Joe Henry's Next Second Chance
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For the first 57 years of his life, Joe Henry rarely worried about his health. As an early teen, he'd suffered the fatigue of mononucleosis and once been in a car crash. A decade or so later, after he hoisted a heavy amplifier the wrong way, he'd required surgery to patch a hernia. Otherwise, for Henry, even common colds tended to be uncommonly brief.
That vigor allowed Henry to focus on the obsession he innately understood would become his profession, even as a small child listening to his older brother Dave's Bakelite radio in their shared Atlanta bedroom — music. When he heard Ray Charles sing "Yesterday" inside that tinny speaker, he was terrified, electrified, hooked and thrilled. "I accepted music in my atmosphere the way I accepted salt on the table," Henry remembers. "I didn't know where it came from, but I used it liberally." He mowed the large suburban lawns of his neighborhood to buy records. He devoured Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy. He listened to Motown and tried to pick out the chords from Woody Guthrie's Library of Congress Recordings and The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.
Henry was right about his future, too: For the last four decades, what he didn't give to his growing family he gave to music. In the mid-'80s in New York, he emerged as a budding singer-songwriter, working odd jobs to survive as he pressed the fingertips of jazz against elliptical acoustic songs. Somewhere between Tom Waits and John Hiatt (and, somehow, entirely apart from them, too), he has pursued that Platonic ideal through twists and turns for more than 30 years of recordings, making a series of wondrously idiosyncratic albums that hovered at the periphery of the turn-of-the-millennium mainstream. In the '90s, he began working as a record producer, too, a side-hustle of financial exigency that steadily put him in the company of his heroes — Allen Toussaint, Joan Baez, and Mavis Staples, just to sample — and earned him three Grammys. He remains dumbstruck by experiences that he says must involve at least a little luck.
"There is part of every single session where I'd take myself out of the room, go into the bathroom, look myself in the mirror, and muse very consciously about how I got there," he says. "I mean, how did this happen?"
But then, last November, it all stopped. For decades, he'd battled waves of back pain, stemming largely from being battered in that teenage car crash. Suddenly, they were worse. He wasn't too worried, since he'd spent long spans of the previous two years touring with Billy Bragg, playing songs from a record they made while traveling the United States by rail. He'd managed to produce a half-dozen records in that span, too, including Rhiannon Giddens' recent There Is No Other, an intense collision of transcontinental folk forms. Henry was in his late 50s and as busy as he'd ever been — of course he was sore and tired.
But he decided to have the cresting pain checked out, anyway, as his father had survived prostate cancer. For the better part of a year, a California oncologist assured him it was only prostatitis, a common if painful inflammation that can be managed medicinally. Never too concerned with his health, Henry accepted the diagnosis as gospel and moved along.
Last fall, though, the pain became crippling. During a writer's residency at the regal Burren College of Art along Ireland's verdant western shore, Henry would often stop writing to lie down, a new indulgence. Getting up got harder; some days, he could barely walk at all, though he'd rally in time for his weekend concerts. His wife, Melanie Ciccone, has known Henry since they were Michigan teenagers, but she'd never seen him suffer like this. His doctor sent him to an Irish urgent care, where another prostatitis diagnosis simply meant more pills. But the rebounds became harder, and his body thinner.
Back home near Pasadena, Henry went into a rapid 10-day decline, so saddled by pain he mostly stayed in bed. Ciccone had seen enough: She demanded that he go to their family doctor and not return without an order for an MRI. The doctor tried to talk Henry out of what seemed like an unnecessary test, but he knew he'd pressed his luck at home.
That night, Henry had the scan, and an MRI technician immediately recognized what his doctors had never seen. He just didn't have prostate cancer — he had stage 4 prostate cancer, and it had already spread to his spine. The next day, in the office of the first oncologist he could find, he received a grim prognosis: A few weeks shy of his 58th birthday, Henry had three months to live, up to seven if he was lucky.
"It's like someone opening up a door to a cyclone, and you and your family climb inside it," he remembers. "I did not even know what the word metastatic meant."
Once again, though, the doctors were wrong. A week later, the day before Thanksgiving, Henry and his family met with a star oncologist at UCLA. Given Henry's overall health, he was told there was a strong chance he would respond well to treatment — "a heavy pharmaceutical cocktail" meant to suppress the androgens, including testosterone, in his body. This was a chronic condition to monitor, not a death sentence to mourn. By the start of the New Year, blood tests showed that the cancer had receded. Henry is now in remission.
This week, almost a year to the day since that initial diagnosis, Henry released his 15th album, The Gospel According to Water. Written in the throes of sickness but recorded as it became clear he would survive, The Gospel is a poignant reflection on the sins and shames we ferry toward the grave and the opportunities we have to redeem one another. It is as emotionally nuanced — and, somehow, as sanguine — as anything Henry has ever made.
