Tearing Down the Walls: In Praise of Joe Henry

In the past decade, nearly every pillar institution in American society -- whether it's General Motors, Congress, Wall Street, Major League Baseball, the Catholic Church or the mainstream media -- has revealed itself to be corrupt, incompetent or both. And at the root of these failures are the people who run these institutions, the bright and industrious minds who occupy the commanding heights of our meritocratic order. In exchange for their power, status and remuneration, they are supposed to make sure everything operates smoothly. But after a cascade of scandals and catastrophes, that implicit social contract lies in ruins, replaced by mass skepticism, contempt and disillusionment.
- Christopher Hayes, Time Magazine, 3/11/10

This is an age of idiocy. IQ's have not precipitously dropped; we needn't seek a culprit in the water. It's just that our technological crutches make our idiocy more enveloping and omnipresent. These crutches not only propel us forward, they communicate foolishness like antennae. 24/7 we're treated to our own venality, the corruption of our elites, the gullibility of the masses and the lizard-brained inability to think and reason combined with the higher brain's ability to insist that it has mastered both -- the duality that will doom us in the end.

Human mortality, and thus our humanity, rests in the metaphorical feet. Our technological crutches keep the pressure off, distracting us with bright and shiny things, and with dull and dingy ones waved all the more frantically. We obsess over an iPad that allows us to read, listen to music and write email simultaneously -- most of them activities that, to be done well, should be done singly. Pointless noise and ceaseless haste to mask a shocking soullessness, a deeply saddening inability to accept the bookends of our mortality and live appropriately within them. We participate in rating mediocre vocalists instead of participating in our lives. We communicate with strangers via machine and call it "community" and then we marvel at the sense of fear and frustration spotting the air like relentless mist. Millionaire celebrity soul-keepers tells us how to "make a better you," helping us ignore the fact that most of us are as good as we are ever going to get. We mistake schmaltz for profundity in a vain attempt to separate beauty from its essential foundation in pain because we just can't face the latter anymore.

We've lost something. We've burrowed down into minutiae: politics, fashion, reality shows, talk shows, pundits, gossip -- all delivered passively via teat-like media. At least we used to read dreck at a word count higher than 200, as opposed to mainlining it through our more immediate senses.

Light no lamp when the sun comes down--
The dark will speak, has things to say.
Something lost and never found
Hides from the cold, watchful eyes of day

Close no door against he cold--
The angry storm is alive in you;
Is like a story never told,
And it tears at walls that it can't pass through
- Joe Henry, "Light No Lamp When the Sun Comes Down"

So this is my vain attempt at an antidote, to rip down the "walls that it can't pass through" -- a wan, scratchy whisper in a windstorm about beautiful things. These are the ones that will not stand as background music, the ones that take you down the darker tunnel where all our fears lay waiting, that do not verify our comforting preconceptions but shatter them, the ones that remind us that we live within those ever-narrowing bookends, and that it hurts to be all squeezed up here between them:

I want to talk about Joe Henry. For those unfamiliar, he's a singer/songwriter who's been around a long time. He's also brilliant and in a just and verdant world would be as famous and influential as the blonde chick in the silly outfits with a bit of a voice.

With the release of his album Scar in 2001, Joe Henry began an extraordinary run. That album's opener, "Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation," blows the walls away and shamelessly looks at a life (lives) shaking uncontrollably while we look on, often at ourselves, helpless.

Sometimes I think
I almost fooled myself...
Spreading out my wings
Above us like a tree
Laughing now, out loud
Almost like I was free

A blue dirge accompanies, junkie slow, and Henry's voice exhausts with its weariness and reminiscence. Low strings moan, and then the great Ornette Coleman's plastic saxophone shows up to remind us what genius is -- to dance its strange, spasmodic dance: ungainly, absurdly beautiful and unapologetically unique.

I wear the face
Of all this has cost
Everything you tried to keep away from me
Everything I took from you and lost

This is music for the fully human. It's good enough to hurt.

Take me away
carry me like a dove.
Take me away
carry me like a dove.
Love me like you're lying
Let me feel you near
Remember me for trying
And excuse me while I disappear

The rest of Scar is marvelous, but doesn't prepare you for his extraordinary follow-up, Tiny Voices. The cover bears a sepia-toned photo of proud, tawdry circus clowns and the songs present a catalog of first person narratives evoking a world full of them -- us. The music turns toward the jazzy. The mix suggests semi-omniscient instruments bubbling up from the underworld like a ghostly Greek chorus. Henry is a spectacular melodist. His song-craft skills are unsurpassed and he can cement melody to lyrics for songs strong enough to hit you like bricks. It is beauty and loneliness, love and want to the point where you're begging, just like one of his characters, "please don't speak another truth out loud, Whatever else you do."

The album Civilians follows in the same vein, but with less emphasis on character. The jazzy, bluesy feel remains with a lessening of musical atmospherics, but no loss of breadth. And there is a song here that is simply magisterial. Called "Our Song," it's the story of a man who believes he sees Willie Mays in Home Depot, and if we were a thinking people, it would become our national anthem.

I saw Willie Mays
At a Scottsdale Home Depot,
Looking at garage door springs
At the far end of the 14th row.
His wife stood there beside him
She was quiet and they both were proud,
I gave them room but was close enough
That I heard him when he said out loud:

This was my country,
This was my song,
Somewhere in the middle there
Though it started badly and it's ending wrong.
This was my country,
This frightful and this angry land,
But it's my right if the worst of it might
Still somehow make me a better man.

The melody is like a lullaby, a few simple, descending chords accompanying a tale of heroes and the rest of us plain men who thought, vainly, that one day we might be too.

The sun is unforgiving
And there's nobody would choose this town,
But we've squandered so much of our good will
That there's nowhere else will have us now.
We push in line at the picture show
For cool air and the chance to see
A vision of ourselves portrayed
As younger and braver and humble and free

This one will bring you to tears.

I've started something I can't finish
And I barely leave the house, it's true,
I keep a wrap on my sores and joints
But yes, I've had my blessings too:
I've got my mother's pretty feet,
And a factory keeps my house in shade,
My children, they've both been paroled
And we get by on the peace we've made.
I feel safe, so far from heaven
From towers and their ocean views,
From here I see the future coming
Across what soon will be beaches too ...

Critics find things to bitch about in Henry's music. But most of the time, I think they're simply afraid to let the music take them where it must. We're too cool to feel these days. We tend to resent artists who demand that we do. "How dare he?" we seem to ask. "Who the hell does he think he is?" Today, the artist's role is to titillate, not to reveal. The veil must not be broken. Oh, the havoc that would cause within ourselves ...

If you don't know him, check out Joe Henry. He is a shockingly talented man making music that can make you giddy. He is a shockingly talented man who can break your heart.