Dear Leonard

Dear Leonard,

Whilst sitting in Manchester Apollo last Thursday night waiting for Paul Simon to take the stage, my wife and I spoke of how lucky we were to be there to witness one of the songwriting greats performing.  He did not disappoint, more vital and enthused than we had ever seen him, holding the audience in his thrall with his mighty gift of words and melody.  We ended up talking about other great concerts and fondly remembered the time we able to see you perform live at Liverpool Arena in 2009 where you made the cavernous cold venue feel like a cosy intimate jazz club pulling the crowd into your world of wordplay, musical subtlety and wisdom.  As we recalled these happy memories little did we know the news that was to break the next morning – you had left us behind to disappear into the place unknown.

After performing the song ‘America’ Paul Simon quietly mentioned that we were all looking harder for America after the news of recent days, alluding to the dire presidential result in the USA; no need to mention the devil by name… Your passing Leonard, as darkness falls, seems to me to mean that beauty will be even less easy to find as the world adjusts to its uncertain future.  “It’s coming to America first, the cradle of the best and of the worst” (‘Democracy’ from The Future 1992).

I discovered you rather late in the day, but feel enriched that I did find you.  With the obligatory greatest hits bought years ago, I used to lead a sing along version of ‘Suzanne’ at a day centre for adults with learning difficulties… “And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China” (‘Suzanne’ from Songs of Leonard Cohen 1967).  I can still see and hear the enthusiasm of the raucously percussive version the Lewisham gathering produced on those afternoons together.

The first LP proper for me came in 2004, with ‘Dear Heather’ followed by the late flourish of ‘Old Ideas’ 2012, ‘Popular Problems’ 2014 and ‘You Want It Darker’ – just released and only just torn from its cellophane as I write – it has been on repeat since opening and it-is-stunning.  Older LPs have been bought and dipped into over the intervening years.  A collection of LPs that shines a light in the darkness, addressing love and longing, touching both the existential and sensual, with a sly sense of humour never far away… Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey, I ache in the places where I used to play” (‘Tower of Song’ from I’m Your Man 1988).

I loved the way you decided to embark upon a career in music as a way of paying your bills when poetry and novels had failed to provide a decent enough living, both perilous professions with no guarantees, but the land you inhabited in your world of words described a life full of questions and uncertainty, so maybe you were just taking the only path you could to be true to yourself.  I’m thankful that you did find a wider reach through music otherwise I may never have found you.  Through your songs, along with those by Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, I have learnt to fully appreciate the idea of a particular kind of poetry in music, of words rich with imagery and humanity entwined with melody.

Your life as a wandering minstrel is itself the stuff of novels, taking you from Montreal to the Greek island of Hydra, to Mount Baldy near Los Angeles where you spent time as a Zen Buddhist monk – a life’s quest drilling down to the nub of existence, all poured out in your finely honed lyrics.

Behind the sometimes simplistic beauty of your work I have read that, on occasion, you spent years whittling and refining your words til you deemed them worthy for the world.  Such dedication and craft to creating beauty can only be admired.  It is mind blowing to think Hallelujah was trimmed down from eighty verses…!  “There’s a blaze of light in every word, it doesn’t matter which you heard, the holy or the broken Hallelujah”, (‘Hallelujah’, from Various Positions 1984).

You suffered from bouts of depression and, seen in that light your work also helps to shed some understanding towards, and some solace for, those who also suffer.  I have read that your early years of touring were cripplingly difficult but, despite the forced reintroduction to the live arena in 2008 due to impropriety by a former business manager leaving your short of currency, you were able to find real enjoyment on stage in this late wandering of the globe.  It certainly seemed as though you were in your element when we were in the audience in Liverpool, joking with the crowd and almost skipping on and off the stage.

Marianne Ihlen was your former muse from your sun kissed days in Greece and who you immortalised in song on such early classics as ‘So Long, Marianne’.  Just recently when you heard that she was gravely ill, you wrote her the most touching letter which itself reads like a poem.  In it you seem at peace with your next journey:

“Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road”. 

There is no doubt your memory will live on; the songs you have left behind will resound for generations, some maybe forever.  Your son Adam, a singer in his own right forges his own path while championing your work and your daughter Lorca has a daughter with the singer Rufus Wainwright.  Long may fresh water be drawn from the Cohen well…

Thank you Leonard

Rest in peace

JB

17th November 2016

The War on (Apathy won by) Drugs

Despite having been to hundreds of gigs in my lifetime, if you were to draw a graph, there could be seen a slow and steady decline in my gig attendance in the last 10 years.  Not such a surprise really when I’m slowly mining deeper into the seam of middle age.

Back in the day, all of my twenties were spent living in London, and while gigging regularly with my band The Violet Years I was also out and about watching bands all over the Big Smoke taking in venues such as The Kilburn National, The Astoria (Charing Cross Road), The Forum (aka Town & Country Club – Kentish Town), Hammersmith Odeon, The Venue (New Cross) and Brixton Academy.  All could be reached with a 4 zone travel card from whichever postcode of South London I was currently residing in.  Journey times were of no consequence and varied enormously with night buses and unlicensed taxi drivers sometimes featuring in the journey home.  Up for work the next morning, no bother* (*occasional exceptions aside).

Fast forward a decade or two where I’m well settled in Sheffield, bang in the centre of the country, with a thriving music scene and the northern music mecca of Manchester and the favoured stop off for bands visiting Yorkshire – Leeds, less than an hour away.  But nowadays it seems it takes more and more to raise my interest enough to warrant the effort of leaving my sofa to seek out the thrills of live musical performance and even more so to venture beyond Sheffield.  I imagine this partly comes from having heard so much music that it takes something quite special to really connect and encourage live exploration.

