Do you ever get the feeling that “everybody’s on the stage and it seems like you’re the only Person sitting in the audience?” Well, yes. Life is treacherous and transient as thin ice, indeed, and we navigate it with as much grace as we can. Feeling lost, disconnected, spooked and unreal while we’re at it. Yes, it’s a great metaphor, and a small lesson in some kind of philosophy. You should build your life one day at a time exactly because there may well never be a next one.
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.
Nothing inspires the worst kind of schmaltz like the subject of love. Schmaltzy love songs that are the musical equivalent of a Hummel figurine or a Margaret Keane painting, syrupy drivel that makes you want to put your genitals and your heart in a bank vault and go live in a cave somewhere. And you would think that an elderly Frenchman in a bad suit singing in front of a plastic Christmas trees would be precisely that kind of smarmy. Especially in 1974, when French guys in suits were very much le contraire de la mode. But Charles Aznavour didn’t enjoy well over 70 years of popularity for being a sentimental hack (and he’ll have you know that he is Armenian.) Sometimes under the trappings of schmaltz lies something beautiful and it takes a masterful performer to extract it. It may look like music for housewives who missed the sexual revolution boat, but when that man starts to sing all the trappings fall away and you can forget all of your cynical thoughts and bad jokes at the expense of people less hip than yourself. It’s a good love song that does what good love songs do: touch the the tender part of the heart that hasn’t yet sunk into ironic indifference. When you love someone and they’re your world, you can talk about them in blown-out corny language and act like every cliche of a love-sick fool and no one can sink your sincerity, and it’s that precise feeling that is so very, very hard to capture in song without sounding like a driveling moron. You have to believe it to deliver it. Just embrace that schmaltz and those old lovers’ cliches and deliver them like they’re written in your soul. That’s what crooners of Aznavour’s generation made an art of, and it’s become a lost art, since the advent of rock’n’roll with its undisguised libido and emotional juvenility.
Yes, life is indeed very much like a frantic carnival, and you are a helpless aquatic mammal with no legs desperately performing tricks to please a cruel and fickle ringmaster through no fault of your own. A good metaphor right there. See, this is why I’m a lifelong follower of Jethro Tull. The J-Tull fan will always be rewarded with clever phrasing and inspired imagery. Putting on a Tull record is like returning to a favorite book. It may be a sustained storyline or a series of vignettes or loosely connected theses but it will be a literary experience as much as a musical one.
Well, folx, I’ve been on vacation but now I’m back and ready to bring on the angst again. That’s just a perennial thing. Nobody delivered angst quite like John Lennon. He may not have invented confessional songwriting – or did he? – but he was a master of it. The thing about being a good writer of angsty things that a lot of aspiring emo kids seem to miss, is that you can’t aim for pathos. You have to be honest, with yourself and your audience, and have enough self-awareness to acknowledge that a) your angst may not always be as well earned as you think, and b) it’s kind of an unattractive quality and most people don’t find it very endearing. We’re still drawn to the music of John Lennon because he had a lot of genuinely well-earned angst, but he didn’t pretend that the personality traits and coping mechanisms he developed as a result of childhood trauma made him a cuter person. That shit ain’t cute. Being dysfunctional and unhappy are not aesthetic choices. John Lennon’s musical career is basically the narrative of a man trying, with intermittent success, to be less of a piece of shit.
1974 was in no way too soon to bask in bittersweet nostalgia for the halcyon days of 1969. For a rock band, five years can be a lifetime, because rock bands tend to have lifespans similar to those of small household animals. Incidentally those were the very years between Mott the Hoople’s debut and their breakup. You can’t blame them for getting all fuzzy about their days hustling for gigs and looking for a big break. Everybody gets the fuzzies for their struggling-youth days, making nostalgia a universally appealing shared emotion. It’s definitely easy to get too mawkish or blatantly manipulative trying to pull those strings, but that’s not a problem here. It’s a group still in their prime calling back to earlier in their prime. It was a great five years, guys.
I guess the lesson is that even the coolest people eventually have to throw out their dancing shoes and step back from the scene. It’s a song about growing up and growing burned out. Lou Reed of all people would have known all about the pressure of being the cool guy all the time. Being cool in a circle of freaks is one thing, but being trendy, popular and emulated is quite another. Reed was definitely one of those artists who found success to be as much of a burden as a reward, and his ambivalence towards the job of rock stardom resulted in such timeless gems as Metal Machine Music. You could tell that by 1974 he was weighted heavily with ennui, not least because he released a song called Ennui. Just like Sally – presumably an alter ego of some kind – Lou Reed just couldn’t get it off of the floor anymore.