Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

Authored by Dale Nickey:

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Closing time…

My first Leonard Cohen moment was at the beloved Bla Bla Café in Studio City in the early 70’s. Dreary, dark, late winter afternoon. Sunday showcase. You would get a nice fifteen minute slot to show your stuff. An artist named Van Karlsson was playing. Good artist who had an aloof, European vibe. He said his next tune was a Leonard Cohen song that was written about Janis Joplin. Nice enough descending chord progression, then came the epic line, “…giving me head on the unmade bed, while the limousines wait in the street.”

Never heard a lyric that strong and unflinching, even from Dylan. No funny business, just pure uncut narrative. That line slapped the room to full attention. Shit, I want that song in my set. I would buy the album ASAP. “Chelsea Hotel # 2” remains one of three songs I can still play cold some forty years later.

The 1974 album, “New Skin for The Old Ceremony” had something about it from first glance. The inner sleeve photo was Cohen shot in gritty black and white from the chest up and he wasn’t happy about it. His mouth wore a default frown informed his by Euro- Jewish heritage, while his eyes shot daggers at the offending camera lens. The music was reflective of that image. Dark, gritty and spare. Any musical event beyond Cohen’s guitar and voice was magnified by ten.

I came for “Chelsea Hotel # 2” but stayed for more superior offerings like, “So Long Marianne”, “Take This Longing”, and “Who by Fire”. This guy was in the elite league obviously. Come to find out all the intellectuals I knew worshiped him. He was in his thirties whereas most of the music stars of 1974 were still kids in their 20’s. Women loved Leonard Cohen it seemed. My best friend’s wife was Jewish and we found discreet communion with his music playing in the background as we all drank and smoked; all the while, this woman’s husband bitched and compared Cohen’s vocal delivery to a guy trying to sing whilst fighting seasickness. Hilarious because it was true. But, it was also part of the fascination. And if you listen to Leonard now, his voice doesn’t sound that odd. He helped change the way we hear music.

The Cohen/Dylan debate will always be part of any discussion about Cohen’s art. However, where Dylan wouldn’t think twice about hanging an epic lyric on a pedestrian 12 Bar or a hastily assembled three chord trope, Cohen’s music was as meticulously chiseled as his lyric-poems. Not a note out of place unless it was meant to be. Often overlooked is the fact he wrote great melodies. Harmonically sensible. Memorable, but still off-kilter. I gave up trying to find a point of reference when I realized he was his own point of reference.

His downbeat, depressed world view shielded the public from a different Cohen. He was serious and reflective to be sure. He suffered from bouts of depression much of his adult life (he finally vanquished that demon in old age). Plowing through the troves of film footage available, (Cohen was a zealous self-documentarian) you saw an elegant and inspired artistic temperament that could also accommodate humor and joy. Cohen was a knowing realist navigating a world slowly going mad. He grabbed his fistfuls of ecstasy with a pinch of guilt – and would be on to the next song.

Cohen came at the music business from an entirely different angle than Dylan or the other Folkarazzi. He was a revered poet and novelist in Canada during the 50’s early 60’s until he decided that compressing his musings into song might actually generate more income. Enter Judy Collins and her immortal rendering of “Suzanne”. It was a folkie sensation and Leonard was on his way – via a prestigious deal with Columbia producer (and Dylan mentor) John Hammond.

In later years, Cohen pulled some Zen time in a monastery on Mt. Baldy. He got robbed blind by the biz like everyone else, but always looked sharp and well heeled. All who have met him in person describe an ‘old world’ elegance and grace in his bearing. He started doing the best work of his life in the last act of his life and was no longer a boomer cult hero. He became multi-generational. The quality of his art was such that it bled into the mainstream despite itself. “Hallelujah” is now a standard. “I’m Your Man” is a money spinner. From Michael Buble’ to contestants on The Voice, Cohen is the guy to cover when you want to upgrade your street cred.

Such was the rich pageant of Leonard Cohen’s life. If I don’t cut it short here, I’ll  end up writing a book about him. Just listen to his songs…as often as you can. Especially now. Foretold in the tea leaves of his lyrics is the current mess we’re in today. He knew The Future, and it was murder.

Exquisite timing Leonard…Adieu

Top 10 Mental Music Masterpieces #1 (Nick Drake) “Pink Moon”

Authored by Dale Nickey:

Nick Drake – Pink Moon (1972)

Unbearable lightness of being

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“Pink Moon” finds Nick Drake parked in a chair alone with his guitar, foretelling his untimely death at age 26. After recording two elaborately arranged albums of autumnal perfection, Nick shuffles into the studio an unkempt and closed-off lone wolf.  With the exception of Drake’s piano on the opening track, the whole of Pink Moon is pure, uncut Drake  with no frills or production tricks. Nick’s guitar sound could have been recorded yesterday. It’s dry, full and clear. Arpeggios as solid as a Swiss watch. The melodies and lyrics hang seductively in the air and mist away. The album documents the thoughts of a chronically depressed, borderline catatonic young man who could no longer navigate interpersonal relationships. “Things Behind The Sun” is the finest song on the album. It is existential, obtuse and paranormal all in one go. The instrumental, “Horn” is as fragile as a cut class wind chime. At a scant 31 minutes, this album can be easily digested in one sitting and is best appreciated in that manner.

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Nick is poster boy for the beautiful, doomed and depressed poet in all of us.  His back story raises more questions than it answers.  He sold a pittance of records in his lifetime.  Yet, somehow in death he has become a cult sensation and a thriving cottage industry.  We have still-photos but no moving images of the man. And he gave only one brief newspaper interview in his life.  He refused to tour.  Nick Drake remains forever young; an exotic rainforest creature frozen in amber.

Nick Drake had the whole enchilada. Talent, leading man looks, loving supportive family, charm, intelligence and the opportunity of a Cambridge education in the liberal arts.  Island Records gave him carte’ blanch to make records how and when the spirit moved him.  Somehow it wasn’t enough.  Nick Drake died in his bed in his parent’s home, from an overdose of antidepressants at the age of 26.  He died a failed recording artist in life who would become a legend in death.

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Top 10 “Story Songs” # 2 Bobbie Gentry (Ode To Billy Joe)

Authored by Dale Nickey:

Number 2 …..

Ode To Billy Joe – Bobbie Gentry (1967)

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Southern Gothic meets Twin Peaks. Just as circle jerks around the water cooler in 1990 proffered theories on ‘who killed Laura Palmer?’ So did we muse and ponder in 1967 exactly what the hell it was that Billy Joe McAllister threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge? It was such an enigma that a feature length movie was produced based on the lyrics to the song.

In many ways, Bobbie Gentry was the Kate Bush of her time and place. Like Bush, Gentry was a white hot classic brunette with a lot going on under the hood. She was one of the first female country music artists to pen her own material (Kate was the first Brit female to pen a number 1).  And, after the hoopla and lucre generated by “Ode”, Gentry began a slow but sure retreat from celebrity. By the late 70’s had removed herself from the harsh spotlight of performing and had chosen the soft afterglow of domesticity (ala’ Kate).

 “Ode To Billy Joe” is a humid, steamy invocation of rural, Deep South culture.  Gentry’s near Bossa Nova guitar plucking has the thick, stagnant funk of swamp gas on a hot, August Delta night.   The string arrangement is as greasy as bacon drippings. Gentry obviously embodied small town Southern culture,  yet crafted ‘Ode..’ with a narrative punch that should remind us that our perception of the double- wide, cousin humpin’ Deep South (formed by a thousand Deliverance jokes) must also include towering literary icons like Falkner, Twain and Tennessee Williams.  Rooted deep in the saga of ‘Ode To Billie Joe’ is agrarian plantation society – although built on the backs of conscripted humanity- it still gave us a culture rich in art, architecture and a certain ironic civility we call Southern hospitality.

 

The story is set around the dinner table. The news is disseminated that local boy Billy Joe has jumped to his death off the Tallahatchie Bridge. Ominous plot points and mundane family chatter are intermingled as the chronology of events slowly unfolds:  

 Papa said to mama as he passed around the black-eyed peas,
“Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense,
pass the biscuits, please.”
“There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow.”
Mama said it was shame about Billy Joe, anyhow.

Exotic theories abounded regarding the various unanswered mysteries imbedded in the song. Gentry wisely never made any attempt to explain or reveal them. Her masterpiece had been painted; never again to be equaled or duplicated.

Top 10 “Story Songs” # 3 Gordon Lightfoot (The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald)

Authored by Dale Nickey:

Sailing in at NUMBER 3

“The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald

Gordon Lightfoot (1976)

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In November 1975 a cargo ship named The Edmund Fitzgerald sailed into a brutal winter storm on Lake Superior and sank. All 29 crew members perished. Canadian singer/songwriter/seafarer Gordon Lightfoot was sufficiently moved to write this dense, dreary tribute soon after. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is a classic on many levels. It went to # 2 on the Billboard chart.  Details of the crew’s final moments will never be known. However, Lightfoot fills in the blanks with a likely scenario that makes full use of the artistic license granted to storytellers in the folk idiom. And, Lightfoot’s love and knowledge of sailing informs and authenticates his view of the tragedy.  Commonly cited as one of the greatest examples of the “story song” in pop history; the song was used as background music for a 2010 television documentary on the event.

In the early seventies, America’s Lyric Laureate, Bob Dylan was maintaining a low media profile. Anxious Rock journalists rung their hands and began a vigilant lookout for “The New Dylan”.  Gordon Lightfoot was among the names most often put forward.  This performance of “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald” shows why…..

Top 10 “Story Songs” # 4 Bob Dylan (Tangled Up In Blue)

NUMBER   4

Bob Dylan – Tangled Up In Blue (1975)

 

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In his early period, Dylan seldom fared well in relationship songs.  His snarky, nasal bray wasn’t the best mode of expression for an artist already too arrogant and full of himself.

However, by 1975 time and circumstance had beaten down his trademark whine into a world weary croon that suited his songs (and the audience) better. “Tangled Up In Blue” is story song about a red hot love affair driven into the ditch.  Dylan journeys from the “Great North Woods” down to New Orleans. He meets a lot of women, but his old flame never ‘escapes his mind’. We now had a Dylan that could share the guilt and feel the pain. Like many pathetic Bobophiles, I was sure “Tangled Up In Blue” was somehow telepathically speaking to me personally.

NOTE:

Bob is forever shape-shifting and tweaking his songs.  Forces of Nature seldom sit still.  As a result, his live performances can frustrate fans who worship a certain recorded version of their favorite song.  Here is Dylan messing with his own masterpiece to questionable effect…..

Top 10 “Story Songs” # 6 Johnny Cash (A Boy Named Sue)

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NUMBER 6…..

A Boy Named Sue – (Composer – Shel Silverstein)

Definitive version (Johnny Cash) 1969

Smells like mean spirit…….

You would be forgiven for assuming  “A Boy Named Sue” was written by Cash himself.  He owns the song from the first note. The song was written by Nashville Hall of Famer Shel Silverstein. But any version other than Cash’s is pointless. Not only one of the greatest story songs of all time, it would rank high on any ‘Greatest Father’s Day Song’ list as well. The “story song” requires an engrossing narrative and a payoff ending. “A Boy Named Sue” hits home runs on both counts. The fact that this tune was recorded live at San Quentin in 1969 in front of an ornery, rapturous, and captive (literally) audience, only adds to the allure of the perfect storm recording that conquered the Billboard country charts at # 1.  A novelty tune no doubt; but still one the finest “story songs” ever.

