VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE
The Foreword to The Ash & Clay by Joe Henry
The good doctor William Carlos Williams famously wrote that “the pure products of America go crazy;” and it should surprise me not at all that the thought would find me a trembling but easy target alone in a hotel room, late of an evening, in the city of Hiroshima, by the Inland Sea.
This town has a way of stopping time and then re-animating it like still images in a flipbook, its stick figure dancing halting circles upon an endless sky. It invites you into a frozen past that flashes forward like a lost silent movie of our future already in progress.
Of course, the demands of travel have a beautiful way of skewing all perception, rendering it liquid and wholly unreliable–but in the way that keeps hard facts from obscuring the elusive truth: night becomes day; seasons arrive disguised as others; the living and the dead take up together in your mind like lonesome wallflowers at a Sunday Social; I phone my wife and she answers me with breaking news from the closed book of yesterday; I relearn to speak my own name...
Songs have the same power to confuse, seduce, stop time and re-animate it; to skin the lion and to leave it both spread on the floor and still stalking you from a ghostly crouch, the blood of your dreams already on its jowls. Because songs are in motion–and only fully realized in mid air and real-time— they are as untouchable as they are insistent.
It is here in room 922 of The Mitsui Garden Hotel that I have my first encounter with The Ash & Clay by The Milk Carton Kids. And whereas for as long as I have known them I have always perceived the twin voices of Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale as disappearing into one, I now hear that single and distinct character rising to speak for many...
For within these songs is a man himself in motion –a traveler who dances in silent, halting circles. And what he does is quietly bear witness like a weathervane, to the carnival of souls by the wayside, his eyes cornered but his face always pointing forward, his voice in our heads. He moves through love but is alone; laughs at the wreckage, weeps with lust; throws and sweeps confetti, stands at cold gravesides; raises a hand in promise, then picks your pocket and slips quietly back across the border. He slides outside the law, bound by honor and duty, the pure product of a mad country working with all its heart at fevered cross-purposes.
In the end it is mercy he is after, the character in this play—the kind of mercy that attends grace when truly living in spite of the inevitable, when singing the unspeakable to the unlistening. And from Hiroshima to Graceland, this character knows that the whole of human foolishness must be witnessed, loved, and forgiven for that mercy to be ratified.
Like Jesus and Harpo Marx, he does this for us all.
10 October, 2012