Let Us Compare Mythologies

Although today in Canada is yesterday for us, September 21 is Leonard Cohen’s birthday – a special one – his 80th.

Cohen is a Canadian singer-songwriter, musician, poet, and novelist. His work has explored religion, politics, isolation, sexuality, and personal relationships and his 13th studio album will be released tomorrow.

In 1957 Folkways Records released the “Six Montreal Poets” album with A.J.M. Smith, Irving Layton, Louis Dudek, F.R. Scott, A.M. Klein, and Leonard Cohen – all reading their own poetry on the record.  Leonard Cohen reads the following poems (recorded in 1957):

  • For Wilf and his house (1955)
  • Beside the shepherd (1956)
  • Poem (1955)
  • Lovers (1955)
  • The sparrows (1955)
  • Warning (1956)
  • Les Vieus (1954)
  • Elegy (1955)

All poems are from “Let Us Compare Mythologies

Listen to Six Montreal Poets.

Music and memory

Recently a colleague and I were driving back from a meeting when some very familiar music came from the car radio. The National Programme was playing a piece about Joni Mitchell’s Blue and its importance in popular music.

I was instantly transported back to buying Blue with my first pay from Woolworth’s in New Brighton.  This was in the days when  New Brighton was the only place in New Zealand where general retail shops could  open on Saturdays.

If you lived in the east of Christchurch and you needed a part-time job you went and put your name down at Woolworth’s, McKenzies and any other shop you could think of. Then you waited a few weeks until your name got to the top of the list, they rang you, you went down to the shop and did an addition test (how did I pass that, I wonder) and you started the next Saturday. It was a whole other world.

Anyway, back to Joni Mitchell. Knowing every word of every song  on Blue set me off on a Joni jag and I found myself telling my colleague  that I planned to have The Last Time I Saw Richard played at my funeral. She plans on having Mendocino, by those other talented Canadians the McGarrigles. Then we fell to discussing how Leonard Cohen‘s (what is it with these Canadians?) Hallelujah is the funeral song of choice for a certain demographic.

Funny how some songs on the radio can take you back to 1970s New Brighton and forward to your own funeral.

What music takes you back to a certain place or time? More morbidly, do you have any special requests lodged for your final send-off?

Photo of Seaview Road New Brighton - Looking West - Saturday Trading by Kevin Hill
Seaview Road, New Brighton from Kete Christchurch (photo by Kevin Hill)

Sylvie Simmons and Don McGlashan and Leonard Cohen: “at the unpopular edge of pop music … where the most interesting stuff is”.

Last night Sylvie Simmons, Leonard Cohen’s biographer, and the awesome Don McGlashan joined forces. They sang their songs – and a few Cohen numbers. Sylvie played ukulele and Don the guitar, and they were introduced by music journalist Nick Bollinger.

In between the songs was discussion on Cohen, songwriting, and White Valiant for you McGlashanites. Don admitted he doesn’t usually like rock biographies as the are all “and then there was another amazing party and you weren’t invited”.

Highlights of this rather chilled out and beautiful evening:

  • Don enjoying doing an unplugged gig: “I normally wouldn’t tell that story, because there’d be a drummer behind me saying FFS.”
  • On Keith Richards writing Satisfaction after a dream, Sylvie said wryly: “I haven’t woken up to satisfaction for a long time”.
  • Sylvie on Leonard’s songcraft and constant honing of his songs: “He will just be perfectionist for ever and eternity”.
  • Leonard Cohen reading lyrics to Suzanne Vega, women on sun loungers moving closer to hear.
  • Don explaining White Valiant, and saying “I am at the unpopular edge of pop music … where the most interesting stuff is”.
  • Don playing the euphonium (not, as I suggested “blowing into an upside down tuba”). I think this was done on a verse of Famous blue raincoat, but correct me if you were there …
  • Don’s song Marvellous year. I am a huge fan of songs with lists (a la We didn’t start the fire by Billy Joel), and this is up there:

    We had Democracy, Dentistry, Waist-band elastic, Rhythmic Gymnastics, The Rule Of Law, The Rule Of Thumb, Fire, The Wheel, Rugby Union, The Petrol Engine, The Old-Age Pension, The Fire Of Hades, The Briscoes Lady, Dental Floss, Motorcross, The Koran, The Torah, Interflora

  • Don giving his guitar some astonishing effect pedal action on Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne.

