Saturday, July 03, 2010

Dreams of Leonard Cohen: WTF???? (plus movie note)

The nastiest, most pointed, and possibly the funniest joke in Canadian cinema - if you can get past the sheer fucking cruelty of it - has got to be that scene in Hard Core Logo when (fictional punks) Joe Dick and Billy Talent (the band is named after his character, note - get it the right way 'round) are amusing themselves on the road by competing to come up with the best fictional Canadian band names - stuff like "Snowaxe;" and one of them, I forget which, offers up, "Faster, Leonard Cohen, Die! Die!" Ouch! It's striking enough to have inspired the name of a Saskatoon radio show dedicated to Canadian music (who apparently do play some Leonard Cohen now and then), but it's nasty enough that your immediate reaction is to want to leap between it and Leonard Cohen, to shield him from its barb - and not just because it's evil and nasty and cruel; it can only be any of these things because there's some truth to it. Y'kinda see where they're coming from, even if you don't really want to...

I mean, I don't really have a PROBLEM with Leonard Cohen. He's written some great bloody songs, songs so good - stuff like "Everybody Knows," say - that they need no defense, towering so far above what most people who dabble in the craft of song accomplish that they become cultural institutions - some of the biggest and most visited dots on the map of Canadian music, dots that I'm proud are there. As with Bob Dylan (whom he's possibly aged better than) or Neil Young (whom he hasn't), he's done so much as a songwriter that he can pretty much be excused for his excesses or embarrassments nowadays (like, say, that photoshoot he did with fucking angel wings on, or that time on Much Music when he plain-facedly told a veejay that he turned from poetry to music because "the money is better." Or, say, his 9/11 song, which I find singularly hard to take, or his recent decision to play Israel, despite some very public requests - including one by Alexei Sayle - that he not do so). I'm sure being wealthy and famous and drooled on by young sexy women makes maintaining equilibrium difficult, but he seems to have kept a sense of humour about himself, and odd little gestures I've heard about suggest he actually might be a bit of mensch, really (like his contributing a plug to John Lurie's Marvin Pontiac project, for instance - read Lurie on that here; it would have been bloody fun to be a fly on the wall as Lurie laid out his request). So: even tho' I get the Hard Core Logo joke, I don't wish Leonard Cohen dead in the slightest. I'll be sad when he passes, and feel guilty that I chuckled at that scene in the film. It's not like I worry that he's going to ever do something SO embarrassing that it will invalidate the things he's accomplished in the past; I mean, once you come to terms with Death of a Ladies' Man, you can pretty much forgive anything. But that seems to be the point of that joke, tho' - only someone who cared about Leonard Cohen's music at some point could crack it. Faster, Leonard Cohen - die before you completely overshadow your past moments of glory...

Still: I lost all interest in seeing Cohen live ever again after catching (I think) the I'm Your Man tour at the Orpheum back in the 1980's - where even his between-song anecdotes about giving sermons to some flowers on LSD felt staged and rehearsed and phony. I haven't bought an album of his since The Future (tho' Jonathan Richman covered one of his recent songs a couple of years ago, "Here It Is," and I was so impressed by it that I almost reconsidered). And even when live albums of his come out, I find I'm only curious if they date back before 1976; even that Field Commander Cohen thing is a bit too late in the game for me. I've heard amazing stuff by him live, from before that time - and anyone who hasn't is invited to seek out bootlegs of him singing "The Butcher" like his throat is bleeding, or to spend some time with his Live Songs album, which seems a bit of a career high. I'd love it if more live material from this period - say 1968-1975 - were released, when he presented as some sincerely crazy religious figure wandering in the desert of the counterculture, offering prophecies and warnings to the hippies and yippies and fools, like he sincerely thought he might play a hand in saving their souls a bit and was prepared to expose himself at his most raw and vulnerable in the name of doing it. That was his greatest period, really, the time where he burned with the most intense flame, back when he was using acid instead of boasting about it, back when he was, perhaps, still having sex with Janis Joplin and not writing songs about it - the window in history when the world could get the most out of Leonard Cohen, and Leonard Cohen could offer the most of himself to the world. It's not Cohen's fault that that time can never come again, or that it was a long time ago indeed: no one can reject him utterly - not even, I'm sure, Joe or Billy or whoever put those words in their mouths - who has seen or heard him from those days. And if you haven't, and care at all about Canadian music, folksingers, the 1960's, or so forth, you really should go to the Vancity Theatre to check out the screening, later this month, of Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970, a remarkable document that you owe it to yourself to experience. It's really striking - he went on very early in the morning, after a day of near-riots and fires and countless problems, and tamed a savage and unruly crowd with his songs, which have seldom been better presented. It's widely available on DVD, but for any true fan of this material, the chance to see it projected, and listen to it over the Vancity's excellent soundsystem, is simply not to be missed.

Upcoming movie aside, tho', I have no fucking idea why I dreamed of Leonard Cohen last night. In the dream, I was eating dinner at some fancy location with my mother - maybe a casino? - and Cohen was going to give a concert there. And it seemed possible that my Mom might like his music - I used to play him now and then for my parents when we played Scrabble, say, which we used to do often (before my Mom's stroke wiped out much of her language ability, a few months before my father's death). In the dream, I was trying to talk her into seeing him. The main show, in the afternoon, was actually sold out, but there were added shows in the evening, and I went so far as to bug some concierge - this was a pretty realistic dream - into looking into the possibility of getting us tickets, only to discover that they would cost $250 apiece. Okay, well, no. Mom and I left the casino, and then - for reasons I can't explain - I found myself sitting in a car, as I recall, looking at a Leonard Cohen lyric sheet and listening to an in fact fictitious song of his I'd supposedly never heard before, a song so good that it transcended anything he'd done on Songs From A Room or Songs Of Love And Hate or New Skin For The Old Ceremony. It was amazing music, written recently, and the words were gripping and insightful in a way I had not expected, some of his best writing ever, forcing me to re-evaluate everything I thought I knew about him.

Too bad I forget them completely when I woke up.

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