Sunday, November 13, 2016

Leonard Cohen—A remembrance

The first time I heard the name Leonard Cohen—known these days mainly as the composer of “Hallelujah,” one of most-covered songs of the modern era—was back in the early 1990s. A fellow who worked alongside me told me about going to a coffeehouse with his girlfriend the day before, and all she and her friends did was discuss the merits and meaning of various snippets of ‘Leonard Cohen’ lyrics. We had a good laugh at people who went to coffeehouses to discuss minutiae relating to artists nobody had ever heard of; plus this guy was supposed to have been a poet, too. Please.

For a while we mocked him on general principle; we were young, we mocked everything on principle. Somewhere along the way, however, cooler heads prevailed, and we decided to give this new guy a listen… and my friend immediately fell in love with his old stuff while I fell in love with his newer work, which was admittedly over-produced and synthesizer-heavy, but his melodies had grown more agile and memorable, drawing greater attention to the compassion, complexity and humor of the lyrics.

Not too long thereafter we heard this old guy was going to release a new album. We had already totally drunk the Leonard Cohen Kool-Aid by then—although we had the dignity not to let ourselves be overheard discussing the lyrics of an artist nobody had ever heard of—and couldn’t wait. An accompanying tour was announced with a stop in our town and we eagerly grabbed up some tickets as soon as they went on sale.

A couple weeks before the concert, he was on David Letterman’s show to debut the title track of his upcoming CD. He didn’t look at all comfortable and his low growl of a voice got lost in the synthesizer-heavy mix and I started to think about all the money we had spent on concert tickets. He just didn’t have the live performance thing down at all, but hey, he was still a legend, right? People still go see Dylan, who hasn’t delivered an intelligible live show since the ‘70s, so it would still be worth it to be able to say you saw this duffer with the old-fashioned hat. Then a couple minutes into the performance, poor Mr. Cohen began to sing a different part of the song than the backup singers and band were performing. I felt for the guy, but at the same time, I saw my concert money growing wings and flying out the window, like in a Tex Avery cartoon.

A couple weeks went by and we went to the concert, girding ourselves against a worst-case scenario. We noted where all the concession kiosks that sold alcohol were, as well as the bathrooms in case it became necessary to punish our livers to get through the evening.

Happily, it turned out that what Mr. Cohen didn’t do well was live TV. In concert, in a relatively intimate venue, he was a revelation. My specific recollection of the evening’s highlights is somewhat muddied by let’s say time, but I remember he was touring with the same girl-group backup singers and band from his disastrous TV appearance, and that night they were sublime.

His manner was that of a courtly older gentleman; his vocal range a bottomless bass, deeper than the voice of the angry God of the Old Testament. He didn’t drop a word that night, and the more hushed his singing became, the quieter the crowd grew as if we were instruments in an orchestra he was conducting. At every opportunity he introduced his band members by name, by show’s end he had name-checked the entire band at least a half a dozen times each. The girl-group backup singers’ parts were beautifully arranged and they did indeed sound like the angels he referred to them as. He ran through a generous set of hits from a long career that had seen very little mainstream success except in the hands of other people. Neil Diamond, among many others, had a big hit with “Suzanne.” Tori Amos scored with “Famous Blue Raincoat.” And Jeff Buckley was the first major artist to realize the commercial potential of “Hallelujah.”

It didn’t feel so much like a concert as a communal spiritual experience led by an angel choir. Mr. Cohen’s occasion encouragement of his backup choir, “Ah, sing it, angels,” seemed more apt than archaic. He made us feel like having been in attendance had somehow made us both wiser and humbler human beings. To this day, I’ve never felt its like again.

Career-wise, after Mr. Cohen invested the profits from that album and tour, he retreated for the next couple years to a Zen Buddhist temple in the LA area. In an excellent interview (searchable online) by the LA Times’ Robert Hilburn, Mr. Cohen recalls his time there being spent in meditation, writing poetry and making soup for the head yogi. He says they accommodated his celebrity to the extent that the monks took two of the closet-sized rooms they inhabited and knocked out the wall separating them, creating for Mr. Cohen a double-wide closet-sized room.

A few years later, Tom Waits was on tour and a bunch of my friends and I had made the pilgrimage to see the show. We had lousy seats way in back, but someone in our group spotted Mr. Cohen in the theater, about half-way back sitting with a couple of women. I was coaxed into going over to get his autograph. Now I had lived in Los Angeles for years by then and had never sought out anyone’s autograph. But I marched over to where The Great Man sat, and in order to not have to yell at him or lean menacingly over him, I took a knee when I approached the young woman seated next to him, who was seated on the aisle. After first ascertaining that he was indeed Leonard Cohen, I got her permission to speak to him.

