It’s Thanksgiving today in the US which, unlike the spurious phenomenon which will occur tomorrow (and which I refuse to name), is something we might do well to import. Of course it’s tainted, because everything is tainted now; tainted with the knowledge and guilt of colonialismand with the awareness that many people around the world don’t have much to be thankful for. But those of us in the blogosphere surely do; at least I do, and one of them is the latest Cohen album (yes, he’s still churning them out from beyond the grave.) Actually to say churning out does him a great disservice, for Cohen was always the slowest of writers and could take years to produce a song and decades over an album; of all artists he knew how to take time over his work. But death seems to have sped him up a little, for this one has been less than three years in the making; the bones of it are recordings he left behind and the meat on the bones is the performances by those he worked with in his lifetime. It has a bleak, faded beauty with that unmistakable Cohen flavour and as to whether it works, it’s an incredible fusion of voices and intentions.
It feels like a return to his beginnings; one voice in a room, a guitar, other voices slowly coming in with maybe a gentle sax, a Spanish guitar, a piano, some distant drums. This is no cynical attempt to milk his legacy but a genuine collection of unreleased work made more beautiful by the collaboration of his old partners. The title track recalls both Joan of Arc and Take this Waltz. The Hills builds from a single voice to a near-orchestral climax and The Night of Santiago features the plaintive passion of a flamenco guitar, echoing Cohen’s love of Lorca.
It feels like Cohen singing through an open door after supper. They could even be in the same room.
Three years ago today we lost Leonard Cohen. As I write this I’m listening to ‘Democracy’, a song which made me laugh out loud the first time I heard it (have a listen and perhaps you’ll see why). People had the idea that he was gloomy and depressing – the prince of suicide, the bard of bad vibes, the grocer of despair – but with his self-deprecating humour he could be a total hoot (‘people were very rude about my guitar-playing: they used to say I only knew three chords, when in fact I knew five.’)
It was hard in the early years to be a Cohen fan because people were so mean about him; my own mother used to call him ‘old groaner,’ which was very rude and disrespectful. After all, I was never allowed to criticise Eartha Kitt.
Actually I quite liked Eartha Kitt. But I wasn’t so keen on Mendelssohn’s Elijah which we had to listen to quite a lot.Musical taste (amongst other things) was a one-way street in our family: basically we had to listen to whatever the adults liked, which meant listening to what our Mum liked. Tired of this, one Christmas I assembled the family, turned down the lights and put on Dark Side of the Moon. Ten seconds in my Granddad grabbed my Grandma’s arm and joked ‘Gigs! I’m scared!’ and when Breathe began he started playing along with the maracas. I gave up. As for introducing them to Cohen, it was unthinkable. You might as well stand outside and ask people to throw snowballs at you.
But it got better; in the ’80’s Cohen drew widespread acclaim with ‘I’m Your Man’ and when the financial shenanigans of his manager forced him out of retirement and back on the road, a song from ‘Various Positions’ was picked up and covered by just about everyone from Rolf Harris (no, scrub that) by everyone from Willie Nelson to Justin Timberlake. My favourite apart from the original is Rufus Wainwright’s, though Jeff Buckley’s is probably more famous.It also featured in Shrek, sung by John Cale.
It was Cohen’s refusal to shy away from the darker side of life that made him challenging, especially in America where, as Jennifer Warnes put it, you’re supposed to ‘put on a smile and come out swingin’, no matter how ruined you’ve been.’
Cohen was not the most prolific of writers but over the course of his career he released 15 or so albums, the penultimate of which, ‘Popular Problems’ he joked would be succeeded by ‘Unpopular Solutions’but which was in fact followed by ‘You Want it Darker’. By the time of recording this he was so ill that he had to sit and sing the lyric into a desk mic while his son Adam produced the album.
I won’t sport with your patience by giving you a full bio; there’s plenty of information out there including the recent BBC series ‘Marianne and Leonard‘ about his time on the island of Hyra with Marianne Ihlen and her son Axel, but it seems both ironic and fitting that his two most famous songs should have both gotten away from him. He lost the rights to ‘Suzanne’ when they were stolen by an unscrupulous agent, and though he retained the rights to ‘Hallelujah’ it’s other versions which are more widely known than his.
Soldier of the heart, grocer of despair, go well.
RIP Leonard Cohen, Sept 21 1934 – Nov 7th 2016
STOP PRESS: there’s going to be a new album!!!!! composed of material he was working on, assembled by Adam Cohen and including collaboration by people who worked with him during his life. It’s called Thanks for the Danceand it’s due out on Nov 22nd. Oh. My. God.Even when he’s dead that man just can’t lie down and let himself be buried.
