In 1990, i was working in an antique shop and living in the back. I say back but it was really just a storage closet that was four feet wide by eight feet long. It had a cot, a small table, and a wall of book shelves filled with hat boxes, doll parts, assorted ceramics, a variety of salt and pepper figurines, a pair of womens' black victorian lace up boots, stacks of 78's, brittle paged books and numerous Sharpie marked boxes, yellowed with age,that i never dared pry into. I had also managed to wedge in my old Kenwood turntable, amp and two speakers and what records i had brought with me on my exodus from my hometown of Abilene,Texas. I bathed in the bathrooms cold water sink and warmed cans of soup and beans on an upside down iron, a trick i had picked up from a passage in "On the Road". My main companion was a black Harmony acoustic i had picked up in a pawn shop for 80 bucks. It was all self inflicted hard scrabble and i was enjoying every bit of it.
I was manning the store for the owner, a working actor who was out of town for several months performing in a play. The store was located on Glendale Blvd. in a part of Los Angeles known as Atwater Village. At the time the only thing "hip" about the area was the highly modern, Italian restaurant two doors down, sandwiched between the tackle shop and the liquor store. Everything else around looked like it probably had for the last 40 years. Everyone on those two blocks of storefronts knew each other. Each morning at sunrise was a Mayberry moment. I would walk past the bird lady at the pet shop, the insurance salesman with the leaky window unit above his door, the cranky old sailor that ran the tackle shop(he truly looked like Popeye only with a little more weight on him) and other colorful neighbors, too many to mention. I would make my way down to the German Bakery for coffee, pastries and that first morning smoke, that, at 23 feels like the entire world opening itself up to you but at 40 feels like your stacking the final stone up onto the Great Wall. Afterwards, I would walk next door to the thrift shop and search for possible items to buy and resell in my store fifty yards away. Lastly, like savoring the last bite of a perfect meal, i would flip through the record bins.
It was on just such a morning that i came across an album that would stand me up, turn me around and send me on my musical journey. Unlike books, I have always judged records by their covers and while i know there have been many gems i have overlooked, more times than not my instincts have proven to be dead on. The title was intriguing enough, "Shuffletown", but it was the name that really grabbed me. The generic, everyman, John Doe quality of it...Joe Henry. I had grown up with my father singing songs to me filled with names like that. I was raised on Johnny, Kris, Hank, Tom T, Willie and more. I could tell a storyteller when I saw one without even hearing a single note. At the time, the writers I was listening to the most were from across the sea. David Sylvian, Lloyd Cole, Shane McGowan and such. I had found them in cut out bins and though I had not yet been schooled in the music business, i knew that something was amiss when artists and albums this good were landing in racks with 99 cent stickers on them. I immediately bought this new discovery, took it "home" and played it. Repeatedly.
I didn't get it the first few times but i let it play again and again while i busied myself with tasks around the store. It was about the 5th play thru that i remember actually sitting down in a "whoa" kind of moment. The roomy, live quality of the recording, the pace and the patience required and the way the lyrics drew me in and slowly revealed themselves, all took me back to a time and a place i had never been before but somehow felt i belonged. Nostalgia for something I had not even experienced. It was filled with everything i was drawn to and, in that store, surrounded by. Worn leather satchels , torn furniture, dusty shades and silver flasks. I was 23 in an old mans clothes and I had found my soundtrack. Many years later, my wife and I would dance to "Date for Church" at our wedding and further still name our second daughter after "Helena by the Avenue".
Back then, there was no internet to search or Google, to discover up to date facts about the artists you liked. The mystery was allowed to remain intact. I would have to wait for the occasional article in underground music rags to find out about new releases or, as many discoveries were made, follow the liner notes from album to album and artist to artist and the chain of associations that exist. I was surprised how few people seemed to know about this guy though, even people i met that worked in the music business would say, "How have I not heard this?" I wasn't obsessed with the man, hell, maybe I was, but every young songwriter has their Dylan. Mine just wasn't Dylan. In my own writing, I tried to avoid imitation, but influence was inevitable. I followed each release and every one was like a gift and an education. There was an urgency in them, a vitality and they were ever evolving in unstrained strides. You could tell they were being made first and foremost for himself and every other intention trailed behind that.
We all have those things we discover under the radar that feel exclusively our own. A film, a novel, an artist or an album that we feel protective of. We want to share it with the world but we also want to keep it under out hat. But I like to think that I've done my little bit to spread Joe's music around to friends and strangers over the last 20 years. (Not that he needs my help.)
I can't say that "Shuffletown" is still my favorite of the albums. There have been too many great ones to pick just one. "Scar", "Civilians" , "Short Man's Room" and more. But now as I sit here, many miles and years later, listening to the new album, "Blood From Stars", i can't help but smell the coffee in the German bakery, hear the parrot on the bird ladies shoulder and see the water slowly dripping from the insurance mans window unit. Appreciative of the long journey now behind and the one that lies ahead.