Just as there have been books written about Leonard Cohen’s best known song, there are movies being made about his best known love. Cohen had the archetypal artist-and-muse relationship with a real person named Marianne, a relationship we see as so anachronistic and exotic that we keep wanting to examine it and pick it apart, even though Marianne, unlike other famous modern-day muses, was a private citizen with no aspirations of being a celebrity in her own right. It’s a relationship dynamic we can’t quite wrap our heads around anymore, now that women are very rarely likely to settle for a life of making sandwiches in the warm glow of their partner’s genius. We even ask if it’s somehow unethical for an artist to leech inspiration not only from his own life but from the life of his partner. But we still find it romantic, because poetry. Who doesn’t want to be remembered forever in the flattering glow of love? That feeling when you’re in love that everything is more special, more beautiful and imbued with deeper meaning? It’s a feeling most of us can’t articulate, and may not even be able to hold on to in our memory. But poetry keeps that glow burning forever, and it serves as a proxy for people who don’t have the ability to set their feelings down in words and images.We may be uncomfortable, now, with the implications of articulating love and desire too well. It makes us think about objectification, possession, jealousy, control, all the things that can turn beautiful experiences into ugly ones. To be in love is to be subsumed, on some level, by another person’s view of ourselves, and it’s terrifying, especially now that the social rules of courtship have changed and we’re all fighting so hard to nail down the boundaries of our identities. How do you allow yourself to be another person’s object of love and desire, and yet still remain yourself? Well, don’t fall in love with an artist, I guess. Fall in love with someone who will take their vision of you to their grave with them. I guess that love songs and art will always be a little bit unethical, because they drag the most private feelings out into the open, and the artist opens themselves up because that’s what the artist does, but the muse is opened up, with or without consent, and on the artist’s terms. And the reward is to be loved by the world, not as you were, but as your loved one saw you.
The estate of the late Harry Nilsson must be making friends and cashing checks after Harry was so prominently featured in every single episode of Russian Doll. I am ten thousand percent on board with anything than puts the music of Harry Nilsson before a broader audience, and this was some major exposure. (Also, it was a great show, you should watch it.) Nilsson did have a number one hit single at one time, but it was so long ago, most people have forgotten, since he never made much of an effort to follow up on it. Nilsson had the voice of an angel, and the career instincts of your deadbeat cousin Gary. He threw away multiple chances at major pop stardom in favor of keeping his day job at the bank, drinking too much, and recording jazz covers, in no particular order. Just when it seemed like he would drink himself into a premature grave, he found a nice lady, retired from the music industry, raised his kids and became involved in gun-control activism. Of course, he also died relatively young anyway, but at least it was in the midst of an otherwise healthy and happy normal-person life. Nilsson did not follow the expected rock star script; he made unexpected and sometimes self-sabotaging decisions, but I’d like to think that following his muse rather than pursuing generic career goals made for a more interesting body of work, in the end. If anyone deserves posthumous accolades by the bucket, it’s Nilsson.
Donovan always takes me back to a childlike place. That sense of innocence and wonderment was of course the intention; Donovan recorded a double album with one side for adults and one side for children, though both sides sound the same. And, when one and everyone around one are zoinked to high heaven on LSD and Mary Jane, the world seems full of magic and the mind reverts to younger days. While I, as an actual child, did respond to all of those effects and decided that all of Donovan’s music was very much for children. (The sexual references went over my head.) So with all that said, this is a trip down memory lane for me.
Funny how airplanes have robbed the world of almost as much talent as drugs and alcohol. Unlike substance abuse related deaths, which are generally seen as signs of poor character, airplane deaths are particularly tragic in their randomness. There’s something Act of God-like about it, like the almighty had a notion that we humans have had all the Otis Redding we’re entitled to. No one would suggest that Redding himself was reaping God’s punishment; he was a standup guy by all accounts. No, it’s the rest of us sinners. Whatever small comfort we can scrape from listening to a little soul music, we don’t deserve. You can still listen to Otis, of course, because the art lives on long after the artist himself is dust, but maybe say a little benediction or something.
Don’t underestimate the simple two minute love song, especially when it’s got a guitar solo by Neil Young. Two minute love songs are the most basic unit of pop songwriting, and as such, are often easily dismissed. Why bother with a two minute love song when you can write a 25 minute opus about the British class system? Well, I am certainly the kind of person who enjoys prog rock at its most convoluted, and I’m not above throwing stones at artists who lean too heavily on silly love songs. But as far as the simple love song goes, this one is a favorite. I like how he only ‘thinks’ he loves her, but he still thinks that she ought to sit down. That combination of words has always gotten me. It feels natural to life, the way that people often blurt out their feelings in stupid ways, and I find that cute.
The Sisters of Mercy are a Roman Catholic women’s religious congregation (as per their website) and we all know there’s nothing sexier than a lady who’s renounced worldly things in the service of God. We know that because ‘naughty nuns’ is one of the world’s oldest pornographic subgenres. The suppression of passion must lead to its inevitable depraved release, according to the world’s erotic imagination. According to Leonard Cohen, the practice of spiritual service becomes blended with erotic service, because Cohen sees no boundary between the poetic sacred and the boner-making. That’s the opposite of what most of the major religions teach; they tell us that to touch the divine you really, really need to keep it in your pants. Yes, the part of our brains and our hearts that is open to the divine is so fragile and so easily overwhelmed by hormonal urges, and it’s just science that there’s not enough blood in the human body to operate both brain and gonads at full force. But realistically, our journey is an ongoing balancing act, with the spiritually touching moments intermingled with the hormonally driven ones, so much that we very often can’t draw a line between them. Isn’t that where our idea of romantic love lies?
It doesn’t get much bleaker than this. When Marianne Faithfull decided to finally and forever stop being a dollybird and become a real songwriter, she ended up writing one of the great drug epics of rock, an ode to deathly chemicals on par with Lou Reed’s Heroin. It was, of course, banned and pulled from shelves, while The Rolling Stones re-recorded it and took all the credit. (Faithfull says that it was a matter of copyright issues and that they did in fact pay her royalties, and it was those royalties that kept her alive during her worst years.) Faithfull always insisted that she wrote it before the worst of her drug addiction, and she was just trying to be literary, but she came to know the truth of her own writing soon enough. Besides the lyrical foresight, the song shows a singer literally metamorphosing as we listen from ingenue to rock star. She’s already done enough to herself that her voice is cracking. She wavers like pubescent boy between her old high vibrato and the husky croon we now know her for, and she doesn’t know what to do with it yet. That in itself belies any claim that of pure literary exercise. Marianne Faithfull was burning herself out, and she knew it. Years later she sang it again, now in full command of that barrel-aged croak, but it didn’t have the same fragile poignancy. The Rolling Stones, meanwhile, mined many of the same trenches, although with considerably more cash in hand, and they turned Sister Morphine into their own confessional. It’s probably the most explicit look they’ve ever taken into the dark side of their hedonistic lifestyle, and it is, in its own way, almost as poignant. Mick Jagger, tough guy that he is, doesn’t do confessionals, but he watched the closest people in his life sacrifice themselves to addiction, and the hurt shows, sometimes. Sticky Fingers was one of the great drug records, and Sister Morphine was the sad centerpiece that highlighted the theme most starkly. It was a fitting coda for a tainted love story, and an era.