Music postsTuesday February 18, 2014
Song of the Day: 'Plain Speak' by Joe Henry
A blind man looks out from your eyes ...
New album is out in spring.
Joe Henry at the Triple Door
I’ve been on iTunes for about 10 years now, and if you sort by number of plays, Joe Henry’s “Ohio Air Show Plane Crash,” from his album “Trampoline,” ranks fifth with 198.
These are the other top Joe Henry songs on my iTunes hit parade:
- Ohio Air Show Plane Crash, Trampoline, 198
- Our Song, Civilians, 147,
- You Can’t Fail Me Now, Civilians, 100
- Dirty Magazine, Tiny Voices, 88
- Fat, Fuse, 72
It skews recent, of course. I began listening to him about 10 years before iTunes, in 1992, when “Short Man’s Room” was released and he went on tour with the Jayhawks, whose tour manager was my good friend Dave Paulson. Joe gave Dave a book, “Willie’s Time,” by Charles Einstein, about Willie Mays and the 1950s, and Dave gave it to me, and I almost completed the circle at the Tractor Tavern in ’93 when Joe opened for Jimmie Dale Gilmore. I had the book in my backpack, and Joe was sitting by himself in the corner, but I didn’t work up the courage to go over. Bad form. If you’re there for the opening act, let the opening act know.
I think I’ve seen Joe five to 10 times since then—at the Showbox, at the Pier, at Bumpershoot one year—and last night Patricia and I caught him at the Triple Door in downtown Seattle. A far cry from the Tractor for both of us. Before he came on, I talked up a few of his songs to poor Patricia, stuck there with me, this Joe Henry bore. We both love “Our Song.” I mentioned the great lines from “You Can’t Fail Me Now” that I wrote about last year:
We're taught to love the worst in us
And mercy more than life, but trust me:
Mercy's just a warning shot across the bow
I talked up the epigrams of “Fat”:
If this is our finish let’s begin
Gambled I would lose, guess I .... win
For some reason I quietly sang the opening lines to the title song from Joe’s 1995 album, “Kindness of the World,” which I’d always loved:
I’d like to see your badge
Who are you to be so brave
With one arm free to catch yourself
And you’re using it to wave
Recently, in some online forum, someone had stated the obvious and I replied with these lines from Joe’s song “Dirty Magazine,” which I (missing the irony) also repeated to Patricia:
Just tell me everything I’ve heard before
Like it was news
Like it was news
So of course Joe opened with “Dirty Magazine,” played both “You Can’t Fail Me Now” and “Our Song,” and closed with “Kindness of the World.”
“That just doesn’t happen,” Patricia said afterwards.
“He missed ‘Fat,’” I said.
It was a quick tour, just four acoustic shows in northern towns (Minneapolis, Chicago, Ann Arbor, Seattle) during the first week of December. When the weather gets warm he heads south, to Durham, N.C., to record a new album. He played about five of those songs last night. His voice sounded stronger than ever. The stories accompanying the songs, including playing ”Kindness of the World“ in Hiroshima, Japan, were better than ever.
I kept flashing back on semi-forgotten things. He played ”Short Man's Room“ from 1992 and I remembered a poster from that album (”You're only as good as your knees“) hanging in my room for who knows how many years. I listened to ”Our Song“ while cleaning the kitchen in the new place Patricia and I bought in the fall of 2007, the exact wrong time to buy a new place. I also flashed on that first show at the Tractor in Ballard in 1993. I biked there from Green Lake on a drizzly evening with ”Willie's Time“ in my backpack. I carried both the book (because of lack of courage) and my slicks (because the weather had cleared) on the ride home, and both helped cushion whatever was thrown at me from a car of teenage boys out looking for mischief at 1 a.m. They peeled out and I circled back and found an egg, cracked, in the middle of the street. They'd hit their target but missed. I was unsplattered. There was just this sad egg in the middle of the street.
That was a long time ago. Last night I drove to the Triple Door, had to wave off valet parking, bought a bottle of red wine before the show. It was freezing outside but warm inside. The place was packed. All the men there looked like variations of me.
