Thursday, August 31, 2006

Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation

The second best songwriter in the world, right behind an old curmudgeon from Hibbing, Minnesota, is a guy named Joe Henry. He's married to Madonna's sister, but I won't hold that against him. He needs a less nondescript name, because his songs are anything but nondescript. He's been making albums for twenty years now, and almost nobody buys them. If you like Tom Waits, you might like him. His songs are jazz and folk and blues, all rolled into one, and given an off-kilter spin to make you think that maybe he's the piano player for the house band at some roadside dive on Pluto. Jazzbos like Ornette Coleman and Brad Mehldau and Don Byron like to record with him. So do alt-country bands like The Jayhawks. So does guitarist Marc Ribot, but he plays with everybody. So does Victoria Williams, whose vocals are even stranger than Joe's. He has an opera singer on his song "Flower Girl." Good luck trying to find a label for that kind of music. I'm content to just call it great. His lyrics are also jaw-droppingly wonderful, and work more often as standalone poetry than The Poet of a Generation's do.

At any rate, I'm writing an article about him for Paste Magazine, and I'm marveling at his music all over again.

Here is his song about Richard Pryor, which manages in four short verses to perfectly encapsulate the man, and make me really, really sad, and still marvel at the beauty of the language. Ornette Coleman plays some wild blues on his saxophone on this song, and it's one of the strangest, most harrowing things you'll ever hear:

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 Address a Tearful Nation" (from Scar, 2000)


Anonymous said...


You're absolutely right about Joe Henry.

Fuse, Scar, and Tiny Voices, are a recording trifecta the likes of which I don't believe we've seen from anyone else.

I have to admit I'm partial to "Fuse"'s probably my favorite album of the 1990s with "The Criminal Under My Own Hat" as the only album that could displace it.

Back in 1999 I spoke with T Bone Burnett about "Fuse" and he surprised me by saying that Joe's 4-track demos were the best record he'd ever heard.

Joe Henry is a damn fine essayist, too, as evinced by the pieces featured on his website.

Speaking of his website, it appears to be down for maintenance. Does your upcoming article mean a new recording is being released?

Keep up the great work, Andy. You're still the only reason I subscribe to Paste.

Andrew Newby

Andy Whitman said...

Andrew, I'm not aware of a new Joe Henry album in the works. I'd love to see it, but it seems that Joe is fairly preoccupied with producing other albums these days.

I'm writing the article because I can. :-) Paste gives me free reign to write about whatever I want to write about in my back-page column called Listening to My Life. I have upcoming articles about Talk Talk and Gram Parsons. Then Joe Henry. I'm thankful that I have a forum to ramble about my favorite music.

Anonymous said...


I'm a huge fan of Tom Waits. Waits hits everything for me: The percussion (especially the percussion), the lyrics (with me a person will blow it with crappy lyrics and Waits has great lyrics), the layering, everything. So I am going to go track down some Joe Henry. I'll start with the music mentioned here.

Andy Whitman said...

Hi, Louise. I'm quite fond of Tom Waits' music as well.

Joe Henry is more of a "crooner" than Waits (almost anybody is more of a crooner than Waits :-)), but there are a lot of similarities in terms of the music. Percussion plays a prominent role, and the songs are very textured/layered.

The song I quoted is from an album called "Scar." Joe's latest album is called "Tiny Voices," and it's very, very Waits-like.

His lyrics are always remarkable. He's a great songwriter.

Here's a link to Paste Magazine's summary of "Tiny Voices":

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine once complained that for every perfect lyric he had, Joe Henry had already written a better one. One of my favorites:

One day when the weather is warm
I will wake up on a hill
And hold the morning like it was a plow
And I'll cut myself a row and follow it until
I know better, by God, than I know now

Anonymous said...

Hey Andy,

Just catching up since I relocated from Nashville to San Diego.

I love Joe Henry and if you are reccomending any of his albums let "Short Man's Room" be one of them. I think it is oop but there is not a bad song in the bunch. Though the record is more alt-country than experimental it just plays and when it finishes you find yourself starting it all over again.

Look forward to reading your take on this very overlooked artist.


Andy Whitman said...

Gar, I've already written the piece and sent it off to Paste, and I recommended "Tiny Voices" and "Kindness of the World" as the places to start. But I agree, "Short Man's Room" is a remarkable album. As are all his albums, except for maybe "Murder of Crows," but that one was so long ago that it hardly counts.

I hope you're enjoying your new life in San Diego.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm a big fan of Joe Henry, I can't find the chords of Richard Prayor Adresses a Tearful Nation and there's some subtilities I can't understand just by listening. If one of you know were i can download it, I would be very grateful... Luc

Anonymous said...

hey luc, I looked everywhere too without results... So if someone knows something, we would both be gratefull :D :D. Ronnie