Leonard Cohen: You Want it Darker

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RIP: Leonard Cohen (illustration 2016 by jpbohannon)

About a month ago, a coworker sent me a YouTube link of the title track of Leonard Cohen’s upcoming album, You Want It Darker. She wanted me both to hear it and to help her make sense of it.

And it was dark. It was almost a challenge to a god that has allowed humanity to do what it has in the course of human history. It was punctuated by the opening prayer of Rosh Hashana, “Hineni, Hineni.” (Here I am, Lord).  And then it was followed by Cohen’s line: “I am ready, Lord.”

(Perhaps, Cohen shouldn’t have issued the challenge when he did. For in the week that he died, the world indeed became darker in many ways for many of us.)

There have been many wonderful obituaries written over the past week, articles that celebrated his music, his poetry, his novels, obits that detailed his fully-lived life, both the loves and the disappointments, the treacheries and the successes. (Here is The London Times’ obituary.)

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Cohen in London in 1978 (SIPA PRESS/REX/Shutterstock)

And, of course, there were the inevitable comparisons to Dylan. Over the past several weeks, both have been rightly acclaimed as momentous poets of  our times–death and international prizes undoubtedly will do that–but too many of the commentators positioned it as some sort  a race, a competition.

It isn’t. It never is.

Certainly, they were both poets, but they are greatly different. Dylan’s words, he claims, come easy; Cohen struggled long and hard on his. (He claims that “Hallelujah” took him five years to write.) But they both brought to their work an elevated sense of language and imagery, a modern sensibility far removed from the insipid themes of most popular music of the time.

I learned about both of them when I was a very, young boy. When I was eleven, my eighteen-year old cousin and I both got guitars for Christmas. So we learned together, except he was 18 and much more part of the world and the emerging folk scene. Consequently, what I first learned on guitar was the Dylan songbook and the folk music published in SingOut magazine.

My first songs were Dylan’s “Hollis Brown” (one chord, E-minor, throughout) and “To Romana” (two chords, C and G). Before too long I moved on to Cohen’s “Suzanne.” In the small and insulated world of folk music, the song “Suzanne” was everywhere, as everyone it seemed was covering it. ( I mainly knew Judy Collins’ version. I can’t imagine my cracking adolescent voice trying to imitate her beautiful soprano. But oh well, …)

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Milton Glaser’s iconic poster of Bob Dylan

My fascination with Cohen, however, came much later. Dylan was Dylan and, if I had a musical idol, it was certainly he. For most of my adult life. But as I grew older, Cohen seemed to speak to me more readily. Oddly, Dylan’s writing began to seem overly specific, whereas Cohen was speaking to me individually and universally.

And as I grew older, his disappointments were more understandable. In a October 17, 2016 profile in The New Yorker, Cohen stated that “I am ready to die.”

I have been thinking about my own death a lot recently. One learns only gradually that one is not immortal, or at least the understanding of that comes on gradually. Cohen knew that, but he still kept creating;  at 82, two weeks before he died, he put out this last album.

It is serious and resigned and thoughtful.

It is beautiful. And sometimes funny.

And it is wonderful to listen to.

 

 

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Photography, Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” and blogging again

It’s been a while since I posted something on this site.  There have been several reasons:  I’ve had to write for another blog for work but that really didn’t take that much time; I was working hard with painting and drawing; and it was a very busy summer with many short bursts of travel.  I have also become obsessed with blipfoto, a photography site that challenges a person to post just one photo every day.  Sometimes, I am very pleased with my photos (I live in a very interesting neighborhood in a very interesting city) and sometimes I am just rushing to get one posted before the day is through.

Blipfoto for September 4, 2014

Blipfoto for September 4, 2014

I posted this photo on line last week of my turntable playing a Joni Mitchell album. Sardonically, I called it a “vintage music delivery device.” A lovely woman from Ireland (and you should see the photographs she takes!) wrote to me and asked if the song playing was “A Case of You.”  It wasn’t but I wrote back to her and told her how that song and the album it appeared on Blue are among my very favorites. And like all great music,  it is somehow emotionally and viscerally connected to us through memories.

