Monday, 2 April 2018

Sometimes You Just Know

"I'll Take You There," by the Staple Singers

Because I'm certain non-material phenomena don't exist, "soul" is a word I like to use carefully. Like millions of others, I was brought up to believe that it denoted an actual entity that existed somewhere inside me, but also separate from me; unlike me, however, it would live through a blissful eternity if I behaved myself before I had to leave the scene. The whole scheme eventually struck me as unjust and nonsensical and I abandoned my belief in it a long time ago.

Singing isn't my new religion, but I love it infinitely more than I do my old one (I find it infinitely more useful, too). And I think I get the use of "soul" when it comes to singing (and playing): it's artful and sincere, it makes you and the singer(s) and player(s) ecstatic or sorrowful (mostly the former, in my experience) . . . Heck, I'm just running my mouth . . . Listen to this song, its soulful lyrics, its soulful players, its soulful singers, the soulful woman singing lead . . . You'll know what I mean.

(Of course, the joke's on me because I think they're all talking about heaven, and I don't believe in heaven.)

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

A Different Dementian

"I Can't Forget," by Leonard Cohen

Earlier today, I had a fascinating experience. I had purchased a book of fairly sadistic-looking crossword puzzles, and soon after settling in with the first puzzle, I started thinking I'd already tackled it. I went to my pile of old (mostly solved) volumes and, sure enough, I came across one with the same damned cover as the one I'd just bought.

No big deal, really -- I'd just plow through the thing again because the fun with crosswords is the doing, not their doneness. Don't get me wrong -- I like to solve them, but if I come up short, I come up short. But here's the fascinating part of the experience: After almost completing the first one, I decided to see if my first stab at the thing had been more successful or less than my present effort . . . And it was exactly the same! Disappointment and relief at the same time: I hadn't become any smarter, but at least I hadn't gotten any dumber. But, Jesus in heaven, my memory -- it shouldn't be that faulty. 

What to do, then, but to listen to the great Leonard Cohen sing this song from thirty years ago? Like pretty well all his songs, this one has so much more in it than its uncomplicated aural beauty (that steel guitar -- oh, man, what a sweet buttery treat): It's got a regretful older guy, a warm city, and a truck, and the changing seasons, and an ever remembering, ever forgetting human brain. All in under five minutes.

I still get sad when I remember Leonard Cohen isn't here anymore. 

Thursday, 22 February 2018


"Lawyers, Guns, and Money," by Warren Zevon

I like it when songs abandon love, their most common subject, for stories. Love is wondrous, of course, but sometimes you can get too much of a good thing.

This song tells a hilarious, cynical, very short story (it clocks in at under four minutes), with one of the most reliable unreliable narrators -- he ain't nothing if not obvious -- you'll ever come across. I think an aesthete might call it using broad, mordant brushstrokes. The broadness includes the raucous players, who sound like they're having the time of their lives. They're all pounding at their instruments with great wit and panache, and Mr. Zevon (goddam, I miss that unlucky bastard), does what he so often did so wonderfully while he was still here -- talk really clearly to us while also grunting and yelling and exclaiming with near-monosyllabic verve:  Hyeah! . . . Alright! . . . Huh! . . . Yes! . . . Unh! . . . Oow! . . . Yeh! . . . Yeh! . . . Yeh!
. . . Unh! . . . Alright!

Tuesday, 2 January 2018


"St. James Infirmary," as performed by Louis Armstrong et alia

I recently stayed overnight in a local hospital because a part of my body that had been proceeded upon normally and safely in a local clinic by highly qualified and competent medical professionals joined the club of statistically anomalous phenomena that force all those poking and probing pros to make you sign a paper that accepts the reality of inner organic variety. My particular anomaly involved a significant loss of blood, but I was taken care of with great respect and kindness and ability, and when I arrived home with my clean bill of health, I started wondering about songs involving hospitals. This song topped the Google list. I'd listened to it before, and maybe because I'm probably just generally sadder now than I was then, it struck me as a very sad song.

