by carl wilson

The Consecrated Casio

cohen.jpg

Where have all the new posts gone? I've been distracted with the action over at PWI, where a group of bloggers and friends, including yours truly, have been haggling over making up a list of counter-canonical Canadian songs as an ornery complement to the CBC's 50 Tracks. Look there now for some chatter about Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, battles over the Tragically Hip and praise for Slow, with much more yet to come. Meanwhile back at the homestead, I'm updating the March show calendar this afternoon, researching my upcoming Experience Music Project paper, and so forth. (And in my absence Dave Morris has written the most even-handed M.I.A. post of all time. I still disagree, but it's taken all the fight out of me.)

However, I want to share the thing I just wrote for The Other 50 Tracks, a response to Keith's nomination of Hallelujah, in which he stipulated not the album version with the Casio but the live version with the strings. This, gentle readers, flipped me out, and so I fired off the following impassioned and possibly insane defense of the Casio as remote-control device of Zen enlightenment, and its role in Cohen's artistic apotheosis. Or something. Read it on the jump. (Nitpick pre-emption alert: I think often here we are saying Casio when we ought to be saying Technics, although Cohen used both, and explicitly rejected more "professional" keyboards.) [...]

From: Wilson, Carl
Sent: Friday, March 18, 2005 2:23 PM
Subject: FW: Hallelujah for the Casio

Hey all,

Sorry about the delays. I was making a newspaper - I'm an editor here as well as a writer, and was in weekend-section production hell till lunchtime today. I'll send in a pick later this afternoon, but first here is my case on the Leonard Cohen issue. I'll warn you, this is gonna be long.

Folks, there's no question in my mind that Hallelujah should be on the list. The other time I've taken part in an exercise of this sort was when the Globe's music critics worked up a Great Canadian Songs list a couple of years ago, and we ranked Hallelujah number 1. (There's a copy of it here.)

But Keith couches his nomination by saying, "What if Leonard Cohen had never been introduced to the Casio? ... What if [...] Len was left to work on his arrangements with nothing more than strings, acoustic guitar and those background singers who always sound like they should have wings, halos and gauzy white dresses? Wouldn't Hallelujah be among the greatest songs of all time? ... Yet, lyrics this great, words this powerful, are held back by a synth track that wouldn't seem out of place at The Dresden Room. ... So, why don't we cut the Casios by nominating the live version of Hallelujah from 1994's Cohen Live: Leonard Cohen in Concert?"

And there, he misses the real glory of Hallelujah, and indeed the glory of everything Leonard Cohen has done with the Casio and its kin sounds, especially on one of the greatest albums any Canadian has ever made, so obviously Cohen's own best that it's difficult even to compare it with any of the others, 1988's I'm Your Man. The album that contains Hallelujah, 1984's Various Positions, is frequently keyboard-driven as well, but it is a transitional work, moving forward toward Cohen's personal punk-rock-minimalist breakthrough but with a lot of its aesthetic still rooted in the 1970s gypsy-rock style of albums such as Recent Songs and New Skin for the Old Ceremony. In this, Various Positions reminds me of Tom Waits' Heartattack and Vine, which similarly has some of Waits' best songs ever, but is a bit of a sonic muddle, moving out of the piano jazz-blues towards the otherworldly music of Swordfishtrombones, but not yet quite making the radical break. (I make the comparison because most people recognize that Waits made a radical innovative break in the 1980s, while Cohen's doesn't get that kind of credit.)

Why does this matter? Cohen's melodies have always been beautiful and his arrangements have always been interesting, but like his early poetry, they usually were mired in a kind of swamp of excessively "good" taste: Rolling Spanish guitar lines, angelic background singers, string sections and brushed drums were everywhere. The result was that Cohen was, from the first, a kind of self-made cliche. I still adore much of that music, but it doesn't prepare you for the shock you get when you hear bootleg recordings or 1973's Live Songs album of the man in concert at the time, a sarcastic, improvising spiritual stand-up comic in the tradition of Lenny Bruce who would turn and twist his songs into reflexive commentary, who would get into shouting matches about the nature of truth with members of his audience, who would provoke his hippy admirers with his nihilist scepticism or even right-leaning militant Zionism. No, the album arrangements, with rare exceptions (most notably his insane collaboration with Phil Spector, 1977's Death of a Ladies Man) generally served to reassure and sanitize the extreme individualist spiritual existentialism that Cohen brings to his music, making him seem much less the Canadian Bob Dylan-style trickster that he really is and far more the French chanteur-turned-monk that romantic sentimentalists (including Cohen's own youthful self) would have preferred him to be.

I'm Your Man brought the trickster centre stage, not only by surrounding Cohen with shiny plastic keyboard lines that seemed to tumble and canter around him like glittering Broadway hydraulic set pieces, but with songwriting that discarded a lot of Cohen's previous self-pity and self-justification and entertained the possibility that his problems stemmed from the fact that his soul was irredeemably corrupt. That he was a pathetic fool (I'm Your Man), a centreless egotist (I Can't Forget), and a terrible singer to boot (Tower of Song). And in this it showed Cohen's progress in the disciplines of Zen - his willingness to embrace the paradox that enlightenment is not achieved but accepted, that suffering can only be alleviated by admitting the sheer idiocy of your desires rather than by elevating them to the status of sacraments.

