Sunday, March 29, 2009

Photography From Leonard Cohen

"The lyric dissolves into the music, and the music dissolves into the lyric and you are left with fresh air. You are left with a sense of invigoration."
-Leonard Cohen

I get very restless when I hear people I have come to know these past few years in Boston talk about leaving to live in warmer places. In the dead of a very cold December I was at a bar listening to a girl talk for half an hour about how excited she was about moving to Miami. After 20 years of living in New Jersey and Boston she spoke about uprooting and moving to the Sunshine State as if it were the end of a long bout with the flu. It was unsettling for me because after an especially long and harsh winter like this past one I can't articulate my reasons for wanting to stay in this climate.

But today, on the edge of spring, I remember why I love the changing seasons in New England as I look out on to a rain-soaked alleyway outside my apartment: Leonard Cohen.

Leonard Cohen is one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time. The Canadian native has already left us four decades of incredibly moving poetry and songs that delve deep into the human condition. Love, lust, faith, God, man-made power, divine grace- all of these are under the microscope and lovingly described by a deep voice that is beautiful in its stark delivery of carefully-chosen lyrics.

I have spent hours listening to Cohen as the New England rain, sleet and snow fell outside whatever window I am living behind. His songs are, for me, like black and white photography. The beauty lies within the vocal simplicity.

His voice can provide the same intimate satisfaction you get from walking the docks at night or from the soft glow small lights cast on Christmas trees. He provides the solitude one finds in lamplight that illuminates newly fallen snow or a fresh cup of coffee provides as you awake at dawn on a bitter winter morning and look out at the street traffic caught in a flurry.

One of the songs that I think captures this artistry particularly well is "Famous Blue Raincoat." It is a slow and evocative ballad sung in Cohen's signature low register. It is the voice of a contemplative lover coming from deep within the stairwells of New York City's Chelsea Hotel.
It's a letter to a man that has stolen Cohen's love away from him. Just read for yourself the crystal clarity of the opening stanza that establish the setting for the listener.

"It's three in the morning, the end of December/
I'm writing you now just to see if you're better/
New York is cold, but I like where I'm living/
There's music on Clinton Street all through the evening."

The words are delivered softly, as if each line were part of a hymn. The acoustic guitar that opens the song and flows beneath the vocals is played like a piano. My favorite part may be when the lines build to the third variation (Part C) in the melody-

"Yes, and Jane came by with a lock of your hair/
She said that you gave it to her/
That night that you planned to go clear/
Did you ever go clear?"

And then it returns to Part A. The melody is just like the beginning, but at this second go-around the backing vocalist, reminiscent of some North African Sufi singer, spreads her sound out and creates a foreboding undercurrent.

"Ah, the last time we saw you you looked so much older/
Your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder/
You'd been to the station to meet every train/
And you came home without Lili Marlene."

The image is so simple. It is like a still from some classic noir movie. A man in a blue raincoat walks the rainy streets of 1960s New York City, past the love-stricken strangers and through the shadows of a quiet neighborhood where poets have been charged with turning rundown hotel rooms into temples. It is a musical photograph.

Cohen write to this faceless man who wears an unforgettable raincoat, a "Gypsy thief" and someone Cohen accuses of treating his lover and all women as "a flake of your life." Still, in a dark hour for Cohen, for friendship and for deep romance, Leonard is ready to put down his sword and his pen.

And what can I tell you, my brother, my killer?/
What can I possibly say? /
I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you/
I'm glad you stood in my way."

He leaves it be with one final warning- that should the man in the blue raincoat return, Jane, the woman connecting the two men, is "free" while his "enemy is sleeping."

And after the lovely repeat of the stanza describing how Jane presented Cohen with a lock of the man's hair he gave her before he "went clear," Cohen finishes his song with one of the most unforgettably simple endings we may ever hear.

"Sincerely, L. Cohen."

The letter is complete, and the final line is spoken like a prayer as the guitar line continues the simple exploration of loss and sadness. The door to the past is forever closed along with the book of memories.

A postcard featuring a beautiful black and white photograph is signed and sealed.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

An Irish Kiss

It's no secret to anyone who knows me that I love all things Irish. I start looking forward to St. Patty's weekend once Thanksgiving ends. So, here's the pathetic part- I am 2.5% Irish at the most. The countless hours I spend listening to The Pogues, U2, Van Morrison, and the Stiff Little Fingers will never change that.

In honor of this past week and a half of St. Patty's fun I am posting this video of The Pogues' cover of a traditional Irish folk song, "I'm A Man You Don't Meet Everyday."

