“Johnny Can’t Read” by Don Henley
(Words/Music: Don Henley and Danny Kortchmar, Album: I Can’t Stand Still, Asylum Records 1982)
With his I Can’t Stand Still album, Don Henley demonstrates his determination to launch a successful solo career and to do it on his own terms. Noticeably absent on this album are any guest appearances by other musical superstars. When Stevie Nicks released her first solo album Bella Donna after leaving Fleetwood Mac, it featured two duets with famous rock stars (Don Henley and Tom Petty). Henley felt the need to go it alone. Additionally, I Can’t Stand Still marks a musical departure from the straight-forward rock band approach of The Eagles by incorporating electric keyboards and synthesizers, nearly creating an 80s New Wave sound. Finally, the first two singles from the album, “Dirty Laundry” and “Johnny Can’t Read,” indicate that his solo career would have a decidedly more social conscious feel than the music of The Eagles. In fact, the break that Henley makes from his original stardom are so complete, the only way one may pick up that Henley was a former member of one of the 70s greatest bands is in the fade out during which Henley speaks “There’s a new kid on town,” a reference to a song by his previous band.
When it was released in 1982 during my formative music-listening years, this song had an immediate impact on me. I was a pretty good student in school at that time and I couldn’t believe that there were people, for one reason or another, who couldn’t read. I had never heard of learning disabilities and generally looked down on people who struggled in school. Oddly, at 12 years old, I was a bit of an intellectual elitist. The song tells about Johnny’s inability to read and the possible causes of it and eventually suggests that the reason is a combination of cultural distractions (from sports to girls to video games), everyone passing the buck on his education, and eventually Johnny’s failure to take responsibility for his education. Sadly, as an educator myself, I find these causes just as relevant nearly 28 years after the song was released and I’m sure they were relevant 28 years before as well. The simple fact is that no amount of standardized testing, or Special Education exemptions, or government interventions (No Child Left Behind – don’t get me started!) will ever take the place of personal responsibility and Henley espouses those same beliefs whether in this song, in “Dirty Laundry,” or in his campaign to save Walden Pond, his pet project of the 90s.