Joe Henry: ‘Blood From Stars’

I don’t write to music. For me, silence is the mother of sound, as to dancers and actors stillness is the mother of movement (and stillness can bear some fine fruit to the writer as well). But music stirs me in unique ways. And song, with its particular marriage of music & word, has a singular ability to jar us, transport us, and set us down in unexpected territory. So I often turn to music and song for beginnings, or just to be shook from old stale patterns. I wrote here recently about a newly-published story inspired by a Jen Trynin lyric. And one of my favorite stories-in-progress is bookended with lines from a Throwing Muses song (no one need suffer writer’s block with Kristin Hersh around).

Joe Henry is a songwriter’s songwriter–and a writer’s songwriter. You’ve likely heard his lyrics: sister-in-law Madonna re-recorded his song ‘Stop’ as ‘Don’t Tell Me’ (Tell the bed not to lay like the mouth of an open grave/ Not to stare up at me like a calf on its knees.) Outside that he’s little known, if in certain circles widely revered. His new CD Blood From Stars is his best since 2001’s Scar, his other masterpiece. Though one review declares it his most jazz-influenced recording (true, it features jazz luminaries like Marc Ribot and Jason Moran), it is the blues that animates Blood. No major songwriter since Dylan has so relentlessly mined the blues–and its core tension between repetition and variation. (Which listeners of Charles D’Ambrosio’s recent craft lecture at Tin House will recognize as essential to fiction as well.)

The music is amazing, as are the lyrics, some of Henry’s best:

  • Now there’s a cut on my cheek that I can’t leave alone / I reach it to find just how close to the bone / Does my skin and my blood allow me to dare / To live in the word of my every prayer
  • True revelation is a thug and it comes with narrow grey eyes not the rolling of drums / It may take your hand but is seeking your thumbs
  • and from his liner notes, describing an antique marching drum used on the CD: I know that sounds like thunder. Or a great sack of walnuts dropped on the hood of a Crown Victoria. Or like Fats Waller taking a fall down a flight of stairs into a damp alley, bottle caps stuck to his heels…
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Published in: on August 24, 2009 at 3:33 pm  Comments (2)  
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Jen Trynin & ‘Rocks Against My Window’

As a writer I’m hardly alone in sometimes turning to song lyrics for inspiration. In part because the words are married to music and thus able to sneak past the logical mind, a lyric can attach itself like a burr without your realizing it. I’ve launched a number of stories on the energy of a song lyric, and just published one, Rocks Against My Window,’ at the new online zine Metazen.

The story started with a phrase, bouncing around in my head for years, from the song ‘Writing Notes’ by Boston rocker/writer Jen Trynin. In the mid 90’s, Jen’s first CD, Cockamamie, produced a modest indie hit, ‘Better Than Nothing’ (one of the best songs of the 90s), and a good deal of industry buzz. There was a bidding war for rights to her next record, and some insiders declared her The Next Big Thing. It didn’t happen–for a tangle of reasons Jen details in her terrific rock ‘n’ roll memoir, Everything I’m Cracked Up To Be.

It’s not surprising Jen’s a fine lyricist. She studied creative writing at Oberlin, and the Boston Phoenix printed an excerpt from one of her stories. Maybe we’ll all get lucky and she’ll start publishing some. In the meantime, check out her book and CDs at her website.