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.
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?
I love the Rolling Stones when they’re at their most weird, and they never broke away from their usual hitmaking formula harder than they did on Their Satanic Majesties Request. In all fairness, 1967 was a bumper crop of psychedelic albums striving to emulate the surreal sing-along ebullience that sounded so effortless when The Beatles did it. But among all of the attempts to make a worthy reply to Sgt. Pepper, nobody failed as hard as The Stones. They didn’t just fail to capture the Summer of Love spirit, they made mockery of it. With three-fifths of the group being embroiled with the criminal justice system, nobody’s head was exactly open to waves of cosmic love or whatever (something Mick Jagger was always too much of a flinty-eyed realist to fall for anyway.) The Stones’ use of popular hippie musical tropes only exposed those gestures for what they were: empty posturing and hopelessly naive ideology unhinged from reality. The sixties only went downhill from there.
When David Bowie died, according to his wishes, his ashes were scattered in a Buddhist ceremony. He was never the kind of artist who makes a point of thanking God in his liner notes, or type to suddenly go off and join a church. Aside from sometimes wearing a cross, presumably for fashion purposes, he made surprisingly little use of religious iconography. As private as he was with his spiritual beliefs, we do know that the interest in Buddhism stretches all the way back to his student days. Something about the spiritual discipline of Buddhism appealed to him deeply. He continued quietly studying the philosophy throughout his life, and would sometimes make references to Buddhist writings in his more cryptic songs. This early song, a bold standout from an era of rather uneven output, is one of the Bowie’s most explicit explorations of the spiritual condition. The fascination is with the process of becoming a spiritual person. Enlightenment requires sacrifice, discipline, hard work; it doesn’t just happen, and although we all have the potential, not everyone is able to follow that path. Some people who could have followed the spiritual path choose instead to pursue a secular one. One wonders if David Bowie saw himself as the boy in the song. Being a gifted and charismatic person, someone like Bowie could have followed a path of spiritual leadership, but instead chose to use all that exceptionality in a secular field. You could – and many of us do – think of David Bowie as a spiritual leader in his own way, but the material life of a rock star could never be compatible with the abnegation of the material world that a fully spiritual life requires.
The Beatles didn’t singlehandedly convince ‘the establishment’ that rock and roll was worthy of the same respect as ‘proper’ music, but they certainly contributed more than a fair shakes towards earning that respect. It’s generally agreed that Sgt. Pepper was a catalyst in establishing rock music as a real art form, and She’s Leaving Home is generally pointed out as proof that rock musicians are capable of producing works of great sensitivity and nuance. The youths of the time needed no convincing on this point, but the squares were reluctant to give those long-haired upstarts their due as songwriters and composers. All they needed was Paul McCartney in his most dewy-eyed mode, thoughtfully acknowledging the sad and inevitable gap between between generations and their inability to relate to one another, backed with a plush string arrangement. Now, of course, the artistic validity of rock as a genre is beyond any shadow of a doubt; if anything, it has become overly entrenched as the dominant cultural standard. It strikes us as outlandish and unthinkable that anyone would have ever questioned it.