Behind the Song: “Healing Bones,” by Jules Shear & Rick Danko

It’s the title song of Jules Shear’s Healing Bones, released on the first day of 1994, and produced by Rod Argent and Peter Van Hooke.

Jules is a songwriter in love with songwriting, which is why his songs have remained so heartfelt, inventive and beautifully melodic through the decades. The joy he exudes writing songs is always injected directly into their creation, and lives in the heady discovery of new changes, tunes and metaphors which propel his singular songs.

But it’s usually a solitary joy for Jules in the writing stages of the song. Though he has co-written many great songs with others, he admits he doesn’t like collaborating:“You know all those little decisions you have to make writing songs? Those are tough enough to make on your own. But having to do it with someone else is just awful.” 


But every now and then he writes songs with someone and it works, and the joy remains. With Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles he wrote a lot of good songs. As he did with Rick Danko and other members of The Band.

In 1991, after Robbie Robertson left The Band and Richard Manuel had died, the three remaining members – Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Rick Danko – turned to Jules – who happened to live in Woodstock – to join them in writing new songs. Together they wrote many, which for several reasons were not released on an album by The Band, though some have turned up elsewhere.

Jules recorded two of the Danko co-writes on the Healing Bones album; this one and “Never Again and Forever.”

Jules spoke about writing this song with Danko in a recent interview for this magazine. “We wrote the musical part together,” he said, “with [Danko] sort of playing those chord changes and me singing. He was playing and I was making up melodies. And then he left and I wrote the words.”

Danko’s changes are a beautiful springboard for this classic, aching Jules melody. It constantly veers back and forth from E major to E minor, and then bursts forth in the chorus into all bright, chromatic major chords – somewhat of a signature Jules technique. He used those changes and wrote a remarkably aching, heartrending melody which explodes from sorrowful to exultant and back again. 

Jules Shear, “Healing Bones”

“When it finally hits that major chord [in the chorus],” Jules said, “it’s got a little bit of that skies-opening-up quality that I really like.” 

Then he humbly attributed much of its greatness to Danko: “Well, Danko, you know, he’s connected to all those kinds of feelings. When he makes up stuff, he’s got music dripping off of him. But a lot of times he doesn’t coordinate it all in the form of songs. So that sort of becomes my task.” 

For Jules, writing with Danko was joyful. And joy has forever been the constant in every song he writes. It’s very much alive in the great details of this one, and the mystery of their meaning: the menace implied but never directly stated, the sense of place as delicately detailed as a great novel (such as the “forty acres of topsoil,” “the sharp edge of a plow,” “the unbelievable symmetry,” the “obvious trail.” Also the ending of the chorus, “Hold me up against your healing bones.”)

Did he murder his beloved out in the field with a plow? Or is the pain more emotional than physical? At the end he thinks he sees her form as it moves. Is that her ghost? 

That we don’t know for sure gives the song more power, as it forces the listener to wonder; not unlike “Norwegian Wood,” by Lennon, in which we are not sure, but wonder, did he burn down her apartment at the end?  Or in “Me and Julio” by Simon – just what was it that the mama saw?

The production by Rod Argent and Peter Van Hooke is beautiful, built dynamically around Jules’ vocals and that opening-skies chorus. They put together a great band; Argent’s on keys, Van Cooke on drums, with Elliot Easton of The Cars on guitar and the amazing Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon) on bass. Tony’s bass part is great, as always, and is the glue that holds it all together.

Rick Danko Performing At Caffè Lena

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HEALING BONES
By Jules Shear & Rick Danko

From the album Healing Bones by Jules Shear
Produced by Rod Argent
Drums & Percussion: Peter Van Hooke
Keyboards: Rod Argent
Guitars Elliot Easton

Bass: Tony Levine

Lyrics:
I’m walking forward down this ribbon of dust
‘Cause where else can I go
You and 40 acres of topsoil land
Were all I ever wanted to know

It may be selective memory
But it was mine one time
And it’s my memory to keep
Tonight from miles away
Before I sleep I’ll smell something cooking on that stove

[Chorus 1]
Slow down this traveller and bring him home
Take me back in that field alone
Hold me up against your healing bones



I couldn’t see the meaning in it when I was there
And it’s so clear to me know
What we’d been building for so many years
Ends at the sharp edge of a plow

You couldn’t read my face
You had your back to me
I watched the unbelievable symmetry
You got away and I never thought you’d leave
And it’s turned me inside out

Slow down this traveller and all the unknowns
Take me back in that field alone
Hold me up against your healing bones

I’ve heard it all about what I should do
It’s all just doomed to fail
Worked in the city twelve floors up
It’s just a lot of air getting stale

In darkness one night I was so confused
I thought I could make out your form as it moved
Maybe it’s better to face up to the truth
But still I leave an obvious trail so you can

Slow down this traveller and bring him home
Take me back in that field alone
Hold me up against your healing bones
Hold me up against your healing bones
Hold me up against your healing bones

Jules in Woodstock. Photo by Dion Ogust

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