Saturday, March 19, 2005

 

The OTHER 50 Tracks: Day 4

Wondering what all this is about? The List so Far: Round 1 Hockey: Jane Siberry (Mike) Helpless: Neil Young (FC: Keith) I Go Blind: 54-40 (Peter) Nothing at All: Maestro Fresh Wes (Aaron) Tired of Waking Up Tired: The Diodes (Carol) A Case of You: Joni Mitchell (Carl) Round 2: Have Not Been The Same: Slow (Mike) Hallelujah (Live): Leonard Cohen (Keith) Wheat Kings: The Tragically Hip (Pete) Vetoed By Carol Subdivisions: Rush (Carol) Today: Geddy Lee v. Gord Downey Hair v. West Side Story Carl Wilson v. Brevity Also no new song picks (don't worry, they're coming!) and another musical torch gets extinguished . . . or something. Keith: First, before we begin, a warm welcome to Ottawa (Fat City) Citizen readers who may be visiting PWI for the first time. Welcome! I am your host, the Fatcitizen, Keith Serry. Take up a chair and stay awhile. Before you read today's entry you may want to get accquainted with days one, two and three. Usually the site is more graphically pleasing, but I'm far away from home and my usual toys. Scuze the mess. At any rate, where were we? Oh, yes. Peter Simpson was just about to call out Carol Harrison for nominating Rush's Subdivisions. Peter: Well, Carol, I can only admire your brazenness in nominating Rush after slapping down the Hip, especially after that comment about the Hip being for people who aren't aware of music beyond "the playlist of Q107." But perhaps there's some kind of turf war between Rushies and Hippies for the right to be considered the true homegrown champions of mainstream FM airwaves in Canada. I won't veto Subdivisions, and here's why: I was never a big fan and I've happily avoided them for 25 years or so, because I find them to be uninspired, exaggerated and locked in some sort of retarded musical adolescence. Even the Rush songs that I sort of once liked - say, "we are the priests of the temple of Syrinx/ Our great computers fill the hallowed halls" - are very silly, and one very small step on this side of Spinal Tap. I'd be no more likely to listen to it now that I would be to go down to the basement and dig out those old Uriah Heep records or that absurd three album set by Emerson, Lake and Palmer. In short, I find Rush to be a caricature of Rush. But I have a soft spot for Rush, because when I was a kid growing up in PEI Rush always came to play Charlottetown, which, ahem, was not on the tour lists for most bands. (We'd get April Wine - more on that later - and then the most tenuous one-hit wonders. Once we got to see Blue Suede, as in Hooked on a Feeling, with that hooga-shaka, hooga hooga hooga shaka intro. They only had one song anybody wanted to hear, and when they did it they left out the hooga-shaka part. You get booed by concert-starved kids in Charlottetown, then you really suck.) Anyhow, Rush would come and play when almost no other "real" band would. I still appreciate it, 30 years later, so I'll keep my veto in my holster. You won't make me listen to it, though. Keith: Pete took all my ideas (except for Rush coming to my hometown. I didn't grow up in North Scarborough or PEI . . . the only band to visit my home town when I was growing up was Platinum Blonde . . . Alien Shores Invasion Tour, hair spray, eye liner white leather jackets with fringes, Situation frickin Critical. . .come to think of it, maybe Geddy Lee aint so bad). Anyway, true story, I am not making this up: When I was coming up with the rules for this little hoe-down I actually thought "You're an open minded guy, Keith, are there any songs you'd actually veto?" and then I thought of the video for Subdivisions: rugger pants, aerial views of tract housing, Geddy Lee squealing like a calf being branded ... No worries, I thought, no one is actually going to pick Subdivisions... Neil Pert's (awesome!) drumming and the very simple, very hummable synth line can't save this track. Neither can warm memories of seeing them play the arena in Charlottetown. I must bring . . . the hammer. Veto. Peter: I should point out, though there is absolutely no reason to do so, that Rush didn't play Subdivisions in Charlottetown. Carl: Yikes! I feel sad for Rush. Will one of us have to nominate a Trooper song to restore bad taste to its rightful place in Canadiana now? Will I have to nominate Seasons in the Sun or Evil Grows? The universe shudders. Keith: Confession: I have a soft spot in my heart for The Boys in the Bright White Sportscar. I think the track reached me at an impressionable age. BTW, Pete. "Hippies" vs. "Rushies" sounds a little too Hair. I think you need to West Side Story it a bit. Try "The Hips" v. "The Rushes." Pete: Or "the Molson Canadian drinkers" vs the "Labatt's Blue drinkers." Carol: Fair enough, but I ain't a "Rushie". I've only turned back to that stuff of late and realizing I actually liked some of the songs. I am my own clique. And I prefer to think of the video (or clip as it was more likely called back then) as "cinema verite". I think you can see my house in one segment! :) Keith: Carl, did you have something you wanted to say about Leonard Cohen? Carl: Here is my case on the Leonard Cohen issue. I'll warn you, this is gonna be long. Folks, there's no question in my mind that Hallelujah should be on the list. The other time I've taken part in an exercise of this sort was when the Globe's music critics worked up a Great Canadian Songs list a couple of years ago, and we ranked Hallelujah number 1. But Keith couches his nomination by saying, "What if Leonard Cohen had never been introduced to the Casio? ... Wouldn't Hallelujah be among the greatest songs of all time (if)... lyrics this great, (weren't) held back by a synth track that wouldn't seem out of place at The Dresden Room... (Why) don't we cut the Casios by nominating