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Posts tagged ‘Leonard Cohen’

Paul Simon in the waiting room

It’ll be interesting to see how much Paul Simon’s Seven Psalms means to anyone below a certain age, by which I mean the time when the buffers marking the end of the line start to become dimly visible. Simon, now 81, has clearly been reflecting on his own mortality and this new 33-minute strand of seven songs, edited together without breaks, offers his provisional conclusions.

Simon has no privileged knowledge to impart. No one does. Of all the countless billions of people born since homo sapiens emerged in Africa 300,000 years ago, not one has had a credible answer to the question: what happens after we die? Faith-based answers must be respected, but are just that: based on faith, not fact. Otherwise all we can do, all of us, is wait and wonder.

So for someone of my generation it’s interesting to see certain artists we grew up alongside choosing to address the matter, feeling they’re on the brink of finding out for themselves. When David Bowie and Leonard Cohen gave us Black Star and You Want It Darker, they appeared to know that these would be their last words, shared with the public just before they stepped out of this life.

Seven Psalms is Simon’s meditation on what he calls “the great migration”, and of course he can’t avoid the spiritual dimension. The opening sound is that of Harry Partch’s cloud-chamber bowls, a microtone apart, setting up a mood of both meditation and uncertainty before Simon’s distinctive acoustic guitar begins the first song, “The Lord”. It’s an incantation: “The Lord is my engineer / The Lord is the earth I ride on… The Lord is a meal for the poorest / A welcome door to the stranger… The Covid virus is the Lord / The Lord is the ocean rising / The Lord is a terrible swift sword… The Lord is my personal joke / My reflection in the window…”

The song reappears, in briefer form, between the third and fourth and the sixth and seventh songs, as the expression of a man who has no more idea than you or me of what the Lord might be, or if there is one at all, but feels the need to explore the subject and his own vacillation between scepticism and the urge to believe in a higher power, particularly as time gets more pressing.

In the gentle “Love Is Like a Braid”, the shadows of a judgment to come are creeping across the sunlit lawns of childhood innocence: “I lived a life of pleasant sorrows / Until the real deal came / Broke me like a twig in a winter gale / Called me by my name.” Country-blues fingerpicking and the quacking of a bass harmonica carry “My Professional Opinion”, his sardonic take on a world of divided opinions and no common ground: “I heard two cows in a conversation / One called the other one a name / In my professional opinion / All cows in the country must bear the blame.”

“Your Forgiveness” is a lovely song about wonder and doubt, its quasi-medieval tone enhanced by the use of the chalumeau, a precursor of the clarinet, and the theorbo, a 14-string lute used in Baroque music, plus viola and cello. “Trail of Volcanoes” refers briefly to the arc of his own career before coming to a bleak conclusion: “The pity is / The damage that’s done / Leaves so little time / For amends.”

“The Sacred Harp”, some of it sung in duet with his wife, Edie Brickell, is a fable about picking up a pair of hitch-hikers who seem to be on a different journey altogether. The closing “Wait” begins with a thought we might all share one day: “Wait / I’m not ready / I’m just packing my gear / Wait / My hand’s steady / My mind is still clear.”

I have no idea on how near Simon is to the “dreamless transition” in which he wants to believe. But here he shows, as he always has, that he can treat the weightiest of subjects with the lightest and deftest of touches.

* Paul Simon’s Seven Psalms is out now on Owl Records. Here is the official trailer. The photograph is an early publicity shot, taken by Murray Neitlich (thanks to Patrick Hineley for the attribution — see comments).

“The world is in an uproar…”

Sad and lonely, all the time

That’s because I’ve got a worried mind

You know the world is in an uproar

The danger zone is everywhere, everywhere

When Ray Charles recorded Percy Mayfield’s “The Danger Zone” in New York on the afternoon of the 4th of July, 1961, a few hours before a gig in Atlantic City, the world was indeed in an uproar. In the Congo, Patrice Lumumba had just been assassinated. Paris’s two commercial airports had recently been closed for fear of airborne attacks by Algerian rebels. In Cuba, the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion had failed to topple the Castro regime. Black and white “freedom riders” had been attacked by racists in Montgomery, Alabama. The anti-communist Ngo Dinh Diem had won a presidential election in South Vietnam, where the US government was planning to send thousands more “military advisers”. Rhodesia had just refused to give blacks a bigger say in government. A month later, the Berlin Wall would go up overnight.

I have a long list of favourite Ray Charles records, and “The Danger Zone”, with its perfectly judged vocal and gorgeous small-band arrangement, might just be first among equals. I encountered it on the B-side of “Hit the Road, Jack”, recorded that same afternoon. The words of Mayfield, a great writer, lose no power as the decades go by, and they came to mind yesterday when a track from Leonard Cohen’s forthcoming album, Popular Problems, appeared on YouTube.

