Wild. Singer/songwriter Joe Henry has co-written (along with his brother David) a biography of Richard Pryor entitled, Serious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World that Made Him, due out in November. If you’re familiar with Joe Henry’s work, then you already know why this is so cool and appropriate, but if not, then I’ll tell you…
If you don’t know who Richard Pryor was, well then, no wonder you think the universe is kind of boring and tedious. Richard Pryor was Chris Rock before Chris Rock was even born, unleashing his ferocious comedy to both white and black audiences in the 60s and 70s, way before it was “OK” to joke seriously about racial issues and about the experience of being an African American in a nation still trying to suppress the inevitable realization that its cultural roots were about as black as they were white.
Here’s Richard Pryor as the first black president of the US. Like a lot of Pryor’s comedy, you can’t quite see where it’s going until it gets there and, prior to arrival it veers into the surreal.
Wild, no? That’s from the 1970s and I’m thinking popular culture was actually somewhat less brittle back then. The ghost of left-wing culture hadn’t quite faded away yet, though of course in just a few years Reagan’s jackboots would stomp even that poor pitiful thing into the ground. Even in the early 1980s, after Pryor recovered from a disfiguring freebasing accident that left him badly burned and near death, the nation laughed when Pryor explained: “When I dunked the cookie in the milk, it exploded!”
Joe Henry, meanwhile, dedicated one of his better albums (Scar) to Pryor, and wrote one of the songs (”Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation”) in his voice. Here’s “Stop,” from that same album (If you are a Madonna fan, you may have noticed that this song has the same lyrics as “Don’t Tell Me” from her Music album, and indeed Henry wrote those lyrics. Joe Henry is, bizarrely enough, Madonna’s brother-in-law (married to her sister Melanie) and also wrote the Baywatch theme, but don’t hold that against him.)
Henry operates in a nominally popular idiom by placing scraps of jazz, rock, R&B and even country into the athanor of his songwriting craft and then melting them all down and shaping the resultant amalgam into the odd and sometimes frightening little homonculi that are his songs.
When Henry (or his “people”) made the announcement about Serious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World that Made Him on Facebook and his blog a couple of days ago, it came as both a surprise as well one of those things that seems obvious in retrospect. I’m stoked for the publication of this book and will almost certainly celebrate this news later with a bottle of Monday-night plonk and the very loud cranking of Joe Henry’s Blood From Stars album.
Here’s a rarity of sorts, of Henry singing (or pretending to be singing) the title track from hisTiny Voices album: