Wednesday, April 8th

VISUAL OF THE WEEK

Dylan DeanBob Dylan watches Dean Martin, at home in Woodstock, Summer ’64, from a great set of photos by Douglas Gilbert. “In July of 1964, one year before his music changed from acoustic to electric, I photographed Bob Dylan for LOOK magazine. I spent time with him at his home in Woodstock, New York, in Greenwich Village, and at the Newport Folk Festival. The story was never published. After reviewing the proposed layout, the editors declared Dylan to be “too scruffy for a family magazine” and killed the story.” [Thanks, Bob G].

HOLD ON THERE A MINUTE!
Yes, we all laughed when Peter Bradshaw sent Grace of Monaco up at the Cannes Film Festival. “It is a film so awe-inspiringly wooden that it is basically a fire-risk. The cringe-factor is ionospherically high. A fleet of ambulances may have to be stationed outside the Palais to take tuxed audiences to hospital afterwards to have their toes uncurled under general anaesthetic”. And it’s a very funny review, but having actually seen Diana, with Naomi Watts, a film he uses as an unfavorable comparison, I have to disagree about his heirarchy. Grace may be an undemanding watch, but it’s nicely shot and has a great cast of dependables (Langella, Jacobi, Parker Posey, and Kidman herself). Yes, the plot is nothing (rich people trying to keep their gilded colony afloat), but it actually looks like The Magnificent Ambersons in comparison to Diana. Maybe the music is somehow to blame – Christopher Gunning’s score sounds like Hollywood-orchestra-by-the-yard stuff, and it doesn’t suit the rather cool shooting style of the film, and, at times, drags it into near-melodrama.

CROWDFUND ONE MUSO DOCUMENTARY…
And you come across the radar of a lot of other people trying to crowdfund muso documentaries. “Hey, My name is Steve Duddy and I’m the executive producer of a brand new documentary titled Porcaro: A Band Of Brothers. The Porcaro family is one of the most prolific and iconic families in music. Jeff, Mike, Steve and Joe Porcaro helped shape pop and rock music as we know it today.” All true, but I’m just not convinced there’s a two-hour documentary in it.

HUSH NOW, DON’T EXPLAIN
For me, Billie Holiday was a singer from childhood Sunday mornings, remembered as sun-drenched and suffused with warmth. Too young to appreciate the complexity that she bought to anything she sang, there was still a sense of melancholy and yearning that was half-understood, and put away until one could fully appreciate it. You never hear any popstrels wanting to be Ella, do you? It’s always Billie. That kind of pain travels across time and distance, so the sweet-voiced singers lose out. And, hey – sad songs probably travel better than the happy ones. So, now it’s the centenary of Billie’s birth and Radio 4 have author Julia Blackburn and singer Rebecca (runner-up of the seventh series of The X Factor) Ferguson talking about her. Blackburn’s book, With Billie, was beautifully reviewed in The Guardian by filmmaker Mike Figgis, back in 2005:

“Billie was part of my life growing up on a council estate in Newcastle. My father was obsessed with her and her one-time accompanist, Teddy Wilson. There were two LPs that became central to my understanding of Billie. One was The Billie Holiday Memorial, on Verve records. In her book, Blackburn describes hearing Billie for the first time, while listening to this album. The first track is “I Cried for You” and has Johnny Hodges on alto sax introducing the song. The LP was a compilation of some of her finest tracks and ended with her devastatingly sad version of “For All We Know We May Never Meet Again”. I know every track by heart, every click and each moment where the needle would stick. Blackburn seems to have had the same experience.

When I first started collecting albums myself it was difficult to find any I could afford that my dad didn’t already own, so I would look at cheap editions of LPs. Most were not so good, but I did find one that my dad didn’t have. One of the tracks was “Fine and Mellow”, and I later learned that it was taken from a TV show called The Sound of Jazz. It is my favourite Billie track of all time and I know every note by heart. She is accompanied by Ben Webster, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Gerry Mulligan and Roy Eldridge. Blackburn talks about this track in her book, but I would like to add a different slant. Years after first encountering the LP, I saw a documentary about Billie which included the complete TV footage of “Fine and Mellow”. It was the most profound experience to see how the music was animated: the way the musicians and Billie interacted with each other, the way she moved her head when Young was playing his solo. I’d go as far as to say it is my favourite piece of film of all time. There is no other jazz footage I am aware of that comes even close to this in describing the beauty of jazz improvisation.” Wonderful.