NOTE: Sadly no film version of the “San Quentin” performance exists. This spunky (albeit expurgated) Danish TV version will have to do…..

Top 10 “Story Songs” # 7 The Kinks (Lola)

By Dale Nickey:

NUMBER – 7

Lola – The Kinks (Songwriter Ray Davies)

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For most people my age, Lola was the first introduction to transgender culture. Head Kink, Ray Davies tells this shaggy dog story about a chance encounter with a hot trannie at a Soho club. Confusion, self-examination and romance ensue. One of those Classic Rock lyrics most boomers could recite from memory if they really sat down a gave it a try,  Ultimately, the verdict of this mini morality play falls on the side of love and  acceptance. Further, Ray sings it with a conviction that makes one wonder if this story was fiction or reportage.

 

Top Ten “Story Songs” # 8 Harry Chapin (Taxi)

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By Dale Nickey:

Number 8….

“TAXI” – Harry Chapin

There are some songwriters who try their hand at the story song with great success. There are the rare few who specialize in the form. Harry Chapin was one of the latter. The mawkish, weepfest “Cat’s In the Cradle” went # 1 and paid the bills. However, the urban fable:”TAXI” was Chapin’s first splash in the mainstream and is by far the superior work; both musically and lyrically. A chance reunion with an old flame in a cab is artfully set up with the line, “she was gonna be an actress, and I was gonna learn to fly….” Gorgeous cello fills and a rich and melodious instrumental bridge makes “TAXI” a musical feast as well as an engrossing story song that rewards multiple listens. Such a tragic irony that uber-philanthropist and all around good guy Chapin would die too young of cardiac arrest in fiery a car crash 1981. He did NOT die in a taxi accident as many urban legend enthusiasts would have you believe.

Top 10 “Story Songs” # 10 Tom Waits (Phantom 309)

By Dale Nickey:

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The story song is the toughest gig in songwriting. The song lyric format is tailor-made for the cut and paste Felliniesque’ imagery of a Dylan; or the run and gun pop couplets of The Beatles and  The Beach Boys.  However, constructing a story with a beginning, middle and satisfying ending; with rich characters and a good tune in the span of a few minutes? YOU try it. I have yet to succeed. I’ve written a wedding song and a Christmas Song. Both forms are childs play compared to the story song. Here are some of the best…..

Number 10….. (Phantom 309)

Phantom 309 is a song written by Tommy Faile and released as a single by Red Sovine in 1967. Definitive version by Tom Waits (1995).

Ice Road Truckers meets The Twilight Zone. A great story song suitable for paranormal geeks and Nascar goons alike. Me, I like Tom Waits version of the song. You can imagine Waits’ scruffy persona slumped at the counter of an all night truck stop at about 3:00 a.m., Chesterfield King in one hand, cup of hot, black  joe in the other, slowly spinning this yarn about a poor clueless hitchhiker picked up by a benevolent ghost trucker. Plotline is so universal and durable, it was tweaked and borrowed for a subplot in “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure”. Remember Large Marge?

Top 10 “Story Songs” # 9 Suzanne Vega (The Queen And The Soldier)

By Dale Nickey:

No. 9……

  “The Queen And The Soldier” – Suzanne Vega (1985)

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I once read a quote that said, “Honor thy limitation as hidden intent”. Suzanne Vega’s enduring strength is that fact she never oversells a song. Not an acrobatic vocalist; Vega’s conversational, deadpan delivery pairs perfectly with this timeless epic. Rooted deeply in folk; “The Queen And The Soldier” has the familiar elements of chivalry, loyalty, betrayal and murder that are the hallmarks of old English balladry. The strong and pretty melody supported by the brittle jangle of an arppegiated acoustic guitar mirrors the psychological complexity of The Queen. A beautiful work that elevated Vega to the elite league of songwriters.