Saturday, February 28, 2009

"i sang my songs, i told my lies..."

alicia insisted i buy "songs of leonard cohen." she'd insisted on "music from big pink" too & i was not an initial fan of that album. but she was giving me bj's & anal sex. what could i say? we were 13yo.

i was appalled when i first heard that album. i was a "british invasion" convert, raised on american pop like the association & the four seasons. cohen's droning voice was what really struck & stayed w/me. & the spare instrumentation, led by his "bumblebee" picking technique. there was an austerity of sound that no 13yo raised on the beach boys could possibly be attracted to. i probably insisted on another bj.

what was most striking about "songs of leonard cohen" when i returned to it several years later was the instrumentation. there was lots of it. banjos & fiddles, violins & drums. & that strumming style(nearly as unique as his fingerpicking). why hadn't i heard it before? & of course, the lyrics also stood out. words had become important to me as a 17yo. how could:

"who's walking down the streets of the city,
smiling at everybody she sees?
who's reaching out to capture a rainbow?
everyone knows it's wendy."

compare w/:

"there are heroes in the seaweed,
there are children in the morning,
they are leaning out for love
they will lean that way forever,
while suzanne holds the mirror." ?

in 1975 the vicissitudes of fate conspired, allowing me to see cohen perform not one but two shows in atlanta. he hadn't been south of the mason-dixon line in twenty years, he said & implied it would be another twenty before he returned. he was touring in support of "new skin for the old ceremony," one of my favorite of his albums. i've learned just how rarely he toured & that just reinforces the serendipity of my seeing him both nights.
i drove up to laurinburg n.c. to pick up holly. she was in college at st andrews. it was in november. holly & i were on the downhill side of our five year relationship but she was still giving bj's & anal sex w/more alacrity than alicia ever did. what can i say? we were 20yo. i can't really recall all the details about going & getting her. lust makes long detours seem incidental. i know we stayed in a motel & that we didn't have much money. in fact, when we bought tickets for the SECOND nights show, i'm not sure if we had any money left.

the shows he did were fantastic(see set list below). he was surrounded by an excellent group of musicians(lead by john lisseur)who were extremely tight & his song selection was impeccable. what made the experience especially memorable was the venue. it was some place called the "great southeast music hall." the maximum seating capacity was maybe 300 & it was general admission. holly & i rushed up front & got seats at both concerts that placed us maybe 5 yards from cohen.

there were two moments that have always stuck w/me about this experience. the first revolved around my first "brush w/greatness" & the second was just plain weird. on the second night, i'd noticed that the band exited into a hall & went into a small dressing room. i figured there was only one way in & out of that room & that if we stationed ourselves just so, we'd be there when the band came out. of course, in my head, i ran all kinds of scenarios. as cohen brushed by me, i'd whisper a line or two from rimbaud, in the original french, & he'd stop in his tracks & enthusiastically invite us to join him for a night of wine, women, & song.

of course, what really happened was when he emerged from the room & brushed past us, all i heard was a strangled girlish voice bleeting out "mr cohen mr cohen, we enjoyed your show so much." he did pause for just a second or two(initially, no doubt, to locate the source of the pathetic mewling) but not to invite us along w/him. no, he stopped just long enough to look at holly's mostly bare boobs. she was wearing a tiny white see-through halter(& yes, i said, it was winter). in a flash of near blind desperation, i almost blurted out, "you want her, she's yours" but something restrained me. it wasn't pride, that was long gone. as was cohen.

earlier in the evening, we sat next to a middle aged woman who was utterly smitten w/cohen. oddly, she reminded me of holly's mother, hulda. we had talked quite a bit before the concert began. i suppose at some point i'd mentioned that we had spent our last few pennies to get into this second show. once the show began she was mesmerized & didn't ever seem to take her eyes off the stage. nearing the end of the concert, i felt a crumpled piece of paper hit my chest. then another. i grabbed them & shoved them into my pockets. i thought the woman was sending me some kind of note or something. i was a little embarrassed & a little concerned but my main focus was on our fantasized night of camaraderie w/cohen. we had to get out into that hallway quickly. after the last encore, i thanked the woman & hustled holly out that side door, just behind the gigantic bald black percussionist who was fielding various offers from different women. "sorry, sorry," he kept saying, "we're flying out right after the show." ok, i thought, it won't be a whole night w/cohen but a few hours would do. we'd exchange addresses & telephone numbers. we'd agree to pal around in the greek islands. i was flexible.

after cohen resumed his rush out the front doors of the "great southeast music hall," holly & i glumly walked to the pinto. i fished in my pockets for the keys to the damn thing & found the crumpled pieces of paper the woman had launched onto my chest during the concert. it was two twenty dollar bills. i was astonished. what the hell?

that money got me home & holly back up to north carolina. within a year, it was holly who was in the greek islands & i was in college in sarasota. it was five years before cohen played in america again(berkeley for two concerts). this is the set list of a concert he did just prior to the atlanta shows. i remember at least one or two more new songs(several of which ended up on the phil spector debacle & two ended up years later on "recent songs"). he ended both atlanta concerts w/"bird on a wire" too.

November xx: Bryn Mawr, USA - The Main Point
1) Bird on the Wire
2) Je Veux Vivre Tout Seul (Bird on the Wire in French)
3) So Long, Marianne
4) There Is a War
5) One of Us Cannot Be Wrong
6) The Stranger Song
7) Hey That's No Way to Say Goodbye
8) Guerrero
9) Diamonds in the Mine
10) Who By Fire
11) Don't Go Home With Your Hard-On
12) The Partisan
13) Story of Isaac
14) Famous Blue Raincoat
15) Came So Far for Beauty
16) Sisters of Mercy
17) I Guess it's Time (early The Smokey Life)
18) The Traitor Song
19) Lover Lover Lover
20) Is This What You Wanted
21) Lady Midnight

in 2009, the vicissitudes of fate have conspired once again to bring cohen into my life. i got two of the much coveted tickets for his oakland show in april. as of this writing, mike is still trying to land some. i'm hoping he does. like i wrote about longhair, there are no guarantees about how long we'll have the greats w/us. it's best to see them when you can.

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