But the celestial trumpet and clarinet and voice also cheered me up because, well, sad songs, if they're beautifully played and sung, can't not make you feel happy (especially just after you've been loved by strangers). Ironic, huh?

Friday, 20 October 2017

Up, Frontman

"At The Hundredth Meridian," by the Tragically Hip

On stage, he mesmerized us all (and himself, too, I'd guess). He couldn't really dance, but he could really beautifully move that utterly honest, entranced body of his when it contained only the music he was hearing. He "danced" like Van Morrison sings: you can't exactly predict what's about to happen, but when it does, you know it was the right thing to do. I saw The Tragically Hip in a small venue (can't remember what it was called) in Toronto in the early 1990s. My friends and I were a lot older than most of our fellow fans, and I myself was also probably the most uncomfortable pre-geezer in that little hall. (Where were all the chairs?) But it was all tremendous vibrating fun, and we all got to see a top-notch rock combo right in front of us in a place that wasn't big enough to muddify the music. 

No song I heard at that concert stands out above the others, so I can't use its memory to choose a number from the night that makes me feel both great and grateful to this band and its kinetically amazing front man, who died far too early a couple of days ago. I like to believe was as good a father to his four children, who were with him when he died, as he was a rock star and an activist and worker for a wider benevolence.

But this song, this number, this three-and-a-half minutes of swampy, joyous energy -- well, it makes me believe in magic, an essential element of all great songs. And if you don't think Gord Downie was a magician, just listen to him sing this song, especially when, near the end, for the seventh and final time, he sings the phrase "where the great plains begin," stretching it and holding on to it until you're worried he might not make it out of the song alive. He did, of course, which is at least partially why it gets me down that he isn't anymore.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Guest Who?

"Chelsea Hotel No. 2," as performed by Rufus Wainwright

Oh, the poetry in this song. There's lewd, cynical poetry: ". . . Giving me head on the unmade bed/While the limousines wait in the street . . . " There's rueful, grieving poetry: ". . . Ah, but you got away, didn't you babe/You just turned your back on the crowd/You got away, I never once heard you say/I need you, I don't need you/I need you, I don't need you/And all of that jiving around . . ." There's exaltative poetry: ". . . I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel/You were famous, your heart was a legend . . . "  There's funny poetry: ". . . You told me again you preferred handsome men/But for me you would make an exception . . ." There's cruel poetry, too: ". . . I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel/That's all, I don't even think of you that often." 

The star of the song, according to legend, is a dead female rock 'n' roll singer, but it's composing Leonard Cohen and singing Rufus Wainwright (my favourite reader of the former's songs), together again, melting everything inside you until it comes out your eyes.  

I recommend listening to it more than once. 

Monday, 28 August 2017

Not Here, Not There, But Everywhere

"I've Been Everywhere," as sung by Johnny Cash and played by players whose names I don't know but who perform this number so flawlessly and beautifully that I couldn't help feeling better when I finally decided to listen to it. (And who doesn't need cheering up once in a while?)

I've heard parts of "I've Been Everywhere" countless times, but had never closely listened to the whole thing until yesterday. Shame on me. It's the human heartbeat sped up and amplified and the human brain humorized and satisfied and improved, and whatever functioning human limbs and digits and joints and muscles you've still got, energized. You don't have to move while it's in your ears, but I dare you not to. Some of the rhymes are even deft enough to have come out of a rapper's brain. The song was born in Australia about sixty years ago and has been, if not everywhere, a lot of places where folks speak English, each locale supplying its own subset of "everywhere." Since Johnny Cash lived in North America and I live in North America, I've chosen his version. Well, that and the wittily twangy virtuosic combo playing the hell out of backing him up. Once Mr. Cash finishes his unerring vocal, they play us down the road, the crackerjack guitarist and pianist leading the way. What geographers, all of them!