Former President James Garfield’s impressive home (called Lawnfield, as opposed to my own home, called TractHome) is about a mile down the street from my sister-in-law’s place in Mentor, Ohio. Because there isn’t a lot to do in Mentor, Ohio, particularly when it’s raining or snowing, as it often is, Lawnfield is a favorite destination during our visits. As befitting an ex-president, it’s a showy, ostentatious Victorian castle with some friendly midwest trimmings, including a wide front verandah that stretches the length of the very long house. The ol’ homestead fell into disrepair for a few years, but since then it’s been lovingly restored to its former glory, fitted out with period furniture and Victorian frills and patriotic bunting. Now packs of blue-haired women roam the grounds, admiring the gardens, the carriage house, and the servant’s quarters.
Twenty-five hundred miles away, right where the canyons of L.A. give way to the start of the San Gabriel valley, the singer/songwriter and musical archaeologist Joe Henry lives in the home built for James Garfield’s widow Lucretia. Joe claims that he can hear Lucretia’s ghost wandering around at night, and that she seems to be soothed by anyone playing the piano. Who am I to doubt him? Joe’s been exhuming old skeletons (both in and out of the closet) and mysterious scraps of poetry and long-suppressed nightmares for about twenty years now, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he’s turned up a ghost or two along the way. I just think it’s fairly amazing that one of them lived at Lawnfield.
Joe Henry has a new album called Civilians coming out in a few weeks. It’s another in an ongoing series of poetric dreamscapes from the coolest lounge in the universe, the one where the piano player reads Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Chandler, where the patrons all drink their bourbon neat and play Tom Waits on the jukebox in between sets. It’s lounge noir, and it’s desperate, and desperately tender, tinged with an aching sadness and the flicker of hope, with the increasing awareness that the tiny dramas enacted here are not tiny at all, and that they echo in eternity.
Here’s the way Joe expresses it in the liner notes:
I have noticed with surprise - and only in retrospect - how often God is mentioned throughout this 12-song cycle, and He must be surprised as well. I recognize in His many appearances, though, not the god of my Methodist raising, who sat judging tennis balls “in” or “out” from high on a perch, but one among us, who stretches like the net itself, wholly visible and there but to frame the attempt. (To me, this is the God of Shakespeare, Wilde, Moliere, and Buster Keaton, and could easily be played by Gene Hackman, if he wasn’t otherwise so occupied.)
It probably won’t win any points for theological precision, but it does just fine in the human interest department, the one that matters when you’re writing songs about conflicted human beings instead of hymns and praise choruses. And nobody writes songs about conflicted human beings better than Joe Henry. A few albums back he wrote one about Richard Pryor that pretty much set the standard for how to portray sinners and saints who inhabit the same body, and he does it all over again here with a song about Charlie Parker, surely nobody’s idea of a saint, but a marvellously gifted musician who was touched by the divine.
This is the state of the union as delivered by a 46-year-old man, subject to the ravages of time, trying and failing at times to be a good husband and a good father, increasingly aware of his shortcomings and the hope that lies outside of those shortcomings:
We’re taught to love the worst of us
And mercy more than life, but trust
That mercy’s just a warning shot across the bow
I live for yours and you can’t fail me now
I live for your mercy
You can’t fail me now
It’s a proclamation and a prayer, a statement of fact and a fervent plea. It’s also a damn good love song, the kind between a man and a woman, and not between a man and his maker. Joe Henry does that kind of thing pretty well, too.
But sure enough, there are metaphyscial and biblical echoes throughout these songs, including one that employs Passover imagery to allay the ravages of time and death:
If you fear the angels above while you sleep
Then I’ll be the blood you paint on your door
Your dream is a worry that nothing will keep
But time is a story and there will be more
These are sad songs, even desperate songs. But always there is a glimmer of hope, of something like the belief that love might actually make a difference, and that there is still time to make a new start. And they were recorded in that house haunted by ghosts.
James Garfield never really got started. He was felled by an assassin’s bullet a mere seven months after he took office. Unlike the mythologized Lincolns and Kennedys, he stuck around for a while, and all the melodrama of martrydom melted away in the tedium of a long recovery that never quite happened. He lingered in a coma for a few weeks, then seemed to make a miraculous comeback. He regained consciousness, then lucidity, and was bundled up and shipped to the New Jersey seashore in the hope that the invigorating ocean air would speed the healing process. The bullet didn’t kill him, at least not directly. An infection did, ten weeks after the murderous fact. He died of sepsis, the old wound festering and leaking poison throughout his body.
Joe Henry sings on his new album:
We build this up and we knock this down
We call our little mob a town
We nail a sign above the door
God bless our little civil war
He could be singing about The Shiites and the Sunnis, or the internecine warfare between husband and wife. But I like to think that he’s singing about James and Lucretia and, by extension, all of us who are caught between the safe, neatly manicured world we think we can control and the shock of sudden tragedy, walking around with the shrapnel of an ancient wound lodged in our souls. Say hello to Lucretia for me, Joe, and play her a sweet and sorrowful tune on the piano.