I also found these reminicences: “Jazz critic Nat Hentoff recalled that during rehearsals, Billie Holiday and Lester Young kept to opposite sides of the room. During the performance of “Fine and Mellow”, Hentoff recalled, “Lester got up, and he played the purest blues I have ever heard, and [he and Holiday] were looking at each other, their eyes were sort of interlocked, and she was sort of nodding and half-smiling. It was as if they were both remembering what had been – whatever that was. And in the control room we were all crying. When the show was over, they went their separate ways.”

Arranger and bandleader Ray Ellis: “I would say that the most emotional moment was her listening to the playback of “I’m a Fool to Want You”. There were tears in her eyes… After we finished the album I went into the control room and listened to all the takes. I must admit I was unhappy with her performance, but I was just listening musically instead of emotionally. It wasn’t until I heard the final mix a few weeks later that I realized how great her performance really was.”

On Woman’s Hour, Rebecca Ferguson does a fine version of “Don’t Explain” – she doesn’t overly over-soul [or should that be over-jazz?] and there’s a lovely grain to her voice – hear the way she sings “You are my joy… and you are my pain”. It’s remarkable to hear her speak in a quiet, almost dour Liverpool accent, then sing like this.

JUST LOVELY
This wonderful remincence of Muddy Waters by John Moore, on The Guardian’s music blog: “A couple of weeks into guitar lessons with a lovely schoolteacher called Jill, who had written a song for Rags, the Blue Peter Horse that was broadcast on BBC1, I was able to play “Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?” – a sad lament to a lost pooch. As I strummed it for Peter, hopefully, I felt sure it would earn his approval. It didn’t. He was polite enough, of course, but as my parents beamed with pride at their six-string wunderkind, he asked if this was really the kind of thing I wanted to play.

Come to think of it, no, I replied. Then the suburban epiphany began, and the devil’s music came to Wokingham. The man in the sharp suit, with the cigarette glowing in the side of his mouth, picked up my guitar and began to play.
“Gypsy woman told my mother, before I was born/You got a boy child comin’, gonna be a son of a gun…”

The words, and sheer brutality of the riff, almost broke me in two.

And that’s when it started, year zero: from teenybopper to bluesman in one evening. As far as I was concerned, the little dog could stay lost, all I wanted was a John the Conqueroo, and a black cat bone – which, with our own midnight black, ancient moggy, was a distinct possibility.

Hearing a 12-year-old boy with a chorister voice, growling that “He’d Just Like To Make Love To You”, was enough to make our next-door neighbour Joan cry with laughter. I went electric soon after this, and she wasn’t laughing then – and I got called much worse than Judas. My love of Muddy Waters has stood me in good stead. At secondary school, it earned me the protection of the school psychopath. He’d learned that a boy in the first year had been blowing a blues harp on Winnersh station as the downhome train came in. He loved Chicago blues, and until he was expelled for arson, I was untouchable.”

SOMETHING I LEARNED

Sharon
That Sharon Robinson, great Leonard Cohen collaborator, is not a front person; some people work best in the engine room. Coming into the front room that is west London’s Bush Hall, we’re treated to the kind of performance that requires ‘notes’ – from a musical director, promoter or friend, whoever will say: “Don’t play that song, rehearse that one some more, don’t cover the electronic keyboard with a shawl that makes it look like she’s trying to reach the dead, do away with the pre-recorded drum tracks that bring John Shuttleworth to mind and hire a percussionist instead, don’t be exposed up there while your son doesn’t really cut the mustard as accompanist, with erratic timing and lack of articulation…” The trumpet player was great, but there needed to be more sonic variation.

Also, if Leonard’s songs take up fifty percent of your set, you really need to tell illuminating anecdotes of your time working with one of music’s finest and most interesting lyricists. Something about the working relationship, with a sense of detail that will make an audience feel special. Sharon Robinson has a wonderful voice, and sings with conviction but lacks the killer instinct of the true performer. It was not unenjoyable (in fact we may have been the only people to not love it – the audience were pretty ecstatic) but it would have been so much better with a great rhythm section at an intimate club like Ronnie’s.

In a week of such nostalgia (not even mentioning Linda Grant’s lightly cringe-inducing piece on the potential passing of Joni Mitchell by, in effect, saying  “You may be saddened by Joni dying, but I will be the most saddened person ever. I will, I promise – the most saddened person in the whole of the world. She wrote my life – did I tell you how sad I’d feel?”) here’s hoping next week’s blog will be a little more forward looking.