Set list:

  • This is London (Don)
  • Midnight Cowboy (Sylvie)
  • Sisters of Mercy (Leonard Cohen)
  • The Captain (Leonard Cohen)
  • Famous blue raincoat (Leonard Cohen)
  • Queen of the Night (Don)
  • A hard act to follow (Sylvie)
  • Marvellous year (Don)
  • Who knows where the time goes when it flies (Sylvie)
  • Suzanne (Leonard Cohen)

The Stations of the Leonard: Sylvie Simmons on Leonard Cohen

Sylvie Simmons signs booksSylvie Simmons is an award-winning writer and renowned music journalist. Her latest book is I’m your man: The life of Leonard Cohen. On Tuesday 14 May, she spoke (and sang, and played ukulele) in Christchurch. Her performance was brought to you via The Press Christchurch Writers Festival and her next appearances are at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival.

Sylvie was in conversation with Philip Matthews of The Press, and her musical interludes were accompanied by Adam McGrath of The Eastern on guitar (and occasional harmonies). They sang three Cohen classics: Sisters of Mercy, Famous Blue Raincoat and Suzanne.

Discovering Cohen

Search catalogue for I'm your manSylvie first heard Leonard Cohen on a compilation called Rock Machine turns you on (check out a YouTube playlist of the album). The Cohen song featured was Sisters of Mercy. It was:

Literally the day I hit puberty … something in that voice picked me up and threw me against the wall.

Sylvie said his poems and songs are often autobiographical, a combination of reportage and the metaphysical. And many are stories about women. Cohen sees “no difference between word and song” and in his discovery of the poetry of Lorca, he “heard the music of the synagogue”.

She had a three day interview with Leonard, and found him to be more himself on stage and off than any star (other than Keith Richards). He wore a suit, spoke in perfect sentences, and had a meticulous, elegant quality even in such simple things as making a cup of tea.

Cohen on stage and on tour

When Leonard Cohen first went on tour, he was nervous about exposing his songs on stage. He asked his lifelong friend – sculptor Mort Rosengarten – to make him “a mask of Leonard Cohen”. Sylvie suggests he “needed that extra layer of skin”.

He started the latest tours due to needing to recoup stolen funds. He found it hard to inhabit his earlier songs – coming as they did from a time of deep depression. Leonard played the role of “Rat Pack Rabbi” to the hilt. But nowadays he loves the life of touring, what he calls “the feeling of full employment” – he has even gone back to some of the older songs like Avalanche.

Biographer / detective

Cohen’s father died when he was young, and he lived with him mother and older sister. Women are a huge part of “The Stations of the Leonard”.

Search catalogue for Neil YoungSylvie says the biographer has to “go in like a detective” … ” a detective with a bit of poetry in my heart”. She felt she was polishing a gem in her writing, and noticed how Cohen is “disciplined in his quest and yet so emotional”. Her goal was to present his story “with diligence and heart”.

She has also written on Serge Gainsbourg and Neil Young . What the three men have in common is “each is a one-off”.

Questions from the audience

Audience members sought insider information on Cohen’s dramatis personae in certain songs.

One mentioned a New Zealander Graeme Allwright, a New Zealander who moved to France and became a famous singer (and interpreter of songs by artists such as Cohen in French). You can find some clips on YouTube including  L’Étranger / The Stranger Song which shows both Leonard and Graeme.

What (or who) next?

Who is the next artist Sylvie will write about? After her long sojourn in Cohen world –  “Cocktails and cabana boys” she said wryly.

Auckland Writers and Readers Festival – Anticipated highlights # 1

Now that I know I am really going to the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, the time has come for a detailed examination of theCover: I'm Your Man programme while wielding a fluorescent marker. They don’t call them highlighter pens for nothing;  highlighting my anticipated highlights is in itself a highlight for me. Tragic.

Number one on my giddying up list is Don McGlashan and Sylvie Simmons singing their own songs and the songs of Mr Leonard Cohen. I am not familiar with Simmons’ work, as I still languish low on the holds list for I’m Your Man, but the combination of Cohen and McGlashan is unmissable.

Are you going to the Festival? What are your anticipated highlights?

I love Leonard Cohen (and literary events in Christchurch)

Christchurch has a stellar selection of book-related events coming up in May. Take a look!


Tuesday 14 May sees two events: Max Hastings and Sylvie Simmons will be talking at Middleton Grange.

I’ve just finished reading I’m your man: the life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons. It is brilliant. Sylvie talked a lot to Cohen and those who know him. We delve into his family, personal life and history, and Cohen’s creative process is also unfurled and explored.

