Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

Authored by Dale Nickey:

cohen-01-by_david_boswell_thumb

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

Advertisements

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

Authored by Dale Nickey:

Nick Drake – Pink Moon (1972)

Unbearable lightness of being

More Masterpieces click>>>> 10 9  8  7 6 5 4 3 2 1

ts

“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.

Nick+Drake+drake

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.

aw-nick-drake-420x0

Top 10 “Story Songs” # 1 Bob Dylan – (Lily Rosemary and The Jack Of Hearts)

Authored by Dale Nickey:

Click for other story songs>>>>>> 10  9  8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

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 end; 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 is my number 1 pick…..

LILY ROSEMARY AND THE JACK OF HEARTS (Bob Dylan)

Upon first listen, one might think “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts” is just another of Dylan’s marathon, stream of consciousness curios. I did. However with the aid of repeated herbally enhanced  listenings, the mind-boggling brilliance of this masterpiece revealed itself.  Dylan had somehow exceeded the bar he had set for himself in the 60’s at a time when people least expected.

But first some background….

After Dylan’s trilogy of 60’s masterworks, (“Bringing It All Back Home”, “Highway 61 Revisited”, and “Blonde on Blonde”), Dylan laid down his chopper, busted up his neck and became a mere mortal. His comeback album “John Wesley Harding” was generously bequeathed the title of masterpiece (it wasn’t). After Dylan issued his ramshackle, supersized slab of mediocrity  “Self Portrait”; the 1970 release “New Morning” was lauded as a ‘return to form’ by critics. Yeah, it was…kinda…. But, the Babe Ruth of Rock had just posted a 23 Home Run /80 RBI season. Clearly, our hero had lost a step. Fans and critics were discreetly concerned. No doubt Dylan was as well.

Fast forward to 1975. Dylan rewarded the faithful with “Blood On The Tracks”. Perhaps the finest album in Dylan’s career. Maybe the finest in ANYONE’S career. Break-up songs were nothing new at the time. But, Dylan upped the ante with an unflinching, drop-dead genius divorce album. Just as Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” had revolutionized the landscape of romantic comedy in film; Dylan’s new album had forever altered the landscape of the relationship record. Prior to ‘Blood’, Dylan seldom came off well in relationship songs. His snarky, nasal bray was not the most sympathetic medium for an artist already too condescending, judgmental, and full of himself. With “Blood On The Tracks”, we now had a kinder, gentler Dylan. Moreover, time and circumstance had weathered his trademark sneer into raspy, world-weary croon that suited him (and the audience) better.

At first blush, this protracted horse opera seems odd man out on an album full of finely detailed psychodramas.  However, look closer and you’ll find it not only belongs on “Blood On The Tracks”, but in a sense ties the whole album together. The whole yarn is analogous to a poker game. However, the face cards are real flesh and blood humans. Set in the ‘Wild West”; the story is all about bluffing, calculation, duplicity and cheating. The stakes are life, love and lucre. Big Jim is the kingpin of the town and owns it’s only ‘diamond’ mine. His wife Rosemary enters the cabaret looking like “a queen without a crown…” When Rosemary starts “drinkin’ hard and seeing her reflection in the knife….” Suddenly, Rosemary morphs into the queen of spades. Dylan turns in a career vocal performance full of camp, pathos and fun. He hits the mark on every verse.

There are story songs and then there is “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts.” The scope of the story and characters can only be described as ‘cinematic’. Indeed, two screenplays have been inspired by this song. Dylan switches effortlessly from first to third person in his narrative. He gives us flashbacks, character studies, quick cuts….and it all makes sense and comes together. The best thing about this song is that no video exists. It’s theater of the mind. We know that young Robert Zimmerman was a  disciple of old time Radio Theater as a child in Hibbing Minnesota in the fifties. The pictures he painted in his mind of far away places and exotic people inspired him to leave stifling small town rural America for New York to seek his fortune. Our culture would be forever altered if there had been an MTV to do Dylan’s visualizing for him.

“Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts” is an unqualified masterpiece. Dylan captures lightning in a bottle with every line. Throw your ear-buds away please. Do not listen to this song as background music for jogging, blogging, housework or any other peripheral activity. Some songs demand and deserve your undivided attention and enjoyment. Close your eyes hit the play button, and let the curtain rise on the greatest “story song” yet written.

NOTE:

Dear Stereo Loungers:

Thanks to all of you who followed this coundown to it’s conclusion. Lists are silly and subjective….But, it keeps me off the streets at night.

I will not be doing your legwork for you this time. It’s far more rewarding to discover music as an active participant. Seek this song out. Pull up a couch, turn off the lights, close your eyes and listen on a good stereo like god intended.

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

Authored by Dale Nickey:

Number 2 …..

Ode To Billy Joe – Bobbie Gentry (1967)

Click for other story songs>>>>>> 10  9  8 7 6 5 4 3 1 

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)

Click for other story songs>>>>>> 10  9  8 7 6 5 4 2 1 

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)

 

Click for other story songs>>>>>> 10  9  8 7 6 5 3 2 1 

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)

Click here for Parts>>> 10  9  8 7  5 4 3 2 1 

 

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…..