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Sing me a story

June 08, 2008|Joe Henry | Joe Henry is a singer, songwriter, recording artist and Grammy-winning producer. His most recent CD, "Civilians," was released last September.

During the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, singer-songwriter Joe Henry participated in a panel on the connection between music and the written word. For our summer reading issue, we asked Henry to elaborate on this question and to write about how literature has helped shape his songs.


I WAS taken with music at a very young age. Not like a prodigy picking out Debussy at the piano, but dumbstruck, at age 7, by the power of disembodied voices fighting static over the radio. Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Louis Armstrong and Dusty Springfield were actors all, and I heard every song as a movie. By the time I was 13, I was completely obsessed with songs, and heavily invested in Bob Dylan's constructed mythology. He'd been posing from the beginning, of course, and while I was never seduced into hearing his Rimbaud-meets-Cassius-Clay narration as personal biography, I somehow understood that it not only suited his songs but seemed to propel them.

Around this time, my older brother Dave slipped me a copy of Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five." And when he did, the electrical circuit was finally closed. The light came on.

I had always been word-obsessed as a listener, but before Vonnegut, I'd never read any prose I could connect to the music I heard, that played on both words and form with such deliberate and irreverent purpose. Yet right there in the first chapter, Vonnegut reveals the beginning and end of his tale and gives nothing away. He places the past, present and future all in the same room and defeats time as a reliable voice of reason and judgment. He identifies himself, The Writer, as a marginal character in the story, thereby removing himself from it completely. He is the singer, not the song, and the tune is singing him. He is free.

And somehow I was liberated as well. Vonnegut allowed me to see consciously what the songs had been saying to me obliquely: that I could say "I" and mean another; that I was free to adopt another's point of view; that I could construct a narrative without occupying the center of it. I needn't worry about blurring the distinction between the real and imagined since no song is ever made more meaningful simply by virtue of being true. Emotional resonance gives a song its "truth," and it has nothing to do with literal honesty, since all art is at its core an articulation of a single impulse: to affirm life's timeless and fractured beauty in the face of mortality.

I dug in. The first things I wrote of my own were fragments. I called them poems because they occupied so little of the page when I typed them up, and I spaced them in imitation of William Carlos Williams, but I always believed that what I was doing was courting songs. If these images weren't yet musical in tone, the impetus behind them certainly was. I wasn't looking to impose a sonic form onto these early sketches as much as I was waiting for one of my characters to one day just . . . sing. Fellini had said, "I create a character and then find out what he has to tell me," and that seemed a religious idea to me, one that acknowledged something inherently mysterious at the heart of the process.

Songs began to appear, I noticed, when I resisted the vanity (I am speaking only for myself) of personal revelation as a starting point. Writing for me has little to do with self-expression and everything to do with discovery: I write to find out what I'm writing about. (Or, better: "How do I know what I think till I see what I say?" -- E.M. Forster).

I've learned that if I place a hat on a character, he will eventually take it off, work his hands nervously over the brim and then . . . confess everything. I don't have a clue what, when I begin, and don't care. I once wrote a song about a hitchhiking serial killer, though I didn't start out to do so: I merely placed a man at the side of a road, thumb out, and he took heinous advantage of the opportunity. I was delighted.

When I was first starting out, it was almost a mark against you to claim literature as an influence on your songwriting, as if an intellectual awareness of what you were doing was antithetical to its authenticity. The rock era fostered the notion that the innovators, the true greats, were innocent savants (truck drivers just dropping in to record a little something for their mothers); and many of the songwriters I most admired in my formative years, though brilliant, had themselves been working as primitives. Woody Guthrie seemed to run on pure instinct as a writer, and his expressive prose work never offered much insight into his songwriting process. That "process," it seems, involved putting himself atop the rumbling freight train of humanity and sucking down the thick, oily smoke that trailed behind. He would have had you believe that his iconic songs were just the inevitable cough that followed.

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