Monday, October 31, 2005

Joe Henry and the Soundtrack to Addiction

My favorite singer/songwriter these days is a guy with the unassuming name of Joe Henry. He started in the late '80s as an alt-country/rootsy troubadour, and recorded several excellent albums with The Jayhawks as his backing band and with T-Bone Burnett producing. But in the mid-'90s he took a left turn into an atmospheric mix of folk and funk and soul and jazz that defies easy categorization. It's late-night lounge music of a sort, a mix of Sinatra salloon singer and Dylanesque surrealism, but it's way, way off kilter, as if the lounge might exist on one of the outer moons of Saturn. It's eerily beautiful, and always, always, always, just slightly bent. Just when you think he's going to come up with a hummable chorus, he throws in yet another dischordant note. I love his unpredictability.

He's also an amazing lyricist. If Dylan hadn't shown the capacity to occasionally rouse himself and produce great music in his dotage, I'd tell you that he's the logical successor to Dylan. As it is, Joe Henry is brilliant and disturbing, spinning out the stuff of nightmares, but with startling imagery and beautiful insight. Here are the lyrics to two songs about addiction. He doesn't only write about addiction. But if you're going to put together a soundtrack for Addiction: The Movie, I can't think of two better places to start.

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

I look at you as the thing I wanted most
You look at me and it's like you've seen a ghost
I wear the face
Of all this has cost:
Everything you tried to keep away from me,
Everything I took from you and lost

Lights shine above me, they're like your eyes above the street
Lights shine below me, they're like stars beneath my feet
I stood on your shoulders
And I walked on my hands,
You watched me while I tried to fall
You can't bear to watch me land

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
-- Joe Henry, “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation”

You wild beasts and you creeping things
Get down in your place,
Down with all the absolutes
And God's awful grace.
Who wants to see this coming?
Who wants to think you do?
Better to be blind
when I'm
Falling for you

Go and tell old Pharaoh
His time has come about,
His pretty houseboys laugh and sing
As they're filing out.
They set fire behind them
I see it burning into view,
High upon the mountain
where I'm
Falling for you

All manner of abandon
Is just the thing we need,
Get ready for the country, boys,
The town has gone to seed.
The telephone line is sagging
With word coming through:
Put your head between your knees, I'm
Falling for you

I can quit this anytime,
It's just to help me sleep,
It stops the tiny voices
And strange hours that they keep.
Who wants to hear them bleating on,
And have to answer too?
Better to be dumb
when I'm
Falling for you

So you ladies and you gentlemen--
Pull your bloomers on,
Swing up on the highest beam
And let the floods come on.
Who wants to be there wondering,
When the Wonders rage on through?
Better to say never
when I'm
Falling for you
-- Joe Henry, “Tiny Voices (Falling For You)”

Thursday, October 27, 2005

America's Next Top Muppet

Finally, a reality TV show I can get behind:

This opens up many new intriguing entertainment possibilities:
  • Yoda Millionaire -- Everyone's favorite green furball wines and dines 43 gorgeous babes, whittles down his choices to one Jedi-like mate, yes, then marries her he does in a beautiful double-ring, double-sunset ceremony on Tattoine.
  • Survivor: Felt Factory
  • The Real World: Sesame Street -- Seven normal nubile young adults (two gay, one bi-sexual, one former Miss Condom Awareness, two former frat boys, one puppet) move into a 23.5 million dollar home, copulate, drink themselves silly, learn how to count and spell with the help of the puppet, and call it Real.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Music Mix, Family Values Edition

I am not the only person in my family who listens to music, although I probably have the distinction of playing it the longest and loudest. So here’s a sampling of what’s been playing in my house of late, some of my choosing, some not.

Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells, Hergest Ridge – It’s not Mike Oldfield’s fault that his music will forever be associated with the movie The Exorcist and Linda Blair’s spinning head and projectile vomit. Tubular Bells, the 1973 soundtrack to the movie, has held up remarkably well over the years, and stands on its own as perhaps the first New Age album ever released. But unlike the soporific qualities that the New Age label often suggests, Tubular Bells is consistently complex, involving, and evolving, an exceptional extended composition that mixes elements of folk, rock, and classical minimalism. The tubular bells of the title still ring eerily and majestically. Hergest Ridge, from a year later, is more of the same, slightly more pastoral and contemplative, but no less of an accomplishment for that. Oldfield moved into much more mainstream pop territory in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but these two albums will forever stand as his masterpieces. They remain supernaturally evocative and strangely beautiful.

Julie Miller – Blue Pony, Broken Things – Kate loves these albums, and pulls them out to listen to them fairly regularly. Fortunately, I love them too. There is something oddly endearing about Julie’s little-girl breathiness and her worldly wise, grace-filled lyrics, as if Flannery O’Connor had been squeezed into Shirley Temple’s prepubescent body. On these albums Julie sings about brokenness and sorrow and mental illness, orphans and misfits and children of God. She consistently finds the right balance between sentiment and schmaltz, deep truths and cliché, and she never crosses the line. The heartland rootsiness of husband Buddy’s backing guitar work and superb harmonies are an added bonus. These songs sound real, raw, and poetically beautiful. “Orphan Train,” in particular, still moves me after six years and hundreds of hearings. Put your ear to the track and you can hear your name.

Steeleye Span – Live at Last – When everybody else in my high school was listening to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, I was listening to Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, fostering my love of traditional English ballads, and dreaming of rescuing damsels in distress. Groovy hippie damsels, but still. Steeleye Span were the foremost proponents of English ballad boogie, singing centuries-old folk songs about fairies and elves and obscure monarchs and tarting them up with electric guitars and a backbeat. If the marriage of AC/DC and Tolkien sounds contrived, just listen to their extensive catalogue from the ‘70s. It still sounds wondrous, at least if you used to play Dungeons and Dragons.

Live at Last, recorded in 1978 and long out of print, just happened to be the hole in my Steeleye Span collection. And a beat-up, used vinyl copy just happened to be at Lost Weekend Records a few days back. In truth, it’s only fair, and the band had seen better days and recorded better songs. But Maddy Prior, the raven-haired hippie chick who sang most of the songs, still sounds sweet and worth rescuing from any castle turret, and the band still boogies along in its Foghat-meets-Frodo way. Where’s my cape?

Johnny Mathis – The Christmas Music of Johnny Mathis – A few years ago the Whitman family staged the Great Christmas Music Rebellion. “Listen to Bruce Cockburn do this Huron Indian Christmas song from the 17th century,” I’d tell my family as we decorated the tree. I’d wax rhapsodic about Beausoleil putting a Cajun spin on “Christmas on the Bayou” or Elvis Presley’s lascivious sneer on “Santa Claus is Back in Town,” a sexually charged anthem to stuffing stockings and other things. Finally they had had enough. “We need some decent Christmas music,” they told me, “or you’re on your own when it comes to decorating the tree. We need something we can all relate to.” Okay. So, much to my chagrin, I went out and picked up Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole. Conform to the masses, and all that.

Everybody’s heard Johnny Mathis Christmas music. It blares from department store speakers starting about Halloween and doesn’t let up until after the New Year. This album collects all the department store favorites. It’s light on the traditional carols and heavy on the consumer schmaltz, featuring “Winter Wonderland,” “A Marshmallow World in December,” “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” and Johnny’s signature Christmas tune, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” I loathe the marshmallow tune, but some of these songs are comforting in the same way that meatloaf is comforting. I tolerate it, even when my daughter Rachel plays it at decidedly non-Christmas times of the year, such as mid-October. But there are compensations. Come December I’ll get to sleep in the same bed with my wife, who will have no occasion to mock “Iesus Ahatonnia,” that wondrous Huron carol.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Miracle Cars and Miracle Cures

He is a friend, a hero, a husband and father, a musician with roots in the American Deep South who is never home. Ten years ago his songs were all over the radio, and his band played in front of thousands. Tonight he is playing alone in front of forty or fifty people in a busy coffeehouse in Columbus, Ohio. Some of the people are here for the music. Many are here for the coffee and conversation. He is a fifty-year-old rock ‘n roller on the road, and it is all he knows. There never was a tour bus. There used to be a van. Now there is a 1986 Honda, a miracle car he calls it.

“A friend sold it to me for one dollar,” he tells the audience. “It has 160,000 miles on it, and it still gets 34 miles to the gallon. So far I’ve driven it 20,000 miles from town to town, night after night, and I haven’t had any major repairs.”

He plays mostly new songs, tales written from the road over the past year or two. But the biggest crowd response still comes from the old songs, the band songs, the Greatest Hits that never were, but which still resonate deeply. And even on the new songs, the post –9/11, post-band, post-record-deal songs, he still exudes a weary hope:

flowers growing out of the desert
flowers out of parched ground
flowers coming right up through the cracks
of the pavement in your old town
flowering's not a science
it's more like a fine art
flowers coming right up through the cracks
of our broke up little hearts

we all need new beginnings

the first steps make you better
maybe you're just a prayer away
from getting your shit together

You never know. That half century of muddled relationships and indifferent success might suddenly change for the better. America might one day wake up from its Britney/Madonna stupor and figure out that it should pay attention to people who actually have something to say. Maybe. It’s worth another tour, another two months away from home. It’s worth another trip in the beat-up Honda. The miracles might extend beyond the car.

He used to cushion the private references in flowery metaphors. Now he doesn’t even try to hide the autobiographical details.

“This is a new song about my son,” he says. “He’s eighteen years old, and he’s in a rehab facility because he’s addicted to cocaine. He’s been in there about six months. We’re hoping he can come home soon.” He strums his guitar, waits in vain for the conversations to die down, finally launches in to Tasteful Background Music for Coffee Drinkers:

from a simple plant that was long growing there
from the king of the world to your worst nightmare
got you an old recipe and some chemicals to stir
it might have felt just like God once but now it's Lucifer

oh to be clean

and you know the thing is sleeping, a scratch below your skin
and God knows if you wake it up you gotta calm it down again
and I wonder what it felt like when the waters flooded in
and it got too hard to swim

it feels just like a hunger but you cannot feed the thing

it always wants a new song that you can't really sing
it never shows you the whole truth till the poison's leaking through
and what you thought you were doing, well now it's doing you

and it could take a few years to dig out of this mine

what with a shaft so deep and dark it might take a lifetime
the choices they're like diamonds you found down there one night
you gotta grab the one that's your true self and bring it to the light

oh to be clean

and you know the thing is sleeping, a scratch below your skin
and God knows if you wake it up you gotta calm it down again
and I wonder what it felt like when the waters flooded in
and it got too hard to swim

Like most of his best songs, this one is a wondrous, terrible thing, a great howling mess of brokenness and sorrow and bone-marrow truth. He is a thousand miles from home on a lonely Saturday night, and the espresso machines are whirring in the background as he sings his voice raw, and the regular customers are wondering who the hell this morose folksinger is if they think about him at all, and he gamely plugs away at the tiny, insignificant task of unveiling his heart for public display.

Afterwards, he sits at a back table, sells a few CDs, chats with anyone who wants to talk. He looks like he hasn’t slept in days, but there is also a weariness in his eyes that sleep won’t take away. I watch the young women come up to him, tell him how much they love his music, pass along their cell phone numbers. I want to kick him in the balls, hard. I want to shake him. I want to hug him.

“You don’t have to do this, you know,” I want to tell him. “You can go home, be with your family. You can lay down the guitar, forget the suffering artist persona, and deal with the real suffering you’re facing. There’s real pain there. You need to do more than write a song about it.” But I don’t say anything.

Outside in the parking lot we engage in the kind of careful small talk that is designed to guard our hearts. I tell him that it was a great show, because it was. He tells me that it’s always great to see me. We hug. We tell each other to stay in touch. He gets in the ’86 Honda and drives away, off to find another miracle.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Sweat and Dust

“To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not each of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return." – Genesis 3:17-19

This Hunter-Gatherer, a descendent of Adam, has turned into a madman with a keyboard. It’s how I earn my living, if not by the sweat of my brow, then at least by the sweat of my brain. From 8:00 a.m. until the early evening I sit in the midst of very smart, very technical people and try to translate their technobabble into something resembling the English language. “There are four main tables in the database schema and about 50 utilities,” one of them says, “and we need ERDs for each of them by the end of the month.” I nod my head sagely, acting for all the world like I both know what he is talking about and care about his intent.

But I don’t. Or, more correctly, I don’t, but I need to know what he is talking about, and very quickly, and I need to care, because my paycheck is dependent on my ability to absorb highly technical information and turn it into understandable prose. Note to self: look up ERD.

In many ways I’ve spent the last 23 years of my life enacting an elaborate charade. I am not a TechnoGeek. Far from it, in fact. I’m an English major. I have a degree in Creative Writing. I keep trying to deny it, keep going back to school and tacking on more degrees – in Education, in Theology, an MBA, for God’s sake. And the bottom line (ooh, a nice business reference there) is that I want to write poetry. I sit in endlessly droning technical meetings and listen to talk about Nodes and all too quickly tune out and start composing Ode to a Node in my head.

I’ve learned to fake it pretty well, and they pay me a great salary to figure out what ERDs are and somehow “do” (whatever do means in this context) fifty or more of them by the end of the month. I’ll do it. I always do it. But at the end of the day I go home and wonder why I’ve just spent ten or eleven hours of my time simultaneously bored out of my skull and frantically scrambling to get more work done than I can realistically accomplish. It’s a tug of war in which my soul is caught in the middle.

I just turned 50, which qualifies me for reduced fares on city buses I never ride and a discounted membership to AARP, which I don’t want to join because it makes me feel old. I have friends and cohorts who are seriously talking about retirement. I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up, still trying to make the transition from my interests and passions to a viable career. I don’t think I want to be an ERD Specialist when I grow up, whatever that might entail, but I think I might just become one anyway out of necessity. I look on the pragmatic side, which is tougher than you might think for a hopelessly romantic idealist who writes Odes to Nodes. There’s something to be said for regular paychecks, especially on cold winter nights. I am living the American Dream[TM], which affords me a nice 4-bedroom, 2.5 bath suburban house with screened-in porch and finished basement and plot of land, two cars, all the trimmings, two daughters who will soon be college educated, and exotic toys like leaf mulchers and snowblowers, which clutter the two-car garage. I love my wife, I love my kids, I love my friends, I love my church. I get to engage the Creative Writer side by writing for a couple magazines and seeing my words in print. Life is good. I am blessed. So why do I feel that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I get in the car to drive to work? And the theology major in me wonders if this is what God intended.

I also wonder how much of this is simple whining, the product of Baby Boomer navel gazing and an insistence on My Happiness. I wonder what the feudal barons in 13th century France would have said when the serfs in the fields complained about a lack of self-actualization and the angst and malaise that accompanies being stuck far down the rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Would they have sent them to therapy? Or would they have called them scurvy knaves and smote them on the backsides with their swords? I think I know the answer. Those feudal lords hated Maslow.

I wish I knew the answers. In the meantime, I have to work on ERDs for the next few hours and then mow the lawn when I get home. In nice, neat diagonal suburban swaths, of course.