A Mark So Fine: Joe Henry and You


On Music

Photograph by Michael Wilson.

In November of 2001, I picked up Joe Henry’s album Scar and was stunned by the opening track, a slow blues number called “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation.” Henry, a white man, sang from the point of view of the black icon, expressing the comedian’s love-hate relationship with himself and his audience. Henry had the audacity and sensitivity to pull it off, with help from a spiraling, dipping, dripping saxophone solo by Ornette Coleman.

Scar was released in May of that year. Henry couldn’t have known how tearful the nation would be that fall. He closed the album with these lines from the title track, sung in a careful, mournful tempo:

The blade of our outrageous fortune,
Like a parade, it cuts a path.
Light shows on our foolish way
And darkness on
Our aftermath.

If I love you, to save myself
And you love me because we are
So fool to think that our parade
Could leave a path
And not a scar.
And I love you with all I am
And you love me with what you are,
As pretty as a twisting vine
A mark so fine
But still a scar.

The album resonated with me throughout that first post–September 11 holiday season, more than Dylan’s “Love and Theft”, which was released on that particular Tuesday, a coincidence that generated new claims of clairvoyance from Dylanologists. Henry’s album cuts deeper. The “I” and “you” of his songs are more enigmatic than those of any songwriter working today. They have, by turns, represented two lovers, God, an anonymous carnie, a whole nation or civilization, centerfielder Willie Mays, saxophonist Charlie Parker, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, and sometimes several different people in one song.

The song seems also to borrow from Robert Browning’s “By the Fire-Side”: “If two lives join, there is oft a scar, / They are one and one, with a shadowy third; / One near one is too far.” Along with his literary operation, Henry employs a remarkable band: pianist Brad Mehldau, drummer Brian Blade, bassist Me’shell Ndegéocello, guitarist Marc Ribot, saxophonist Coleman, and eight members of the New York Philharmonic. The final track ends and a minute of silence follows, the album apparently finished. But just when you are about to hit Eject, it reawakens with eight untracked minutes of Coleman noodling on saxophone, alone in an eerie, airy soundscape, with the faint wailing of electronics and distant machines that could be from an apocalyptic sci-fi movie or a coal mine.

Over the past decade I’ve learned that my immediate transfixion with the Richard Pryor tune was an unusual entry to Henry’s work. His music requires patience; it rewards repeated attention, like writing by Sebald or Anne Carson. There are few hummable hooks or refrains; the seductions must be earned. His lyrics are compassionate, sad, and sometimes devastating, but never confessional; the blows are complex, more ambiguous, easy to feel and hard to see. His lyrics reference epic topics—love, war, and other inexorable plights and disasters—but his subject is the human response to those forces, not the forces themselves.

Joe Henry's studio in Pasadena, California. Photograph by Michael Wilson.

* * *

In late winter, I drove three and a half hours from Chapel Hill to visit Joe Henry’s parents in their home outside Shelby, a town of twenty thousand people in the foothills between Charlotte and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Jerry and Mary Henry, both originally from Charlotte, moved often with their four kids before Jerry’s advancement with Chevrolet landed them in Rochester, Michigan. After Jerry retired in 1992, they moved back to their home state. They live on eighteen acres in a farmhouse built in 1945. A self-taught blacksmith, Jerry’s shop is in a barn out back, and his work is in evidence throughout the house: door handles, light switches and socket covers, cabinet knobs, curtain rods. There is even a five-hundred-pound chopping block in the center of the kitchen.

Mary made all the rugs, quilts, seat covers, and anything else in the house requiring fabric. When Joe married Melanie Ciccone, a childhood friend from Michigan, Mary made her wedding dress and the bridesmaids’ dresses. For thirty years, Mary made Jerry’s suits for work, two each year.

Melanie, whose sister is Madonna, told me, “I grew up within the practices of Catholicism in an incredibly dramatic family. Mary and Jerry were modest Christians, without pretense. I’ve learned so much from them. They are the least judgmental, least assuming, most accepting, most forgiving people I’ve ever met. They practice their religion in a rare, pure sense. It flows through everything they do.”

Joe Henry has said many times that what the Bible means to his parents the American songbook means to him. Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Dylan, numerous blues artists—they taught him how to understand and live life. As a young boy he would sit in front of a record player for hours, singing along without his conversational stutter. At age fourteen, his parents recall, his first gig was in the school cafeteria, standing alone in front of a microphone with a guitar. It’s a different impulse from wanting to be in a rock band, and a surprising one for a stutterer.

* * *

At City Winery last February, Henry and his rhythm section played his latest album, Reverie, in sequence. The audience was filled with fans, among them Gloria Steinem, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, and Jolie Holland. David Byrne attended one of the sets, after which he told me that he “was deeply moved.” “It was good for me to see him and hear him,” he added. “It raises the bar as far as my own songwriting goes. There’s a very personal and emotional storytelling going on, with a little bit of Faulknerian or McCarthyesque wordplay that is maybe a curse for some, but I really enjoy it.”

When Reverie was released, I put it aside after several listens, couldn’t find a foothold in it. Six months later, when I began listening to it again, preparing for the City Winery shows, I came to understand it as his mid-career masterpiece. If it were a Cormac McCarthy novel it would be Suttree, the language and rhythms coming together like an ancient swamp and new fog. McCarthy was forty-six when that novel was published, and his popularity would come only later, with more mainstream books. Henry was fifty when Reverie was released, and there are no signs of compromise.

Joe Henry at City Winery. Photograph by Kate Joyce.

“Joe’s poetry is fueled by the deepest humanity,” Roseanne Cash told me by e-mail, “and that’s what moves me so much. But he makes you come to him, which I really respect. He creates cinematic scenes, and within them are these gems of poetry. I let lines of his wrench me open. He has an ability to jar me out of my smallness. I went to see him at Lincoln Center a few months after I had brain surgery in 2007. I was so miserable. I was so uninterested in writing or performing, but he sang ‘Our Song’ from Civilians, and I was moved to tears. I wanted music again.”

“Our Song” opens with an improbable encounter: “I saw Willie Mays / In a Scottsdale Home Depot / Looking at garage door springs / At the far end of the fourteenth row.” (The musician Peter Mulvey told me there are twelve thousand songs lyrics in his digital library; he can search for many of the proper nouns in Henry’s work, and the only results are Henry’s songs.)

Then Henry sings overheard lines from Mays to his wife:

This was my country
This was my song
Somewhere in the middle there
It started badly and it’s ending wrong

This was my country
This frightful and this angry land
But it’s my right if the worst of it
Might somehow make me a better man.

But as the song continues, the narrator casts doubt on himself.

That was him,
I’m almost sure,
The greatest centerfielder
Of all time.

He’s just like us,
I want to tell him,
Stooped by the burden of endless dreams,
His, and yours, and mine.

This is vintage Joe Henry: He offers the image of Willie Mays, he sings in the voice of Mays, and then he unravels the image with the possibility it wasn’t really him. Then he offers a third perspective—the listener, you.

Henry once wrote Allan Gurganus a fan letter and asked him to sign his copy of the writer’s classic story collection, White People. Gurganus became a fan. “Sympathy,” Gurganus told me, “means being available to others’ experience. Empathy—a rarer gift—means literally becoming them. Joe does not just sing about others, he sings as them. His various voices, his inward kinds of knowing, place him in company with our finest fiction writers.”

Sam Stephenson is at work on a biography of the photographer W. Eugene Smith.