Music postsFriday November 11, 2016
Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)
It's must've been 1997. I was living in the upper Fremont neighborhood of Seattle with a girl named Brenda, working in the bookstore warehouse at University Book Store, and trying to make a living writing.
One night, I don't know why, maybe because she was an art history major, we rented the 1996 film “Basquiat,” starring Jeffrey Wright, and directed by Julian Schnabel, both of whom would soon become favorites. The movie? Meh. Great soundtrack, though—Schnabel's soundtracks are always great—and over the closing credits they played a song that began:
I heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do ya?
It goes like this: The fourth, the fifthThe minor fall and the major lift
The baffled king composing HallelujahHallelujah
By this point, Brenda had gone down the hallway, done with the movie, but I stayed and listened to that song. I was kind of stunned by how good it was. The movie was on VHS, so I rewound the tape and listened to it again. And again. And again. I think I listened to it 10 times. I checked the credits for who sang it. The next day at work I was excitedly telling everyone about it.
“It's this song called 'Hallelujah' by John Cale,” I said.
The beauty of working at a book store, or any similar place, is that you're surrounded by people who care about art, literature, music. They were would-bes like myself. And there was a guy there, Jeff V., a would-be musician, who shook his head at me.
“Cale has a version, yeah, but that's Leonard Cohen.”
Later that day we walked down to the music section at University Book Store and he showed me some of Cohen's music. He recommended some CDs. (This is how it used to work, kids.) I bought “The Songs of Leonard Cohen” and “New Skin for the Old Ceremony” and I was off and running. He was my constant companion. I remember cleaning the apartment one day while listening to “Various Positions,” and “Night Comes On” came on, and something about the turn in the melody, and the images of the lyrics, stopped me, stunned me, and tears began to well up in my eyes. This part:
But my son and my daughter
Climbed out of the water
Crying, Papa, you promised to play
That simple but that complex. I kept going back to “Joan of Arc” and “Famous Blue Raincoat” from “Songs of Love and Hate.” They sounded like the resigned sadness of the world; they sounded more mature, more wise, than I would ever be. Most of his songs did. Cohen was with me whenever I received a rejection notice from a magazine or newspaper or journal, which was often, because I always thought this:
And I thank you, I thank you for doing your duty
You keepers of truth, you guardians of beauty
Your vision is right, my vision is wrong
I'm sorry for smudging the air with my song
I recall going to the Edina Theater in Minneapolis 10 years later to watch the documentary/concert film “Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man,” and hearing all of these great interpretations of his songs by Rufus Wainwright, Teddy Thompson, Anthony. By this point, I knew most of his work, but one song was new to me—sung by Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla. They actually bugged me a little, to be honest. Too tremulous; they overwhelmed the song with their own emotion. But then they got to the chorus and I heard these words for the first time:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in
I sat upright in that nearly empty theater, thunderstruck. I looked around. Did anyone else hear that? Shouldn't we all be shouting for joy? That a human being could write that? That sentiment?
If you haven't read David Remnick's profile of Cohen, “Leonard Cohen Makes It Darker,” which was in the Oct. 17 issue of The New Yorker, just a month ago, do so now. It's one of the best profiles I've ever read.
He's gone now, in this most horrible week of this most horrible year, but what a gift he left us. What gifts. So long, Leonard.
Sincerely, E. Lundegaard
Bob Dylan Wins Nobel Prize for Literature
Well, that was unexpected.
It was the final story of NPR's top-of-the-hour news report as I shaved and showered this morning, but it would've been my lede. Because, c'mon. Has any songwriter ever won this? American songwriter? Minnesota songwriter?
And deserved. Wholly deserved.
About a decade ago, I was in an online discussion with a group of friends, some very smart people, including screenwriters and songwriters, and we were parsing the good and bad of a song when one guy, probably the smartest in the group, wrote something like, “Dylan would never do anything like that.” I wrote back, “No Dylan comparisons. Unfair. It's another plane.”
I mentioned that story in another post in which I listed off some favorite Dylan lyrics but I hardly scratched the surface of those songs. Listening to him this morning in celebration, the early '60s song “With God On Our Side,” about the wars we conduct in God's name, came on; and I got to this verse, which stunned me all over again:
Through many a dark hour
I've been thinking about this
That Jesus Christ was
Betrayed by a kiss
Now I can't think for ya
You'll have to decide
Whether Judias Iscariot
Had God on his side
But it's almost any Dylan song, really. If you listen to it, you'll find it: brilliance.
In Martin Scorsese's documentary on Dylan, “No Direction Home,” you get a real sense of what a conduit to genius he became at such a young age; how it flowed out of him; how he tapped into something bigger than himself. Scorsese's doc is one of the best arguments for the collective unconscious I've come across.
It's also one of the best arguments for a true artistic life. Dylan kept ramblin', and folks who celebrated ramblin' in folk songs didn't want it in their heroes; they wanted him to stay put. He betrayed folkies with rock 'n' roll, then betrayed rockers with country, then betrayed youth with breakup and middle age. He had the nerve to find religion. And at every stage he kept producing great music. His loyalty was to that.
My Name is Erik and I'm a Hamilariac
The goal of a young Woody Allen, I remember reading 30 years ago, was to make his audience laugh so hard that they would beg the projectionist to stop the film so they could catch a breath.
I wonder if Lin-Manuel Miranda's “Hamilton” hasn't done something similar with the dramatic musical. It's so good, so addictive, it takes over lives.
My name is Erik and it's been 8 hours and 49 minutes since I last listened to “My Shot”...
Tonys tonight. I'll be singing along.
Paul Simon's 'Cool Papa Bell'
Paul Simon is singing about baseball players again.
I've been listening to this song since early May. How could I not? It's one of my guys singing about one of my guys:
The chorus gets in your head (“Well well well/And Cool Papa Bell”), but I particularly like the lyrics in the middle verse, where Simon does a little dive into the word “Motherfucker,” which he calls an ugly word, then adds:
Ugly got a case to make
It's not like every rodent gets a birthday cake
No, it's “You're a chipmunk, how cute is that?
But you, you motherfucker, are a filthy rat.”
I've made that argument to Patricia before. It's all in the tail. And I guess the Plague.
The rest of the album is mixed but not bad for 75. Here's a little more on the title character.
Prince Rogers Nelson (1958-2016)
The extent to which Prince and I grew up in the same city (Minneapolis), but didn’t (north/south, black/white), is reflected in how I first came across him: on the cover of a national music magazine touting “The Minneapolis Sound” while visiting family and friends on the east coast in, I believe, the summer of 1981. I was vaguely insulted by the headline. I was dismissive. “I’m from Minneapolis. How do I not know the Minneapolis sound?” But I didn’t. Or I didn’t know that Minneapolis sound. It’s this kind of dichotomy—north/side, black/white—that Prince spent his life bridging.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, another fellow Minnesotan, once wrote the following:
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
Prince held two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retained the ability to funk. He was black/white, male/female, gay/straight, lustful/spiritual. He sang of dichotomies: “Girls & Boys,” “Elephants & Flowers.” He played with the opposites. He named a bouncy ditty “Jack U Off,” and a pair of beautiful love ballads “Do Me, Baby” and “Damn U.” He kept imagining places where we could be whole. Just take Alphabet St. across Graffiti Bridge and wind up at Paisley Park.
First Avenue is the downtown Minneapolis venue where much of “Purple Rain” was filmed, and in the movie Prince imagined it a lot more integrated, and a lot more stylish, than it actually was. I know because I used to go there all the time. Flash? Glam? Sexy? I didn’t even have a raspberry beret.
To be honest, I thought he was a weirdo. That pullout poster from “Controversy”? Showering, with the water dripping off his thong? What was he doing? The inside art for “1999” in his small neon bedroom, playing with watercolors, with the sheet pulled back enough to reveal his naked ass? But he became a soundtrack of my life. I wore out the first disc to “1999” and only ventured to the second when a friend told me she’d dealt with the suicide of her friend by listening to “Free” over and over again. I was at a pool party when one of our sexiest friends came up to me in the shallow end, flirting, and lip-syncing to “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.” I actually picked up a girl—or she picked up me—after we danced to “Erotic City” on the First Avenue dance floor.
In truth I needed more of what he was preaching. I was too uptight, too worried about what other people thought. I played the safe, dishonest middle. He went long on honesty, sexuality, spirituality. He loved God, wished u heaven, but girl you got an ass like he’d never seen. The opening of “D.M.S.R.” should be tattooed on all of us:
Get on the floor
What the hell’d you come here for?
In the winter of ’83/’84, I remember standing on the second level at First Ave, watching people on the first level dance, and someone walked up next to me and did the same. I looked over and froze. Prince. Six months later, with “Purple Rain,” he was everywhere.
For some reason, when I first heard “When Doves Cry,” I thought it was older Prince. The same with “Kiss” two years later. Both seemed familiar and a jolt at the same time. “Purple Rain,” the movie, astonished me by ousting “Ghostbusters’ for the No. 1 slot at the box office; it wound up grossing the equivalent of $174 million today. It was the 11th biggest hit of the year and it made Roger Ebert’s top 10 movies of 1984, but it’s got its faults. The glaring one is the notion that the Kid is too selfish, that “the only one who digs your music is yourself,” and that he’s only able to become successful when he collaborates with Wendy and Lisa on “Purple Rain.” Pardon me, but what song does he open with? Right, “Let’s Go Crazy.” That’s the music no one digs but himself? One of the greatest, balls out, rock ‘n’ roll songs ever written? Not to mention a beautiful opening sermon. In the ‘90s, I got a rejection notice from a small journal about some crap story I’d written so I sent it to someone bigger, I believe The New Yorker, and in the cover letter quoted Prince:
If the elevator tries to bring you down
Punch a higher floor
Another sentiment to tattoo on all of us.
If I was surprised by the success of “Purple Rain” I was more surprised by the relative quiet that greeted “Around the World in a Day.” I remember hearing “Raspberry Beret” blaring from a convertible in Dinkytown on a warm spring ’85 day, and I thought, “This will be huge.” It wasn’t, quite. He kept disappearing. Didn’t he announce he was retiring or something to look for the ladder? Instead, he directed and starred in “Under the Cherry Moon.” Oops. I loved “Sign O’ the Times” and “LoveSexy” (“Alphabet St.” is another song that hit me immediately), ignored the “Batman” stuff, stayed with him through “Graffiti Bridge,” “Diamonds and Pearls,” and the “Love Symbol” album. I kept expecting another resurgence, a popular breakthrough. Instead, the glyph jokes, and The Artist Formerly Known as Prince jokes. But whenever the discussion came up, I laid down my three musical geniuses in the rock era: Beatles, Dylan, Prince.
I first saw Prince in concert during the “Purple Rain” tour in '84 and the last during “Musicology” in '04. I went with Patricia and about half a dozen of her co-workers—all women, of course. This is a bit late, guys, but a Prince concert was the best pick-up joint in the world. The ratio was something like 12-1, and the 12 were going crazy. It was Erotic City.
Last week, when I heard the news, I was on vacation in Utah, of all places, and was surprised by how much it hurt, and was surprised again by how much it hurt everyone. The world turned purple in mourning and celebration. It cried and partied like it was 1999. I so wanted to be in Minneapolis that day, and the days that followed, but social media helped me for once. My friend Adam in particular kept posting and posting and posting. All of us shared stories, memories, links, and songs. We tried to talk ourselves through it. We tried to put the right letters together and make a better day.
Rest in peace, you sexy motherfucker.