As guy-on-guy love affairs go, this was one of the greatest and longest of my young adulthood. And sadly, unrequited. You see, the object of my affection and I never actually met. And I was never technically in love with him. It was all about his music.
I’m talking about Joe Henry. Between the early ’90s and early ’00s, I had a massive musical crush on him. Perhaps best known as Madonna’s brother in law — the husband of her sister Melanie — Joe is an accomplished, critically acclaimed singer-songwriter in his own right. My favorite of his songs is the title track from his 1996 album, Trampoline. It appeared on pretty much every mix CD I made through the early ’00s, which is around when I lost interest in creating mix CDs.
Perhaps his best known song is a sad tango he wrote called “Stop.” Before he could record his own version for his 2001 album, Scar, Madonna got her paws on the song, and with the help of her producer, Mirwais, gave it a complete makeover. The result: The 2001 Top 5 hit “Don’t Tell Me,” from her Music CD.
One of the things I love about Joe Henry is that he’s an acoustic-based singer-songwriter for whom trendy is not a dirty word. He’s incorporated elements of trip hop, soul and jazz into his music, and he never looked down on his queen of pop sister-in-law. In fact, the two collaborated on a song called “Guilty By Association” for the 1996 benefit CD Sweet Relief II: Gravity Of The Situation – The Songs of Vic Chesnutt. (Boy did Madonna luck out when it comes to brothers-in-law: The immensely gifted musician Michael Penn, husband of the equally talented Aimee Mann, is the brother of Sean Penn.)
“Don’t Tell Me” is one of the rare cases where a cover song is neither inferior nor superior to its source material but is simply so different that it actually stands on its own as a separate piece of music. Part of the credit must go to Joe Henry for crafting such a sturdy song in the first place. Listen for yourself, and don’t worry — you don’t have to choose.
Joe Henry “Stop”
Madonna “Don’t Tell Me”