Willie Mays and the Decline of the American Civilization

I first met Joe Henry through Willie Mays. Not literally. My friend Dave was the tour manager for the Jayhawks, who backed Joe on a tour in 1992, and Joe gave Dave a book about Willie Mays, Willie's Time, by Charles Einstein, and Dave gave it to me, a fellow baseball fan. I read it and liked it. The next year Joe came through Seattle as the opening act for Jimmie Dale Gilmore and I figured the show would be the perfect time to complete the circle. Sure enough, after his set he sat to the right of the stage, just 30 feet from me, drinking a beer and watching and listening. All I had to do was walk over and hand him the book. I couldn't. Too young and nervous, I guess. In a way Joe's music meant too much to me for me to meet him. What if he turned out to be a jerk? The man who had articulated my feelings about lost love in "The Diving Bell" from Short Man's Room (1992)?

I guess I thought that nothing ought to move beneath my feet

I guess I thought that all I gave to you was somehow mine to keep

What if he didn't like me? The man who had articulated some form of my own idiocy in "Some Champions" from Kindness of the World (1993)?

He'll cry through the best of times

Then he'll ask you where do all the good times go?

So I sat there, debating with myself, not moving. Joe did, eventually, and as he and his fellow band members filed past to leave, I stuck out a hand. Joe took it and leaned forward. "Great," I said. "Just great." "Why, thank you," he responded. Considering all I'd wanted to say, it was a total disaster. I kicked myself about it for weeks.

A lot's changed since then, but in whatever musical direction Joe's gone I've followed. He's a dispassionate truth-teller in the Leonard Cohen tradition. Sometimes it comes in the form of a epigram, as in "Fat," from Fuse (1999):

If this is our finish let's begin

Gambled I would lose, guess I...win

He intimates slyly at our own mortality, as in "Loves You Madly" from Tiny Voices (2003):

The ground wants you bad

The ground wants you badly

The ground wants you still

Like some lover so madly

It pulls at your feet

Gets into your nose

Under your bed

And under your clothes

I've seen him in concert a few times since then, too, usually as the opening act, usually playing to a sparse crowd while sporting a crisp suit and that odd pompadour he has. You get the feeling Joe will be one of those "after the fact" guys. Decades later: "Oh, he was good." Acknowledgement. Covers. Tribute albums.

These days he's more producer than singer-songwriter. But on Sept. 11 he put out a new album, Civilians, and I was listening to it while cleaning the kitchen in my new apartment when I thought I heard him say something about Willie Mays. The song was a dirge, pretty and sad, and I listened to it again, then again. Then I wrote down the lyrics to see what was being sung.

It's called "Our Song," and it begins with an evocation of ballplayer-as-symbol-of-lost-America that recalls Joe DiMaggio's place in "Mrs. Robinson." Except Paul Simon never knew what happened to Joe D. He had simply gone away (hey hey hey). "Our Song" imagines a little more specificity:

I saw Willie Mays

At a Scottsdale Home Depot

Looking at garage door springs

At the far end of the 14th row

Paul Simon's Joe D., placed against the backdrop of The Graduate, represents a kind of lost innocence, while Joe Henry's Willie Mays, placed against the backdrop of our recent national idiocies, represents a kind of lost maturity. That Sept. 11th release date, as he told Jim Walsh in Reveille magazine, was no accident. Here's the chorus:

This was our country

This was our song

Somewhere in the middle there

Though it started badly and it's ending wrong

This was our 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

In the final stanzas, after visiting with the narrator, we return to Willie Mays, "stooped by the burden of endless dreams: his and yours and mine," and testing those garage door springs. The act is so ordinary, and described with such detail, that it seems to retreat from metaphor. It's as if Joe doesn't want Willie Mays to be just a symbol. In the concreteness of the scene, he's allowed to be an ordinary man again. The symbol becomes the thing in his hands:

He's just like us, I want to tell him

And our needs are small enough

Something to slow a heavy door

Something to help us raise one up

I recently moved and in all the unboxed boxes I can't find that dog-eared copy of Willie's Time. Did I give it back to Dave? Did I pass it on to another baseball fan? I think I'll have to buy another one. I feel like reading it again.