I love The Pogues and their raucous mix of punk rock edginess and traditional Irish folk music. Shane McGowahan's lyrical delivery is so biting and confident. He's a super-charged, one-man party. I got the chance to see them at the Orpheum here in Boston two years ago. It was one of the best shows I have ever been to. The entire theater shook as scores of people danced to the Anglo-Irish punks' ragtag music. It was everything I hear gospel churches are supposed to feel like. It was everything I think life in general should be more like. It was an absolute celebration of having a pulse.

I love this song off of their 1985 "Rum, Sodomy & The Lash" produced by Elvis Costello. I love how it's positioned. Tracks 1 and 3 are rough-and-tumble, fast-paced songs album that introduce live-fast-and-die-young feastivity. The second track, "The Old Main Drag" features Shane in all of his glory as a dead poet walking. The three songs are what Bruce Springsteen would call "whiskey-slugging music."

Then comes "I'm A Man You Don't Meet Everyday," a slower, soothing ballad sung by bassist Cait O'Riordan. Her vocal performance stops the album dead in its tracks. It's the cool satisfaction of a long sip of Guinness as you look out the pub window on to the calm sea. It's a toast to a good friend or a lost one. Her delivery reminds me of a softly-played church organ, made all the more emotional by the reverent Irish flute-playing that accompanies her. "Pogue" is a Gaelic word for "kiss," and this O'Reardon performance is just like a great one- moving and earnest.

The story in the song, however, is chilling and ironic. A rich landowner is telling his guests about the wonderful possessions he has as he says " come fill up your glasses with brandy and wine" because "whatever it costs I will pay." Why should they be "easy and free" while they drink with him? Because he is "a man you don't meet everyday," this element made all the more real by the closing stanza when he describes shooting his dog dead seemingly for no reason.

This story is made all the more mysterous by the Pogues' take on it. It retains that wonderful intimate feel of a parting song that can inhabit its own space in the corner of a centuries-old Irish pub. I have heard such a song come alive through the heart-piercing vocals of a Gaelic female once before. I was enjoying a Guinness in an old pub on the cobblestone streets of downtown Belfast this past summer. The atmosphere was friendly and intimate. A dozen locals were enjoying a glass, a parting nod to the end of a work week. All of a sudden a beautiful woman's voice came out of the booth where the local musicians had been jamming on their traditional Gaelic strings and pipes.

It was a song about leaving home and being in love. It sounded like it could come from inside a stone church. It was breathtaking.

Cait O'Riordan reminds me of that night.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Song For A Recession

I am a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. Born To Run remains one of my favorite albums of all time. He taught me how to chase girls, how to make memories out of what you have in front of you, how to recognize and love yourself while humbly confessing your sins and transgressions to the public. His 2007 album Magic may have taught me even more than all of the above.

I love Magic. I really do. I have heard every argument about how Springsteen has "aged" and "has been too big for too long." The public prefers that our rock gods give us ten or fifteen years of greatness before we ask them to politely step aside and stop making records. So stupid.

Springsteen has never been a "rock god" in the same mold of the hair metal freaks that helped to ruin the 1980s. He has been a relentless social critic in the mold of Guthrie and Dylan that has used the joy of rock music and the soul of 1960s pop to light up the dark alleyways and make our citizens dance on their street corners while he exposes the open wounds of his heart. Teenage love, social disillusionment, funky street vignettes, the fears for America and its working class- it's all in their from 1973 on. While Dylan invites us into his conversations, Cohen into his prayer books and diaries, and Bono into his faith and doubt, Springsteen invites us into his scrapbooks and back pages. He introduces you to his childhood friends and long-lost loves- the American ideal often being one of the latter.

Enter Springsteen in 2006. The American economy is beginning to slide and no elected officials are responding.The line between the people and the White House has gone dead (unless, of course, some illegal wiretapping is in order). The gap between the rich and poor is widening. Affordable healthcare, political accountability, the rule of law, our values written into our founding documents- all of these are becoming the stuff of dreams. The Iraq War is raging without an end in sight and torture is becoming the secret weapon of our times. The airwaves are controlled by pundits spewing Orwellian threats to dissenters: If you don't like, why don't you just get the fuck out?

Just as Dylan's great electric albums of the mid-1960s reflected the turbulent American times back then, Springsteen's Magic is an exceptionally powerful reflection of a disastrous and haunting time for our country. The furious guitars that introduce the first song "Radio Nowhere" have a Clash-like anger as a musician from New Jersey who saw many of his friends drafted in another disastrous war in the 1960s seems to yell: "Again? Are you fucking kidding me?!"

The lush 60s melodies of "You'll Be Comin' Down" and "Your Own Worst Enemy" are powerful metaphors for the way the cronies in Washington and on Fox News make us believe that everything is alright when it certainly isn't. It's all intentionally superficial, and the darkness of the lyrics attests to that. The Truth is never in the headlines. Consider the lyrics "Easy street/ a quick buck and true lies/ smiles as thin as the dusky blue skies" sweetly sung in "You'll Be Comin' Down" beneath a harmony-rich atmosphere reminiscent of The Byrds.

Followin the swirling and demoralizing headlines of the first five tracks, including a funeral for a free spirit sent to war in "Gypsy Biker," comes my favorite track, "Girls In Their Summer Clothes." The turmoil and fury of the opening songs gives way to a wonderful and uplifting pop symphony. Springsteen says he wanted to create the "perfect pop universe," and it's hard to imagine anything could get closer. Violins, electric guitars and organs open this beautiful foray into a beautiful territory in the worst of times.

It reminds me of another powerful song for the spirit from 1965: The Byrds' extraordinary cover of Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man." Imagine sitting in a diner way back when and hearing this gem for the first time in the middle of a decade wrought with upheaval and uncertainty. The search for the sounds that let you walk through the outside world unafraid "with one hand waving free" has ended That's how it was introduced to me. My good friend and 60s guru Sydney was sitting with me in a diner in upstate New York when all of a sudden I heard it: those golden notes opening a track that sounded like it came from a gospel choir.
"What is this?," I asked.
"You don't know? This is The Byrds' cover of 'Mr. Tambourine Man," Sydney said.
And I imagined what it must have been like to hear something so beautifully reassuring forty years earlier. "Girls In Their Summer Clothes" gave me something of a better idea of what that must have felt like as I listened to Springsteen's Elvis-like howl coming from a man looking into the heart of America.

"Well the street lights shine down on Blessing Avenue/
Lovers they walk by holding hands two-by-two"

Young people are still in love. They are enjoying cool, starlit nights by the oceanfront outside a divided community inside a divided nation. The lights shine down on the most important thing: home.

"..Downtown the stores alight,
As the evening's underway/
Things been a little tight
But I know their gonna turn my way."

If you have ever walked through the Boston Common on a cold December night just as the Christmas lights in the trees are switched on you know exactly how Springsteen feels in this verse.

Your neighbors have been forced out of their home. Big brothers and fathers have gone to war. Those lucky enough to return cannot find a job. The corner store has been boarded up. Everything you used to call your own has been seized by forces beyond your control.

And yet the most important life force still stands in the middle of this desperation. This song is shot through with the idea that they can take everything from you but who you are. The market may rupture and betray those with the best interests. The lines necessary for good communication may have gone down, but everything that makes you who you are is still there on the streets you walked as a kid and later as a love-stricken teenager.

Springsteen is driving home in this song. He is turning around on Thunder Road and revisiting what he tried to leave so long ago. His hometown has changed and its people are struggling. He himself has aged and has learned about struggle, too. But he still feels for his companions, the ones who shaped him.

"Frankie's diner, an old friend on the edge of town/
Neon sign spinnin' round
Like a cross over the lost and found/
Fluorescent lights flicker above Pop's Grill
Shaniqua brings a coffee and asks "Fill?"/
And says "Penny for your thoughts now, my poor Bill?"

The Summer of Love has passed. An autumn full of missteps and betrayal is giving way to a Winter of Discontent (notice the Christmastime feel of this track contrasting with the image in the title). An entire nation wakes up in the middle of the Bush economy and counts their losses. One must begin standing defiantly against the harsh wind off the Jersey Shore. But Springsteen still lovingly laments that, "the girls in their summer clothes pass me by."

"She went away
She cut me like a knife
Hello, beautiful thing
Baby, you were gonna save my life
In just a glance down here on Magic Street
Love's a fool's dance
I ain't got much sense but I still got my feet."

And this is where the song intersects with the lessons of these past few years. People are committing suicide over their lost millions in this financial crisis. But most are still pressing on with dignity and love. This song reminds us of the soul we posses and the "non-marketable values" the great Cornel West talks about that have been undermined in the past two decades within a culture that rewarded greed and deceit. In the end, we need a return to a sense of who we are, what life is supposed to be about and what America is. For Springsteen, part of the answer lies in the beautifully simple sight of young lovers "holding hands two-by-two."

All that being said, I also highly recommed the video:

Here is "Mr Tambourine Man" by The Byrds: