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True Blues
"Magic" Judy Henske

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The food was hot. And limp. The soup was thin. The rice clumped, the vegetables sagged. The pork was undercooked. "You like this?" I asked him. Judy Henske

"Yeah, it's great. They don't use any MSG either."

"You need to try some of Mama's cooking someday," I told him.

"What's the difference?"

"Same as between Debbie Gibson and Judy Henske."

"Which is Debbie Gibson?"

"This stuff."

"Oh." He took a deep mouthful of the food, chewed it experimentally. "So who's Judy Henske?" he asked.

...He started tentatively, getting the feel of the controls—the way you're supposed to. He gave it too much gas coming out and the Plymouth got sideways on the dirt. The kid didn't panic, just turned the wheel in the direction of the skid and powered right out.

"Wow! This bad boy's got some juice!"

"All right, don't get us arrested now."

"I'm okay," the kid said, leaning into a curve. "Where do we go now?"

"We're done for tonight," I told him. "Just head on back."

The Plymouth reached the main road. The kid gave it the gun, the torque jamming him back against the seat. He adjusted his posture, a grin slashing across his face.

"Okay if I take the long way?" he asked.

I nodded. The kid pulled off the highway, found a twisting piece of two-lane blacktop. he kicked on the high beams, drew a breath when he saw they were hot enough to remove paint...

He had the Plymouth wailing by then, flitting over the surface of the blacktop. We might as well have been in the West Virginia mountains with a trunk of white lightning. I reached into the glove compartment, popped a cassette into the slot, turned it on. "Dark Angel" throbbed through the speakers, darker than the night outside, with more hormones than the monster engine.

"Jesus!" the kid yelled. "What's that?"

"That's Judy Henske, kid."

He gunned the Plymouth around a long sweeper leading back to the highway, a huge grin plastered across his face, Henske's sex-barbed blues driving right along with him.

"I gotta try some of that Chinese food." he said.

—excerpted from pages 78, 81-82 of the Vintage edition of Down In The Zero, by Andrew Vachss ©1994.

If you want to hear Judy Henske's singing for yourself, go to her website and order directly from her. Elektra has made available much of her early catalog, and Judy has recorded some new albums, too!

Judy Henske at McCabe's

By Eve Babitz
Originally published in Smart No. 10

Pauline Kael was so mad at Judy Henske for not performing for so long that she stopped speaking to her about seven years ago. And if you'd seen Judy Henske (the "Legendary Queen of the Beatniks," according to Jack Nietzsche) last night at McCabe's, you might have found yourself agreeing with Pauline even though you'd promised yourself that she could never be right about anything again after she said Scrooged was not that rotten.

It was one of those too-cold Los Angeles nights when you think you're in San Francisco, but outside McCabe's there was a line a block long anyway. The people were all there for Judy's first show in maybe twenty years. It was sold out days in advance on the strength of one tiny newspaper announcement in the back pages of L.A. Weekly. Luckily, Judy Henske is my friend, so I got in free, but I did have to stand in line as if it were 1972 and I were waiting outside the Troubadour for James Taylor.

The first time I heard about Judy Henske, it was from this strange man named Herb Cohen, who managed her. In 1961 or so he told me that there was someone besides me who knew the lyrics to "Empty Bed Blues" and "Good Old Wagon" and could sing them in tune (instead of the way I sang them, which wasn't) and that I should come see her at a recording session she was doing, which I did. She stunned me that day because she was the first white woman I ever heard sing the blues. When my friend Paul Ruscha saw her onstage, he said, "This is the first time I've ever seen a tall woman having a good time." So, from the beginning, I have always thought of Judy Henske as a tall white woman who has a good time singing the blues.

After a valley-musician marriage to the folksinger Jerry Yester, Judy met, in the early seventies, a man taller than she was, Craig Doerge, who convinced her to be his consort and writing partner. This led to her writing a bunch of songs for Crosby, Stills and Nash. Then came residuals, and once you start getting residuals, it's hard to motivate yourself to go back on the stage—especially if, like Judy Henske, you have a daughter whom you want to grow up as something other than the child of a nightclub act, But after Kate, the daughter, became old enough to leave Pasadena (where Judy and Craig live in a kind of Spanish-love-song house) and go to school in Santa Cruz, Judy and Craig found themselves with a lot of free time on their hands. And what they did was concoct the most brilliant cabaret act God has ever allowed down here on earth.

The Legendary Queen of the Beatniks took the stage at McCabe's dressed in a tie-dyed T-shirt, a terrible maroon vest, a too-long Beatle necktie, a ridiculous black jacket with one shoulder completely encrusted with sequined pigs and things, and black tights. "I used to wear a lot of black dresses with boas," she said, "but today I want to look funnier." Her hair was streaked blond, which was also a little disorienting for anyone who remembers her with wonderful black hair that was extremely long and sexy. But even if you missed her old hair, when she launched into the most incredible version of "Stagger Lee" that anyone in the audience had ever heard, we were all putty in her hands—quivering masses of hysterical laughter, unless she was singing a sad song, in which case we were quivering masses of hopelessness and despair.

"She looks like Miss Pamela," the guy sitting next to me at McCabe's exclaimed, referring to Pamela Des Barres, the girl who was "with the band" in the worst (or best) way. And it was true that there was something about Judy Henske standing onstage, even though she's nearly six feet tall, that reminded me of the sweetness and looniness of the wonderful Pamela, who's such a cream puff. I thought about it and decided that Pamela's sexiness is like the custard underneath the burned part in a creme brulee, whereas Judy is the burned part—sweet but not that gooey.

Somewhere in the set, Judy Henske recited a "poem" about the Goodyear blimp, which she referred to as a "silver salami" and the "Mylar sky ham." This was a joke about the crushing seriousness at local poetry readings, which was funny except that I've been to these readings and know they aren't so crushingly serious that people scowl you off the stage. Anyway, by the time she sang "Until the Real Thing Comes Along," the audience was so convinced of her invincibility that nobody seemed to be able to breathe. Afterward, a member of the Comedy Store faction insisted that Judy start performing there, which made a kind of sense because we were laughing so much of the time when she introduced her songs. The woman is a very sneaky genius, and until the real thing comes along—like an offer to go uptown and perform on Broadway doing two hours of her own stuff—this, I suppose, will have to do. What I know for sure is that the lines outside McCabe's are going to get longer.

Eve Babitz is the author of Slow Days, Fast Company.


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