I mean, really. It was like I was meeting the Pope or something. But the calm peacefulness of his demeanor made the fact that I was kneeling before this old man like I was proposing to him seem completely appropriate in the moment. I introduced myself and babbled the usual nonsense a fan would say; he put his hand out and shook mine and spoke words in his basso profondo rumble that for the life of me I cannot remember. I didn’t so much ask him for an autograph as I apologized him for an autograph. Which he gave me which I’m glad I scanned before misplacing it among my papers of the era. I got out of there as quick as I could so as not to draw attention to the celebrity in the audience’s midst. Yes, it was a jaded LA crowd, but it was also Leonard Cohen; his presence would be enough to reduce most attendees at a Tom Waits audience to breathless rubes.

Earlier this year as beloved pop icons were dropping dead left and right, I spoke to a friend who was concerned that we might lose Mr. Cohen this year, too. After all, he was in his 80s and had been working at what for him was a furious pace; 3 albums in the last 5 years, not to mention accompanying back-to-back world tours of 3-hour concerts. And I’ll tell you now what I told her then. I’m not worried about Leonard Cohen. He’s had one foot in Grace for at least the latter half of his life, and this mortal transition would no doubt be embraced by the man himself when his time came. Spiritually speaking, his passing would be a lateral transition at best.

And now the voice has been silenced and the Rubicon crossed. But you’ll never be able to convince me, the next time I’m shaken by an especially bone-rattling crash of thunder, that it isn’t Leonard Cohen and God, sharing a private joke together at the absurdity and beauty of the human condition.

“As I understand it, into the heart of every Christian, Christ comes, and Christ goes. When, by his Grace, the landscape of the heart becomes vast and deep and limitless, then Christ makes His abode in that graceful heart, and His Will prevails. The experience is recognized as Peace. In the absence of this experience much activity arises, divisions of every sort. Outside of the organizational enterprise, which some applaud and some mistrust, stands the figure of Jesus, nailed to a human predicament, summoning the heart to comprehend its own suffering by dissolving itself in a radical confession of hospitality.”
—Leonard Cohen, responding to a question on the ‘state of Christianity’ in an online Q&A

Wednesday, November 09, 2016


This is what it buys you.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Another long-winded political treatise, election 2016 edition

Greetings, history students of the future.

It’s the Sunday before election 2016 and I wanted to put a few thoughts down for posterity. Disclaimer: I was encouraged in this endeavor by my wife, which scenario has not always worked to our advantage in the past. Be that as it may…

As a clearly frustrated man once painstakingly explained to a roomful of confused members of the press, “There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know.”

Conventional wisdom at the time was that this fellow was speaking gibberish, but we didn’t know yet what we don’t know now.

For instance, we actually don’t know as of this writing who is going to succeed Barack Obama as president. We don’t know for a fact yet that if Donald Trump is elected, America as a free and open Democracy will come to an end. Perhaps he could turn out to be just like any other lying politician and betray his supporters by governing in a fair, wise and impartial manner. We don’t know if Hillary Clinton is elected, the number—even rounded off to the thousands—of investigations upon which Congress will immediately embark, only that the Republican party leadership has already promised to do so should she be elected.

All we know we know is what the candidates have done and said up until this point.

Or do we?

Both candidates have been public figures since at least the 1980s. Both of their lives have been documented in real time and exhaustive detail. 

As regards Mr. Trump, he has never made any secret of the fact that he is a perennial leering frat-boy. It has always been essential to his carefully-cultivated public persona prior to his run for office. Far from being a liability, that kind of reputation was desirable to young movers-and-shakers of the era. Watch “Wall Street” (1987) again and imagine any of those young Trump contemporaries, grown to age 70 and running for president. Oliver Stone should do a sequel set in a dystopian future about Charlie Sheen’s character’s presidency. I have little doubt Mr. Sheen would be able to find a hole in his schedule to accommodate the film’s production.

Be that as it may…

The problem with Mr. Trump’s candidacy—as one who has a problem with it but doesn’t claim to speak for any larger constituency—is that his personal character has not grown and matured over the years into something more seemly, more in touch culturally with what is actually going on in the world right now. 

Unlike most well-adjusted adults who adapt to changing ideas, social mores and global realities as they are legitimized, Mr. Trump has always exercised a firm, consistent refusal to do so. That’s why he appears to think it’s still funny to comport himself like a freshman at a frat party, tipsy from his first beer. He demonstrates an unwavering inflexibility that makes it all but inevitable that he would fail to move America forward by finding common ground either domestically or internationally. He doesn't compromise with opponents, he crushes them. His brand is built on winning, not finding common ground.

Everything else flows from that fundamental character flaw. The casual misogyny, the dog-whistle racism, the amusement at the violence at his rallies, the comically broad reverence alternating with outright dismissal of poll numbers depending on how well they reflect on his candidacy, even the curiously effective tactic of turning around every well-founded allegation about the deviance of his personality and activities and applying them to his opponent… He’s all about being the golden boy who can’t fail, a phase most people fortunate enough to pass through grow out of by their eighth decade.

His unfitness for office comes down to his unflinching mental and emotional inflexibility. That’s this reporter’s problem with Mr. Trump.

