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

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Now Be Thankful – David Swarbrick Remembered

Authored By Dale Nickey:

I am thankful. I saw David Swarbrick perform live. Twice. Both times with Martin Carthy. Both times at MaCabe’s Guitar Shop. And, it wasn’t until I heard about Swarb’s passing that the fog of years parted and I remembered that I actually spoke to the man. A brief encounter to be sure, but still I touched greatness.

 McCabe’s is an L.A. music institution that goes back decades. It sits in the ocean community of Santa Monica; a safe haven for expatriate Brits. While I’ve been alive there has always been a McCabe’s. It a woody, friendly music shop that specializes in acoustic exotica of all sorts. I bought my Mandocello there. Likewise, if you need paddle tuners for your Beach Uke, that’s where you go. They also host concerts. Their main musical affiliation is with folk and blues. They have a big room in the back with a nice stage where you can squeeze in 150-200 punters on folding chairs. I saw Elizabeth Cotton there. Jean Richie, Pentangle, June Tabor, John Renbourn and John Fahey, I even played there once myself in the folk duo Adie and Dale.

On gig night it’s usually packed out. Fresh baked cookies were offered in the front of the store. The restroom was small and you had to wait your turn. One night I bumped into Bert Jansch exiting as I was going in. I once banged shoulders with Yvonne Elliman whilst trying to navigate the crowded upstairs hallway. It was that kinda place. It might still be.

 Anyway, I went there at the dawn of the 90’s decade to watch the duo of Martin Carthy and David Swarbrick perform. I went with my friend Dominic, whom I was in a band with at the time. He was not familiar with either of the folk heavyweights we were about to see. But, because of my recommendation, he decided to check it out.

 It was an amazing show. Martin Carthy had a youthful, bouncy spirit and his chunky, finger styled guitar playing was as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. Then there was Swarbrick, he played standing for the entire hour plus set. I remember there was a very tall gooseneck microphone stand that arched far above and pointed downward towards his fiddle. He burned for the entire set. He didn’t sing, he just played. Virtuosic and effortless. My companion leaned over and offered that “The Bloke” was a real monster. – the musician’s code word for an instrumentalist of uncommon skill and virtuosity. Swarb would be bequeathed the nickname “The Bloke” for the remainder of the evening and his exploits were discussed at length on the long drive home to The Valley.

I didn’t hear Swarbrick play a bum note the entire set, and he played a lot of notes. If he did hit one, his confidence and experience probably spun it to gold somehow. There he stood, taking the occasional drag from (what looked like) a home rolled cig. He had a bowl styled Beatle haircut. Swarb got the biggest laugh of the night when McCarthy told a joke and Swarb reacted a good half minute later when a helpful audience member in the front row translated it to the diminutive fiddler. Even then, Swarb’s ear problems were legend.

During this period, the duo of Carthy and Swarbrick cranked out two fine albums; “Life and Limb” (1990) and “Skin and Bone” (1992). It was upon their return to McCabe’s to tour the second album that I saw them perform again.

This time I went with a female companion (and future ex-wife). I was sad to find Swarb playing seated for the entire set. His bearing seemed less robust than the first gig I saw. However, the playing remained the same. Flowing, effortless and perfect. My English challenged companion had never heard of these two musicians. She whispered into my ear about “The Little Guy” and how “strong” and “very correct” his playing was.

After the set we loitered at the front of the store, everybody congregated and chatted. My date held court with Billy Connelly, Maddy Prior and Martin Carthy near the repairman’s counter. She was blissfully unaware of the celebrity she was confronting. Martin Carthy laughed broadly and was animated by a sweaty post-gig buzz, Connelly seemed bemused and Maddy looked a bit put out. Meanwhile, I made my way to a hunched, solitary figure sitting at a round wooden table near the album bin. It was Swarbrick. I’m always flummoxed and shy around musicians I admire. I sheepishly told him, “great set” and offered up a rare vinyl copy of “Fairport Convention Live at Sydney Opera House” for his signature. I seemed surprised at being presented with such an artifact. He perused it and quietly mused, “I wonder if I ever got paid for this one?” He then signed, and I slowly backed away and thanked him in the manner of an acolyte retreating from the master. I told it you it was a brief encounter. But we met. I’m so glad we did.

