Singer-Songwriter-Guitarist Jim Heald

 

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OMG Your voice is so good that it gives me goose bumps! So amazing! Your song Juliet's on Fire means more to me that anyone will EVER know, the lyrics are perfect, and my god you can sing!!!!!!!! Rodney in UK
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Jimmy LaFave: An Appreciation

 

I met Jimmy LaFave in January 1986, shortly after we had both moved to Austin.  We were playing at the open stage at Chameleons.  He sang Minstrel Boy, the beautiful Only One Angel, and either Thru the Neon Night or Deep South 61 Delta Highway Blues.  I’m not sure I’ve ever been quite so blown away, especially at an open stage.  The great voice, the great songwriting, that great mysterious something.  Laura and I were among a small handful of folks who showed up for his first real gig in Austin, also at Chameleon’s.  He was great, with his buddy Gene Williams playing lead guitar.  He had a lot more than four good songs, but even then he sprinkled in songs by Dylan, his friend Bob Childers, and others.  He has a real gift for getting inside of the songs that he covers and inhabits them so completely that you’d swear he wrote them himself, even when you know he didn’t. 

Shortly afterwards, Chameleon’s closed at the location off Sixth Street and Peg Miller and Glynda Cox pulled together the money to open Chicago House there.  I’ve heard that at least part of the reason they opened the club was to provide Jimmy a place to play.  Whether that’s true or not, Chicago House became the hub of the acoustic singer-songwriter scene in Austin in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

We shared a few stages at songwriter showcases in those early days and Laura and I would try to get to his gigs whenever we could at places like The Hole in the Wall, Chicago House, Waterloo Ice House, Zilker Hillside and other places.  We made our first trip to the Kerrville Folk Festival the first year (only year?) that Jimmy was selected to perform for the New Folk Competition.  At least one of the times that I was selected he was there playing the main stage.

We both hosted open stages for a time at Chicago House in the late 80’s, mine on Mondays and his on Thursday.  Betty Elders hosted a stage on Wednesdays.  I’m not sure I’d say we were friends, but I wouldn’t say we weren’t.  We weren’t buddies and we didn’t hang out, but then I was married and had an 8-5 job, so I didn’t do a lot of hanging out.

Still, we crossed paths every now and then, even a few times just walking on the Town Lake trail.  And we saw his band playing for a huge crowd one time at Auditorium Shores on Town Lake with his band.  Larry Wilson was his lead guitar player then and I still remember Larry and the band channeling Stevie Ray and Hendrix on a mesmerizing version of Little Wing.  Even with the guitar pyrotechnics, it was Jimmy’s voice that shined the brightest.  Stevie and Jimi were no doubt smiling down on him that night and probably a little envious of those vocal chords.

Laura and I left Austin in 1996 and only get back every couple of years, sometimes more and sometimes less and usually just for long weekends.  We moved to the DC area and managed to see Jimmy play at the Kennedy Center Millenium Stage once and also at the Birchmere, as part of a Texas Songwriter’s Night with Tish Hinajosa, Teri Hendrix and Ray Wylie Hubbard.  When he played the Birchmere, I sent a note backstage to say hello.  He called the next day and left a message.  He apologized for not being able to connect and said he was already miles away, “heading for another joint.” 

Hearing him twice in 20 years hasn’t really been enough.  Every time we’ve gone back to Austin, we’ve checked to see if he was playing anywhere. We’ve had a few near misses, but there was always hope that maybe the stars would align the next time.  And now it looks very doubtful that next time will ever come.

I have kept up with him through his records, which I have purchased and listened to whenever I need an Austin fix.  But there has always been something about hearing him play live, with his eyes half closed and the rasp in his voice. 

 

To understand why Jimmy is important, you have to look at the songs. I heard somewhere, perhaps even from Jimmy, that Minstrel Boy was written about, or at least inspired by, Bob Dylan. It may or may not be true, but since you are taught in any introductory writing class to write about the things that you know, it’s also true that Jimmy was writing about his own experiences as a young writer, performer, and a sharp-eyed observer of his peers.  Simply put, the song is about a songwriter’s urgent need to be heard and understood. It’s also very much about the loneliness and frustration of that pursuit. 

The song is written in the second person, so it is addressed to someone else, or possibly just putting up a mirror to himself. The song jumps right into the action, where the boy is “flashing across the prairie in an uncontrollable rage.”  This is an almost cartoonish image, reminding me of the cartoon character Taz, the Tasmanian devil or Wylie Coyote and Roadrunner. Rage is not exactly the word that comes to mind when thinking about Jimmy, since he is one of the gentle souls in this world.  But it makes sense when you look at the next line, “living every vision you find on the way to the grave.”  This is rage, as Dylan Thomas used the term in his poem about death, where we are to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”  We need to live passionately every minute we’re alive.  Writing and trying to understand “every vision” is Jimmy’s “uncontrollable rage.”  But the minstrel boy also has a chip on his shoulder.  His rage may also be directed at the music industry and the “star maker machinery” that is making it hard for him to be heard.  The world “turned its back on” him and he wants to know why, while still hoping that his “message somehow makes it thru.”

