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Column from web archive October 23, 2008

Judy Henske

Judy Henske: Queen of the Beatniks

I’m gay. I knew it before I hit puberty. It’s no big deal: I’m just wired to dig guys. But my lizard brain, the part that handles truly vital decisions – like “fight or flight” – responds powerfully to women. Especially oddball female musicians who exude confidence. “Tough broads,” they called them in pre-PC days.

I credit Julie London. Not her music, per se. Her 1955 signature hit “Cry Me A River” delivers a knife twist at the end, but her singing was always whisper soft. No, it was her acting role as Nurse Dixie McCall on the ’70s TV drama Emergency! that branded my psyche as a small child. In a world of male paramedics, firefighters and doctors, where other damsels were always in distress, no-nonsense Dixie held her own. She was my first “tough broad.”

As I grew older, my musical tastes continued the trend. From cult nightclub entertainer Frances Faye, to punk-turned-dub-poet-turned-chanteuse Little Annie, to Beth Ditto of the Gossip, when my ears heard a strong, idiosyncratic lady, the lizard brain kicked into high gear. It cheered. It bought records. It offered to let bands sleep on my floor. And if the artist in question seemed a bit of an underdog, so much the better; we downtrodden types must band together.

So it was last week, when I was flipping through used LPs in the folk “new arrivals” bin at Vinyl Resting Place in Portland, Oregon, when I saw it: A jacket emblazoned with the name Judy Henske in Kool-Aid colors, and a photo of a cool brunette with bobbed hair, casting a sideways glance that dared me not to pick up her album. I knew nothing about this woman. But the lizard brain was sounding alarms.

The black-and-white picture on the back was even more compelling: Miss Henske posed before a microphone with eyes closed, mouth agape in mid-wail. I scanned the selections and recognized some old friends: “Wade In The Water”, “Lilac Wine”, “Empty Bed Blues”. Though my partner and I had been talking just moments before about how to cut expenses as the recession looms, I yanked out my wallet before rational thought could stop me.

Back home, I quickly learned this was eight dollars well spent. Although it was released on Elektra in 1963 (it was reissued in 2002 by Collector’s Choice), Henske’s debut, which was recorded live, is far from standard folk fare. Our heroine goes at her selections like an earth-mover, with a gutsy yet (barely) controlled delivery that foreshadows better-known singers such as Mama Cass and Grace Slick. This isn’t exactly rock or blues, and it certainly isn’t folk, although Henske proves perfectly adept at scaling back when accompanied by small ensemble, or leading an audience sing-along.

And what really grabbed me was her kooky introductions. She prefaces a murder ballad (“Ballad Of Little Romy”) with a monologue that includes a surreal description of picnic lunches by the riverside where Romy is about to perish. Before launching into “Salvation Army Song”, Henske asserts that it only qualifies as an authentic folk song because she learned it from someone who went to prison. Suddenly the stage patter of the pre-Disney, pre-Vegas Bette Midler doesn’t seem so original.

After research, I realized Henske has been hovering around the periphery of my musical universe for ages. At the recommendation of a colleague, I had solicited a review copy of the recent CD reissue of Farewell Aldebaran, Henske’s 1969 psychedelic foray with Jerry Yester (of the Lovin’ Spoonful). For reasons I’ve forgotten, my frontal lobe dismissed the disc. I even had a Judy Henske song (“Road To Nowhere”, 1966) on my iPod for a while, after I imported The Jack Nitzsche Story: Hearing Is Believing . The legendary arranger and producer dubbed Henske “Queen of the Beatniks,” but somehow, I’d remained oblivious to her charms. My lizard brain, with its instincts for self-preservation and the promotion of “tough broads,” refused to let this folly continue any longer.

Henske’s connections to everyone from the aforementioned Slick and Midler to crime novelist Andrew Vachss abound on the internet. As then there’s the Rhino Handmade career-spanning anthology Big Judy: How Far This Music Goes (1962-2004). For now, I’m content with investigating her career online…and spinning my second-hand copy of her self-titled album.

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