THE GHOST IN THE SONG
I had a dream. A “vision,” I’m tempted to say. But that would sound too mystical, and make me sound like…I don’t know, like…Sting. Not something I can afford at this particular stage of my life and career. But damn it, I did have one, and it came out of nowhere. And the vision had a voice, and the voice spoke a word: Ornette. It didn’t need to speak the other word, for I knew. And the vision that had unleashed the voice knew I knew. I also knew what this vision was suggesting in regard to That Name That Needs Not Its Brother: I needed Ornette Coleman’s musical voice to complete the song with which I was at that precise moment struggling. Ornette. A towering figure in the history of modern jazz, and one of its chief architects. You can look it up yourself and that’s what it will say. Even he wouldn’t argue that, though he doesn’t volunteer such information himself; because he has always and only operated on a plane that exists far above the conventions of what is call “Jazz.” Jazz pretends, of course, to have no constraints. But in a world that presents itself as an ideal of freedom, Ornette has been too free for the likes of many. And he has paid a price for that, having been as much maligned as exalted.
I almost regretted the truth that I knew lay at the heart of my vision, because it seemed so dauntingly out of my reach. But…we of little faith. The Vision, as it turns out, also paid a visit to Ornette, who must have been, truly, more surprised by its revelation than I was. For even after hearing both of my names back-to-back, I feel certain that he was confused. Maybe he even tried adjusting the rabbit ears on his receptor through which he has, by all evidence, been receiving for years visions of bell-like clarity. Yes, perhaps he was confused. But he is not, by any estimation, a man of little faith. He is faith’s dutiful servant.
And he brought to me, finally, with very few questions asked, the emotional core of my song, and laid it at my feet -which were at that moment hovering inches off the ground. And that song had a voice, and that voice had a name…
Not all truth is funny. But that which is funny is true. I don’t believe you heard me. I said, what is funny is invariably, undeniably and inescapably just that: the truth. And just so, the truthful voice of Richard Pryor has been haunting me; dancing around my face like a bee; has turned my head like a strange smell, and has stopped me as quickly and as effortlessly as a spider’s web that I have just walked through. I recoil, out of balance, stymied by human frailty in the face of that near-invisible strand which is timelessly, triumphantly animal. We fear the animal. Hate its base motivations; hate its mindless destruction and arrogant reproduction. Hate its stench and compassionless, selfish resolve. But listen: The thing that you hate in others is almost always the thing that you really hate about yourself. More truth (I’m not making this up). But somehow Richard Pryor turned that reflection of himself upside-down and backwards, like one seen in a cereal spoon: the things that he loathed about himself he loved others for, recognizing in them a familiar human frailty and a timeless, animal urge to survive. No matter how foolish most people look doing it. Surviving, I mean. And to be sure, we do look ridiculous, even when we are doing it with a straight face and in nice clothes. We are animals, thinly disguised in spats and bowler hats, trying to hang on. Yes, surviving is rarely gracefully done, but it is beautiful to witness. And somehow, against all odds, Richard Pryor himself continues to survive. Not ten miles from where I now sit, collecting my thoughts, Richard is probably watching TV, napping, or cursing those who surround and help him. And they curse him back, I imagine, once they’ve left his room. But they love him, for being a contentious, frail, timeless, ridiculous, hateful and beautiful animal, who has somehow survived under the burden of almost unspeakable truths, giving us back, as clearly as a silver spoon, reflections of ourselves as people we can love and forgive.
The ghost of Richard Pryor (even though he is still in possession of it) has, yes, haunted me of late. I don’t know why, exactly, or why now. But there was no mistaking whose ghost it was when it arrived. Listen: When I began writing songs for my eighth record SCAR, one song presented itself above the others and began to dictate policy. As it started to unfurl, I recognized that the voice of the song, the first-person narrator, if you will, was not mine. I was being used. But then, I don’t as a rule write songs about myself. Not so’s you could tell, anyway, or at least not so as I can tell. I don’t mind it in other people so much (liar), but for me it feels like such a vain pursuit. How arrogant, to assume your ideas and feelings so meaningful to others that they must be expressed. I mean, Who wants to know?!!. So when I felt myself visited upon, occupied by the countenance of another —in this case Richard Pryor— it was natural for me to surrender to it. I was only too happy. Songs can then become rather like your teenage children: you can take credit for them, but they are more or less responsible for themselves and their own ambitions. Who wants to know?!! Perhaps your mother, I would respond. Especially if those feelings about to be expressed carry even a grain of what is supposed to be…The Truth. And songwriters, for some reason (and you know who you are) frequently believe they are trafficking in The Truth. I’m not sure who’s to blame for that. But almost nobody ushering forth any real and significant truth thinks that that’s what they’re doing. Or at least they wouldn’t admit it. Truth of the highest order is to be resisted, dragged from you on the gallows; played as a trump card and only as a last resort; because The Truth is frequently not good news to anybody. It rarely appears heroic at the time, to be the bearer of truth, but more like an affliction. Like having God in your midst: who wants to know!!? Not your friends, I can assure you. Read on.
Most of us think it very noble to search for God. It’s romantic. It’s poetic in a rugged, wind-blown, Sam Shepard-y kind of way. To be a searcher. I’ll start over. To search for God is hip. To find Him is another matter altogether. For finding God makes one responsible for Him. Like finding a stray kitten: once you’ve seen it you become somehow morally obliged to it. And then you’ve become one of them, “a cat person.” And nobody you know wants to see you coming with that Stray Kitten. Because you will try, they fear, to make it their kitten as well. You will try to make them Cat People. Truth is the same way: God help you if you actually see it, know it, because then you’re saddled with it. Better to be vaguely, honorably in search of the truth. In search of God. Richard Pryor saw Truth before me or anybody else had a chance to warn him, poor bastard. He turned a gritty corner one day as a young man in Chicago and The Motherfuckin’ Truth was on him -not like a stray kitten, but like a full-grown alley cat who has just eaten and still isn’t satisfied. He held onto it, this “cat.” Made a coat out of it, and wore it to New York; hid his secret heart beneath it and opened it like a curtain onstage; wore it when he got high with Miles; had it on when he went down on Pam Grier; pretended he’d never seen it before, didn’t know whose coat it was, when he married up with a pipe and became angry and tired and disillusioned and full of self-loathing, and doused himself with brandy and lit the fuse, melting that animal spirit deep into his own. He tried to swear it off, but The Truth was on his skin like a rank smell, and he became responsible for its delivery, even when he couldn’t live up to its message.
And of course, nobody can live up to it. But for those who live up to the attempt at living up to the truth, there is reserved a special place in heaven. And there are no cats there, smelling up the place. But Miles is there. And Malcolm X and Buckminster Fuller and Buster Keaton, Nathanael West, Charlie Parker, Flannery O’Connor, Preston Sturges, and Robert Johnson. (“Where’s Moses?” someone asks. That’s him at the bar with Roberto Clemente.) And some day, hopefully not soon, there will be Ornette Coleman and there will be Richard Pryor. And they will sit over cups of fresh coffee, or so I choose to believe, and say, “Damn. Glad that’s over.”