The second verse is almost like a chorus, since he is commenting on the first verse, or perhaps the whirling dervish “flashing cross the prairie” has come to a stop in front of him, and he can say, “oh. You’re just a minstrel boy howling at the moon.”  He’s singing a “well-worn tune”  that’s a “faded painting of some other place.”  But all the while, he’s crying “tears of joy.”  There’s a little bit of self-delusion in the poor boy.

This is followed by the chorus, which can certainly be interpreted in several ways. A key question, but not one that we can answer is who is singing the chorus.  Perhaps it is a siren song, sung by and about the music industry.  Perhaps it’s the little voice in his head, repeating all his dreams and fears. The voice is telling the minstrel boy “to keep pushing on” and “always sing your song.”  If he does the hard work and persists, “someday it may take you to where you want to be.”  You might get rewarded for all the effort.  So far, so good.  The kicker is the final line.  The place where he wants to be, is a place, “where roman candle people explode across the night so beautifully.”  It sounds so good, seductively so.  Everyone likes fireworks displays.  But the reality is that you might get your 15 minutes of fame, burn out, and it’s all over.

      An alternative meaning, more spiritual, but not necessarily less depressing, is that truth and beauty can only be glimpsed or experienced fleetingly.  Most people never get to see it, let alone experience it, and few, if any, can hold on to it.  It’s a momentary flash that stuns us and dazzles the mind.  Then it’s gone.  In this context, the “faded painting of some other place,” is like the Buddhist idea of wisdom as a finger pointing at the moon.  You can’t reproduce the moon in your song, but you can give hints about how to see and feel it.

Jimmy did tell me a long time ago, that the line about “roman candle people” was inspired by the Timbuk3 song “The Future’s so Bright,” which is a highly ironic song about a kid studying “nuclear science.”  He’s got great job prospects, hence the song title.  But the world could blow up, leading to the tag line “you’ve gotta wear shades.”  It’s a double-edged sword.  Be careful what you wish for.

In the next verse, someone is reflecting on life and doling out life wisdom, which is practically the exact opposite of the chorus.  This could be Jimmy talking to the minstrel boy or someone else.  It’s about the journey, not the destination.  With a good book, “you never want the words to end” and if you’ve led a good life “you’d probably want to live it again.”     He ends the verse with some good advice for the minstrel boy and all of us; “don't worry about moving up to some higher plane/just give all the love you’ve got inside and never stop to take down names.”  Don’t hold grudges and forget about revenge for the world turning its back on you.  A song that seemed to be about making it in the music business, just took a turn into the spiritual realm.  Perhaps what Jimmy and the minstrel boy are really interested in is true knowledge, not just success.

In the next verse, the “boy” appears to have morphed into an old man with “gypsy patterns in every line of your face.”  His memories are “chiseled there” and they can’t be erased.  He’s changed, perhaps by actually achieving some momentary fame, or getting close enough to see the “roman candle people” and the steep price paid or just by stepping back from the frenetic pursuit and contemplating the limitations of fame. 

The chorus follows again, so either the sirens are still beckoning, or he hasn’t given up on his dreams.  Does he still want to be where the “roman candle people explode across the night so beautifully?”  The song ends with a slightly modified version of the second verse.  He’s still “just a minstrel boy howling at the moon.” But now he’s a “well-known troubadour.”  He’s achieved a certain level of recognition.  Perhaps he’s tasted fame along the way, but there’s some realization that the important thing is doing the work and “pushing on,” not recognition or fame.

The song lyrics have a beautiful, dream-like quality filled with changing perspectives, seemingly conflicting messages, compression of time, and characters aging almost instantaneously.  I would not be surprised at all if the song came to Jimmy in a dream. It’s never completely clear who is talking, but it’s teeming with ideas about fame and rejection and even the meaning of life and work. 

For my money, Only One Angel is Jimmy’s best song. Perhaps I’m a little biased in favor of his old songs.  It’s one of the first songs I ever heard him play and probably the song I’ve heard him sing the most.  Of course, it’s a beautiful love song.  We could leave it at that and move on.  But it is also about music and the interconnectedness of all things.

The first verse, which is repeated at the end, along with the chorus are the meat of the love song.  He is driving late at night and it is raining.  But at the mere mention or thought of her name, he feels that “he’d be safe and warm and dry.”  And if he sings her “special song,” he knows that “deep inside that spirit baby nothing could go wrong.”  It’s like casting a spell or praying to his guardian angel and she’s his “only one angel.”

In the second verse, he’s spent a day admiring (awestruck might be a more appropriate term) the beauties of the desert west.  He “could run through a desert wind and the day would leave [him] breathless.”  He’s not breathless from the run, but rather from “searching for words again” to describe to his love what he’s seeing, hearing and feeling.  As he puts it in one of the most remarkable phrases I can recall in a song: “In hopes that you might hear the sound/in streams of magic colors that are painted across the ground.”  Think about that for a moment.  Not just the “streams of magic color” which perfectly evokes the Painted Desert, or the Mesas and Buttes at sunset, or the ripples and curves of the Grand Canyon; but that his lover can “hear the sound” of it, the sound of the Earth or the Music of the Spheres, the deep vibration of the Universe itself.  He is hearing the “sound” of what he is seeing with his eyes. How can one poor mortal find the right words for all that?

The chorus brings us back to the love song.  He “always take[s] you with me like a charm”; his talisman “to keep him in the good light, safe from harm.”  The last two lines are more workmanlike; she chases the “gray clouds far away” and “keeps [his] feet from turning into clay.”

In the third verse, he turns to deeper speculation.  He starts, “if I could send out a melody,” perhaps the melody of this song, “do you suppose that if the word got out the circle would reach to me.”  These are presumably the words that he was searching for in verse two, but what about this circle?  It’s a circle around the entire globe, and somewhere he wonders, would it “cross that line, in some distant land, where the silver strings that ring my friend are played by ancient hands.”  In other words, would his words be worthy of connecting across time and space with ancient songwriters and storytellers.  Is he part of that great tradition and community?   He leaves the question hanging, but ends by saying “if you want to know what pulls me through, I have only one angel and that one angel is you.”  If he has her, perhaps he doesn’t need to know the answer to the question.  He repeats the first verse, to bring the love song and the midnight rain back front and center, leaving the more cosmic speculations in their place. If you can find better lyrics by anyone not named Bob Dylan let me know.

Jimmy writes great lyrics, deep and penetrating, with ideas to burn, but he’s also a rocker and a blues man. And while those songs may not have the same lyrical heft as these two songs, he does them very well.  The third song I’d like to discuss is Deep South 61 Delta Highway Blues.  It may not have been one of the three songs Jimmy played that night I first heard him, but I heard it early on, and along with the other two it has been playing in my head and through my fingers and vocal chords for over 30 years.  So, these three have left an indelible imprint in my brain.

This is a straightforward twelve bar blues about the itch to ramble.  He describes a simple trip to New Orleans from some town, maybe his home town, where everyone talks about leaving.  They’re “tired of this town and all the deceiving.”  They’re also all religious and “they see visions in everything they do.” He doesn’t have religion, or at least he doesn’t talk about it, but he really does need to get moving, because he’s got ‘the deep south 61 delta highway blues.”   

He loses “his roadmap in Memphis” but he really doesn’t need it.  He just has to follow the river and the road to New Orleans.  They use high-falutin language there, calling a “street a la rue,” but “Cajun ladies know all about” his blues, since New Orleans has always been a magnet for runaways, gamblers and outlaws.

In the third verse, he’s trying to pick up one of the Cajun ladies, ultimately saying “I’ve been everywhere baby, but I’ve never been nowhere with you.”  She’s apparently heard the story before and has other plans, leaving him singing his blues.

In the next verse, he’s “setting on the levee trying to stay high and dry.”  He’s also sitting there “watching his life pass [him] by.”  And the water’s rising, so this is not a great night and there’s “no way to lose these” blues.  The song ends up where it began, as he repeats the first verse, where “everybody’s telling me they’re leaving.”

These songs are done beautifully in a simple acoustic setting on his independent cassette Highway Angels/Full Moon Rain or with full band on a couple of his early CDs.  You can’t go wrong with either.

I could go on.  He’s got songs about Native Americans, the ghost dance, buffalo returning to the plains, road anthems that you could hear Springsteen singing, or his Bohemian Cowboy Blues about Jack Kerouac.  He’s got pure heartbreak songs like Never Be Mine or Blue Nightfall.  He’s done more than an album’s worth of Bob Dylan covers and classic blues and other classic covers and deep cuts.  Finally, there’s his Trail series of CDs filled with alternate versions, more covers, live cuts, and outtakes.  The songs tell the story of a life lived passionately and fully, but also a life examined and dissected with a painter’s eye and a mathematician’s precision. You’d spend a very long, but satisfying time trying to get through it all.

 

Jim Heald lived in Austin from 1985-1996.  He retired from his day job at the end of 2015 and now lives in Sarasota, FL where he continues to perform, write and record. In 2012, he published a book on Canadian Singer-Songwriter-Guitarist Bruce Cockburn called World of Wonders, which is available from Amazon, with a revised and expanded version coming shortly.

 

Jim Heald

www.jimhealdmusic.com

 

 

Wings of Time Liner Notes

Wings of Time One Sheet

Chiaroscuro Liner Notes

Chiaroscuro One Sheet