Andy Warhol said: “Every song has a memory; every song has the ability to make or break your heart, shut down the heart, and open the eyes. But I’m afraid if you look at a thing long enough; it loses all of its meaning” .
This will be true of some of the songs I write about, as years of familiarity will have drained them of the initial fascination, but not of this first song:
Elizabethan Serenade by Mantovani and his Orchestra, was the first piece of music I ever really listened to. It was played repeatedly on the radio while I was a very young child. While my mother was doing whatever she did in the livingroom I’d be lying in my bed absorbing this music. What intrigued me was that it arrived in sections – first the underlying rhythm, then the diddy-dum-dum-diddy-dum-dum ornamental bits, then the main sweeping melody. But you could pick them all up at virtually any point in the song. One time I’d focus on one and hang onto it all the way through, other times I’d follow another element. It fascinated me the way they all worked individually and together, meshing in sequence. I suppose if I’d been brought up on classical music this would have become the norm, but I wasn’t. The rest of what was played on, I guess it was the BBC Light Programme, was the pop of the day. This stood out in its stately elegance and has stayed with me to this day.
I heard echoes of it in James Brown calling for a drum, then a bass, then a little bit of guitar, building up a house which he then proceeded to burn; and in the interlocking melodies of Guitar Craft and some King Crimson pieces.
Elizabethan Serenade in ska
It wasn’t the kind of track I ever played to my friends once I got into ‘proper’ rock music, but I was delighted to discover the rough ska versions that came out of Jamaica in the late 70s.
According to Wikipedia, it was originally called Andante Cantabile by its composer, the wonderfully-named Ronald Binge, when it was first released in 1951. Then, to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, it was renamed and became a popular hit.
It’s all about the bass
When I was five we moved from our one-bedroom flat to a proper house with an upstairs and downstairs. Our huge gramophone, a four-foot high box containing a radio and a record player, was downstairs of course but when my parents played their Joe Loss and Lonnie Donegan records the bass carried upstairs leaving the rest of the sounds in a flaky mush. The bass was regular, firm, commanding. Of course I didn’t know what it even was. It would be years before I noticed that when bands played on TV one of the guitars had only four strings, and more years before I associated that with the deep, repetitive patterns I loved from downstairs.
Years later, at the age of 16, I was listening for the first time to Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water. There’s a short, calm interlude between verses two and three (about 3:09) when an unexpected bass slides into place. I was suddenly thrown back to the hours I would lie in bed listening to the bass patterns and imagining the rest of the musical piece around them.
Without being taught, I had learned that music is an arrangement of diverse parts, and that bass is, well, cool.
Last month I wrote about Bruce Springsteen and noted how honestly he talks about his depression in his book.
I don’t suffer from depression. I have friends who do and I can see the difference between what they go through and what I experience as ‘feeling down’. What I do have is a recurrent and regular sense of failure, particularly at the end of the day. I close down my PC, put various bits and pieces in order on my desk and in the house, and a lump rises in my throat, usually followed by a cold sweat and a deep unease that I haven’t managed everything I ‘should’ – whatever that means. It’s old and familiar and I’m surprised on nights when it doesn’t appear. It’s gone by morning. I don’t worry too much about it, it’s just the way it is.
It only had a bigger impact at the end of my first six months as a freelancer, when it kept me up all night. It’s never been that intense again, perhaps because I meet it half way and say ‘Oh, hello, you again?’ It’s not an illness, it’s not depression, just a habitual emotional response to putting myself out there in the world and not getting the response I’d hoped for.
One way I exorcised it last year was by attacking it with humour. I thought it worked as a song although I’ve never made it public till now. Here it is.
Failure in the dating game
Failure in High School
Failure to be different enough
Failure to be cool
I failed to use my talent
I failed to use my brain
I had those big ideas, you know
But I failed and I failed again
I tried positivity
I learned to smile a lot
I failed to do anything with it
Now a smile is all I’ve got
A failure in the marketplace
A failure in the bed
A failure in the eyes of the world
A failure in my own head
Looking back across my life
Here in the line for Hell
Doing the wrong thing at the wrong time
Is the one thing I did well
I failed to get my sail up
When the wind began to blow
I failed with all the plans I made
The ones you’ll never know
I failed as a father
I failed as a son
I’ve played so many roles in life
I’ve failed at every one
Bitter – do I sound bitter?
I’m not bitter at all
I failed to set the world on fire
I failed to light a spark
I failed to let my wisdom shine
Like a beacon in the dark
I failed to be a hero
I failed to be a star
Where things were before I came along
Is pretty much where they still are
Looking back across my life
Here in the line for Hell
Doing the wrong thing at the wrong time
Is the one thing I did well
I’ve just finished reading Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography Born To Run.