Here's ”Fat," the song he missed.
Happy Armistice Day, When the Songs That We Sing Will Be Sad
Our holidays morph, don't they? FOX-News is right about that but it's not a war and it's not specific to Christmas. It's just change, which FOX-News, absolutists all, can't comprehend. Washington's Birthday becomes Presidents Day (here's to Warren Harding! Herbert Hoover! George W. Bush!), while today, the day Word War I ended, Armistice Day, becomes, in the states anyway, Veterans Day. It's not much of a holiday in that most of us still go to work. If it were a true holiday, if it made sense as a holiday, then veterans would get it off. Why not? Why should I get a holiday for their service? And why shouldn't they for theirs?
According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, Nov. 11 became a legal holiday, Armistice Day, in 1938, three years before Paul Simon was born, and in 1954, when Simon was 13, it became Veterans Day, a day to honor the veterans of all of our many wars. So Simon certainly remembers when it was Armistice Day. That phrase may even be tinged with nostalgia for him. It may be why he wrote the song “Armistice Day” in 1968:
On Armistice Day
The Philharmonic will play
But the songs that we sing
Will be sad
There's also these words that never go out of style:
Oh, I’m weary from waiting
In Washington, D.C.
I’m coming to see my congressman
But he’s avoiding me
Weary from waiting down in Washington, D.C.
Anyway, here's to the war to end all wars.
Happy Birthday, John Lennon
John Lennon would've turned 73 earlier this week. I thought of that sad fact while reading a great piece by the New Yorker's John Seabrook on the latest hitmaker in what's left of our hit parade: Lukasz Gottwald, aka Dr. Luke, who, with Max Martin, a Swede, has written top-10 hits for, among others, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Kesha. The money graph:
In writing lyrics, McKee [one of Gottwald's protegees] adheres to the Swedish school of pop songwriting championed by Max Martin. Words are chiefly there to serve the melody. “It's very mathematical,” McKee explained. “A line has to have a certain number of syllables, and the next line has to be its mirror image.” I asked for an example, and she sang, “California girls, we're unforgettable, Daisy Dukes, bikinis on top,” then said, “If you add one syllable, or take it away, it's a completely different melody to Max. I can write something I think is so clever, but if it doesn't hit the ear right then Max doesn't like it.” Don't these strictures make the songs formulaic? McKee doesn't think so. “People like hearing songs that sound like something they've heard before, that's reminiscent of their childhood ... people still just want to hear about love and partying.”
The talent in the room: Britney, Katy, Kesha, Miley
Empty Chairs at Empty Tables
Last “Les Miserables” post of the day.
I first saw the cinematic “Les Miserables” before I was familiar with the music, and the music I became familiar with after seeing the movie was the original Broadway cast album, which has great singing performances from, among others, Robert Billig and Michael Maguire.
The movie has great performances, too, but the voices don't soar quite so much. Director Tom Hooper went for verisimilitude. He had his performers singing live, rather than to a studio-recorded playback. I still like that choice, that chance. This is what I wrote last December:
There’s power in these songs, and from these actors, that you don’t normally get from lip-synching to playback. You definitely feel it in Hathaway’s signature song. You feel it in Hugh Jackman’s early numbers, too, with his red eyes burning into you (“What Have I Done?), and in Redmayne’s great song of survivor’s guilt, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” which is my second-favorite number in the movie.
This week I saw the movie again on HBO, and the standout this time was Eddie Redmayne as Marius. Particularly “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”:
Apparently “Les Miserables,” as a musical, began as a concept album in the 1970s, then became a French musical in 1980 that closed after three months. It was revived in its English-language form in London in 1985, where it became a hit, and then on Broadway in 1987.
So it was written long before the AIDS crisis. Even so, I can't hear this song without thinking of AIDS and the havoc it wreaked:
Oh my friends, my friends, forgive me
That I live and you are gone
There's a grief that can't be spoken
There's a pain goes on and on
Watching this video several times today, I also thought of the Onion Cellar from Gunter Grass' “The Tin Drum”: that place where stoic people go to cut open onions and cry and feel. That's movies, too. The better ones?
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard