What a bleak record. I haven’t listened to New Skin For the Old Ceremony is several years, and it’s never been one of Leonard Cohen’s records that I think to reach for. Though you wouldn’t call Cohen a sunshiny guy on the best of days, so much of his work is uplifting in the sense that it’s loaded with spiritual portent. This records, however, feels somehow bitter, as if the singer himself were having a reckoning with his calling. Everyone is entitled to a low point, and if Cohen didn’t have the best time in the mid-seventies, he’s entitled to his own rock bottom.
Leonard Cohen can give anyone a run for their money when in comes to portentous narrative ballads, except that his narratives don’t tell stories as such. Cohen really doesn’t get enough credit for his use of surreal imagery; so much of his writing evokes the fever-dream quality of art house French movies (that drives a lot of people away, I know, I know.) The man started his rock career already a published poet and novelist, for goodness sake, he knows his way around a deft metaphor. He knows how to sound like a bard in a Medieval alehouse, he knows how to take the same dumb topics all poets have danced around for millennia and make them sound like they’ve never been touched before, and all the while the bard has the weariness of the modern man who knows that his millennium may be the very last one.
There’s no denying that our cultural gears have shifted, and there will probably never again be space for another Led Zeppelin. The times are over when virtuoso guitar solos and bad behavior conferred godlike status. Today, performative ‘good’ behavior confers tentative role model status, and we’re really loathe to put anyone on a godlike pedestal. (Even Gandhi is getting put back down a notch.) It’s perfectly reasonable progress that we’re less likely to glamorize drunk young men running haywire, but by no means should we stop equating creativity with godliness. Please, put the virtuosos on pedestals, the songs that saved your life, the voices that speak to your soul – just minus the suicidal debauchery and statutory rape. And no matter how far the world may revolve, I don’t think I’ll ever let go of all my idolatry. If anything, I might just get more joy from seeing Led Zeppelin in all of their anachronistic problematic glory.
Has Bob Dylan been singlehandedly keeping long narrative ballads alive in the public mind? Maybe not entirely singlehanded but close to it. Can we even follow a narrative of more than two minutes, in our time of micro-bullet points? If the popularity of podcasts is any indication, yes, we as a society still like to follow long narratives. However, I don’t know of very many narrative bards singing long tales and being wildly successful doing it. Bob Dylan’s job is not yet up for grabs, Bob Dylan being still alive and all, but eventually it will be, and who will step up?
I have very little use for musical theatre, but I have a soft spot for the classic rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar. The film version remains one of my favorite movies from childhood. The music is, of course, the main attraction, but what makes the movie so endearing is its handmade quality. It’s certainly not low quality by any means. It’s obviously made by professionals. But the filmmakers handled their lack of fancy Hollywood budget by going easy on superfluous doodads like costumes and sets. All they have is dancers – outstanding ones – in regular street clothes, on an unadorned set in the middle of the desert, just doing their thing. The story of Christ doesn’t require historical verisimilitude; by its very nature it requires suspension of disbelief. Jesus can be a tawny-haired dreamboat, and his acolytes can be hippies in halter tops, and the Roman guards can be armed with prop machine guns left over from some war movie. It’s still the same story about the Son of God that we all know and love. The telling of the story, in whatever context, is in itself an act of theatre. This, however, is the only telling of it I will accept.
Whatever thoughts you may have on The Rolling Stones, put them aside and just admire Mick Jagger’s bedazzled physique. Man, his hips are so tiny! Pure sex in little white tennis shoes. Also stop and appreciate how weird the 1970’s must have been to allow this spectacle to even take place. The blues gods never intended their music to be turned into a drag show such as this. But the Stones took the blues and turned it into a gender-bending, drug soaked burlesque, yet somehow they still retained the mystique of guys who were not to be fucked with. The implication of danger lingers, making the glitter and spandex look like a lure to entrap the hapless. The pretty drag queen will seduce you, then the other guys will quietly slit your throat. A very real probability given that Keith is known to carry a switchblade. We know that the 70’s Stones roadshow was a literal den of iniquity, complete with an all-you-can-eat buffet of narcotics, adolescent groupies, and unconscious bodies discreetly disposed of through the back exit. Everyone who survived it with their brain cells still intact agrees that it was actually pretty miserable, but somehow the misery is all part of the sordid glamour, the idea that rock’n’roll is a force of Dionysian chaos that steamrolls anyone who dares to dance the dance. Who cares about the trail of ruined lives and dead bodies? It’s only rock’n’roll!
You can be a hard-drinkin’, hard-ridin’, hard-livin’ highwayman, but that oughtn’t stop you using the Queen’s grammar. Kris Kristofferson has made a music and movie career playing the charming (and increasingly grizzled) country boy with mud on his boots, but he also made to it no secret that he was smarter and better educated than any of his Nashville peers. Which not only made his more charming – for who can resist a real man’s man who also wields formidable book smarts? – but also one of the wittiest and most interesting songwriters in his field. That too helped him break out of the genre and appeal to rock’n’roll fans, making country rock a popular new genre in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Kristofferson has got a lot of things going for him, but I’d say the main one is, damn, the man writes good lyrics.