There’s nothing new under the sun – and not much new on this blog either. I go to write about a topic and do a little search – and lo! I find three posts on the same subject without even trying. But so what? I mean, how closely are you paying attention anyway?
I’m kidding. I know you’re all taking notes.
So, today’s topic is the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius was a stoic; which in many ways is not a philosophy I’m drawn to: I’m not much enamoured of cold showers or camping in the snow and I absolutely decline to whisper as I kiss my children good night, ‘tomorrow you might be dead.’ (I tell myself that child mortality was much higher in his time than now – but that’s not the reason. The reason is that I simply can’t contemplate it.)
But I can contemplate things which are happening at the moment – at least to some extent. I’m not sure what M A would have made of the constant negative outpouring of news to which we are subjected 24/7; I suspect he would have rationed his intake of it just as I try to do. I don’t wish to be callous; I know the situation in Syria is appalling but I don’t want to hear about it every day: I know austerity is causing suffering but there’s only so much of it I can read about. When I find myself becoming angry, frustrated, depressed or anguished I simply turn it off, reflecting that while we have a responsibility to inform ourselves about what is going on, that responsibility needs to be balanced with protecting one’s own mental health.
But where Marcus comes in really handy for me is in the personal arena; and the saying I’m focussing on right now is this:
‘Love only what happens. No greater harmony.’
Of course you can see a problem right away: how can I possibly ‘love’ some of the terrible things that happen to me? How can I ‘love’ a partner’s gender dysphoria or a son’s mental illness or a total lack of money? Well, in order to do this you have to dig deeper. You have to believe that underlying every life event is a purpose, and that that purpose is for your own highest good.
I wouldn’t presume to say this to anyone else; and neither, incidentally, did old Marcus: his sayings were written for his own use only. It’s quite heartwarming to read, across the millennia, a man writing to himself things like ‘for god’s sake stop!’ and ‘when will you ever learn?’ I can remember writing similarly frustrated exhortations to myself in my old diaries.
That a Roman Emperor who wielded power over much of the known world should find the time for reflection and the humility to chastise himself, is truly astonishing. To put his advice another way, ‘If you don’t become the ocean, you’ll be seasick every day.’ That quote is from Leonard Cohen who, despite his sexual proclivities, was in many ways a stoic, able to look death and disaster in the face and know them for what they are:
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:
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 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:
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.
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:
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!
Well I guess for me, my favourite aspect is the tremendous sense of liberation which comes from ‘unpacking the heart.’ That phrase is used rather disparagingly by Hamlet, but for me it’s an opening, a freedom; not so much a road as a river that you follow, never knowing where it may lead you. Each day is a surprise and although it is often hard, just as following the course of a river is hard and can lead you into ravines and over rugged rocks; when you finally break through, the experience is stunning.
I never know where I’m going and I like it that way. Looking back you find a sense of rhythm and purpose but at the time it often makes no sense: all you can do is pursue that infuriating river that twists and winds, falls and rises, expands to a sea and contracts almost to nothing. It’s like Leonard Cohen once said: it starts off easy but then you’re on your hands and knees at 3 am trying to pursue a lyric.
OK so now I realise I’m getting away from the good stuff and talking about the difficulties. But you can’t have one without the other folks!
Speaking of Hamlet, there was a guy on the radio the other day who claimed that the supposed universality of Shakespeare was all down to a conspiracy by the RSC. Sounds a bit far-fetched to me…
I just found out today that Marianne, the inspiration for Leonard Cohen’s ‘So Long, Marianne’ has died. Not everyone knows that ‘So Long Marianne’ was about a real Marianne, but in the ‘sixties Cohen lived with her for a while. She was Norwegian and in this memorial he describes her as ‘a beautiful soul.’
I keep thinking that any day now we will hear the news that Leonard Cohen is dead. But the guy just keeps going on. He’s a sort of guru of mine: any time I don’t know how to deal with a situation I think, ‘What would Leonard do?’ Of course, Leonard doesn’t want to be anyone’s guru – but that’s exactly what makes him perfect for me. I have a sort of Groucho Marx approach to discipleship – I wouldn’t choose as my guru anyone who actually wants to be a guru.