But first, on Various Positions, he had at least one great statement to make - before he could say goodbye to his sainthood, he had to tell the story of his attempt to please the lord with sex and song, the long pilgrimage of his bohemian life that finally led him to realize bohemian life was undoing his spirit rather than raising him up: "Love is not a victory march." That story is told, in parable form, in Hallelujah. It's the story of attempting every stratagem and finally having to strip them away, because God doesn't really care for music anyway. "And even though it all went wrong/ I'll stand before the Lord of Song/ With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah."

That nakedness of self before the mystery is what he achieves with the Casio. It rejects (and even parodies) the grandeur of the church organ, leaves behind the comforting myth of the guitar-toting troubador, offering a thin and humble slice of music that is more true to the puniness of the ego before the vastness of creation. The Casio also sounds of all the phoniness of modern life, of processed cheese slices and shopping malls - so that rather than fantasize that he was singing from a cabin in the woods, or a medieval castle or the communes of Paris or even the bars of 1960s Montreal, Cohen can acknowledge that he's singing from the neon streets of Los Angeles, from a venal spiritual strip club that's open all night and tired all day - and then say that this, too, is hallowed ground, and here I will lay my finest words and melodies before you, whether you are god or man, on this chintzy altar, up these cardboard steps, in a place where nothing is true and everything is permitted but I am going to try for exaltation anyway. "You say I took the name in vain? I don't even know the name." There is no magic division between sin and salvation. Ain't nobody here but us chickens, but we keep on laying these golden eggs - so crack 'em open and fry 'em up. You might be in the Dresden Room, but it means as much to fall to your knees there as in any church, and maybe a whole lot more.

Hallelujah matters not just because it's one of his greatest, funniest and most moving lyrics and best compositions (which seems to have pleased him so much that he even describes the chord progression in the first verse: "it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift") but because it's the point where he crosses a threshold from a weakness for pomp to a delight in circumstance, an allowance for musical contingency far closer to his brave young self sacrifices before sceptical arena crowds. It's the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end.

I'm not saying that Cohen's Casio, like all great artistic gambits, doesn't eventually become his own enemy. After 1992's The Future, where he uses the keyboard sound most of all for its contemporariness in some of the best political songs he or anybody has ever written, Cohen's commitment to music itself really seems to begin to wane, and on his most recent albums, he's handed over too much of the responsibility for the sound to others and just shows up to recite from his notebooks, and it gets pretty thin. But even there I actually remain suspicious of myself for not appreciating that next level of aesthetic abandon - for wanting something prettier, something closer to wings and halos and gaudy white dresses, when Cohen says, "No, no, listen, isn't this funny? And isn't it kind of pretty, in an old and cracked* kind of way? Isn't being here together, talking softly and honestly over this cheap drugstore wine of a music, enough for you?"

Perhaps by the time I'm his age I will be there. But for now, all I know is that the challengingly "bad" sound of the Casio was the signpost for everything that made Cohen's middle period one of the most compelling performances by a Canadian artist ever. I enjoy the prettier version, too, but I'm much more grateful for the one that wouldn't mollycoddle me, that made me wonder what he was up to, the one that made me laugh in incredulous shock, rather than just sway my head and be soothed. The one that makes me think he's not being disingenuous when he says he knows his best "wasn't much," when he says he "didn't come to fool you."

So here's my ultimatum: I don't say you have to specify the album version over the live one, Keith. But if you want us to make the list in such a way that the ridiculous little Casio is refused its spiritual depth, the incredible way Cohen gives it status as a tick-tock ritual instrument of the tacky urban metropolis, as valid as a drum in a Voudun ceremony - well, I can't let that stand. So can we compromise? Just say Hallelujah, by Leonard Cohen, and let people decide which one they want to believe - after all, as the song says, "There's a blaze of light in every word/ It doesn't matter which you heard/ The holy or the broken Hallelujah."

* "there is a crack in everything/that's how the light gets in" - Anthem, L. Cohen, 1992

Read More | On Record | Posted by zoilus on Friday, March 18 at 3:47 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

COMMENTS

Brill as usual.

Just heard Fred Eaglesmith's version of Hallelujah. Bloody unbelievable. Taken over from John Cale's as my fave cover.

Posted by Amanda on March 23, 2005 6:32 PM

 

 

I was going to invite you to some secret shows involving Matthew Shipp, Erik Friedlander, Steven Bernstein, Roscoe Mitchell (art ensemble of chicago), Lee Konitz, John Abercrombie, Greg Osby and more...but the nasty comments about the Hip have soured me. Gord Rules.

Posted by ready for freddy on March 21, 2005 7:47 AM

 

 

totally worth correcting, please + thank you.

Posted by zoilus on March 19, 2005 4:03 AM

 

 

[stupid nitpicking]MINOR fall, MAJOR lift.[/stupid nitpicking]

Posted by Andrew on March 19, 2005 3:49 AM

 

 

Hallelujah, Carl, hallelujah.

Posted by Sean on March 18, 2005 5:54 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson