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November 22, 2013

Book Notes - Joe Henry "Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him"

Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Joe Henry and David Henry's Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him is an impressive book about the legendary comic's talent, troubled life, and popular culture of the late 20th century.

Esquire wrote of the book:

"Someday, when fewer people know Richard Pryor's name, Furious Cool will be the best defense against the worst sort of forgetting — the kind that involves who we are now, who we loved once, and why."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Joe Henry's Book Notes music playlist for his book, Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him:

I am a songwriter and a singer; and as such, music is my default language: my means not only of expression but understanding. Music attends my process no matter what the objective, scrolling beneath my attempts at forward motion like subtitles to a foreign film. Thus, when I and my brother David (a screenwriter for whom music also stands as a constant companion and a personal weather system) began writing about Richard Pryor, it was natural to us both that music would be at play, literally and conceptually.

And why not? Music was a constant source of inspiration and assurance to Richard himself. Further, I am inclined to liken Richard's mercurial gifts to those possessed by Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Bob Dylan—anomalous artisans who, like Richard, stood on the flat plane of this strange and fractured country, catching lightning and feeding it deep into the ground, where blood became water and water became vapor, clouding above us and raining down some version of mercy in the form of recognition.

Below, then, are some selections that both Dave and I found ourselves returning to time and again, as we sought to summon thoughts of Richard Pryor like spirits to a séance.

To this day, most all of these songs still put the man's face immediately before me. And I am always glad to see him.

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy – Cannonball Adderley

"Sometimes, we're not prepared for adversity," Cannonball intones in the preamble of this song's most definitive live version, and he sounds almost like a preacher as he does so. The groove bubbling up beneath him and taking shape will, in a moment, take him over; but these words tell us how to receive the soulful blessing that follows. Before writing Furious Cool, Dave and I wrote a screenplay based on the life of Richard Pryor, and always imagined this spoken-word intro from the great alto saxophonist playing over the initial pre-titles darkness; and as such, it is impossible for either of us to hear it now unaccompanied by the conscious thought that Cannonball is in fact, for us, part of the fabric of the bigger story.

Statesboro Blues – Blind Willie McTell

Something about this particular song completely underscores for me the sepia-tones landscape that gave way to our modern times. There is trouble brewing herein, but as well a light in Willie's voice, evidencing a cracked smile that says he is staying just ahead of the fray, and will continue to. In much the same way, Richard Pryor stood on stage and acknowledged for all that the darkness was inevitable; but the laugh that rose in response assured him as it assures us that we are redeemable, and aren't alone in the waiting room.

I'm Going To Tear Your Playhouse Down – Ann Peebles

There is nothing remotely histrionic in either Ann's deft (and wildly underrated) songwriting, or in her delivery. As a soul singer, she employed more humility than most all of her peers, and meant to, I believe. The album that originally contained this song, the seminal "I Can't Stand The Rain," was a favorite of Richard's –and a favorite of ours before we knew that.

In Time – Sly And The Family Stone

Is there another musician in American history whose influence and own delicate balance of wild gifts and careening dysfunction so mirrored Richard's? If there is, he or she is unknown to us. This song is as slinky and funky as it is introspective and, for me, is the sound of 1974. It wouldn't have had to be coming out of a radio for it to be heard as one moved through that volatile period: it seems to have been written into the very atmosphere –and by it.

Tears Of Rage – Bob Dylan And The Band

Stately and funereal, desperate and wise: this plays like a wake song for an American ideal that was buried alongside the 55,000 troops that returned from Vietnam in wooden boxes; that went up in flames in Chicago and Detroit, Watts and Attica. "Sign Of The Times," it could have been called, and Richard could have sung along with it.

Moanin' – Charles Mingus

Nobody rocks harder than Charles Mingus did during his late-50s period. Adding Jackie McLean and Booker Erwin to the mix, there is a sense of tension that verges on chaos while never completely surrendering to it. The melodic bent hinges on a blues tonality most decidedly; but it moves like toppled redwoods trees being driven down a river. Both David and I were listening to this simultaneously –he in Louisville, me in Los Angeles— and we felt aligned to the electric discovery that we were striving to articulate.

Stray Cat Blues – The Rolling Stones

Filmmaker Martin Scorsese has frequently used songs from The Stones of this period to evoke the splintered intensity of the Vietnam era; and it feels exactly right on that score. Cue this up and you can just feel the sun encroaching on Richard's drug hideaway…pushing in at the blinds and beneath the door like the day of reckoning was at hand. This song is humid and lusty; playful and yet as raw as a knife's blade. So much so, in fact, there are times now when I just can't bear to hear it, so foreboding is its weather. A victory, then, the lads must conclude: I think they'd want me to be a little frightened of them.

God's Song – Randy Newman

The masterpiece from an inarguable masterpiece. The album Sail Away featured many songs that we've been listening to since the album's release in 1973; but this one must stand alone, and does, as it has God mocking man for humbling ourselves before Him, pleading. "You all must be crazy, to put your faith in me/that's why I love mankind."

Enough said.

You Must Have That True Religion – Leadbelly

An all-time favorite, wherein the blues singer and songwriter from Louisiana tells us in no uncertain terms that, cling as we might to the fragile thread of life, we were all, in fact, born to die.

He sings this one a capella; for, even though he was a master of the 12-string guitar, he needed no accompaniment to tell this tale. It's as if Huddie Ledbetter had already departed this plane and was speaking to us from the tress.

Go Ahead John – Miles Davis

A funky and fierce masterpiece from Miles' electrified cut-and-paste album, Big Fun, this song strikes us as perfect score for the kind of turbulence that makes all the passengers laugh out of the sheer relief that they are not going down alone. Is there a better statement than that for why we so love Richard Pryor?

Joe Henry and Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him links:

excerpt from the book
video trailer for the book

The A.V. Club review
Chicago Tribune review
Esquire review
Houston Chronicle review
Los Angeles Magazine review
Publishers Weekly review
Slate review

The Atlantic interview with the authors
Biographile essay by the authors

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

Online "Best of 2013" Book Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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