A short review of a concert plus my confession about how I became a Leonard Cohen fan.
Leonard Cohen performed a 3.5-hour show at the Chicago Theatre the other night, touring with his fine new album, Old Ideas – made up of all new songs. He puts on a superb show with a 10-piece band including a violinist, flamenco guitarist, other ethnic stringed instruments, keyboards including a Hammond B-3, plus drums and bass — and three wonderful back-up singers. (Photo by me.)
At age 78, his style and stamina are remarkable. He skips off stage, waving like a vaudeville performer. And he frequently kneels to sing. I have to admire the ease with which he kneels and rises. (You’ll appreciate this too when you’re my age.)
He performed nearly 30 songs with one 15-minute intermission. He pays fond respect to his band members throughout the concert, introducing them and highlighting their solos and special talents.
(“Legends of Music,” the photo of Leonard Cohen, Chuck Berry and Keith Richards, was taken February 26, 2012, at the JFK Library and tweeted last week by Keith @officialKeef.)
The setlist included five songs from Old Ideas, but was primarily from his long history of recordings, including fan favorites such as “Bird on a Wire,” “Suzanne,” “Everybody Knows,” “I’m Your Man” and of course, “Hallelujah.” (The latter is one of the most-covered songs ever written, by the way.) His collaborator Sharon Robinson performed a song I had not heard before: “Alexandra Leaving.” He also performed “A Thousand Kisses Deep” as a recitation. It is exquisite and makes you realize that Leonard Cohen is, first of all, a poet.
Leonard’s lyrics are mournful, erotic and often funny. In “Tower of Song,” he sings “Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey, I ache in the places where I used to play” and later laments “I was born like this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice.”
So, here’s my confession. I became a Leonard Cohen fan by accident. The popular culture of the late ‘60s and ‘70s passed me by completely since I was immersed in children, husband, home and career. No time for following the latest bands and barely time to see a movie or play.
About 12 years ago, I got my new (now old) Beetle, which came with a cassette player but no CD player. I had a good supply of tapes since, in pre-smartphone days, I would tape my records and CDs. My friend Linnea had a new car with a CD player so she gave me a cigar box full of tapes from her old car. I sorted thru them and picked out a few for the Beetle. The first one I played was from a Roy Orbison album. I was driving along enjoying the music and near the end of side A, the voice changed to a baritone growl. The song seemed to be a dystopic anthem* with the refrain “First We Take Manhattan.” At the end of that amazing song, I turned the tape over to hear the rest of I’m Your Man. And ever since, he has been my man. (Not to the extent that Bruce Springsteen is, of course.)
After listening to that tape a few times, I went to the music store and bought the CD and a few other Leonard CDs, such as The Future, Various Positions and a Best of compilation. A few years later I was in Montreal (his home town) and found a music store with a trove of Leonard Cohen CDs that I hadn’t seen before. So I now have a dozen in my CD stack.
There was no opportunity to see him live then — only in recorded concerts on TV and DVDs. I was thrilled when a world tour was announced with Chicago dates in May and October 2009. The first time I saw him at the Chicago Theatre I was absolutely captivated by his show and showmanship. What a charmer. He put on a great show and the band and other singers far exceeded my expectations. I saw him again in October that year at the Rosemont Theatre (now renamed) and he was equally magnetic.
No, he doesn’t exactly sing and his voice is deeper and more gravelly now than on earlier recordings. But he is very charismatic and as my friend Mike says “the coolest human on the planet.”
I believe rock stars (and Leonard is a rock star) tour as much for the adulation as for the money. I have watched videos of Bruce Springsteen playing before tens of thousands of people at huge outdoor European venues. The camera is behind him and you see the enormous crowd singing, dancing, pumping fists, waving flags and jumping up and down. Jumping up and down for him. That’s why senior-citizen performers like Bruce, Leonard, Sir Paul, the Stones, and Bobby D never give up touring.
* The meaning of “First We Take Manhattan” has always been the subject of debate by his fans. Is it about terrorism? The Holocaust? A musician ignored by the public? The meaning is surely ominous. Listen to it and make up your own mind.
