A (JOE) WISE DECISION

By Bill Ede

Deciding whether or not to attend a Joe Wise performance that was not to include any singing whatsoever proved a difficult decision indeed. It was certainly time I found out what the boy-man was up to, but the idea of going to hear Joe Wise "not sing" (which for a brief moment began to take on the characteristics of a verb in its own right) seemed too inconceivable for comfort. I, nonetheless, surrendered all claim on any such comfort, and was treated to the unbridled musings of a poet's soul. I had obviously made the right decision.

To those of us past a certain age (thirtysomething up there sounds about right), who were raised locally in the Roman Catholic tradition, Wise is no less than a musical institution. His "Gonna Sing My Lord," "Take Our Bread" and "Lord Teach Us to Pray," among others, are quite literally part of the soundtrack of our younger lives -- songs we sang Sunday after Sunday in church, in the then-new post-Vatican II "folk masses" of the '60s and '70s. We sang them "religiously," if you will, and they earned their own little spot in our individual and collective memory.

But Joe Wise seems to feel more at home these days as a person rather than as an institution, thank you, and more and more that person seems to be finding its truest expression in the written and recited word, rather than in the medium of music. Now that's a sad thing to hear, if that means we won't be hearing that golden voice of his wrapped around a song anymore. If, on the other hand, it is just one more facet of his art that he seems to be zeroing in on for the time being, as it has been with the children's songs he's become well known for over the last decade or so, it would be wise indeed for us to simply let him go his way (which he will do anyway). It should be real exciting if/when he ever ties all these things together.

Highlights of his May 29 recitation at the Kentucky Contemporary Theatre include his readings of "First Smells" and "Of Witches and Writers," both from his Through A Glass Lightly book of poetry from a few years back. The latter reads:

Just like the witches of old

with their broom sweeping hearth or 'cross sky

alone at the desk with blank page

I get trapped in my pen or I fly

It speaks to all who try to communicate on paper.

His "From Russia With Love" poem was dedicated to Misha Feygin, a Russian folk singer who spent a couple of weeks in Louisville not long ago. It addressed a more personal kind of wall that began to come down as members of two very different backgrounds and cultures sought and evidently found much common ground.

In his other works, Wise enjoys and employs a fair amount of word play, with titles like "Size Tens of a Lesser God," a humorous dialogue between a pair of shoes, the other shoe performed so believably by friend and cohort Joe Capodanno, and "Peter Piper Revisited" a.k.a. "If you can say this, you're the designated driver," which I won't begin to try to quote from or much less say.

Wise's is an often-clever, occasionally-brilliant mixture of the timely and the timeless, calling to mind Bob Lind's "Unlock the Door," one of my favorite examples of this.

His material gets very serious at times, most especially when he is talking about his father -- a relationship he seems to still be working through. His likening of his father to the old man in Neil Diamond's "Morningside" seemed to flesh him out for us somewhat. (Wise is a long-time fan of at least Diamond's earlier material, having included a rendition of "Holly Holy" on his Sweet Water LP of the early '70s. The album, one of at least twenty LPs Wise has recorded since the 1960s, focuses on songs by other songwriters, likely his only album to do that.)

All in all, it was a very personal, at times moving, performance, The Kentucky Contemporary Theatre was the perfect setting for such an intimate sharing, and would have been a great setting for a few songs as well, I might add, but I won't say that.

The recitations seem to be just one more step in the ongoing effort of Joe Wise to humanize himself, something that he is doing quite admirably.

Who knows what he will pull out of his hat next?

Joe Wise has recorded 21 record LPs of mostly original material, authored three books, and written the score for a film. His most recent "new direction" was the inclusion of his humorous "Aching for Basketball" article in the December 18 issue of Sports Illustrated.