There’s a nice joke in ‘Finding Dory’ – which we went to see for Mark’s birthday (his choice) where the heroine, whenever she’s lost and doesn’t know what to do, thinks ‘What would Dory do?’ The eponymous blue john dory suffers from short-term memory loss, but what was a brilliant joke in Finding Nemo turns into a rather dull, overworked trope in this follow-up. It had its moments – I liked the character of the octopus with seven limbs – but basically it was lame. Which, for film featuring a load of fish and sea-creatures, is some achievement. Don’t bother.
What you should bother with, though, is ‘Spotlight’. I’ll probably come back to this as it deserves a full review and deeper consideration, but the 2015 film of the Boston Globe’s uncovering of mass abuse by Catholic priests in Boston and how it opened a can of worms far larger than anyone could have dreamed, is a masterpiece. Beg, steal or borrow (but not from me).
That’s all for now folks. I’m in summer mode which means that posts are sporadic. Sorry about that, but I expect you’re all sunning yourselves on some strip of sand somewhere in the Med and don’t need me anyway.
I’ve loved Rufus Wainright’s voice ever since I first heard his version of ‘Hallelujah’ – which, incidentally, is one of my Desert Island Discs (prev posts). Have you ever thought about what your eight records might be? I’ve refined my list over the years and I think I’ve come up with the definitive set to last me through my time on the island. They are, in this order:
‘O Jesus I have Promised’ (the original tune not the boppy modern one*) This comes from my childhood when one day an organist asked which was my favourite hymn. I couldn’t think of anything so I just said ‘O Jesus I have Promised’ and he played it for me.
‘Suzanne’ by Leonard Cohen, from secondary school where I heard it for the first time:
‘The Master Song’ also by Cohen, from the first LP I ever bought, ‘Songs of Leonard Cohen’
‘The News from Spain’ by Al Stewart, the saddest and most beautiful song he ever recorded:
‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ by the Who – my favourite EVER Who track (although, as Thing points out, it’s probably also the only right-wing pop-song ever recorded. Though I dispute that it’s right wing…) I got into the Who in my early teens and was particularly proud of the fact that they, like me, are from Hounslow and once played at the White Bear pub. Which was a right dive…
Something by Bach – either a Brandenburg Concerto or Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Since I learned to play piano I have loved Bach. When I listen to Toccata and Fugue I can feel bits of my brain knitting together. Quite simply, Bach is god.
‘Hallelujah’ – the Rufus Wainright version. This period of my life – when ‘I’m Your Man’ came out, is associated with pain and recovery and the song expresses it perfectly.
And finally, ‘If it be Your Will’ – also Leonard Cohen though sung by Anthony. This is my favourite Cohen song and the most sublime thing he ever did. It is also the song I would like played at my funeral.
So now you know.
Bong! In other news, I am signed up to do a poetry gig at Bar Cultura, as part of a comedy night they are having during Artbeat. It’s on 19th June and I’ll keep you posted. I also discovered today that a friend with whom I have also discussed poetry is, like me, a great fan of C P Snow. A guided tour of Snow’s Leicester haunts is promised….
And that’s it for today.
*except that there are about ten original tunes, none of which is the one I remember
My attention was drawn to a youtube video today, featuring the band ‘Focus’ whose best-known single was ‘Hocus Pocus.’ I really like Focus – it’s my era, unlike, say, ‘The Smiths’. I really can’t stand The Smiths: as far as I’m concerned they only sing on three notes. Leonard Cohen may not have known more than three chords, but at least he sang on more than three notes. (Actually, as he once pointed out in an interview, people were very cruel to him. ‘They said I only knew three chords when I knew five.’)
It’s an odd thing, but Cohen fans also tend to like TS; and I have to acknowledge that lyrically they are very witty. ‘I was looking for a job and then I found a job/and heaven knows I’m miserable now’ just about sums it up, in my experience. When I lived in Leigh, Lancashire in the 1980’s people used to say ‘there’s money in owt but work,’ – and it was true. Work hard in a factory (shop, bar, cafe) and someone else will get the rewards.
Of course, it’s a free country. If you don’t like it you can always start up your own business. Then when you get successful you can start exploiting other people.
I’m sure I’ve blogged about The Smiths before – but it’s lost in the annals of the past. What is an annal these days? Something annual? Something anal? There was a Roman bloke wot wrote annals, wasn’t there. Juvenal?
No! How could I forget – it’s Tacitus!
He kept them quiet, ha ha.
We have now received the solutions to the Latin crossword we attempted a while back. We haven’t done the next crossword though. Might have a go with the doctor on Saturday I suppose.
Bit of a mixed bag today but I’ll leave you with a bit of Focus:
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