Fast forward to the new century. I was pleased when David Swarbrick accepted me as a Facebook friend. Oh, me and lot of people. I’m sure he would not have remembered my name, we only exchanged the odd thumbs up and the occasional pithy aside in the comments section. But I valued the connection none the less. It’s one of the few upsides to this digital media world that David Swarbrick could still remain present and connected with fans and friends the world over despite his restricted mobility. Think about all the musical giants of the previous century who lived out their winter years with only a rotary phone and a black and white television as their links to the outside world. Forgotten and sad.

I’m at that age now. I’m surrounded by so many friendly ghosts and people preparing for the great transition. I’ve been lucky so far but I am nervously clutching my ticket number dreading my turn to be called. Swarb did alright in the life sweepstakes. He made it to 75 with loads of memories, accomplishments and a loving family at the end. He laughed in the face of death twice. He was a one-off. It seems like this year more than any other, the great upward migration has begun. RIP Swarb.

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Top 10 List – Mental Musical Masterpieces # 6 (Jackson Frank)

Jackson Frank- “Jackson C. Frank” (1965)

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

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By Dale Nickey:

The tale of this suffering artist makes all others pale by comparison.  At age eleven, Jackson Frank was badly burned in a school fire.  A fire that killed fifteen of his classmates.  He began playing guitar during his recovery.  He was eventually awarded a $110,000 legal settlement.  Frank traveled to England and became a folk sensation during that country’s early 60’s folk heyday.  He released a dour, finely crafted album produced by his flat mate Paul Simon.  Such was his psychic damage, Jackson Frank could only cut tracks in the studio behind a screen curtain.  There are no  happy moments anywhere in his catalog.  Sullenly wistful is about as cheery as it gets.  His most famous song  “Blues Run The Game” has been widely covered and is the penultimate anthem of the exhausted spirit.  Listen to his album and it’s easy to see the influence he had on Paul Simon’s subsequent work.

Frank was the toast of the London folk scene for a very brief time. However, he did contribute mightily.  Aside from his own timeless debut, he dated one Sandy Denny and convinced her to give up nursing in favor of a singing career.

By 1966 his health and muse started to deteriorate as did his settlement money.  He moved to Woodstock in the 70’s and married an English fashion model. They had a son and a daughter.  Soon the son died of Cystic Fibrosis and Frank started spiraling into a depression that landed him in a mental institution.  He was a diagnosed paranoid-schizophrenic; but Frank always denied the diagnosis, saying his problems stemmed from the childhood trauma of the school fire.

In 1984, Frank traveled to New York in a desperate (perhaps delusional) attempt to find and contact Paul Simon.  He became homeless instead, eating out of garbage cans and sleeping on streets in a filthy blanket between visits to mental institutions.  An admiring benefactor tried to give aid and comfort to Frank late in his life.  It was during this period that  a Juvenal delinquent fired a B.B. gun into one of his eyes blinding him.  The B.B. was inoperable and caused Frank  pain and discomfort until his death at 56.  History will need to look hard to find an artist who walked the walk as Jackson Frank did.

Debut Albums That Shook My World – (Luka Bloom – “Riverside”)

Luka Bloom (Riverside) – 1990

Irishman Luka Bloom managed to paddle in on the first tidal surge of the New Celtic boom. Two years after Van Morrison And The Chieftains breakthrough album and four years before Riverdance came this unfussy, echo-drenched little gem. The core of the album is Luka’s masculine brogue and his clean hyperactive electro-acoustic strumming. What decoration there is on the album only serves to strengthen and support its main character. The songs are sturdy and straightforward and are not begging to be liked. The emotions range from mature whimsy, “You Couldn’t Have Come At A Better Time” and “Delirious”, to aching, moody reportage, “Gone To Pablo”. “Rescue Mission ” is one of those songs that any good songwriter wishes they had written. Stardom seemed possible but never materialized. Luka faded further into obscurity with each successive album. He never again reached the bar he set for himself on Riverside .

Sometimes a full band can get in the way of a good song and dilute the power of the artist. This is Luka (straight no chaser) delivering one of his best songs.