the live version of Hallelujah from 1994's Cohen Live: Leonard Cohen in Concert?" And there, he misses the real glory of Hallelujah, and indeed the glory of everything Leonard Cohen has done with the Casio and its kin sounds, especially on one of the greatest albums any Canadian has ever made, so obviously Cohen's own best that it's difficult even to compare it with any of the others, 1988's I'm Your Man. The album that contains Hallelujah, 1984's Various Positions, is frequently keyboard-driven as well, but it is a transitional work, moving forward toward Cohen's personal punk-rock-minimalist breakthrough but with a lot of its aesthetic still rooted in the 1970s gypsy-rock style of albums such as Recent Songs and New Skin for the Old Ceremony. In this, Various Positions reminds me of Tom Waits' Heartattack and Vine, which similarly has some of Waits' best songs ever, but is a bit of a sonic muddle, moving out of the piano jazz-blues towards the otherworldly music of Swordfishtrombones, but not yet quite making the radical break. (I make the comparison because most people recognize that Waits made a radical innovative break in the 1980s, while Cohen's doesn't get that kind of credit.) Why does this matter? Cohen's melodies have always been beautiful and his arrangements have always been interesting, but like his early poetry, they usually were mired in a kind of swamp of excessively "good" taste: Rolling Spanish guitar lines, angelic background singers, string sections and brushed drums were everywhere. The result was that Cohen was, from the first, a kind of self-made cliche. I still adore much of that music, but it doesn't prepare you for the shock you get when you hear bootleg recordings or 1973's Live Songs album of the man in concert at the time, a sarcastic, improvising spiritual stand-up comic in the tradition of Lenny Bruce who would turn and twist his songs into reflexive commentary, who would get into shouting matches about the nature of truth with members of his audience, who would provoke his hippy admirers with his nihilist scepticism or even right-leaning militant Zionism. No, the album arrangements, with rare exceptions (most notably his insane collaboration with Phil Spector, 1977's Death of a Ladies Man) generally served to reassure and sanitize the extreme individualist spiritual existentialism that Cohen brings to his music, making him seem much less the Canadian Bob Dylan-style trickster that he really is and far more the French chanteur-turned-monk that romantic sentimentalists (including Cohen's own youthful self) would have preferred him to be. I'm Your Man brought the trickster centre stage, not only by surrounding Cohen with shiny plastic keyboard lines that seemed to tumble and canter around him like glittering Broadway hydraulic set pieces, but with songwriting that discarded a lot of Cohen's previous self-pity and self-justification and entertained the possibility that his problems stemmed from the fact that his soul was irredeemably corrupt. That he was a pathetic fool (I'm Your Man), a centreless egotist (I Can't Forget), and a terrible singer to boot (Tower of Song). And in this it showed Cohen's progress in the disciplines of Zen - his willingness to embrace the paradox that enlightenment is not achieved but accepted, that suffering can only be alleviated by admitting the sheer idiocy of your desires rather than by elevating them to the status of sacraments. But first, on Various Positions, he had at least one great statement to make - before he could say goodbye to his sainthood, he had to tell the story of his attempt to please the lord with sex and song, the long pilgrimage of his bohemian life that finally led him to realize bohemian life was undoing his spirit rather than raising him up: "Love is not a victory march." That story is told, in parable form, in Hallelujah. It's the story of attempting every stratagem and finally having to strip them away, because God doesn't really care for music anyway. "And even though it all went wrong/ I'll stand before the Lord of Song/ With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah." That nakedness of self before the mystery is what he achieves with the Casio. It rejects (and even parodies) the grandeur of the church organ, leaves behind the comforting myth of the guitar-toting troubador, offering a thin and humble slice of music that is more true to the puniness of the ego before the vastness of creation. The Casio also sounds of all the phoniness of modern life, of processed cheese slices and shopping malls - so that rather than fantasize that he was singing from a cabin in the woods, or a medieval castle or the communes of Paris or even the bars of 1960s Montreal, Cohen can acknowledge that he's singing from the neon streets of Los Angeles, from a venal spiritual strip club that's open all night and tired all day - and then say that this, too, is hallowed ground, and here I will lay my finest words and melodies before you, whether you are god or man, on this chintzy altar, up these cardboard steps, in a place where nothing is true and everything is permitted but I am going to try for exaltation anyway. "You say I took the name in vain? I don't even know the name." There is no magic division between sin and salvation. Ain't nobody here but us chickens, but we keep on laying these golden eggs - so crack 'em open and fry 'em up. You might be in the Dresden Room, but it means as much to fall to your knees there as in any church, and maybe a whole lot more. Hallelujah matters not just because it's one of his greatest, funniest and most moving lyrics and best compositions (which seems to have pleased him so much that he even puts the chord progression in the first verse: "it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the