It’s a strong book, as strong as his best songs. That same mix of drama, fervent belief, bluster and a sense of the ridiculous that marks his live show is here in every chapter.
Perhaps surprisingly it leaves you with a strong sense of what it’s like to be Bruce Springsteen, onstage and off. For such an iconic figure that’s quite an achievement. There are moments of pride and humility. The blow-by-blow account of his Superbowl performance, where he anxiously tries to compress the essence of his three-hour show into twelve minutes, is a highlight. But it’s far from being triumphalist. He seems to have a fairly robust and realistic idea of what he’s good at, what he’s worked to achieve and how he makes up for his shortcomings. It’s a surprise to learn he rates his voice as not being one of his greatest strengths – just something whose limitations he has to learn to work around. There’s a revealing passage where he’s built up a reputation across New Jersey as a standout performer with his band, to the extent where he knows and accepts with pride they’re probably the best band in New Jersey. They then go to California to audition in various clubs and he describes with honesty and humility his shock and dismay in finding that in this bigger pond there are bands that are better – at everything.
The biggest surprise in the book is how candidly he writes about his struggles with clinical depression and the strain of mental illness inherited from his father. The book’s pre-publicity mentioned it but I didn’t expect it to feature so strongly throughout. In fact its presence grows stronger and darker as he gets older. In some ways it’s the opposite of Leonard Cohen’s story, in which the black dog seemed to lose its grip with age. In Springsteen’s case it gains strength into his 60s.
While the narrative swings from confessional, to reportage, to the gospel-like rants about the power of rock’n’roll that we hear from the stage, it does so in a disciplined, appropriate and thought-out manner. It gives the impression of a man who thinks very carefully and seriously about everything he does; his plan allows space for freedom and fun, but for much of his life that space was the three hours we saw him on stage. The book shows the struggle of a man trying to find that release in the rest of his life.
I was sixteen and in fifth year at school. My girlfriend at the time was in sixth year, her eye on the end of school and the beginning of ‘real life’. One evening at her house she brought out a white album with an obscure, burned out photo on the front. Songs from a Room. “You should hear this, you’ll like it. He’s over 30 but he’s really good!” I listened with mild curiosity to what seemed like a voice from another generation, noting the first recording I’d ever heard of a Jew’s harp, an instrument I owned but would never have thought had any real application to music.
The adult life
But it was the sinister patterns and wartime narrative of The Partisan that really hooked me. Not even Cohen’s own song, but it became the door to Cohen for me, the fact that music could talk about the adult world in a way that made it in equal terms credible and intimidating. That and the picture on the back, Marianne in her towel sitting at the typewriter. This was a different world from the hippie, India-tinged music I loved most at the time. There was a sense of culture shock, that only grew when Cohen’s next release came to my attention. Songs of Love and Hate. Just the title was enough. How, at what was in Scotland at least, still the fag-end of the hippie period, could you call an album that? And not apologetically either – the sleeve design was a sledgehammer compared to his two previous albums. When I heard Famous Blue Raincoat and Joan of Arc, I became a Cohen devotee for life.
Live Songs was a bit raw and uncomfortable. Cohen sounded disturbed or drugged, and the sleeve bore a letter from a fan who, I was told, would soon after take her own life. The front picture added to this feeling of desperation. We are so used to male shaven heads now it’s hard to remember the associations it had long ago – the workhouse, the concentration camp, the psychiatric ward.
Travelling the 70s
In 1974 New Skin for the Old Ceremony didn’t have such a strong effect on me, but what it did bring was a tour date in Glasgow. I sat mesmerised as the normally rowdy Greens Playhouse hushed to silence for this self-effacing man in a suit and black polo-neck and his small band. He seemed so genuinely surprised that anyone even knew his songs. I’d never seen so humble a performance in front of a sell-out crowd. I wasn’t actually performing at the time, but something of it stuck with me as the right way to approach an audience.
We have seen newsreels of humans in the extremities of pain and dislocation. Everyone knows you are eating well and are even being paid to stand up there. You are playing to people who have experienced a catastrophe. This should make you very quiet. Speak the words, convey the data, step aside. (How to Speak Poetry)
The next albums became associated for me with the places I was living when I heard them. I bought Death of a Ladies Man while living in Rotterdam. I bought it on cassette as a cassette player was all I had. It was puzzling to say the least, but the cheesy arrangements couldn’t disguise the desperation of songs like the title track and Paper Thin Motel. Cohen evidently wasn’t any happier. I wondered if he’d survive.
