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Life Arts

Tearing Down the Walls: In Praise of Joe Henry

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In the past decade, nearly every pillar institution in American society -- whether it's General Motors, Congress, Wall Street, Major League Baseball, the Catholic Church or the mainstream media -- has revealed itself to be corrupt, incompetent or both. And at the root of these failures are the people who run these institutions, the bright and industrious minds who occupy the commanding heights of our meritocratic order. In exchange for their power, status and remuneration, they are supposed to make sure everything operates smoothly. But after a cascade of scandals and catastrophes, that implicit social contract lies in ruins, replaced by mass skepticism, contempt and disillusionment.

- Christopher Hayes, Time Magazine, 3/11/10

This is an age of idiocy. IQ's have not precipitously dropped; we needn't seek a culprit in the water. It's just that our technological crutches make our idiocy more enveloping and omnipresent. These crutches not only propel us forward, they communicate foolishness like antennae. 24/7 we're treated to our own venality, the corruption of our elites, the gullibility of the masses and the lizard-brained inability to think and reason combined with the higher brain's ability to insist that it has mastered both--the duality that will doom us in the end.

Human mortality, and thus our humanity, rests in the metaphorical feet. Our technological crutches keep the pressure off, distracting us with bright and shiny things, and with dull and dingy ones waved all the more frantically. We obsess over an iPad that allows us to read, listen to music and write email simultaneously--most of them activities that, to be done well, should be done singly. Pointless noise and ceaseless haste to mask a shocking soullessness, a deeply saddening inability to accept the bookends of our mortality and live appropriately within them. We participate in rating mediocre vocalists instead of participating in our lives. We communicate with strangers via machine and call it "community" and then we marvel at the sense of fear and frustration spotting the air like relentless mist. Millionaire celebrity soul-keepers tells us how to "make a better you," helping us ignore the fact that most of us are as good as we are ever going to get. We mistake schmaltz for profundity in a vain attempt to separate beauty from its essential foundation in pain because we just can't face the latter anymore.

We've lost something. We've burrowed down into minutiae: politics, fashion, reality shows, talk shows, pundits, gossip--all delivered passively via teat-like media. At least we used to read dreck at a word count higher than 200, as opposed to mainlining it through our more immediate senses.

Light no lamp when the sun comes down--

The dark will speak, has things to say.

Something lost and never found

Hides from the cold, watchful eyes of day

Close no door against he cold--

The angry storm is alive in you;

Is like a story never told,

And it tears at walls that it can't pass through

- Joe Henry, "Light No Lamp When the Sun Comes Down"

So this is my vain attempt at an antidote, to rip down the "walls that it can't pass through"--a wan, scratchy whisper in a windstorm about beautiful things. These are the ones that will not stand as background music, the ones that take you down the darker tunnel where all our fears lay waiting, that do not verify our comforting preconceptions but shatter them, the ones that remind us that we live within those ever-narrowing bookends, and that it hurts to be all squeezed up here between them:

I want to talk about Joe Henry. For those unfamiliar, he's a singer/songwriter who's been around a long time. He's also brilliant and in a just and verdant world would be as famous and influential as the blonde chick in the silly outfits with a bit of a voice.

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Leonce Gaiter's historical novel, "I Dreamt I Was in Heaven - The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang" was published September 2011. His nonfiction has appeared in The Huffington Post, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The Los Angeles (more...)
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