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Posts tagged ‘Leonard Cohen’

“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.