Her wealth of knowledge doesn’t get in the way of a  great story. I loved the anecdote about Iggy Pop and Cohen. Leonard spotted a personal ad in which a woman wanted to meet a man who combined the energy of Iggy and the class of Cohen. He thought they should reply as a double act – married Iggy was less keen – but the result is a fab photo of Iggy and Leonard on the couch. The Personal Ad woman must have flipped out.

PS If you want more Cohen stuff – CDs, DVDs, and books – the library has quite an impressive collection.

Max Hastings will be fascinating too. He is an author, journalist, and broadcaster who has written many books of war history and some great memoirs (I am in the throes of Did You Really Shoot the Television?: A Family Fable and it’s a witty and compelling read).

Sorry to report the Ben Goldacre event is cancelled …
Search catalogue for Bad scienceMonday 20 May: Another must-see is Ben Goldacre talking Bad Science, Bad Pharma at the Aurora Centre. Goldacre is the enemy of illogical baggy thinking. Bad Science is the kind of book that gets you all riled up. It stimulates your critical thinking and makes you look at the media’s reporting in a more jaundiced way. Crappy infographics! Science research corralled by advertisers! GGGrrrr.

His follow-up is Bad Pharma and it tackles the actions of pharmaceutical companies. Lots of library customers (including me) are keen to get their mitts on this.

These three authors will also be appearing at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival.

Want more literary stuff? Try The Press Christchurch Writers Festival workshops:

  • Workshops on e-publishing with author Felicity Price and publisher Jenny Howarth.
  • The Good Prose – a two-day session with Lyttelton-based columnist and author Joe Bennett.

So long, Mr. Cohen

So long, Mr Cohen – I guess we won’t see you in these parts ever again but you made several thousand baby boomers (and a few bright young things) deeply happy last Wednesday night.

The first LP I ever bought was Songs of Leonard Cohen from the Philips Record Club. Its mysterious lyrics suited my teenage angst as I lay in my bedroom, listening over and over.  I’ve followed your work over the years and I fell in love again on seeing the I’m your man DVD.

I was lucky enough to see you on Wednesday night. Mr. Cohen you are now 76 but your are still the man. You are a poet and songwriter extraordinaire. You are the one with the golden voice, man of spirit but of the world.

You gave your all and we weren’t disappointed. Standouts for me were So long, Marianne – pared back, as it was back then, and the inimitable A thousand kisses deep – so achingly beautiful.

You sang The Anthem – Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in,  with partner Sharon.  I wanted to hear more of her deep, sonorous voice.

Your musicians were impeccable too, as you said.  I would have liked to have seen you in the Town Hall so I could see your face, not just on the big screen, but you can’t be too greedy.

After three  standing ovations, you said you shouldn’t keep us up as it was a school night and you skipped out. What I wanted to ask was why you found New Zealand so mysterious…

If you missed the man in concert,  enjoy the his latest dvd,  Songs from the road or the earlier,  Live in London.

Is Hallelujah the best song ever written?

CoverIt  might be. 

In a strange and lovely synchronicity, Rufus Wainwright sang it last night in the Christchurch Town Hall. He also sang a gorgeous number about fellow singer Jeff Buckley (whose version of Hallelujah is also considered one of the supreme covers of this classic).

Wainwright paid tribute to the song’s creator, fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen. And Mr Cohen will be in Christchurch next week.


I’m your man – Covering Leonard Cohen

MusicThe October issue of music mag Q is focused on songwriters and songwriting, and has a rather lovely list of the most perfect songs ever (their website also lists some of the ones that didn’t quite make the top 10).

Number 1 is Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen. The voters (who include many of Britain’s top songsmiths) picked the Jeff Buckley version as the height of musical perfection.  

Cohen songs have attracted many interpreters.  One website dutifully lists over 720 Cohen cover versions. Jennifer Warnes did a famous version of “First we take Manhattan” (with Leonard as a co-star in the video) and before that Judy Collins came out with eloquent versions of songs such as “Suzanne” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” (the library has some copies of Judy Collins sings Leonard Cohen).

If you are interested in hearing how musicians interpret Cohen, the library also has on DVD the music documentary Leonard Cohen: I’m your man (which screened at this year’s International Film Festival). It was recorded live at perfomances of Hal Wilner’s Came so far for beauty : an evening of Leonard Cohen songs. Nick Cave, Rufus Wainwright and Jarvis Cocker are amongst the performers.