I never go anywhere without something to read. You never know when you’ll be stuck waiting for a lunch date or a movie time, for a doctor or a freight train (when I lived in DeKalb, the RR tracks crossed the intersection of two major highways). And there’s nothing nicer than sinking into a book or favorite magazine on a long bus, train or plane ride.
It’s fun to see what other people are reading and to wonder why they’re interested in that subject. I’ve gotten into conversations with fellow travelers about reading matter. When I was in the middle of Eric Clapton’s autobiography, I debated who is the greatest rock guitarist* with the guy sitting next to me. And today I was reading the new issue of Rolling Stone with Billie Joe Armstrong on the cover (the front man for Green Day and now out of drug rehab) and had a discussion about changes in rock and drug culture with a young woman with purple hair peeking out of the hood of her down jacket.
Let’s face it. I love my technology; my Kindle, iPad and iPhone are part of my life. I often read the Kindle while commuting because it’s smaller and lighter than the iPad and no one will want to steal it. (CTA riders have to be vigilant.) But I still prefer stashing a book or magazine in my bag – and I enjoy the vicarious thrill of seeing what other people are reading. On a morning bus, you may see students reading law or business textbooks. There’s always a dressed-for-success person reading the latest business best-seller. But the most interesting are the fiction readers. When I see someone reading a novel I enjoyed, I want to talk to him about it – but I usually don’t. On other days I’ll note that everyone sitting around me is reading an e-reader or a phone and I’m blocked from getting any insights into their literary tastes. Book covers are great views into someone’s interests. Too bad e-readers hide the cover that a book designer worked hard to create.
The anonymity of e-books isn’t a new discussion. Christopher Borrelli wrote about it in “On the ‘L,’ e-books change spy game” in the Chicago Tribune last year. This comment was intriguing: “… reading on a train or bus is what urban dwelling is about, a near perfect illustration of how living in a city often means being simultaneously public and anonymous, surrounded by strangers at exactly the moment you just want to be left alone.” You can find Borrelli’s article and a fascinating diagram that maps CTA routes to passengers’ reading habits. http://tiny.cc/zfthtw
Maybe I’ll add a verse or two on urban solitude to my poem “Urban Woman Blues.” https://nancybishopsjournal.com/2012/10/22/urban-woman-blues/
* Speaking of great rock guitarists
I am totally excited about the new Jimi Hendrix album, released this week. Yes, the late Mr Hendrix, who is almost always #1 on lists of great guitarists. Not only was he great, he was left-handed! The new album is People, Hell and Angels – 12 tracks out of the Hendrix vault of officially unreleased music. (Why did it take 40+ years?) You can read about the album here. http://tiny.cc/ksshtw You can listen to one track here. http://bit.ly/14u1ySp I listened to the whole album the other day on NPR First Listen. OMG, it’s good.
Bouncing all over the place this week on musical topics. Quick Cuts #2 to follow on stage, screen and Chicago.
The Grammys and MusiCares
Bruce Springsteen was named MusiCares 2013 Person of the Year for his humanitarian activities. The MusiCares event took place two days before the Grammys. Many famous musicians were to perform Springsteen songs, and at first the news was released that the concert would be broadcast. And then that information was corrected. But we obsessives were hoping for at least online streaming. (I can stream anything from my laptop to my HD TV set, so I figured I was set.)
That evening, I tuned in for the excruciatingly boring, fashion- and celebrity-obsessed red carpet coverage. Gag me, please. Optimistically, I hoped I would get to see some of the music. But it was not to be. So I will have to wait for a sure-to-be-released DVD version. (There is a very nice six-minute video tribute to Bruce as MusiCares Person of the Year here – the video is edited by the talented Thom Zimny.
The Grammys is a crazy attempt by the Recording Industry of America to shoehorn a zillion performances, tributes and award presentations into 3.5 hours. Madness. There were many interesting performances – some of them straight up like Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers of their own songs. And odd combinations like Maroon 5’s Adam Levine with Alicia Keys. That inspired David Carr of the New York Times to tweet: “Maroon 5 and Alicia Keys go together like the whipped lard and sponge cake in a Twinkie.”
