Category Archives: music

The Singer not the Song

On the subject of John Martyn, I have been informed (see comments) that he didn’t write ‘Rather Be The Devil’ but covered it.  I was curious to hear the original so I looked it up: it’s very different from Martyn’s version, being more of a typical blues number:

It set me thinking about how different a song can be when performed by different artists, and that led me to the original version of this number:

Like most people I knew Harry Nilssen’s cover but not this one, and there’s no comparison.  The Badfinger version is pleasant enough but plodding and dull; and when it comes to the chorus it just sounds plain awful.  Compare and contrast: the Nilssen number is utterly heartbreaking:-

All of which leads me to ‘Hallelujah,’ perhaps one of the most covered songs in the history of song, with so many versions that now is the time to call a halt.  Cohen himself said it had been covered too much, and some of the versions are saccharinely awful, showing scant respect or understanding.  There are some covers I admire, however, probably the best being Rufus Wainright’s:

All right.  That’s enough songs for today.

Kirk out

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Merry Christmas to All

Before the sun dips below the horizon and before I dip below the sofa, I shall take this opportunity to wish all my readers a merry Christmas and a happy new year.  This afternoon I turned the radio on and realised it was time once again for the Nine Lessons and Carols, which always starts with the announcer saying:

‘And as the sun dips below the horizon a single voice begins the service of Nine Lessons and Carols’ (or words to that effect) and then a choirboy sings the first verse of ‘Once in Royal.’  There’s a great power in the annual repetition of these carols: this afternoon I went to an open-air carol singing next to the Carillon, a famous bell-tower in the centre of Loughborough, where the choir had to synchronise carols with the ringing of the bells.  I like carols: they’re atmospheric, poetic, cheerful and above all they link every Christmas back to my earliest childhood.  I usually find I know all the traditional ones by heart, having sung them so often.

When I was a child Christmases always followed the same pattern: church in the morning, Christmas dinner around one o’clock (the full works, usually with ten or twelve of us round the large dining-room table: this was used as a lumber-room for the rest of the year and only cleared out for Christmas).  There would be a rest before a Christmas pudding which would be set alight in a darkened room; served with custard, cream and home made mince pie, after which the adults would go for a lie-down and we kids would play with our presents.  At around seven the adults would dress (I kid you not) and we would assemble in the living-room for parlour-games until about nine when we would eat a buffet supper of rice salad, cheese, ham and other savouries.

But I forgot the Queen!  How could I forget the Queen?  At three o’clock precisely the entire family would settle in the lounge, the TV would be ceremoniously switched on and silence would prevail for the ten minutes or so of Her Madge’s address, after which the TV set would be returned to darkness.  At no time either before or subsequently was the TV watched on Christmas Day.

As a child I chafed against this: all my friends were watching the fabulous array of films and seasonal programmes which were only available at this time of year: and we were missing them.  As a teenager I thought it was unutterably lame to play parlour games – but I have to admit we’ve reinstated some of these traditions in our own Christmases, so that Holly and her boyfriend were yesterday subjected to charades.

They seemed to enjoy it, though I did discover it’s extremely difficult to mime ‘Minority Report.’

Anyway, at the risk of sounding too much like HM herself, it’s been a pleasure getting to know all my readers and followers.  If you follow or even comment I will take a look at your blog and I’ve come into contact with some really interesting life stories.  So keep it up; keep safe and warm and have a fabulous Christmas.

Love, Kirk

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An ‘O-Come-All-Ye’?

In some quarters in the folk music world you are invited to a ‘come-all-ye’; a traditional way of describing an open mic night (or, since this is folk, an open ‘finger-in-ear’ night).  I’ve always liked the expression ‘come-all-ye’ whilst finding it faintly risible at the same time, an attitude which pretty much sums up my response to the folk music world in general.  So, I guess if a singalong in folk is a come-all-ye, then a Christmas carol singalong would be an ‘O-come-all-ye’ – geddit?  And it was to two such events that I came – or went – yesterday, one Quakerly and one ecclesiastical.

The Quakers in Loughborough gathered for carols and readings – the readings were mostly poems – after meeting yesterday.  We had all the traditional carols in the tunes I like, some a capella but most accompanied by a harpist, a flautist, a bass guitarist and an acoustic guitarist.  It was terrific fun and quite moving at the same time, and I read a poem of mine about global warming called ‘In the Deep Mid-Autumn.’   Then in the evening at Emmanuel there was the traditional Nine Lessons and Carols which began with a single voice singing ‘Once in Royal’; the choir on the second verse and the congregation rising to their feet with a hushed movement to sing the rest.

If there is one thing I miss in being a Quaker, it’s the music.  Traditional hymns and carols have laid down patterns in my brain from a very early age; patterns which relate to poetry and maths and emotion and spirit.  But the thing that lifts the roof off my head is to sing ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ with the descant.  You get to the penultimate verse and you begin with your pedestrian melody.  You wait: and in the chorus it comes; the first voice going up like a rocket into the sky and hovering in the air; then the secong going up, following it and doing some pirouettes before reaching its final high note and ceasing to blackness.  When that chorus comes I can’t sing; I just have to listen.

Sadly yesterday we did not sing the tune I love the best to ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’, which is this one by Harold Darke:

Kirk out

 

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Grace

I have said that Leonard was a bizarre kind of guru for me, and so he was: and not so much for his art as such (though that has influenced me like a virus in the blood) as for his manner.  The way in which he dealt with success has been something I’ve sought to emulate, above all because of his graciousness.

Leonard is gracious to his opponents.  In the early days, as many of you will remember, it was hard to be a follower of Cohen.  Along with others, I got a lot of stick for it: my parents unkindly called him ‘old groaner’ and people would trot out the usual tropes about ‘music to slash your wrists by.’  It was most unfair on someone who had a bleak and authentic beauty and a wicked sense of humour.  But things changed, and by the end of the 80’s, after ‘Hallelujah’, it was OK to like him.  He became mainstream – or almost – and everyone you met had heard his name.

You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name

I went to see him at some point around then and there was a sense of total triumph; not against his critics, but against those dark forces which had held him back for so long: depression and – yes, his unfortunate tendency to pursue women.  Deciding that this was no longer making him happy, he became celibate and entered a monastery; photographs of him were issued with a shaven head and wearing monks’ robes.  He embraced Zen and paradox as he had earlier embraced the poetry of Lorca, but without betraying any of his former influences, and this above all, is I think the reason I admire him so much.  Many artists go through phases where they renounce those things which influenced them so deeply before: Leonard never did that.  He wove it all into one amazing tapestry; past loves and past lovers, poets and philosophers, Judaism and Zen – it was all one.

And this led to an extraordinary grace in his public dealings.  I never heard him slag anyone off: when Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize which some thought should have gone to Cohen (not me, I don’t think it’s appropriate for songwriters) he said ‘It’s like pinning a medal on Everest for being the highest mountain.’  I think Cohen’s lyrics are far superior to Dylan’s, but that’s not the point.  He is always gracious in defeat; and when personal and financial tragedy struck with one blow and his agent and lover, Kelly Lynch, absconded with savings amounting to $5 million; all he said was, ‘We understand that these things happen.’  Despite a court order, Lynch never paid back any of the money, so Leonard was forced to go back on the road.  But he shows no bitterness, no condemnation, no vitriol.  And that is why I admire him so.

On stage he is unfailingly gracious too.  When I first saw him he was almost alone, sometimes accompanied by two or three women, but nowadays he has a raft of backing performers; usually a band and two or three singers.  He not only acknowledges them at the end, he gives them time and space to perform in their own right.  When we saw him in 2008 he gave ‘If it Be Your Will’ to the Webb Sisters to perform, and they were sublime.

This graciousness extends to the audience, too.  Leonard never, ever took his audience for granted, and I have read that when rehearsals are over and the stage is set, Leonard and the band sit down together for a meal and a drink wherein they toast the audience.  You can feel this appreciation for your presence when you are there, too.

We will never see his like again but as I said we can best honour his memory by following our own voice.

Here’s his best-known song: one whose rights, ironically, were stolen from him.  Later he said it should belong to everyone; and so it does.

Listen to Leonard’s comments about the song at the beginning, too.

Kirk out

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Reconnaissance

Where rock bands tour to ‘get the product out there’ or to meet and f*** chicks or just because being on stage was a giant ego-trip, Leonard talked about touring as a kind of ‘reconnaissance’.  For him it was as much about the audience as it was about his art: touring was a way of meeting people and finding out ‘where they are at.’  That sounds very ‘sixties, and so it was – he visited Cuba at the time of the Bay of Pigs to find out what was going on – but it also represented the relationship he had with audiences the world over.  Leonard responds to the mood of a crowd: at one of his early concerts – I think it was at the Isle of Wight festival – there was nearly a riot and he went up on stage and calmed them down just by being who he was.  At another event (or maybe it was the same event) where the authorities were trying to shut the concert down, he sang, ‘they came up on the stage and they won’t go back no more.’  People surged forward and scrambled up onto the stage where, instead of mobbing Leonard, they left a respectful space all around him.

There was something of this energy in the space left around his death.  He died on Monday but the news was not released for three days – I didn’t hear until the Friday – because his family needed that time and space for their own grief.  It is hard to imagine the death and funeral of another, equally famous, singer where the news would not be leaked somehow.  It is dignified and fitting that he should die and be buried so, in private, when no-one outside his family even knew he was ill.  He has been buried in an unmarked coffin next to his parents, as per his request.  No celebrity tomb for him: again, this is most fitting for someone whose art far transcended his ego.

Cohen was no saint, but there was something priestlike about him – unsurprisingly, given that there were several rabbis in his family.  His concerts are almost rituals; his songs are prayers even when they don’t, like ‘The Story of Isaac,’ have a specifically religious theme.  His voice was hypnotic, as if there were some kind of liquid link between him and his audience.

For me his life began in a classroom in 1972 with a crackly rendition of ‘Suzanne’ and continued in my room where for years and years I played his songs alone, ridiculed by family and friends, listening to that lonely voice echoing down tube-tunnels and once or twice, gloriously amplified in concert.  He was a secret known only to a few of us back then.  Now the world knows him, and we will not forget.

