Music postsSunday November 13, 2016
A Cold and Broken Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen and the 2016 Election
Having one of the great songwriters of our time die within two days of the election of Donald J. Trump was like the rancid cherry on top of the shit sundae that is this awful, awful year. So SNL's decision last night to “cold open” with Kate McKinnon playing Hillary Clinton singing Leonard Cohen's “Hallelujah” was inspired. Particularly when she sang this verse:
I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I told the truth, I didn't come to fool ya
And even though it all went wrong
I‘ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
I really love that third line as it relates to the election. I love the implication in it—that someone did come to fool us. And got away with it. And is still getting away with it.
A lot of Cohen had been bandied about on social media in the wake of his death and the aftermath of the 2016 election. How could it not? “Cohen’s songs are death-haunted,” David Remnick wrote in his great profile of Cohen in The New Yorker last month, and this week, even before Cohen's death, many of us felt death-haunted.
On Thursday, my friend Jamie (and later, separately, my friend Jim) posted these lyrics, nothing else, no other commentary, from Cohen's “Everybody Knows”:
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long-stem rose
To Jamie I wrote, “I see your ‘Everybody Knows’ and raise you ‘The Future’”—another great Cohen song that feels less resigned, more apocalyptic, which is how I'm feeling at that moment:
There‘ll be the breaking of the ancient western code
Your private life will suddenly explode
There’ll be phantoms, there‘ll be fires on the road
And the white man dancing
You’ll see your woman hanging upside down
Her features covered by her fallen gown
And all the lousy little poets coming 'round
Trying to sound like Charlie Manson
Yeah, and the white man dancing
At last, we know who the white man dancing is.
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.