This eventually leads to a cold Sunday night in Nottingham…

It was only towards the end of last year that The War On Drugs started to appear on my musical radar with their LP ‘Lost in the Dream‘ –

The War On Drugs 'Lost In The Dream' 2014

The War On Drugs ‘Lost In The Dream’ 2014

a wonderful mix conjuring Dylan and Springsteen via a kaleidoscope of instrumental segues.  I found this combination fascinating.  When I read a little more about them I discovered the band was based in Philadelphia and built around singer, main songwriter and guitarist Adam Granduciel.  The latest LP was their third so if I actually made the effort to go and see them they would have quite a selection of material to draw from in a live setting.  The band’s UK tour was selling out as it went, but I noticed that their Nottingham date had been moved from a Wednesday to the Sunday of the same week so they could attend the Brit Awards – they’d been nominated for a gong for ‘Best International Group’.  They eventually lost out to the nicest man in rock and roll, Dave Grohl & his Foo Fighters.  By the way, Mr Grohl’s recent series ‘Sonic Highways’ is a fascinating look into the workings of bands, producers and studios alongside a musical history of eight American cities… but I digress.  The War On Drugs‘ loss at the Brits was a gain for myself and my good pals F and PB, as we were able to swoop in and purloin three returned tickets from unfortunate folk who either could not make the rescheduled date or could not face the thought of heading out on a Sunday night before a week’s nose to the grind.  Must admit I had to fight that feeling too.

Going out on a cold Sunday night... What was I thinking?

Going out on a cold Sunday night… What was I thinking?

F and PB who would help lift me from my Sunday sofa position.  It was actually their fault that I had a rather enjoyable time at the Green Man Festival a couple of years ago… {Green Man 2013 Diary & Review}… If you’re interested.

Anyway, it was arranged that I would meet PB in Sheffield at the rather wonderful Red Deer Pub to enjoy a swift pint while F would sit at home watching his beloved Spurs lose to current UKIP favourites, Chelsea, in The [insert company name here] Cup final.  F would then pick us up and drive us to Nottingham, Rock City… I mean Nottingham’s ‘Rock City’.

As PB and I enjoyed our pint we were accosted by a chap who started talking all things football but mainly about the travelling hooligans or ‘Firms’ as they are known in footie parlance.  We did our best to pretend we knew about the beautiful game, failing miserably – the conversation in the snug around the corner about being murdered in Tenerife, or dying in a plane crash on your way over to Tenerife, somehow seemed more appealing.

As arranged F picked us up from the pub and an hour later we were off the M1 and snaking towards Nottingham on the A610.  Compared to arriving in Leeds or Manchester this approach could almost be done blindfolded.  Ok, it does help that the venue is on the right side of town.

Rock City is a great all standing venue – a wide room rather than a long one with a good raised area all the around the edge of the room and a balcony too.  Really good sight lines from every angle.  Even with a sold out crowd it felt quite easy when moving around the space unlike in some venues where it really is ‘sardines’.  We were able to get centrally positioned, halfway between the mixing desk and stage – a perfect position for sound and to see the whites of Mr Granduciel’s eyes (if only he wasn’t back lit for most of the gig, which he would be, tsk!).

The War On Drugs Nottingham Rock City Sunday 1st March 2015

The War On Drugs Nottingham Rock City Sunday 1st March 2015

Live, The War On Drugs are a six piece band – they took to the stage with no fuss and just got on with creating wonderful music.  Many of the songs emerged from Adam Granduciel’s weaving layered guitar intros, with him hunched over the guitar, stamping on different effects pedals carefully placed around his territorial Persian rug*

warondrugsrugnpedals

warondrugsrugnpedals

(*I’ve seen such ruggage under Tom Petty and each of Crosby, Stills & Nash – I’d imagine The Grateful Dead and Robert Plant have partaken too.  It could be said evidence of such rug behaviour exists at the homely studio of The Janskys, the band I’m in now, but on closer inspection disparate off cuts of carpet take the place of luxuriantly exotic woven panels).

Back at the gig the sound is spot on and there is no rock pretension just sonic craftsmanship.  At times it felt like watching Bob Dylan in full flight fronting the E Street Band featuring John Squires, Neil Young, J Mascis, and Kevin Shields taking turns on the six string.  Classic rock songwriting melding with the motorik 4/4 beat of Neu! and careering into the epic wash of Mike Scott’s early Waterboys.  In quieter moments mellow Byrdsian psychedelia could be heard before layers of crisp glacial keyboards would drive a tune towards a layered climax with bowel shaking baritone sax drones underpinning proceedings.  Later, the essence of Spacemen 3 and My Bloody Valentine would give way to Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois noodling quietly in the corner.  The War On Drugs’ occasional dips towards AOR and eighties mainstream were forgiven easily and actually worked if I’m honest – not a guilty pleasure, just pleasure.

The War On Drugs 'Slave Ambient' 2011

The War On Drugs ‘Slave Ambient’ 2011

It was a recipe that on paper shouldn’t work but in reality tasted delicious.  A whole section of my favourite kinds of music had been thrown into a mixing pot, distilled and served up – the results leaving me with a broad grin of satisfaction.  With the band’s previous LP ‘Slave Ambient‘ purchased from the merchandise stall, I am looking forward to devouring more of their fare.

All that was left was the journey home to Sheffield, no teleportation tonight (RIP Mr Nimoy #LLAP) just F’s reliable Mazda.  It was at this point I confessed to both him and PB that I’d booked Monday morning off work… Rock and Roll.

DS, March 2015