Illustration by CHARLES BURNS via THE BELIEVER
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following appreciation was written by the author in response to the sad news that acclaimed singer/songwriter and three-time Grammy-winning producer Joe Henry is battling Stage 4 prostate cancer.
BY JON HOULON Got word yesterday that Joe Henry has begun a different sort of journey. So I wanted to send a love letter, get well card, fan’s note, or whatever you want to call it as a form of support.
As bad as the 80s were, they still gave us Nebraska, Sign of the Times, Infidels, Let It Be, King of America, Sandinista and a few other records that somehow counter-balanced U2, REM, Spandau Ballet, Flock of Seagulls and a whole lot of dreck in general.
The ’90s seemed an end to me: Seattle? Please, no! I couldn’t see a light at the end of the grunge tunnel. And then around ’93 or so I picked up a cut-out cassette of Shuffletown by Joe Henry at Amoeba Records in LA. At the time, it seemed like a way forward and Joe, who I have followed very closely over years, became a continual source of inspiration.
Sometimes his accomplishments as a producer (Solomon Burke, Elvis Costello, and Allen Toussaint among others of equally profound stature) overshadow his recorded work. But make no mistake: Joe Henry is an incredible songwriter, musician, and singer with a body of work that I would compare to that of anyone who emerged in the 90s (or really to any one at all). There are few artists who have their own jurisdiction in terms of sound and vision – Joe Henry is one of ‘em.
I drove up to Maxwell’s in Hoboken once to see Joe. I found him standing at the jukebox and went up beside him. “Have you heard of this guy Joe Henry?” I asked. He looked at me like I was crazy (I was and am), chuckled, and said, “No, is he any good?” “I like his old stuff better than his new stuff,” I replied. He offered to buy me a drink and tolerated my fanboy nonsense for a little while.
So, Joe, I’m sending 10 prayers your way. After all the prayers you’ve sent me and many others over the years in the form of your incredible catalogue, it’s the least I can do – send ‘em, back. I’ll start with two songs each from the first five records (Talk of Heaven and Murders of Crow don’t count, right?) and, if there is any demand, maybe I’ll write up ten from the next five.
1.”Spent it All” (audio n/a) Shuffletown sounds, to these ears, like a shadow version of Astral Weeks. It’s got the same light touch but deep deep waters at its core. I picked it up because I saw that T-Bone Burnett produced it. Turns out that Joe was his intern in the ’80s. Running errands. Learning. “I’d rather be done than to have to be stronger.” I doubt it! I once called out for this song at the World Café Live. Joe said he loved this song but would have to practice it in order to play it and would get to it next time. I’m holdin’ you to that, maestro!
2. “Ben Turpin in the Army” (audio n/a) Like most of Joe’s songs, I have no idea what this one is about. Or I know exactly what it is about. They have an emotional center if not a logical one. Joe is a very nimble guitar player and his finger picking here anchors the song. “You fooled me but I swear I don’t know how.” You did. And I don’t. Thank you.
3. “Good Fortune” How do you follow up a masterpiece? Uh … with another one. This is the lead-off track to Short Man’s Room which was recorded live to 8-track in an office building with the Jayhawks backing Joe up. There is a rollicking sound to this record especially on this one, the lead-off track. What better way to begin: “I will come back for my things.” Joe has way of drawing you in with a phrase like that … What things? Why is he coming back? The listener completes the picture long after the last note resounds. Real artistry at work.
4. “Short Man’s Room” I’ve got a thing for Joe’s waltzes. The title track here, featuring some lovely fiddle work by Mike Russell, has one of my very favorite lines: “I’m a volunteer fireman at Christmas ‘cause there’s brandy wherever you go.” Funny. I hear a faint echo of Richard Pryor about whom Joe and his brother David wrote a wonderful cultural history/biography. (Thanks, L.B., for the signed copy from Book Soup!)
5.”One Day When the Weather is Warm” I don’t know if Joe grew up in the church but many of his songs – especially the piano based ones — have a gospel feel. If he wasn’t, even greater kudos for tapping into the tradition. This is the lead-off track from Shortman’s followup, Kindness in the World, which also featured the Jayhawks but rocked a little harder. You will “wake up on a hill,” Joe.
6.”This Close to You” My band, The Donuts, covered this one. I also carved one of its lyrics – “if love was the habit of some borrowed room” – into a mahogany desk at Latham & Watkins when I interned there. I mean, what if it was???
7.”Trampoline” Like any true artist, Joe Henry regularly sheds his skin. I saw him at the Sellersville Theater last year and he presented an almost entirely new repertoire. On Trampoline, at the height of the alt-country scare in the ’90s, Joe traded in the fiddles and mandolins for a drum machine and Sly Stone cover. The music adopted the tone-poem form his lyrics had already achieved. I pretty much ripped off the title track of this release for the first cut (“You and Yours”) of my other band John Train’s debut LP.
8.”Bob and Ray” Lead-off cut from Trampoline. If you can’t track down these records, go see the film Long Day’s Journey into Night by Bi Gan (in theaters now!). Another tone-poem but Joe pulls you in with the tactile: “There’s something caught in my teeth and a cricket that won’t let me sleep.”
9. “Like She Was a Hammer” Continuing where Trampoline left off, this Fuse track contains the phrase “like she was Roosevelt’s funeral in the street.” At first glance, Joe doesn’t come across as a political songwriter. But it’s there: a politics of the heart.
10.”Fuse” The title track. “She’s hauling cane like it was gold.” It’s all in the phrasing here. The way Joe holds that last word … like it was gold, indeed.
Hey, Joe! You can leave your hat on. Thoughts and prayers, Jon