major fall, the minor lift") but because it's the point where he crosses a threshold from a weakness for pomp to a delight in circumstance, an allowance for musical contingency far closer to his brave young self sacrifices before sceptical arena crowds. It's the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end. I'm not saying that Cohen's Casio, like all great artistic gambits, doesn't eventually become his own enemy. After 1992's The Future, where he uses the keyboard sound most of all for its contemporariness in some of the best political songs he or anybody has ever written, Cohen's commitment to music itself really seems to begin to wane, and on his most recent albums, he's handed over too much of the responsibility for the sound to others and just shows up to recite from his notebooks, and it gets pretty thin. But even there I actually remain suspicious of myself for not appreciating that next level of aesthetic abandon - for wanting something prettier, something closer to wings and halos and gaudy white dresses, when Cohen says, "No, no, listen, isn't this funny? And isn't it kind of pretty, in an old and cracked kind of way? Isn't being here together, talking softly and honestly over this cheap drugstore wine of a music, enough for you?" Perhaps by the time I'm his age I will be there. But for now, all I know is that the challengingly "bad" sound of the Casio was the signpost for everything that made Cohen's middle period one of the most compelling performances by a Canadian artist ever. I enjoy the prettier version, too, but I'm much more grateful for the one that wouldn't mollycoddle me, that made me wonder what he was up to, the one that made me laugh in incredulous shock, rather than just sway my head and be soothed. The one that makes me think he's not being disingenuous when he says he knows his best "wasn't much," when he says he "didn't come to fool you." So here's my ultimatum: I don't say you have to specify the album version over the live one, Keith. But if you want us to make the list in such a way that the ridiculous little Casio is refused its spiritual depth, the incredible way Cohen gives it status as a tick-tock ritual instrument of the tacky urban metropolis as valid as a drum in a Voodun ceremony - well, I can't let that stand. So can we compromise? Just say Hallelujah, by Leonard Cohen, and let people decide which one they want to believe - after all, as the song says, "There's a blaze of light in every word/ It doesn't matter which you heard/ The holy or the broken Hallelujah." Keith: Nah, that wasn't THAT long. . . Carl: Are you being sarcastic? Keith: Yes, yes I was being sarcastic (sorry, it's my nature). I just didn't know anyone could feel so passionate about thin, weak sounding keyboards. How do you feel about the Yamaha DTXREME Series? Seriously, though, your reply was impassioned and thought provoking. Further still, we agree on a lot of things: Hallelujah is a masterpiece lyrically; the use of keyboards in Various Positions is essential for Len's transition to their even more effective use in I'm Your Man and The Future; Voodun ceremonies are nearly as cool as rock and roll. Unfortunately, where you see the bright side (Len experiments with keyboards and writes The Future and I'm Your Man) I see more of the dark side (which is also, often my nature). You acknowlege it youself, though: Cohen's commitment to music itself really seems to begin to wane, and on his most recent albums, he's handed over too much of the responsibility for the sound to others and just shows up to recite from his notebooks, and it gets pretty thin. The master's last few efforts haven't been all that musical, they've been spoken word karaoke records and for that I (partially) blame the damn Hallelujah Casios. Other than that, though, I don't have much issue with your rubuttal, and I accept your compromise. That is, if no one else objects. Mike: But for now, all I know is that the challengingly "bad" sound of the Casio was the signpost for everything that made Cohen's middle period one of the most compelling performances by a Canadian artist ever. Imagine what could have been if Len had turned to the Kazoo or maybe just a comb and some waxpaper? Carl: I know you're making fun of me, but as an avant-gardist, I couldn't rule out that the comb-and-paper version of Hallelujah could be fantastic (like his version of Gavin Bryars' Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet - he could even use a hobo vocalist). But as a reconstructed one, I'd say Cohen always wanted to be a pop musician, so he uses his keybs in a way that's still full of pop giveaways for all that it's shaggily recondite - there are beats, chords, surges and falls, all the basic sugar-cereal stuff, and in fact the keyboards are more bubble-gum than the old LC trilling guitar with all its young-fogey boho associations that he'd outgrown. (In retrospect, in his seventies poetry, such as The Energy of Slaves, you could see this all coming.) I don't think the effect would be the same with other kinds of minimalist resorts - the arthritic-computer-programmer effect perfectly locates him in time and space. The digital death of a ladies' man. On the other hand if he'd wanted to make the music out of, say, Nintendo samples and beats made out of coffee-percolator bubbling, that'd be cool by me. He could have recruited the guys from Matmos to do it. But he didn't want to fuss around that much. He left it up to the young folks like Bjork. The cheap keyboards were enough to get his cosmic joke across. Plus it was the 1980s. Try thinking of it as if it were made by Human League, Soft Cell or New Order as senior citizens. Or maybe Suicide. There's more of The OTHER 50 on DAY FIVE!
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