What does 30 years in the public eye tell us about Secretary Clinton? We know she didn’t follow protocol with her email server and due to sophisticated hacking that even secure servers are falling prey to these days, state secrets might have been compromised. We surely know that four Americans died during an embassy attack in Libya while she was Secretary of State. Like most high-profile political figures, we know she gave speeches for big money—in some cases to widely-disliked audiences—after she left office. She chose not to leave her husband when his philandering humiliated her on the world stage. And we know that before she became First Lady, Secretary Clinton spent her civilian career advocating in the courts for the rights of children.

Like Mr. Trump’s past, we know all this because it is part of the public record. The facts I’ve cited regarding Secretary Clinton are universally known and accepted, as are the facts cited about Mr. Trump. Both candidates have acknowledged them.

So a reasonable historian might ask, “However did a trust-fund billionaire with anger issues get anywhere close to beating an almost comically overqualified public servant in the presidential race of 2016?”

This is not an unknown. The Clinton campaign's critical miscalculation, its Achilles' Heel, was a known known going in, yet the powers-that-be went in anyhow.

Specifically, anyone who follows politics at all knows the Clintons are radioactive to conservatives. Hard-right, squishy-right, even RINOs, one thing they find common accord on is absolute loathing of the Clintons and everything with which they are associated. This is a first-hand report; I’ve seen it with my own eyes since moving to the hinterlands. And after living among the ‘Hillary Haters’ for the past few years, I understand what Hillary must, too:

Something (the topic for a whole ‘nother column) about the Clintons just plain pushes the right-wing’s buttons. Bill Clinton’s was the first presidency in my lifetime that was portrayed by his opponents as illegitimate from the get-go. And in the years since, opposing all things Clinton has become a cottage industry within the right-wing; people go to work every day, punch a clock, and sit down and write crazy stuff about the Clintons and their enterprises. Example: There are a surprising number of Americans who have actually been convinced that Secretary Clinton has had dozens of people killed on her ‘path to power.’ I just read this morning about something called ‘Pedophile Island’ that Secretary Clinton is reported (“…some say…”) to frequent. Wild stories that are right up there with Sasquatch and dead Elvis eco-humping a baby seal on a polar icecap, but they are widely regarded as credible revelations. To support this belief system, it is further held that the whore-like, ratings-driven mainstream media has neglected to cover these heinous crimes because, what, the cable news shows don’t care for ratings now that they have become profit hubs for their networks? This breathless ‘fan fiction’ doesn’t even appear on Fox News, but most of the rank-and-file accept it as an article of faith. 

This brings me to my real issue with Hillary Clinton—not as president, where I think she’ll be excellent, given the chance—but as a candidate. President Obama says, nowhere will we find a more qualified candidate than Secretary Clinton, but he leaves out the fact that nowhere will we also find a more divisive candidate. The Democrats have chosen to field their most qualified but least viable candidate ever, at the exact point in history that has witnessed the wholly unanticipated rise of Mr. Trump and the coalescing of the alt-right behind a major-party candidate.

“Perfect storm” is such an overused phrase, I won’t even dignify it by including it in this column.

And after considering all of that, this was the year we as Progressives thought it would be a good idea to rip the scab off decades of metastasizing fear and loathing of the Clintons? This year, when historically, two-term presidents are rarely followed by a president of their own party? When there’s an open seat on a Supreme Court already packed with doddering octogenarians? When social media has lent wings to hatred, misinformation and intolerance? When we had a kick-ass candidate in Martin O’Malley who nobody knew from Adam, for whom the GOP would have had to start from scratch with oppo research, instead of the decades’-worth of trash talk about the Clintons, instantly capable of resurrection and meme-worthy? I cannot emphasize this enough: the entire right-wing thinks Secretary Clinton is literally the devil, or at least actively in league with him. 

I like Secretary Clinton. I like her positions, generally speaking. But I was very angry when she announced she was going to run—both times. If I could foresee the political vulnerability her candidacy would represent, why couldn’t she? She had to have known. So just like I’ve taken the license to analyze Mr. Trump’s motivations, I’ll favor Secretary Clinton with equal time. Underneath what may be loads of good intentions, I see hubris with a capital HRC; she’s been patient, done her due diligence and dammit, it’s her time now. She’s too smart not to have seen the Congressional impasse (and likely Constitutional crisis when the House passes articles of impeachment) that's guaranteed to dog any potential Clinton administration. But she went for the golden ring just the same.

I suppose hubris is something every presidential aspirant must necessarily possess to think they alone are best qualified to solve the problems of the world. But to think the position is owed to them, like Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton seem to, is beyond hubris. They have both taken the concept and practice of entitlement to a Wagnerian extreme.

But only one is ready to tee America up to fiddle as the world burns. And light the match. And pour gasoline on the flames. 

And that’s why I’m with her. Because my insane narcissist has the portfolio that suggests she can fulfill the requirements of the job, and will not be tempted to burn the country down just because it will generate the biggest ratings.