Category Archives: music

Silent Music: Leonard, Prince of Paradox

Today I am spending the entire day honouring the memory of Leonard Cohen; poet, singer, guitarist and songwriter (1934-2016).  Although his death wasn’t announced until Nov 16th, he actually died on 7th, so it was one year ago today that we lost him.

Here’s how I found him.  It’s 1972 and I’m in a schoolroom in West London.  We are awaiting an English lesson when in comes a student teacher followed by a caretaker carrying a record player.  Great excitement: we rarely have music in class.  The teacher puts on the record and says, ‘we’re going to listen to this song and then discuss the lyrics.’  The guitar sounded, the voice began – and I was lost.

In those early days his voice haunted me like a busker on the underground, seeming to echo from afar down a long, dark tunnel.  But from the first inoculation he was in my blood, and there was no getting him out.  Vast wastes of emotion opened up in me: here was a way to link god and sex (which the church had cast asunder) here was a landscape of sublimity and pain – above all, here was one who was not afraid to stand and open his heart for all to see.  I loved that in him, as so many did.

Leonard was not a whole man, and he was unafraid to tell us so: the word ‘broken’ seemed to resonate through his early work where despair often won out over exaltation.  Whirled by winds of ‘deep distress’, he landed on Mount Baldy, a Zen monastery outside Los Angeles where he woke before dawn and walked through the snow to sit, silent and shorn, in meditation:

https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwiU7abRqKzXAhXiK8AKHWReAKYQjB0IBg&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.leonardcohenforum.com%2Fsearch.php%3Fst%3D0%26sk%3Dt%26sd%3Dd%26keywords%3D%252Bnovels%2B%2B%26fid%255B%255D%3D3%26ch%3D-1&psig=AOvVaw2SGymFgp4TNEmDg00wdVSE&ust=1510139077994737

Since he never spoke, the other monks knew him only as zhikan, ‘the silent one’, having no idea that outside the monastery he was a famous singer.  But then, Cohen had so many incarnations: poet, Cuban revolutionary, Scientologist (‘did you ever go clear?’) Jew, Zen Buddhist, prophet and guru – and those are only the ones I know about.

And as for me, what can I tell you, my brother, my killer?  How can I possibly explain what Cohen meant to me?  I loved the openness in him, the way he never put on a front or pretended to be other than he was.  I loved the way he pursued each line of a song, even to the point of crawling across a hotel bedroom floor at 3 am trying to get it right.  And most of all I loved the way he treated his audience.

For Cohen, tours were not so much a way of promoting a record (though they were of course that) as a kind of reconnaissance, a way of experiencing the zeitgeist.  He had a great respect for his audience and in concerts he gave his all, dispensing with a support act and doing encores which sometime stretched out as long as the main set.  The last time we saw him, though he looked so much older, he skipped off the stage at the end: he was then 75.

And yet in those early years I suffered for his art.  Like other disciples before me I was pilloried in public for my allegiance to Cohen; I was mocked and jeered at.  The ‘grocer of despair’ was too easily dismissed as the bard of the suicidal (‘one hand on my suicide’) by those who never glimpsed his beauty.  As for Cohen himself, in those early years he was described as having ‘the stoop of an aged crop-picker and the face of a curious little boy’ but with meditation the stoop went and by and large he aged well, still looking good right into his sixties:

 

Image result for Leonard Cohen

(image removed on request)

In public Cohen was courteous and dignified, refusing to hit back at his critics or fight rudeness with rudeness.  But, though many consider him a sort of guru, Cohen was no saint; and his Achilles heel was women.  He did go through a period of celibacy at Mount Baldy, but in general seemed unable to stop pursuing women; and not limiting himself to one at at time either: Jennifer Warnes once sadly remarked that she never had a relationship with Cohen because she knew it wouldn’t be exclusive.  From the outside it appears that he never found lasting happiness or stability in relationships: his early affair with the Marianne of the song seemed a brief oasis in a stormy life; a storm which escalated into a crisis when his agent Kelly Lynch stole $5m and left him penniless.  Cohen showed remarkable public forbearance in the face of such devastation: all he would say was, ‘we understand that these things happen.’  But though we felt for him we were also delighted because a career which had seemed dead and buried was resurrected: Leonard was on the road again.

He continued recording almost to the day he died: his final album, ‘You Want it Darker,’ was released just 19 days before his death and recorded with difficulty.  In the end his son Adam had to stick a mic on a desk and into this Leonard breathed his last songs.  They do not, of course, have the vigour of his earlier work, but are nonetheless infused with a bleak beauty.

No, Cohen was no saint: but he was a prophet of sorts and for me a kind of paradoxical guru.  Leonard never would have wanted to be anyone’s guru: I never wanted to have a guru.  It’s the perfect relationship; and for me he will always be a guiding voice; bleak, sublime, courteous and above all, to his own self true.