Here’s what I’m listening to today:

Kirk out

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The Prince of Paradox

There’s going to be a lot of Cohen on this blog in the coming days, so hang onto your hats just as he is in this photo:

The thing I want to write about today is his gift for presenting paradox.  As first of all a Jew and later a Zen Buddhist, Cohen was very drawn to what he saw as the paradoxes inherent in human life; and today’s song illustrates this beautifully – as well as being utterly timely.  In fact it’s tempting to wonder whether the election of the man whom I shall refer to only as Mr T, is what convinced him to go.  My tribute to this side of his work is very short: as I have said, Leonard was a guru of sorts for me; someone who seemed to show the way – or a way – to be an artist in this world, to handle fame graciously whilst never compromising in following his own voice.  That above all is what I respected in him.  Anyway, Leonard was the perfect guru for me because he would never had wanted to be anyone’s guru.  So that makes him perfect for someone like me, because like the Groucho Marx of discipleship, I would never choose for a guru, someone who actually wanted to be one.  So here’s my little wild bouquet for today:

Guru

Leonard
you taught me to embrace paradox
with both hands tied
behind my back.

He also taught self-deprecation.  This was a hallmark of his public style right from the sixties – when it was fashionable – through the nineties and after, when it most certainly wasn’t.  When every other performer was relentlessly engaged in self-promotion he undercut himself with jokes.  He was famous for being gloomy, but this was most unfair.  A lot of his songs are full of jokes, and when interviewed he had the journalists in stitches with his wry, self-deprecating humour.

So here’s today’s song.  I hope you find it as funny and as timely as I do:

And it may well be from the very concert we were at!

Kirk out

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There Are No Words

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There are no words, and yet I must find some; unpack my heart with them for the news broke today that he is dead.  The most bizarre of gurus, the poet of song, the soldier of the heart, has died.  We don’t know how, we don’t know why – but he knew that he was going.  He wrote to Marianne that he would soon follow her and he said on the release of his new album ‘You Want it Darker’ (and I have to wait till Christmas to get it!  Sob!) that he was ready to die – though he afterwards joked that he’d spoken to soon.  ‘I’m going to live to 120,’ he declared.

He was 82.  I’m not going to give a run-down of his career here; you can read that in a hundred other places.  I’m just going to talk about what he meant to me.  And this is only possible in poetry.

On some other plane we met

because your heart touched mine

where frozen roses can’t forget

in aisle number 9

I couldn’t reach to touch your arm

your elbow was too long

only let me listen

to your eternal song.

(c) Sarada Gray 2010

Leonard was a kind of guru for many; the type of person who inspired followers as well as fans for the way in which he lived his life.  If ever I’m trying to think my way through a poetry-related situation, I ask myself ‘what would Leonard do?’ and usually an answer comes.  His devotion to art was total; he sacrificed everything to it and, in his own words, ended up ‘on his hands and knees at 3 a m pursuing a lyric.’

Tribute

Leonard

you have so many flowers

you don’t need my wild bouquet

and the ceasing of your powers

has struck our souls today

I’ll never get to tell you

how I suffered for your art,

but I think you would have smiled at that –

you soldier of the heart.

Leonard was always interesting.  You never knew what he would do next because he never knew what he would do next.  His career never followed a set pattern; it started and stopped; and just when you thought he’d never perform again, his agent and lover stole all his money and he had to hit the road.  It was this heartbreaking event (and the name of Kelly Lynch will go down in infamy, though he wouldn’t want us to remember it) that triggered some of his best work and led to something much, much more than just a second wind.  He continued writing and performing almost until the end, though in the last few years he clearly did not have strength to go on tour.

We saw him last in 2008.  He was 75 then; he did several encores and ended the concert by skipping off the stage!  I hope I do as well as he when I am that age.  The cover of ‘Popular Problems’ has a picture of him sitting in tailor’s pose cleaning some shoes.  He looks utterly comfortable.

I don’t have time and space yet to say all that he meant to me.  Maybe there won’t be enough time or space ever; but here’s another poem directly inspired by his work:

Last Day of Summer, October 2010

It’s four in the evening

the end of October

the lights drawing on

as the summer grows sober

the frost is far-off

and the ice by an age

your famous blue raincoat

is sweating on stage

the leaves fallen down

the sun sinking low

when will it be perishing?

When will it snow?

The autumn’s a mimic

it parodies summer

the chill is a gimmick

it sweats like a mummer

and the dove

came

down with a branch in its beak

to give up to the meek

well I see God’s away

it’s the end of the week

(c) Sarada Gray, 2010

This poem is far from finished but it’s one of the few I’ve written that are more directly inspired by Cohen.  Truth be told, it’s impossible to say how he has influenced me, as it’s impossible to trace the course of a virus.  When did it start?  I first heard him in 1972, but maybe I contracted the infection before that.  Who knows?  But he got into my blood and there he stayed.

I am not Leonard; I am perhaps not much like him at all.  But the best way to honour someone who inspired you is, in the end, to write exactly like yourself.

RIP Leonard, we love you.

Kirk out

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