Chasing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”

Cohen album-various-positionsA little under a year ago I treated myself to a book purchase (something I do only rarely because of my perpetual and monumental reading backlog): Alan Light’s “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the unlikely ascent of “Hallelujah”.  But even having just read Light’s interesting book my attention piqued especially when my 12-year-old son was skimming my copy and asked of the foreword’s account of the 2012 inaugural PEN “Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence” awards, who was this ‘Berry’ guy who was being honoured along with Cohen?

I have sung, listened to, accompanied at various keyboards, considered, parodied (in the medieval sense implying more respect than humour or critique) this piece for only two of its four decades of life, whatever ‘life’ means to a song or for that matter, a poem. I even once re-wrote the lyrics for a wedding whose bride loved the song, but maintained a fierce disinterest in the song’s original content to the point that even my pragmatic theatre/church musicianship required of me lots of denial. But I must admit that I had until Light’s book no idea of the true ubiquity of the Canadian song and songwriter my 12-year-old knew while never having heard of Chuck Berry – just its musical perfection and the remarkable power of its intimate and vivid sentiments.

Two signposts in my own relationship with “Hallelujah” were accompanying a young Patricia O’Callaghan in a performance at St. James’ Cathedral, Toronto in the late 1990s, and then playing a minor role in the August 27 2011 state funeral of my distant acquaintance and political idol Jack Layton, when Steve Page’s version was deeply memorable to many, but confirmed that, in the words of Toronto critic Kevin Courrier, “[it] has lost its meaning and much of its sting. Sung now with a solemn reverence, as Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” often is, “Hallelujah” is about as misunderstood as Randy Newman’s “Sail Away.” (to be fair to Page, in a conversation I had with him backstage he like the rest of us had not much notice before taking part in the Layton funeral, and agreed with many others that it was a challenging and bordering chlicheed request.)

Some versions, like the John Cale’s from 1991, famously used in the 2001 movie Shrek!, and the late Jeff Buckley’s backing video of the World Trade Centre attacks later that year became holy writ in the “Hallelujah” canon while others, like Bono’s and Sandra Boyle’s, fell more into a continuum ranging from missed opportunity to outright embarrassment. But in the end words and music make this obscure (and at the time rejected outright by Columbia Records in perhaps one of music industry’s most legendary missteps) 1984 masterpiece into something timeless, transfixing, and endlessly vital.  When in 2004 k.d. Lang contributed a beautiful symphonic-scale arrangement into the repertoire, its most poignant attribute IMHO was its album title, “Hymns of the 49th Parallel” – reclaiming the work not just for the country she, Cohen and I share, but also for Cohen’s deeply nuanced and often tortured faith journey.

Perhaps Salman Rushdie, an author of mythic power in his own right and presenter of Cohen’s award in 2012, said it best: “(it’s) joyous and despondent, a celebration and a lament, a juxtaposition of dark Old Testament imagery with an irresistibly uplifting chorus, ‘Hallelujah’ is an open-ended meditation on love and faith.”

“There is a religious hallelujah, but there are many other ones,” Cohen once said. “When one looks at the world, there’s only one thing to say, and it’s hallelujah. That’s the way it is.”

Posted in IAM.

Kickscooting as Metaphor for the Musical Life

Human powered transport made to fit today's city

CD & Scooter

Like many musicians middle age has not financially empowered me to buy a sports car, even if I wanted to.  My new vehicle is human powered and has two wheels – but it is not a bike, I’m NOT wearing a stitch (if that’s the right micro-unit) of Lycra, and I was recently surprised to learn a remarkable lesson about music from my new wheels.

There are few reliable assumptions in the musician’s life.  Many in the mainstream workforce struggle in the ‘new economy’ to survive temporary contracts, lack of benefits, highly variable work conditions and constantly-changing colleagues and circumstances; musicians, who are mostly in effect hired and fired every day by individual project, who have never had access to anything resembling conventional job security or meaningful health benefits (even publicly mandated ones like maternity leave), and who must often adapt to new instruments, new mission-critical colleagues including soloists and conductors, new hall acoustics, new genres of music and other wide-ranging demands untranslatable to those outside of the field… well, we tend to yawn and politely support while whistling in our minds, or inaudibly through our teeth, “You can cry me a river.”

(As some of you will know, ‘cry me a river’ originated in the 1953 Arthur Hamilton song – NOT in the 2002 break-up between Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears, a fact that neither Timberlake nor the proprietary Wikipedia entry on the song he included in that year’s “Justified” solo debut studio album seem very interested to share).

Middle age is traditionally a time for reflecting on one’s work and life, and my scooter has taught me that I have a three-part response to the challenges of a musician’s life, even as I continue to reap the rewards and savour the joys thirty-or-so- years in.

My account of Kickscooting: One leg (in my case, the right) takes on a role of support – it flexes, it locks, it releases as needed – but it provides no power.  The other leg (in my case, the left) provides the power, and the real response to the road (/sidewalk) surface and the pedestrians and their vehicles including strollers, grocery carts, and so on.  And beyond safely navigating what lies immediately ahead my hands are what keep me headed where I’m needing to go (and apply the brakes, if needed!)

So HERE’S THE IDEA:  Musical life requires all three – a supporting level of knowledge and discipline, like my RIGHT leg on the scooter; a degree of power able to push ourselves towards our limits and others around us to new understandings as needed – like my LEFT leg on the scooter, and critically also A PAIR OF HANDS to work on, and direct where all of this is going.  Nor is this such a bad model for creating and interpreting music.


Posted in IAM.

Music’s Debt to Others, and Our Debt to Music

Eden Mills pic for Sep 23rd Blog entry

Village of Eden Mills

When you finally do something you’ve long meant to you do it as the person you have become, not the person that initially wanted the experience, nor the one who has said year after year, “I must do that…” but never does.  You are, in a sense, someone new.  The person I have become this September is the author of this new blog, IAM – Ideas About Music… a project I’ve had in mind for some years, and which now becomes real (at least as ‘real’ as anything on the Internet is).

I have enjoyed, and continue to enjoy a now-30-year career I love as a musician who thinks a lot about music.  For almost half of that career I have lived a 20-minute drive from the beautiful village of Eden Mills, which has for even longer, 25 years, been home to the Eden Mills Writers Festival, which annually welcomes celebrated Canadian and international authors and poets, publishers and hundreds of ‘literati’ of all ages for readings, workshops, and a general celebration of the printed page.   In 2014 it finally welcomed me and my family. Continue reading

Posted in IAM.

IAM: Ideas About Music now Under Construction

purple-music-notes-wallpaper-8144-hd-wallpapersIAM, a weekly blog and monthly podcast from Toronto musician and metatheorist Christopher Dawes, delves into the music of our lives: how it works and what it means.  

IAM explores such concepts as music’s power and politics; its history and hermeneutics; its subversity and its sanctity.  

Its metatheoretical framework seeks genre as diversion rather than determinant and the sacred as simulacrum… but always honouring creativity and expression; linking art with life and love.

Fanciful images like the stock graphic above are common on the Internet, and they make a very clinical implication about the nature of music – that it consists of two facets, notation and sound.  The notation is an abstract reflection of music, and sometimes a guide to a performer to create the sound as designated by someone else.  The sound is both the germinal conception and the concrete realisation.  There can be little debate about these two facets of music as we know it – but most would agree that there is more to music than this.


Posted in IAM.