Love, Loss and the Metaphysical Shapes of Things to Come
I read the obituaries. Have for years. First thing when I open the Times every morning, I turn to the last pages of the B-section. It is not a morbid thing, it’s a small gesture of attention that I pay to people who did something of consequence, a momentary glimpse into their lives. Recently, the obit section has covered Mose Allison, Richard Trentlage who wrote the Oscar Meyer theme song, Curly Putnam who wrote “Green, Green Grass of Home” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” jazz singer Nora York, self-described hillbilly singer Kay Starr who crisscrossed jazz, pop, country, blues and rock and roll, and Ruth Gruber, 105, who saved the lives of a thousand Jewish refugees during World War II by helping them immigrate to the United States of America. There are some, however, I do not need to read.
Like many folks of my generation and inclinations, I first heard of Leonard Cohen in November 1966 when Judy Collins’ In My Life was released. That album included “Suzanne.” It may have just one track from a marvelous and significant album, but what a song. The thrift store muse was born. Women wanted to be her, men wanted to find her. It was covered by many singers and became a staple of coffee house performers. Recently, a 1967 rock version by a 17-year-old Bruce Springsteen was unearthed.
We all know what happened next, Cohen’s first album was released the following year and 13 more studio efforts thereafter. However, all did not run smoothly, sales and critic-wise. Listeners and critics either loved him or hated him. Sales, which were good but never great, declined so much that after 1979’s Recent Songs his label refused to release 1984’s Various Positions in the US. He was, to use a movie phrase, box office poison.
Then something unexpected, even to his fans, happened in 1988 — the unique I’m Your Man. Suddenly, Cohen at age 54 was hip again. He rode that wave for another 29 years until November 7, on the eve of the election, when he fell down some stairs and died in his sleep that night. His death was not announced publicly until after he was buried, on November 10. As if we were not depressed enough.
You Want It Darker was released last month to enthusiastic reviews, most marveled at his unbridled excellence. We now know that when Cohen was dying while recording the album, and like Tarkovsky when he filmed The Sacrifice, he knew it. It has been said that religion and sex are denials of death whereas art is where we embrace it. So, the question might arise about whether he was making his peace by making the record. Or. whether the Zen of creativity takes death off the table. So much can be read into these final lyrics and Cohen’s indispensable delivery.
I think it’s a mixture of all three. One of Cohen’s themes has been the relationship between the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the carnal, God and man, God’s love and human love, God’s grace and human brutality. Their conflict and their unfathomable mixture, as if necessarily intertwined, where each is oftentimes a metaphor for the other. For example, while most folks I know are hearing the song “Treaty” as a love song, I hear it as a lament for the human race: wishing there was a way to rectify God and humankind. Then, there’s these lines from “Steer Your Way,” “Steer your way past the ruins of the altar and the mall/As he died to make men holy/Let us die to make things cheap.” The album ends with a reprise of “Treaty” where he again “wishes there was a treaty between your love and mine.”
I had heard Leon Russell long before I saw him. He was a session musician and arranger working with everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Byrds. His early TV clips from 1964 show that he had it even then, the master of time and space. I finally saw him live with Joe Cocker and the Mad Dogs tour and quite a few times thereafter, including the tour which introduced Elton John to America. During those years, those pre-Boss years, he was the biggest name in American rock. He formed his own record label, Shelter, and built the commune. He played hard, he lived hard.
Les Blank filmed Russell’s life and work during his heyday, including the recording of Hank Wilson’s Back. The result was A Poem Is a Naked Person. It was not all that flattering and did not focus solely on the music. Litigation followed. It was not shown publicly without restrictions until two years ago. It is now on DVD.
During his later years, his health failed and career faltered. Elton paid his respects by recording with him. The last time I saw him was at MerleFest a couple years ago. I was working the stage that day and was asked to be his security. Confined to a wheelchair, he was quiet, kind and gracious. But when seated, he attacked the piano as only he could. Subdued, yes, but was not some ghost of better days. The fire was still there, muscle memory kicking in, it was just somewhat dimmed.
A local legend, David Morris of the Morris Brothers, also recently passed away. We were friends, in the best of ways — music and family, our grandmothers were close friends.
He and his brother John founded the Morris Family Old Time Music Festival on the family farm near Ivydale, West Virginia, from 1969 to 1973. Coincidentally, it was the focus of my first article for ND in 2009. It’s poster read: “No country and western, bluegrass or electric instruments allowed.” Another friend, Robert Gates filmed one of the festivals. I just happened to be with him a few years back when the DVD version arrived in the mail. I have copy #1. Now out of print, only a teaser exists on YouTube, but educational copies can still be had.