The cover of Joni Mitchell's Blue

The cover of Joni Mitchell’s Blue

In the song “California,” for example, my good friend Jim had misheard the lyric from “they were reading Rolling Stone, they were reading Vogue” as “they were reading Rolling Stone, they were reading Boll,” so he checked out the writer Heinrich Boll to see what everyone was talking about. Twenty years later, when I first met him, he was still reading Boll. Fair play to him there!  I remember one friend–who was living with a guy who had been drafted but who went AWOL at least three times that summer to materialize in the same beach-bar–singing “My Old Man.”  I don’t know why but her singing “We don’t need a piece of paper from the city hall” has always stuck in my head.

Blue was the soundtrack (there were many soundtracks) to that young summer in a beach town that was free and happy and exciting. It seemed no matter what apartment or hovel you found yourself in, it was playing on the stereo. It…or Moondance …or After the Gold Rush.  It was a good summer to be alive.

So thanks soletrader for bringing up “A Case of You.”  Somehow, I have lost the vinyl album but I do have it on CD. In the days when I used to drive more often, I would pop it into the player and would  skip forward to “A Case of You,” playing it over and over again and singing along the entire time.  (Unless, that is, if it were Christmas time. Than I would select “The River.” And play that over and over again.)

But to be honest, every song on Blue is masterful, not a bad one in the bunch. From “My Old Man” to “Carey” to “The Last Time I saw Richard.”  Perhaps what makes this so is the honesty of both the words and the performance. There is pain in her voice. There is wisdom. There is experience.

Male or female, we have all been there.

So here she is, herself, singing “A Case of You.” Enjoy. (Excuse the pop up info-bytes about Joni Mitchell)

 

 

Music Review: Tom Jones’ Spirit in the Room: “There’s a Lot New, Pussycat!”

tomjonesI can’t believe I’m doing this. But I am.  I am reviewing the latest Tom Jones album.  Mainly because it’s extraordinary.

Remember when Johnny Cash did that Nine Inch Nails cover produced by Rick Rubin and accompanied by that powerful video, and how every hipster coffee shop around now has a Johnny Cash tune playing on its sound system about once every 20 minutes?  If you don’t remember, here it is:

Well, Tom Jones is doing the same thing. He has left behind the Las Vegas glitz and the sex-god personna of his past (he parodied himself in Mars Attacks, for god’s sake!) And he is choosing songs that give resonance to his powerful voice.  Like a old bottle of Laphroaig that announces itself with a blast of peat smoke against your throat, Tom Jones voice is aged to perfection. And the lyrics he’s delivering add to that agedness, to the gravitas.Spirit+in+the+Room

Produced by Ethan Johns and covering songs by Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson, Odetta, Paul Simon and McCartney, among others, Spirit in the Room presents Jones stripped down and honest. Just as likely to be accompanied  by a single acoustic guitar or a tinkling piano as a full-tilt-boogie band, Jones dives into the blues, gospel, and roots music.

And again, he has the voice to do it: this time, however, one hears more of the Welsh ditch-digger than the nightclub lounge singer.  And in my opinion, that’s a vast improvement. He is authentic, he is wise, he is ruminative.

Jones’ cover of Cohen’s “Tower of Song” is every bit as good as Cohen has ever done it. One hears the pain of age, the pain of wisdom.

Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day” is one of my top ten favorite songs ever (I own recordings by Thompson, Bonnie Raitt, the Corrs, Emmylou Harris, and a wonderful version by the short-lived band, Danko, Fjeld and Anderson) and I was excited to see that Jones included it here and that he does it well.

His voice smooths out Waits’ growl, roughs out Simon’s baritone and turns Dylan’s “When the Deal Goes Down” into a rueful waltz that reminds me of Jagger’s version of “The Long Black Veil” with the Chieftains. And his version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of Man” is almost threatening and is as jagged as the guitar that centers it.

I have always felt that Tom Jones was a bit schmaltzy but, to be fair, I never gave him much of a listen. He has always had a powerful voice, but his delivery was always a little more polished than I preferred, every end note seemed elongated, every word seemed to carry the same weight.  He always seemed to be overdoing what I saw was essentially an outdated vibrato.

But I was wrong or he has changed or I have changed.  Because Spirit in the Room is quite an achievement.

Now, I’ll  probably start hearing him every fifteen minutes in the coffee shops I hide in!

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Here is Tom Jones covering Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song,” the first track on the album: