’t admit it. Truth of the highest order is to be resisted, dragged from you on the gallows; played as a trump card and only as a last resort; because The Truth is frequently not good news to anybody. It rarely appears heroic at the time, to be the bearer of truth, but more like an affliction. Like having God in your midst: who wants to know!!? Not your friends, I can assure you. Read on.
Most of us think it very noble to search for God. It’s romantic. It’s poetic in a rugged, wind-blown, Sam Shepard-y kind of way. To be a searcher. I’ll start over. To search for God is hip. To find Him is another matter altogether. For finding God makes one responsible for Him. Like finding a stray kitten: once you’ve seen it you become somehow morally obliged to it. And then you’ve become one of them, “a cat person.” And nobody you know wants to see you coming with that Stray Kitten. Because you will try, they fear, to make it their kitten as well. You will try to make them Cat People. Truth is the same way: God help you if you actually see it, know it, because then you’re saddled with it. Better to be vaguely, honorably in search of the truth. In search of God. Richard Pryor saw Truth before me or anybody else had a chance to warn him, poor bastard. He turned a gritty corner one day as a young man in Chicago and The Motherfuckin’ Truth was on him -not like a stray kitten, but like a full-grown alley cat who has just eaten and still isn’t satisfied. He held onto it, this “cat.” Made a coat out of it, and wore it to New York; hid his secret heart beneath it and opened it like a curtain onstage; wore it when he got high with Miles; had it on when he went down on Pam Grier; pretended he’d never seen it before, didn’t know whose coat it was, when he married up with a pipe and became angry and tired and disillusioned and full of self-loathing, and doused himself with brandy and lit the fuse, melting that animal spirit deep into his own. He tried to swear it off, but The Truth was on his skin like a rank smell, and he became responsible for its delivery, even when he couldn’t live up to its message.
And of course, nobody can live up to it. But for those who live up to the attempt at living up to the truth, there is reserved a special place in heaven. And there are no cats there, smelling up the place. But Miles is there. And Malcolm X and Buckminster Fuller and Buster Keaton, Nathanael West, Charlie Parker, Flannery O’Connor, Preston Sturges, and Robert Johnson. (“Where’s Moses?” someone asks. That’s him at the bar with Roberto Clemente.) And some day, hopefully not soon, there will be Ornette Coleman and there will be Richard Pryor. And they will sit over cups of fresh coffee, or so I choose to believe, and say, “Damn. Glad that’s over.”
But as I was saying in the beginning, I found myself in a tussle with this song. It mocked me. It was frank in a way that embarrassed me, and was so without irony or apology. I looked at my hand as it wrote this foolishly pretentious title onto a page: “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation.” I wondered aloud at why the listening nation was tearful, and felt myself ridiculed for my naïvete. Worse still, this song cannibalized every other song in my bag, and spit out seeds that looked themselves defiant and unfamiliar. From then on, every song I wrote was covered in the same pitted skin and had a dusky flavor. The song is in a minor key, played in what Ray Charles used to call “the death tempo.” It purports to be a classic blues, three verses and a bridge that say, in essence, “The thing I most desired was you, and I let you slip away. I was a fool, but you are also to blame. And now I am slipping away too.” Without the well-documented tragic life of Richard Pryor for a reference, the song seems easy enough going by, and fairly one-dimensional. Rosemary Clooney could have sung it nicely. But once my hand reached over in a final flourish and revealed the title, I heard the piece as Richard’s own paradoxical love song to America: hating it but still desiring and needing its acceptance. And then I could hear it no other way. I felt free to admire it if I chose, as if someone else had written it, but just so I wasn’t free to impose any editorial upon it; not to even so much as alter its preposterous name. And whenever I hear the song now, after the fact, it sounds like someone’s footsteps behind me in a fog. It always seems to be gaining on me, and never answers back if I say, “hello?” At some point during the process of writing and recording this song, I stoically surrendered my will, pretending I really had a choice to do otherwise.
When I finally assembled a group of musicians in a Los Angeles studio, I drew heavy guns: young jazz titans Brad Mehldau and Brian Blade; bassist Me’shell Ndegeocello, and guitarist Marc Ribot among them. It was like taking a group of neighborhood bullies with me into the abandoned house at the end of the street: I was spooked and wasn’t going in alone. When the song in question came up in rotation on the second of four recording days, it arose and hovered like it had been summoned at a séance. It hung suspended like a tightrope walker, daring me to meddle further. And its path was (as are all paths) leading straight towards a deathly, inevitable finish. Enter Ornette Coleman. As he stood before me in a Manhattan studio two weeks later to add his part (the culmination of the original Vision), he had a light about him that could not begin to be hidden by the bushel basket to which the Bible refers. He was, to all who bore witness, in obvious cahoots with the ghostly presence of Richard Pryor who had earlier taken over the proceedings. And from this man —small and gentle at seventy years old— there came forth a sound like a wail of mortal panic; wrestling, then giving way to a reluctant understanding. Notes unraveled like the frayed end of a rope, and with a fluttering, dry tone that was like the fading, flashing gills of a small fish left lying on a bank. Picasso said that, “every act of creation is first an act of destruction. The artist’s hand is the hand of a matador.” And just so, Ornette deconstructed my song right in front of me, but he assumed the point of view of the bull, already on his knees.
Only later, near the song’s end, did he rise out of the character of the fallen beast to take up the sword and cape himself and finish what we all knew had been coming. The rest of us in attendance -my co-producer Craig Street, the arranger Steven Barber, and our engineer Husky Hoskulds– could only watch as Ornette rendered from the song what only a man of his experience can fully exact, leaving me the tail and an ear. I won’t say that it was easy for him to get to the root as he did, but it was essential to him, and he would settle for nothing else. He was restlessly unsatisfied after several takes that the rest of us thought brilliant, and said to me, “I know the saxophone so well. And I still hear myself Playing the Saxophone. I need to keep going until I’m not playing sax anymore but just playing music.”
He kept going. Perhaps Ornette Coleman felt as I did, just as resigned to the path laid out before him. We all have brief moments of clarity, where for just an instant we are allowed to see that, regardless of frustration and doubt, we are exactly where we are supposed to be. And we inch ahead, heartened, if somewhat tentative like a tightrope walker at a death tempo. I now see that perhaps Richard Pryor finessed me into the presence of Ornette Coleman for no other reason than so that he, Ornette, could ring my bedside phone on the morning of my fortieth birthday. For when I picked up the receiver and heard Ornette playing “Happy Birthday” over the wire, what it sounded like to me was more truth of which Richard Pryor was somehow the unlikely messenger. I heard: Know it or not, you are exactly where you are supposed to be at this moment in your life. And then I heard this: when you write a song for Richard Pryor, perhaps the fear and longing you think you are expressing as his, is your own.
Los Angeles, 2001
© 2001 Joe Henry, All rights reserved