If you want to know more, here’s the official site:

http://leonardcohen.com

and here’s my blog post about that concert in 2008:

https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2008/07/20/songs-of-leonard-cohen-170708/

RIP Leonard, we love you.

Kirk out

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I Have A Dead Ringer

Yes, it’s all too horribly true: my phone ringer is dead.  Or maybe it’s sleeping; either way on any of the various occasions when it is supposed to make a noise – alarm, text, call, facebook message, facebook update, reminder and god knows what else – it is content to make a sudden purr like an intermittent cat.  In other words it does everything it should do when it’s on silent, but it isn’t.  I have checked and double-checked the settings; I have (in the time-honoured way) turned things off and on and on and off again and still it persists in purring.  So I must perforce consider the meaning of the term ‘dead ringer’.  Jeremy Irons (once my favourite actor) plays twins in a film of that name, Meat Loaf sang about it and the Radio 4 programme features it.  So what is it?

The origin of the phrase is apparently from horse-racing: ‘dead’ meaning ‘exact’ (as in ‘dead heat’) and ‘ringer’ meaning a horse falsely substituted for another which it resembles.  Hence a dead ringer, meaning an exact lookalike.  At least I’ve always understood it to mean a lookalike, which makes the radio 4 concept somewhat paradoxical don’t it?

https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/dead-ringer.html

Still it’s a fun programme: Tom Baker is a staple and they do Boris Johnson brilliantly:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007gd85/episodes/player

Here’s the Meat Loaf song:

 

and here’s the film:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0094964/

A short one today but what do you expect?  My ringer is dead…

Kirk out

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What Manner of Folk be These, with Aran Sweater and Finger in Ye Ear?

English folk music is not nearly as well-respected as its Irish or Scots counterparts.  Maybe this is because we’re the dominant country, so we don’t have as much oppression to sing about – though I’d question this, in the light of historical events such as the Industrial Revolution.  But folk doesn’t have to be about oppression: much of it is about love – a love of place or a love of person (usually a woman since, let’s face it, most of these things were written by men) – and there’s a simplicity about the songs.  They arise out of working-class traditions and may not be erudite or complex but nevertheless have an authenticity.  Consider the simple pun on thyme/time in ‘A Bunch of Thyme’:

This also illustrates the primacy of the oral tradition, as the pun suffers from being written down.

English folk music has long been the object of ridicule: the sneers I’ve been subjected to for liking folk clubs are second only to those I suffered for being a Leonard Cohen fan.  The finger-in-the-ear-whilst-singing-nasally is a cliche too easily trotted out by cynics; but folk clubs are by and large open and inclusive spaces where a variety of styles can be aired and where people can come together to share songs.  You may think it’s ridiculous for a bunch of middle-class, middle-aged English folk to sing about being ‘lonely round the fields of Athenry’ but to join in with an impromptu rendering of a song you love is a moving experience.  It ain’t clubbing on acid, but it’s humming on real ale – and I like it.

Not that any of this sums up my experience last night.  I’d been meaning to go to Loughborough Acoustics for months and finally made it last night.  The club which hosts it boasted all the atmosphere of a wet bus shelter in Skelmersdale: I opened the folk room door with an ominous creak to find two-and-a-half men (one half hidden behind a PA) one of whom was on stage and tuning up.  I was greeted with all the enthusiasm of a horizontal wind blowing into the aforementioned bus shelter and approached the bar to see a complete absence of any Proper Beer.  Oh dear.  In the end I had some water and sat down to listen.

To be fair, I must have picked the worst night of the year to go to the club since everyone was apparently at some festival or other (not Glasto, I’m assuming).  It got better; people did eventually talk to me and by half-time I had thawed out somewhat, emotionally speaking.

I’ll give it another try.  Mind you, when I told my daughter I was going to a folk club she said ‘oh, what sort of folk are they?’  I think she considers me ripe for some sort of pensioners’ jamboree.  *Sigh*.  I guess this is what it’s like to hit sixty…

Kirk out

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The Relief of Mattocking

Having come across it in an archaeological context (I have written on many occasions about my brief career as an archaeologist), I did not expect to find a mattock in a garden shed.  To be fair, it is a rather smaller mattock than I’ve been used to, having only one blade and no ‘pickaxe’ bit on the other side, so that at first I took it for a hoe.  But hoe it is not.  It is, as I told Daniel in an effort to engage his enthusiasm, an earth-smasher, a clod-annihilator, a veritable soil-threshing machine.  And it worked!  He smashed away with vim and vigour and mattocked half the area marked out for him to plant his own stuff in.

For which relief, much thanks.  And if you don’t get the reference, you must be younger than I am:

http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/relief-mafeking

Speaking of Daniel’s enthusiasm, he has been far from idle.  In addition to learning classical and folk guitar, he is producing some stonking graphic art.  Take a look at this speed-video of him working:

That’s it for today.  Too hot to write much.

Kirk out

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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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