David cut quite a swath when he got back from the Army. When I hear the Ian Tyson song “Someday Soon” I always think of him: “Just out of the service, looking for his fun.”
That seems a bit of understatement to those that knew him then. Late night phone calls, both from him and the women he dated. He was on the verge of breaking out in 1972 or so right around the time he began hanging out with John Prine and the like. I remember with great clarity a snowy winter’s night from that year when seven of us loaded into my 1967 Plymouth Fury and drove many miles to see David and Prine at a theater where I watched B movies growing up. The place had just been converted to an opry house. It was quite a performance.
After that, it seemed his rough and rowdy ways got the better of him. The record contract went south, each of us went in different geographical directions. Years later I’d run into him as his health declined. But, not long thereafter he revitalized himself. The swagger was gone, but he could get around and his music was alive as ever. The two last times I saw him was at a tribute to Hazel Dickens, not long after she passed, at Mountain Stage last year. It was nice to see him engaged and flamboyant. We chatted after the shows. He asked about my Mother and I met his son.
We held a tribute/memorial service for him this past Saturday night. His wife, son Jack Ballengee, as well as longtime friends and musicians Ginny Hawker, Tracy Schwartz, Kate Long, and Ron Sowell who was set to produce another record that never came.
As Jerry Garcia said when he was asked by a reporter about Janis Joplin’s death: “Those who knew her as a voice will have to get along without the voice. Those who knew her as a person will have to get along without the person.”
John Prine and Margo Price
Speaking of Prine, following his knockout AmericanaFest performance, a tour was announced and I chose the Louisville, KY show primarily because Margo Price was to open. As it turned out, it served as a way — albeit a temporary one — to lessen these post-election blues.
The Palace in Louisville is a large hall, much like the one in Columbus, OH perhaps a bit larger if somewhat less grand. Another significant difference is the lobby area — beside a very busy merch table is one large bar, or rather, several bars as there was one that served only bourbon from a local, upper-tier distillery.
Margo Price, with a stripped-down band that included Jeremy Ivey on harp, gave a performance that should have put the Kentucky folks on notice that she’s the real deal, busting all over with talent, enthusiasm, and grace. Unfortunately for the audience, most of them seemed to be getting plastered in the lobby. What fools I thought, you’d be talking about her for days on end. It did not, however, detract from a stellar performance. She did the Seth Meyers late night TV show last week, and many of her live performances are available on YouTube. Her album is one of the two or three outstanding ones of the year. Just get it and you’ll know first hand what I said earlier in the year: “I have seen the future — her name is Margo Price.”
That infamous lobby was empty when Prine took the stage, nearly 45 years after I first saw him. The mixed-age crowd let him know that they knew the songs by heart. The couple next to me were celebrating (in more ways than one) their anniversary. The biggest applause and sing-a-longs, especially by veterans, came with the older songs “Illegal Smile,” “Sam Stone,” “Angel from Montgomery” and “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.” He got his first standing ovation with the lines, “It’s overcrowded from your dirty little war.” The only cover he did was “Killing the Blues” that he recorded in 1979. I know some famous folks have recorded it since, but his and Chris Smither’s are the definitive ones.
The first half of the performance was with his full band, and after a couple of solo numbers, Price came out and did two, including of course, “In Spite of Ourselves.” I was in heaven, my blues mostly suspended, no longer on the ceiling. A couple of more numbers, then an unexpected guest who came up from Nashville just for the show, Kathy Mattea. Mattea did three songs with Prine on the new album and did two of them that night. As an aside, someone behind me did not know who Mattea was, her companion said she had been “big in the ’80s.” I was tempted to turn around and say, Norma Desmond-style, “She still is.”
Prine was, in many ways, returning home. Family was in the audience, and it was not far from there where he, as a kid, spent copperhead summers shooting at empty pop bottles. Needless to say, “Paradise” was the encore, joined by Price, Mattea and Ivey, and with the entire crowd standing. It was more than a sing-a-long, it was a state of being, then and now, that all Appalachians know only too well.
On the walk back to the hotel, some folks from Indiana invited me to have a drink at the bar. After a couple, I spotted Prine’s drummer and he joined us. A spirited conversation about music followed, ending as the bar thinned out. I asked him to pass along a message about David Morris’ passing.
After a night of not enough sleep and an expensive hotel coffee for the road, the balmy, golden Autumnal of the day before gave way to a cold, series of gray rolling overcasts on an empty Saturday morning. The first thing I heard on the radio was that Sharon Jones had passed away at 60. Shit.
Even though the predicted snow was being held at bay, I thought of the last lines from Joyce’s The Dead, “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
Note: The Leon Russell photo at MerleFest was taken by McNair Evans and provided by MerleFest and the David Morris 1972 photo is courtesy of Robert Gates.