Thinking of Leonard Cohen

 

by Hazel Field
Portrait by Hazel Field

I first encountered Leonard Cohen in the ’80s during the music television experience and ‘I’m Your Man’ seemed to morph between melody and Cohen’s iconic face. But memory isn’t always reliable. Sometimes it tricks on recall and still the impression remains vivid. 

Years later an interest in poetry led to a second and more reliable encounter. My appreciation felt like a kind of binary experience where I took to the lyrics & then the changes. Or was it the melody before the words? Anyhow, it had little to do with me but rather having been drawn toward the beguiling personality as much as the verse. His career as singer, writer and his mainstream & commercial success defy conventional wisdom as he magically redefines the role of contemporary poet. What appears as a natural, almost organic public output is surely an implausible balancing act for others and his poems’ most private thoughts seem impervious to commercial exposure. Then there’s the phenomena where songs are so celebrated they take on a life of their own and become universal standards. Hallelujah’s multi verse complexity is counter balanced with its perfectly weighted hymnal changes speaking across generations. But to me it’s the private experience that’s the thing, something like finding a guitar in the back of the cupboard with a songbook in the case – and invariably it’s Dylan or..Leonard Cohen.

 

Almost blue: confessions of a jazz junkie

Well just about, in fact “..within a hair’s breadth of death”. Chet Bakers’s public admission in Today magazine of 1963 was a no-holes-barred confession that would seem to reflect a complete disregard for his life and personal reputation.

 

Chet-Baker
Chet Baker by William Claxton

 

From being the fastest rising jazzman in the business, I have become the world’s best known junkie. Police, medical authorities, the customs men of a dozen countries, the F.B.I. and the British Home Office..all keep a close eye on me..I have pumped enough dope into me to kill a quarter of a million normal people..I am nauseated and appalled by my drug madness. I loath myself for my addiction. It is sheer lunacy.. etc.

But strangely, after going public in this way, he just seemed to gain notoriety. Infamy could best describe him not withstanding film star looks – vividly described by the photographer Claxton.

How good was the so called ‘James Dean of jazz’ ? Certainly good enough for Charlie Parker to seek him out for his quintet in May, 1952 & to quote him: “You better look out there’s a little white cat on the coast who’s gonna eat you up” (Or was it really the dope connection?)

But it wasn’t just his looks, as Parker’s Whitlock (subbing band member) confides: “I remember him (Parker) being absolutely dazzled by his ear”. A similar account in regards to his bravura playing from Art Blakey at the Bryant with Thelonious Monk: “I didn’t know this motherf@#0* could play like this”.

West coast cool, the sound of Gerry Mulligan’s Quartet, Pacific Jazz label and community of musicians are an inherent part of  Baker’s formative career; his was the sound of Southern California, the sun & the beach. But somehow the persona and the music seem remote as ever.

And he is capable of heart breaking lyricism:

 

 

Maybe his real fame lay in the combination of these attributes: his boyish looks, the bored, cool exterior – as much the effect of addiction – along with the androgynous singing voice.

It is not surprising he continues to be the subject of movies and productions: the Jeckel and Hyde persona, the erratic behaviour, the raw talent, his seemingly effortless performances and see-sawing personal life and fortune including film appearances. And a noteworthy laissez-faire remark on meeting Mussolini’s musician son, Romano: “Gee, It’s a drag about your old man” (!)

Finally, a recent comment on Almost Blue YouTube feed befitting his legacy:

‘We should send Chet discography into space just to let the whole universe know that we are capable of something beautiful after all’  Francesco

 

Born to Be Blue starring Ethan Hawke (2016)