But as I was saying in the beginning, I found myself in a tussle with this song. It mocked me. It was frank in a way that embarrassed me, and was so without irony or apology. I looked at my hand as it wrote this foolishly pretentious title onto a page: “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation.” I wondered aloud at why the listening nation was tearful, and felt myself ridiculed for my naïvete. Worse still, this song cannibalized every other song in my bag, and spit out seeds that looked themselves defiant and unfamiliar. From then on, every song I wrote was covered in the same pitted skin and had a dusky flavor. The song is in a minor key, played in what Ray Charles used to call “the death tempo.” It purports to be a classic blues, three verses and a bridge that say, in essence, “The thing I most desired was you, and I let you slip away. I was a fool, but you are also to blame. And now I am slipping away too.” Without the well-documented tragic life of Richard Pryorfor a reference, the song seems easy enough going by, and fairly one-dimensional. Rosemary Clooney could have sung it nicely. But once my hand reached over in a final flourish and revealed the title, I heard the piece as Richard’s own paradoxical love song to America: hating it but still desiring and needing its acceptance. And then I could hear it no other way. I felt free to admire it if I chose, as if someone else had written it, but just so I wasn’t free to impose any editorial upon it; not to even so much as alter its preposterous name. And whenever I hear the song now, after the fact, it sounds like someone’s footsteps behind me in a fog. It always seems to be gaining on me, and never answers back if I say, “hello?” At some point during the process of writing and recording this song, I stoically surrendered my will, pretending I really had a choice to do otherwise.
When I finally assembled a group of musicians in a Los Angeles studio, I drew heavy guns: young jazz titans Brad Mehldau and Brian Blade; bassist Me’shell Ndegeocello, and guitarist Marc Ribot among them. It was like taking a group of neighborhood bullies with me into the abandoned house at the end of the street: I was spooked and wasn’t going in alone. When the song in question came up in rotation on the second of four recording days, it arose and hovered like it had been summoned at a séance. It hung suspended like a tightrope walker, daring me to meddle further. And its path was (as are all paths) leading straight towards a deathly, inevitable finish. Enter Ornette Coleman. As he stood before me in a Manhattan studio two weeks later to add his part (the culmination of the original Vision), he had a light about him that could not begin to be hidden by the bushel basket to which the Bible refers. He was, to all who bore witness, in obvious cahoots with the ghostly presence of Richard Pryor who had earlier taken over the proceedings. And from this man —small and gentle at seventy years old— there came forth a sound like a wail of mortal panic; wrestling, then giving way to a reluctant understanding. Notes unraveled like the frayed end of a rope, and with a fluttering, dry tone that was like the fading, flashing gills of a small fish left lying on a bank. Picasso said that, “every act of creation is first an act of destruction. The artist’s hand is the hand of a matador.” And just so, Ornette deconstructed my song right in front of me, but he assumed the point of view of the bull, already on his knees.
Only later, near the song’s end, did he rise out of the character of the fallen beast to take up the sword and cape himself and finish what we all knew had been coming. The rest of us in attendance -my co-producer Craig Street, the arranger Steven Barber, and our engineer Husky Hoskulds– could only watch as Ornette rendered from the song what only a man of his experience can fully exact, leaving me the tail and an ear. I won’t say that it was easy for him to get to the root as he did, but it was essential to him, and he would settle for nothing else. He was restlessly unsatisfied after several takes that the rest of us thought brilliant, and said to me, “I know the saxophone so well. And I still hear myself Playing the Saxophone. I need to keep going until I’m not playing sax anymore but just playing music.”
He kept going. Perhaps Ornette Coleman felt as I did, just as resigned to the path laid out before him. We all have brief moments of clarity, where for just an instant we are allowed to see that, regardless of frustration and doubt, we are exactly where we are supposed to be. And we inch ahead, heartened, if somewhat tentative like a tightrope walker at a death tempo. I now see that perhaps Richard Pryor finessed me into the presence of Ornette Coleman for no other reason than so that he, Ornette, could ring my bedside phone on the morning of my fortieth birthday. For when I picked up the receiver and heard Ornette playing “Happy Birthday” over the wire, what it sounded like to me was more truth of which Richard Pryor was somehow the unlikely messenger. I heard: Know it or not, you are exactly where you are supposed to be at this moment in your life. And then I heard this: when you write a song for Richard Pryor, perhaps the fear and longing you think you are expressing as his, is your own.
Los Angeles, 2001
© 2001 Joe Henry, All rights reserved