I was guided to it by an item on my friend Martin Colyer’s excellent blog, Five Things I Saw & Heard This Week. It’s called “Almost Like the Blues”, and here it is. An unadorned 12-bar sequence, a simple bass-guitar, ticking hand-drums, discreet acoustic and electric keys, a female chorale, a sudden wash of synthetic strings, a distant horn section, and this, delivered as a semi-recitative by a man nearing the end of his 80th year on earth:

I saw some people starving, there was murder, there was rape

Their villages were burning, they were trying to escape

I couldn’t meet their glances, I was staring at my shoes

It was acid, it was tragic, it was almost like the blues

Like the poet Mayfield, the poet Cohen is doing what a poet does: blending the personal and the universal, the great and the small, for an audience waking up each day to the news from Iraq and Syria, Gaza, Ukraine, and Ferguson, Missouri. He doesn’t try to make sense of it. No one could do that. But he leaves us thinking.

There is no god in heaven and there is no hell below

So says the great professor of all there is to know

But I’ve had the invitation that a sinner can’t refuse

And it’s almost like salvation, it’s almost like the blues…


“Thanks for the song, Mr Knight…”

Frederick KnightThose are the words spoken by Leonard Cohen over the final notes of one of the tracks on his 1992 album, The Future, and they came to mind when I read something Sharon Robinson, Cohen’s songwriting and singing partner for the past three and a half decades, said during the course of an interview in last Saturday’s FT magazine.

The interviewer, Philippe Sands, reminded Robinson that she had joined Cohen’s band in 1979 “as a classically trained pianist (having studied at the California Institute of the Arts) with a serious interest in R&B and soul, the likes of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding”.

Her response was interesting. “He likes to bring that flavour into some of his music,” she said.

It reminded me of a track from The Future, one that has always been among my  favourite Cohen recordings: a cover version of Frederick Knight’s “Be For Real”, a glorious, gospel-drenched deep soul ballad delivered with a very proper sense of how to treat such material: i.e. with the utmost respect.

Cohen doesn’t do many cover versions, and he knew that you don’t mess with a song like “Be For Real”. He used a great Los Angeles rhythm section — Greg Phillinganes on keys, Paul Jackson Jr on guitar, Freddie Washington on bass guitar, James Gadson on drums and Lennie Castro on percussion — and a warm but never overbearing arrangement for backing voices and strings by David Campbell. Everything about it, including the dead-slow tempo, serves the quality of the song.

It had been recorded once before, by Marlena Shaw in 1976 on a Blue Note album called Just a Matter of Time. Produced by Bert DeCoteaux and Tony Silvester, Shaw’s version is pretty good, although she twists the melody more than necessary in her efforts to be expressive. In 1996, unaccountably, it was absolutely murdered by the Afghan Whigs as part of the soundtrack to Ted Demme’s Beautiful Girls, otherwise one of my favourite films. (It’s here, but I wouldn’t listen to it if I were you.) This is a song that is best left to sing itself, as I discovered when I heard Knight’s original demo a few years ago.

The composer’s version is hidden away on a four-CD compilation, not for sale to the general public, called East Memphis Music: The Hits, compiled and circulated inside the business in 1988 by the Stax publishing company’s then licensees, Irving Music and Rondor Music. Almost all of the 80 tracks are the well known versions of the songs from which the publishers were trying to extract additional life: Carla Thomas’s “B-A-B-Y”, Otis’s “Dock of the Day”, Sam and Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming”, the Staple Singers “Respect Yourself”, and so on.  Frederick Knight’s “Be For Real” is the exception that, from my point of view, makes the whole exercise worthwhile.

You might remember Knight from his days as a Stax artist, a period which yielded his big hit with “I’ve Been Lonely For So Long” in 1972 and the not quite as successful “I Betcha Didn’t Know That” three years later. He was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1944, and after Stax fell apart his only real claim to fame came when he wrote “Ring My Bell” for Anita Ward in 1979, at the height of the disco boom.

His version of “Be For Real” is clearly a demo, and that’s part of its charm. A piano that hasn’t been tuned lately, a Hammond B3 dialled into a deep church setting, a bass guitar, a drummer who seems to have left everything except his basic snare and kick drum combo at home, and falsetto backing vocals that could well be Knight himself overdubbed a handful of times, every voice and instrument performing — and recorded — with the maximum of restraint and no tricks: that’s all it takes to render the classic version of this glorious, timeless song.

I’m sorry I can’t give a link to it. As far as I know (and I hope someone will pop up to prove me wrong), it has never been commercially available. It’s not on either of the two Knight albums that go for exotic prices on Amazon. But there’s a copy of East Memphis Music: The Hits for sale here at at what seems to me to be a reasonable price; if I were you, I wouldn’t hesitate, even if the package as a whole contains dozens of tracks you already possess. And if anyone reading this is in a position to put forward material for Aretha Franklin’s next album, then her version, appropriately produced, is the only one I can think of that might live on equal terms with the original.