Joe Henry has lived a lifetime of second chances, or at least of opportunities for renewal he never dared to imagine. Reminiscing about the time he convinced free jazz hero Ornette Coleman to play on a song about Richard Pryor by writing a letter, he says with relish, "I have been met by the universe with wild serendipity." It seems to be the unintentional mantra of his entire existence.
In high school in Rochester, Mich., Henry, a woefully shy child, began to crawl from his shell when he found a clutch of close friends that introduced him to new records, books, and ideas by the dozen. That cadre included Madonna and Paula Ciccone, two of six siblings from a nearby Catholic family. Madonna intimidated him ("I had never been around a woman that was so self-possessed"), but Paula's derring-do impressed him.
The summer before his senior year, he loaned Paula a few books, mostly Kurt Vonnegut and J.D. Salinger. When she went to college, she entrusted the titles to her youngest sister, Melanie, for return. On Labor Day, while watching hot air balloons race through town, he met Melanie through a chain-link fence. She brought the books to school the next day, and Henry was permanently smitten.
"Somewhere within a few weeks, I imagined that I was going to spend my life with her. I met Melanie, and there was this bolt of lightning. It was like seeing Johnny Cash on TV, and saying, 'That's my tribe,'" remembers Henry, a native North Carolinian who delights in the South's hyperlinked conversational tangents. "I had no way of justifying that, but I knew I needed to stand close to her somehow."
But Ciccone soon headed to Brazil as an exchange student, falling in love there for the first time. Back in Michigan, the notion tortured Henry, who nursed heartsickness with a steady diet of poets Richard Brautigan and James Wright, novelists Eudora Welty and Gabriel García Márquez, and pianists Thelonious Monk and Randy Newman. He was looking for solace, but he also found the heroes who would shape how he still thinks about art at large — a boundless series of possibilities, where lines between prose and poetry, folk and jazz needn't exist. In search of angst, he stumbled upon a direction.
While Henry studied at the University of Michigan, Ciccone eventually returned, met someone new, and got engaged. Before they could wed, her fiancée — "a beautiful young man," Henry says quietly — died suddenly. Two months later, Henry's best friend, Greg, who had driven him into Detroit to play his first concert years earlier and introduced him to so much life-changing culture, also died. In an instance of wild, tragic serendipity, they comforted one another with mutual grief, and fell in love. They have been together ever since.
The young couple soon moved to New York, Ciccone working for an international nonprofit and largely footing the bills while Henry, an upstart solo artist in a city that had become "a band's world," tried to find his footing. Their time there was hardscrabble, spent on the razor's edge of poverty in Brooklyn.
Finally, people started to listen. After recording his first album, Henry signed a deal with a small subsidiary of A&M, the legendary home of Janet Jackson and The Police, The Carpenters and Suzanne Vega, based in Los Angeles. Henry felt that being closer to A&M might be good for his career — surely they'd want their new young artist nearby. Maybe they'd even invite him over for company picnics and Christmas parties, he quips. He and Ciccone headed to Los Angeles.
Mere months after their arrival, A&M dropped Henry the day they released his third album, Shuffletown. His record deal and publishing contract vanished in an instant. He collapsed into depression, despondent not only about his flatlining career but also his inability to help support his family, especially while expecting their first child. Ciccone had taken a job co-managing Brian Eno's Opal label in California; not long after Henry lost his deal, Eno shut the label down. "That became," Ciccone says, pausing to collect herself, "a challenging moment."
On a Saturday afternoon in 1990, four days after he'd received the news from A&M, Henry told Ciccone he'd leave the apartment on Monday and not return until he had some kind of job, be it flipping burgers or parking cars. On Sunday morning, T Bone Burnett called.
Burnett was not yet the legendary producer behind O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Cold Mountain or the dozens of other albums and soundtracks that have framed him as a beneficent sort of Pan-American folk Svengali, but by 1990 his star was rising. In the '70s, he'd toured as Bob Dylan's guitarist, and in the '80s, he'd made major records with Elvis Costello and Los Lobos. While producing Shuffletown, Henry's ill-fated A&M farewell, he'd recognized a welcome spark.
"Joe is an intellectual artist, and he always has been," Burnett says 30 years later, navigating Nashville traffic. "He had really provocative ideas, like bringing the great jazz trumpeter Don Cherry into the studio. They weren't unfamiliar to me. He had an overview, an aesthetic vision."
