Friends took me to see Kenny White. I had no idea who he was, but I certainly recognized the violinist --- Larry Campbell, who played for seven years behind a guy named Bob Dylan. If he thought Kenny White was something...
Short answer: Kenny White was. At first he seemed like a self-invented Frankenstein --- a bit of Bruce Hornsby at the piano, Randy Newman at the microphone, with a dash of Marc Cohn for good measure. But as he moved through his songbook, those influences fell away, and I saw Kenny White for himself: a stunningly gifted singer-songwriter who came to these songs in what, to the teen-obsessed music business, would call a deathbed conversion.
If, that is, the industry bothered to notice that an irony-tinged, romance-challenged, musically sophisticated gent of a certain age was in the business at all.
Later, I was the off-camera interviewer for the Plum TV special about Kenny White. And I heard his story. It goes like this: Little kid can listen to a song and play it, without strain, on the piano. He makes the usual progression --- teen rocker to silly, uniformed “cover” band. Gets a break and plays with a real musician. In a parallel life, has a big career writing music for commercials --- yes, he's one of the reasons we buy those consumer products we don't really need. And then, at an age when singer-songwriters are relegated to the assisted-living circuit, he decides to write and perform his own songs.
But wait --- that's not all. He churns out perfectly competent songs that are everything but memorable. Therapy and introspection teach him the first lesson of art: Bleed. He does.
Maybe leave something more than ashes in a pile
You got a brain, you got style
So you might as well put it on the line once in a while.
His subject? Hey, his marriage of 14 years has ended. He's touring cities he used to fly over. What would you write about, if not matters of the heart?
And it all tumbles out --- I'd say it tumbles “gloriously” out, but to think that, you have to see the beauty of Frank Sinatra's late-night saloon songs. The glory? The ability to say it. The freedom that saying it brings. And the relief it bestows on listeners who are carrying some of those burdens as well.
I'm getting tired of coming close
Tired of the chances I don't take
The thing about the heart that hurts the most
Is when you just can't feel it break
Kids don't know about this stuff. After a certain age, if you didn't marry your high school sweetie at 19 and have great good luck, you're pretty much an expert.
Which isn't to say Kenny White makes songs for losers only --- for those who take romance with a twist, he's really funny. And he's got a big taste for the absurd. The young women at bars with shirts so short you can see the tattoos in the small of their backs --- although he kind of hates them, he also wants to “finger paint the remaining Chinese alphabet [on them] with the hot fudge I saved from Bouley Bakery.” Too sophisticated for non-New Yorkers? Try this: “You suck for saying I'll never change/ and I suck for never changing.” Or this: “There's not much left to talk about/ You found your way in; you can find your way out.”
Above all, he has the ruthless efficiency of the very gifted. As for example, the title song of “Song for 16 Bars.” Written about --- and to --- his dead father, this is it, all of it:
How do I put this down?
How can I make it clear?
What I am feeling now.
How I wish you were here.
How do you fit an ocean
Into a riverbed?
How do I turn your memory
Back into you instead?
I might as well try naming all the stars
Or write a symphony in 16 bars.
The last few months, I listened carefully to Kenny White. “Uninvited Guest” is his alienation album --- alienation from himself, that is. It's a tough-minded, funny, tuneful exploration. Two of the five songs on “Never Like This” are blatantly political, and yet it doesn't yet feel dated. “Symphony in 16 Bars” is my favorite; this is the CD of a guy who doesn't have the answers but is no longer stymied by the questions. If you're new to Kenny White --- and, really, who isn't? --- start here.
I've just seen Kenny White again. He played scorching rock piano and jazz riffs and he sang the songs his cult loves best. I heard colors and harmonies I hadn't noticed before --- the sacred roots music of The Band, Sinatra's boozy confessions, even a flash of the Sondheim he says he hates. The audience cheered.
Kenny White's pleasure was both obvious and ironic. “I'm once again just starting out in the music biz,” he has said. “I'm a realist: I won't get a break, not at my age." He's probably right. But it would be so much better for grown-ups looking for grown-up music if he were wrong.
To buy “Symphony in 16 Bars” from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy “Uninvited Guest” from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy “Never Like This” from Amazon.com, click here.
For Kenny White's website, click here.