And there were tributes to performers who died last year. A tribute to Dave Brubeck by three famous musicians lasted all of 30 seconds. But at least the tribute to Levon Helm, the multitalented musician singer-songwriter, was a full rendition of “The Weight,” made famous by The Band. Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes showed her powerful singing chops and quite kept up with Mavis Staples. Fabulous number.
I thought there was to be a tribute to the late Glenn Gould, the brilliant and eccentric Canadian pianist. Did I blink and miss it?
It wasn’t all a fabulous show but it was fun to watch. Social media activity was high. The Grammys claim there were 18.7 million social media comments. Twitter was on fire.
The Eric Clapton survival story
I just finished Clapton, Eric Clapton’s autobiography (Broadway Books, 2007). I love reading biographies and autobiographies. This is a fascinating story and well written – and no one tried to launder the Brit-isms out of it for the US market. I strongly recommend it to music fans.
But it is a heartbreakingly sad story. How did the man survive to be the revered guitar genius he is today? He went from being a guitar beginner, playing small gigs, to touring with the Yardbirds, Cream and Blind Faith. Throughout those years and later, he was first of all on various kinds of dope, then became a full-blown heroin addict, went thru rehab to break the addiction, only to become a roaring alcoholic who apparently was rarely sober.
Throughout these addictions, he played all over the world and usually (although not always) played brilliantly. If I didn’t know the story would end well, I would have stopped reading because it is an incredibly sad book. Clapton makes no effort to sugarcoat his past. And the part about losing his young son Conor is wrenching.
Also there was an unbelievable string of women, girlfriends, lovers, wives, etc. I lost track of the number of wives. But in 2002, he married and apparently has stayed married. He and his wife have three children.
As he says in the epilogue, when he wrote the book in 2007, he was 62 and 20 years sober and “the last ten years have been the best of my life.” He puts his highest priority (even before his family) as “staying sober and helping others to achieve sobriety.”
The best part of the book is Clapton writing about how he came to love the blues and his love for listening to, writing and playing the music – and how he loved the American blues musicians who brought the music to England. Shockingly, it took musicians like the Rolling Stones and Clapton to bring the blues to the US, where musicians here finally came to appreciate it. To this day, it’s recognized for its huge influence on rock and roll.
Greg Mitchell mixes music with politics
You may never have heard of him but Mitchell is well known in music and in news publishing. Early in his career, he wrote for Crawdaddy, the influential pioneer rock magazine. (I wrote about Crawdaddy in September in my post on the Glory Days Symposium; it has been resurrected as Paste Magazine.) Later, Mitchell was editor of Editor & Publisher, the trade magazine for the newspaper industry.
Today, he writes for The Nation and has written a number of books on history and politics. His latest post is written in sympathy for Marco Rubio’s apparent thirst during Tuesday’s Republican response to the State of the Union address. Mitchell, always the music lover, posts videos for five classic songs offering Rubio more water – songs from Otis Redding, Van Morrison, the Beach Boys, Leadbelly and Hank Williams Sr. It’s a great little setlist. Catch them here. http://www.thenation.com/blog/172862/marco-rubio-5-classic-songs-offering-him-more-water
Mitchell’s latest book is Journeys With Beethoven, coauthored with Kerry Candaele (Sinclair Books, 2012). The book is described as an “exploration of Beethoven’s musical, cultural and political influence today.” It’s available in print and as a $4 e-book from the usual sources. Check it out on his blog; link below.
His blog Roll Over Beethoven explores a wide range of Beethovenovia to support the book http://journeyswithbeethoven.blogspot.com. Mitchell posts fascinating items and videos about all aspects of Beethoven, as performed by classical, rock and pop performers, writing and film aspects of Beethoven, and even news of a year-long Beethoven-on-Hudson Festival in Nyack NY, which will include “dozens of concerts, film showings, a Marathon at the Mall, and (we hope) a massive choral sing-out in the park, a rocking Beethoven-palooza, dance, a theater piece, and events for and recitals by young folks.”