The golden moment at Hammersmith
When Recent Songs appeared I was living just outside London and it was a delight. The songs seemed more serene and the violin-and-oud arrangements were elegant and stately. I fell for Cohen all over again. A tour was announced and I got a ticket for the Hammersmith Odeon. I then heard that on his last tour he’d actually come and played a free afternoon’s show at the very unorthodox psychiatric hospital I was working in, the Henderson Hospital. I went to the Odeon bearing a letter from the staff inviting him to return, which I could do no more than pass to the bouncers. The show, later released as Field Commander Cohen, is the one I’ll remember as the best. Not only Cohen’s performance but every instrumental solo – oud, violin, guitar or saxophone – was immaculate and riveting. During one sax solo I had a vision of liquid burning gold pouring down the steps of a dark cellar. (At the gig, I was on nothing stronger than coffee and solitude.)
In a sense when someone consents to go into a mental hospital or is committed he has already acknowledged a tremendous defeat. To put it another way he has already made a choice. And it was my feeling that the elements of this choice, and the elements of this defeat, corresponded with certain elements that produced my songs, and that there would be an empathy between the people who had this experience and the experience as documented in my songs. http://forward.com/culture/205890/a-song-of-love-and-memory-for-leonard-cohen/
During the five years before he returned to the marketplace with Various Positions, I discovered a journal called Zero produced from the Mount Baldy Zen Center, for which Cohen was an editor and contibutor, and discovered to my surprise that Cohen shared my fascination with the black and sepia world of Zen Buddhism. Although I vacillated for a while, and still do, he was fully committed and would later become even more so, but it gave me a new key with which to read his poetry and lyrics.
Various positions across England
Another album, another town. I was living in Manchester when Various Positions came out. Hoping for a reprise of the Mid-East atmosphere of Recent Songs, I was disappointed by the country arrangements, but not by the songs, which seemed as strong as any from before, especially If It Be Your Will. He toured again and I saw him on consecutive nights in Manchester and Birmingham. It was a country band, with pedal steel as the main lead instrument. But the most emotionally intense parts were when he came back after the interval for solo renditions, in a thin spotlight in the darkened theatre, of Avalanche and Stranger Song.
The silence and the return
In the interim before his next album, people who weren’t fans began talking about him once more with the release of Jennifer Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat and the tribute double album I’m Your Fan, which featured John Cale’s stately reworking of Hallelujah, with new verses written but not recorded by Cohen. Suddenly it wasn’t so lonely being a Leonard Cohen fan.
He shocked everyone, however, with the synth and drum machine textures of I’m Your Man in 1988. True to the pattern I first played this in yet another new home, in Leek in Staffordshire. People were maybe expecting him to come back with a return to the styles that had inspired the tributes. No. No way at all. But the new, octaves-deeper voice made up for everything and made Cohen exciting again.
Moving to Edinburgh in the 1990s I heard The Future but didn’t get to any of his European tour dates. I discovered the fan site The Leonard Cohen Files in 1995 during my first years on the internet and learned that Cohen had gone to live at the Zen Center. That looked like goodbye. He would see out his years as a Zen monk and we would have the albums and memories to treasure.
As we know, it didn’t turn out that way. The albums kept coming, including the one that was to become my favourite, Ten New Songs, and we even got to see him live again, in Edinburgh and in London on his triumphant world tours.
In the presence
I had the chance to speak to him once, as I walked to the Barbican for an evening where Phillip Glass was playing his settings of Cohen’s music. I stood with my friend Deena a few feet away from him outside the Barbican entrance as he signed CDs and books for a handful of fans. But as they leaned into him for selfies and pushed more products at him, which he thanked each individual for buying, I felt sorry for him. He seemed small, weary and alone, doing his duty of civility and gratitude, and I was glad when he broke away and headed inside. We didn’t have the heart to join in the feeding frenzy. (The full story)
Since then, I’ve had the ritual of greeting each new album with time specially set aside at night, and a glass of red wine, the last instance only a couple of weeks ago.
I wasn’t just being a fan when I organised the three Lenny tribute nights in Edinburgh – I feel like Cohen has been part of my life since I first brushed with the idea of adulthood. He’s informed every stage of my life, emotionally and spiritually. When today came, it wasn’t a shock, he’d prepared everyone with his recent press and songs. (And you could read ‘mortality’ into every album he’s ever put out!) Tonight I’ll raise a glass, not in sorrow or bereavement, but just in gratitude.
This goes a long way back. Hungry Ghosts was a band I formed in the 1990s, a trio with Tricia Thom as singer and Stephen Malloch on violin. We were later joined by Sean Doyle on bass and Dave Haswell on percussion. This was our ‘greatest hit’, which actually won some kind of song competition at the Edinburgh Festival one year, giving us a day’s studio time and a Radio Scotland session. I’m hazy about what year that was.
This was the studio recording of the song, done at Dave Watson’s home studio in Morningside, one of my first studio recordings.Unfortunately it’s been through generations of cassette copy to get here. Now I’m back with Tricia doing the odd open mic spot, it was nice to come across this.