So that Sunday, Henry — despondent over his blown opportunity — sulked on the grass while Burnett thwacked golf balls into the distance. He told Henry why he'd called: He needed a production assistant for an upcoming session with Canadian artist Bruce Cockburn. Could Henry handle it? In the span of a weekend, and without flipping so much as a single burger, Henry had fallen out of one job and been lifted directly into another. He could still call himself a musician, too, a point of immense pride.
In retrospect, Burnett gave him two second chances in one. Over the next decade, Henry's increasing production duties gave him a chance to be in a studio on a weekly basis, not just the three or four days per year he'd book to make his own record. Watching Burnett, he came to understand how to interact with the musicians he'd hired, not by telling them what to play but by inspiring them to play it. These were some of the best instrumentalists in the business, too — ace session drummer Jim Keltner, for instance, and boundless organist Booker T. Jones. He learned to look for the most powerful takes, not the most pristine.
"I was seeing musicians of unbelievable facility completely disappearing into a song. I found myself at school," Henry remembers. "They weren't looking to make a mark — they were looking to be of service to the song."
Burnett's lessons propelled Henry into a new phase of his own recording career, epitomized by four astounding albums released between 1996 and 2003. He abandoned the heartland essence of his early '90s work — competent, often clever, but tired even then, he admits — for a faintly radical approach. After he made 1996's Trampoline with a beat machine in his home studio, he asked Dr. Dre to produce 1999's Fuse. This time, he got no response to his letter — but the record he made established a template for music that asked uncommon questions of folk architecture. He turned basic songs inside out, scrambling them with bent signals and broken textures and beautiful obfuscations.
Those records proved prescient, foretelling the collapsing genre divisions of subsequent decades. As a rule, for instance, Ornette Coleman didn't work as a sideman, particularly for some obscure singer-songwriter. In another bout of wild serendipity, he did for Henry.
The period produced a roundabout hit for Henry, too. "Stop," a snaking electric shuffle from 2001's Scar, had a famous and familiar fan before it was even properly recorded: Henry's sister-in-law, Madonna. She released her own version of it — reimagined as a hiccupping, string-swept bit of electronic pop and retitled "Don't Tell Me" — as a single from 2000's Music. The song climbed to the top of a half-dozen international charts, going gold in the U.S. For someone who had sold, at best, tens of thousands of records, it was an unparalleled windfall.
Soon after came another, when the label Anti- asked Henry if he was up for the task of pulling aging soul star Solomon Burke from the brink of obscurity. He'd only helmed a handful of sessions, and this would be the most ambitious and arduous by far, with Henry working to convince Burke of his own range and the kinds of songs he could sing.
At one point, Burke struggled to master the tricky meter of "The Judgement," written by Elvis Costello, who was visiting the studio that day. Henry could see that Burke was getting frustrated and uncomfortable, on the edge of embarrassment in front of such special guests. He told the band to cut the track, then sent everyone to lunch. Line by line, Costello recited the song to Burke, who sang it back to him, somehow thundering and tentative at once. The performance became the album's masterpiece, as though Burke were hanging onto the edge of some unseen cliff by only his voice, vulnerable but anchored. Don't Give Up on Me, released in 2002, earned Henry his first Grammy.
Projects suddenly started flowing to Henry, including albums with Aimee Mann and Bettye LaVette. In 2006, he and Ciccone bought the "Garfield House," the former Pasadena home of Lucretia Garfield, widow of President James Garfield. For an extraordinary decade, they ran the stately but quaint bungalow as their home, office and studio. It became a new American music locus, the birthplace of Ramblin' Jack Elliott's career-crowning A Stranger Here(Henry's second Grammy) and Carolina Chocolate Drops' boundary-breaking Genuine Negro Jig (his third).
Two unexpected chances — as a songwriter, the Madonna hit and the money that followed; as a producer, the Burke hit and the accolades that followed — had dovetailed into one opportunity. Over the next decade, Henry became one of music's most incisive, empathetic listeners and producers — "a calm presence," as Joan Baez puts it, "that I know I can rely on for the truth."
"The job description, for me, is to do whatever you have to do to make an artist feel fearless. Different artists need different things to feel fearless," Henry says. "But if you make them feel supported, they will open their veins for you."
As 2018 slid into 2019, Henry didn't feel fearless. The medicine was working and his prognosis had improved, but having stared into the abyss of his own mortality, he was still "paralyzed by a deep fear and sadness." He canceled a tour and scrapped plans to produce another artist's album, an admission of frailty and an acknowledgement that he didn't know when he would work again.
Each morning of that early winter, he would stir long before the sun, light a fire in the living room, and write for hours on end. At that point, there were no songs, only poems. For the first time since his childhood, his health had taken him away from music. In early February, he crawled into bed with paper and pen, expecting another poem. Instead, he immediately recognized the shape of his first new song in months, the rhythms and rhymes suggesting something he could sing. The words emptied onto the page.
The next morning, on his way to an appointment, Henry remembered every word, as if he'd known the song all his life. For the first time in his four decades as a songwriter, he pulled his car to the side of the road and sang into his phone. The song became "In Time for Tomorrow," a chiming little wonder that finds Henry looking at the end of a life or maybe the world and shrugging as he smiles. He's happy to have been here at all, especially now, "free of living past and future story."
"It was invigorating and affirming to my being," Henry says, his words tumbling atop one another now. "I realized that the most important part of my identity was still active and accessible."
The temporary dam of sickness having ruptured, the songs spilled out so quickly that Henry began to worry he might forget them — so he called in a favor. When he and Ciccone moved houses in May, they offloaded an extra piano to Husky Höskulds, a recording engineer who had often worked with Henry at the turn of the millennium. As his pittance for the piano, Höskulds told him to stop by if he ever needed to record something in a hurry. Less than three months after Henry wrote that first new song in bed, he and a skeletal crew that included his 28-year-old son, winds player Levon, arrived at Höskulds' studio to make 14 demos.
At the end of two six-hour afternoon sessions, Henry listened back with Levon and Ciccone in his office. They immediately understood he'd never been making demos — he'd finished an entire album, unguarded and elemental in its delivery, but as intricate and rich in language as anything he'd ever put his name to. He told Höskulds to mix and master the takes, that the record was done. "I realized I'd fed myself like wood into a fire, so that sparks would fly up," Henry says. "I wasn't going to get closer to the bone of anything I'd been meaning to say."
These songs spooled out of darkness, but on these recordings they glow above articulate acoustic guitar, Henry bellowing each word as if their mere existence were a victory. He offers up hard-won wisdom about keeping loved ones close and our shame at bay, precepts cloaked in references to Sun Tzu or Charlie Parker. During "Bloom," the record's resplendent centerpiece, he surveys his past to find he's spent too much time worrying about what he's done wrong. A song about accepting everything but regret, it's his gently Taoist anthem, a reassuring token of ecumenical forgiveness.
Henry alludes to his sickness, of course — it is presumably the vine creeping through the walls of his country home during the staggering "Orson Welles," a song that acknowledges the monumental undertaking that is life itself. "It wants to thread a line inside my spine / As if it thought I might just come undone," Henry sings in the closing verse, betraying a wry smile of survival with those last words. He's happy to have won this battle, now knowing full well that we all lose the war.
In May, Henry returned to the stage to play his own songs for the first time since his diagnosis. Joey Ryan, co-founder of the folk duo and Henry collaborators The Milk Carton Kids, had teased him about preparing some remarks about his ordeal for the show. Henry scoffed at the idea but pondered why it made him so uncomfortable. It was fear, he reckoned.
So several songs into that set at the Largo in Hollywood, with decades of family members and friends in the crowd, he introduced the tunes that would become The Gospel According to Water by announcing his diagnosis. He offered a perspicacious line or two and played on, understanding this was a new part of his oldest job.
"This is not something I ever imagined talking about in an interview or on a stage. But I know I'm affirmed when people share their stories with me," he says — referring, for instance, to old hero, new friend, and two-time cancer survivor John Prine. "I'm not going to hide with this. We're called to bear witness."
Talking about his cancer, Henry says, is a way of embracing his diagnosis, of confronting what's to come instead of cowering from it. He's not looking to move on so much as look ahead at a future he can now imagine. He is still on medicine and will likely remain that way so long as his body keeps agreeing to it. He has changed his diet radically, quit drinking, and picked up yoga, meditation, and boxing. He is, he says, perhaps healthier than he's ever been, diagnosis notwithstanding. In February, Henry plans to return to the road in support of The Gospel According to Water. And he's just started talking to artists and managers about producing new records.
Meanwhile, Henry and Ciccone are finally thinking about leaving Los Angeles, a place they never intended to stay for 30 years. Levon is in Brooklyn now, though their daughter, Lulu, is still in college in Pasadena. After a friend's wedding in North Carolina this fall, they drove up the East Coast, navigating through the Hudson Valley to Portland, Maine. They realized, as if for the first time, that they could make a new life outside of LA. They could enjoy more seasons ("I'm a Celt. This is not the poet's weather here," Henry quips) and less traffic. Ciccone talks about the small towns of Ireland, isolated but erudite, like a beckoning fantasy.
Mostly, they are both looking forward to what's to come in their lives, together — to moving beyond a timeline of three to seven months, to existing beyond the confines of a doctor's orders. They want to see where this next and best chance leads.