One question: Is a Beethoven-Palooza something like a Stooge-a-Palooza? (Hint: It used to run on WCIU Chicago.)
What have I been doing lately? Not cocooning, when there’s lots to do and see in Chicago.
Homage to Molière. Put the actors on stage in froufrou costumes, both male and female, from the rococo era. Have them speak in Molière’s rhyming couplets, transformed into 20th century slangy tropes. That’s David Ives’ School for Lies, an adaptation of Molière’s The Misanthrope, now playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Ives, who wrote the brilliant Venus in Furs, which I saw in New York last year, pays homage to Molière in an outrageous way. The acting is excellent with some surprising characterizations (Kevin Gudahl as a lisping twit, Sean Fortunato, momentarily the queen, in a stunning blue dress) and the set is glorious.
Nancy’s rating: Catch it before it closes.
Theater for the fearless. Park somewhere on Cortland in the quiet area west of the Elston/Armitage/Ashland/Kennedy tangle. Have a little dinner at Jane’s Café, then walk down the narrow gangway next to the restaurant. Voila. You’re at Trap Door Theater to see the Vaclav Havel one acts, The Unveiling and Dozens of Cousins. Trap Door performs in a tiny theater space that enables you to get nose-to-nose with the actors. I like the Trap Door mission – to perform “challenging yet obscure works” usually of European, mainly Eastern European, playwrights. http://trapdoortheatre.com These two plays (total run time about an hour) are witty, head-spinning and somewhat fabulistic. You are never sure what or who is real and truthful.
Trap Door’s choice of plays reminds me of the late European Repertory Company, which performed some highly visual, startling and memorable productions. I have missed them for years, but Trap Door makes up for their loss.
Nancy’s rating: Both Jane’s and Trap Door are always recommended.
Opera at the movies. As you probably know, the Metropolitan Opera simulcasts performances live in HD to cinemas around the country. There’s an encore showing for each opera. We saw the encore of Verdi’s Aida last night and it was excellent. I really like the HD version of these operas, although some opera purists disagree. The sound quality is excellent. The opera is shot from multiple camera angles so you have closeups of the performers during the arias. (I wish they would do that during televised hockey games!) It seems to me you get a more direct connection to the opulent visual art and the music by this kind of viewing.
My favorite part of any HD opera is the long intermission when you really get a backstage view. During the Aida intermissions, the stagehands moved huge pieces of Egypt around and put the altars, thrones, sphinxes and statues back together for the next scene. The soldiers lined up with their spears and practiced marching. This cast included five horses (sometimes an elephant appears, but not in this production). During the intermission, you also see interviews with cast and crew members and the animal trainers.
The Met Live in HD is shown at four theaters in Chicago and many suburban venues; there are five operas left in the season. I still believe that live is always better (See “Live or Memorex” here https://nancybishopsjournal.com/2012/11/10/live-or-memorex/ but I’ll make an exception for the Met in HD. This is a great way to see opera and far less expensive than going to a live performance.
Bruce wins WXRT 2012 Listener Poll. XRT listeners voted Bruce Springsteen at Wrigley Field September 7 and 8 as the Best Concerts of 2012. The tour album, Wrecking Ball, was voted #6 on Best Albums list. Here’s what I wrote about the Wrigley concerts. https://nancybishopsjournal.com/2012/09/12/wrigley-x-2/
Leonard Cohen gives me another chance. I missed Leonard last time around in November but he’ll perform one of his great concerts Wednesday, March 13, at the Chicago Theatre. I recommend his latest album, Old Ideas, again. http://www.leonardcohen.com/us/home.
Film clips. Finally saw a few more of the Oscar and Golden Globe nominated films. My micro-reviews:
Argo was one of my favorite movies of the year. Very well acted; dead on with costumes, hair and hirsuteness, cars and props. Sharp dialogue, quick-moving direction by Ben Affleck. His character, as well as Alan Arkin’s and John Goodman’s, were a treat to watch. I’ll see it again when it’s out on DVD or streaming.
Silver Linings Playbook. Good film with fine acting, especially by Robert DeNiro as the Philadelphia Eagles fan who was banned from the stadium for overzealous behavior. I found some of it painful to watch as people with serious emotional problems tried to cope with their lives. But by the way, wasn’t it a little unrealistic for these wounded characters to be so beautiful and perfect-looking, even when they were supposedly in the depths of depression?
Beasts of the Southern Wild. A lovely magical film starring the sparkling child actor, Quvenzhané Wallis as the six-year-old Hushpuppy. You will weep for the disasters the changing environment wreaks upon the bayou community where Hushpuppy lives. But the film is ultimately about love and courage, not disaster.
Et Cetera. I’m about to see Django Unchained and I still want to see Amour, maybe Life of Pi and Zero Dark Thirty. I won’t see Les Miserables since it’s in my egregious singing and dancing category. https://nancybishopsjournal.com/2013/01/03/not-fade-away-soundtrack-of-the-60s/ I wanted to see Promised Land but other things kept getting in the way and I think now I’ll have to wait to see it when the DVD is released. It appears to be disappearing from theaters, as Not Fade Away has already done.
We love making lists. This is a restrained list of my favorite things about 2012, not necessarily the bests in any category. Politics, music, movies, theater, TV, books. Wanna argue? Write a comment here.
- Constant political coverage, which annoyed everyone but political junkies like me
- The reelection of President Obama
- Bruce Springsteen campaigning for the President and riding on Air Force One.
- Crowning of Nate Silver as King of Stats (others who did much the same, like Sam Wang of Princeton, unfortunately were not recognized)
Music – the Bruce Springsteen factor
- Release of Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball album (yes, I still buy them). Excellent, substantive story songs even though the music is better played live
- The Wrecking Ball tour and the six fabulous concerts I attended in Greensboro, New York (first time at the Garden!), Detroit, Los Angeles and Chicago (yay, Wrigley Field)
- Taking my grandson James to his first Springsteen concert at Wrigley Field (see my September post)
- Taking a road trip to Detroit with my nephew Brad and friend Craig to see Bruce at the Palace in Auburn Hills, with several dynamite food stops
- Bruce’s keynote speech at South by Southwest. Regretted not going to Austin but I watched him streaming live. He gave us a history of rock and roll through his own career in music Read the rest of this entry »
Rock and roll is a vibrant, dynamic art form in all its permutations from classic, punk, metal and alt to roots and country (and hundreds more*). Rock and roll emerged in the 1950s from popular music forms such as blues, R&B, country and rockabilly; it has grown to dominate popular music sales (now downloads), and live music performances to become a ~$67 billion industry globally. While the death of rock is often predicted, it continues to thrive as young musicians join the industry veterans, now in their 60s and 70s and still recording and touring.
What keeps rock vibrant and dynamic, I believe, is that it is an escape route for young musicians, usually male, from the humdrum lives their parents and peers settle for. This is a socioeconomic story as much as a rock and roll story. Read the rest of this entry »
Time for some upbeat news today. So here are some thoughts, reportorial and critical, of the 12-12-12 concert.
The concert was scheduled for four hours and thankfully, the producers didn’t cut it off at four. If they had, we would have missed Billy Joel, Chris Martin, Kanye West in his leather kilt — and the final Brit of this British invasion: Sir Paul McCartney. But no curfew wasimposed and the concert ran almost six hours. I was hoping for one of those all-artists-on-stage-for-a-rousing-finale finale, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Sir Paul brought a crowd of firefighters on stage and saluted them for their heroism during Sandy. It was a fitting end for a great concert.
Bruce Springsteen led off with thematic songs rather than his big hits: “Land of Hope and Dreams,” “Wrecking Ball” and “My City of Ruins,” the latter written about Asbury Park but highly relevant today. Then Jon Bon Jovi joined him for a duet of “Born to Run.” Read the rest of this entry »