Extra! 5 Things Concerning Leonard Cohen in Paris

Public Piano, Eurostar Terminal, Friday: Hallelujah
In some kind of omen, as we walk through the train terminal, a man sits and starts playing a lovely, stately version of Len’s now-most-famous-song. As he finishes we say thanks for starting our trip off in such perfect style. He advises us to buy a lottery ticket.

Montparnasse Cemetery, Sunday: Gainsbourg

A small detour to the tombs of Man Ray, de Beauvoir and Sartre, and here, covered in metro tokens, roses, kisses and poor pencil drawings, the grave of Serge Gainsbourg.


Olympia Theatre, Sunday: A Pilgrimage


The couple sitting next to us met at a Cohen concert at Leeds University on his first tour in May 1970. And here they were, celebrating at the Paris Olympia 42 years later. And my bad photography has cropped the grey fedora—adopted, I was assured, long before Len.

Olympia Theatre, Sunday.
The Concert: In numbers
33 songs.
3 hours 40 minutes.
3 encores comprising seven songs.
9 musicians, made up of three women and six men—two singers from Kent, England, one from Los Angeles, USA, one from Montreal, Canada; one drummer from Mexico City, Mexico; one keyboardist from Florida, USA; one guitarist from Texas, USA; one bassist from New York State, USA; one violinist from Moldova; one multi-instrumental string player from Zaragoza, Spain.

The Concert: Five Great Moments
1  A brilliant performance of Everybody Knows, every verse a work of genius, every verse a still-accurate assessment of human weakness and failure. Co-written with Sharon Robinson, who later sings a glorious solo version of Alexandra Leaving.
2  A bravura moment at the last verse of The Future where Leonard sings the “There’ll be fires on the road/and the white man dancing,” and bassist Roscoe Beck does a stately piroutte, which is followed by LC singing “And all the lousy little poets/coming round/tryin’ to sound like Charlie Manson/and the white girls dancing,” whereupon the Webb Sisters turn away from their mikes, take one step back and, synchronised, do perfect cartwheels…
3  Leonard soloing on a Jew’s Harp, that most American of instruments on the hoedown breaks of Closing Time, one of two songs (Heart With No Companion being the other) where he sounds uncannily like Tom T. Hall, only deeper. Also, Take This Waltz in a Weimar-ish arrangement, has a hint of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Honest.
Night Comes On. I hadn’t dared to hope that I’d hear Leonard sing my favourite song. And sing it he does, causing some spontaneous tears in the audience, its mournful and beautiful melody letting the words cascade in their stoic and weary way, on the cushion of warmth the band create.
I remember catching a version of Who By Fire in the late 80s in a hotel room in LA by chance. It was on Night Music, a show hosted by David Sanborn, with Hal Willner and Jools Holland involved—like a precursor to Later. Sonny Rollins joined Leonard, and played an unaccompanied intro that tore the roof off before the band (including half of Was Not Was and Robben Ford) came in. Tonight, Javier Mas was the star turn, a masterclass in flamenco, playing the bandurria like a man possessed, the elastic strings rolling and tumbling to a frenzied crescendo…

The Concert: Some Observations
You have to make your peace with the fact that a certain amount of drama is missed by muting the drums quite this much. The sound is perfect and balanced, intentionally allowing every word to ring clearly through. To make up for the lack of beat, Larson’s churchy Hammond B3, Alex Bublitchi’s muscular violin and Javier’s Mas’s extraordinary Laud provide thrilling dynamics. Mitch Watkins on guitar (after eleven years in Lyle Lovett’s Large Band) provides structure, architecture and blues—his moaning slur at the end of a Wes Montgomery-like solo on Amen the coup de grâce.

The older-type singer (the ones who aren’t Mick Jagger, anyway) are very fond of the prizefighter pose. Len takes this even further than the bob-and-weave and sings at least half the set on his knees on the patterned rugs that cover the stage, James Brown-style. It also emphasised the supplicant nature of many of the songs: to God, to Poetry, to lust, love, the musicians and to the audience, who he always addresses as “Friends.” His ability to get back up from his knees with grace is very impressive.

The only singer with a deeper voice than Len is Barry White. Fact.

1976: The First Time I Saw Leonard
Was on the south coast of England in 1976. A friend of my mother’s was managing the hotel where Leonard and his musicians were staying and had tickets. I didn’t really know much about his music then—but this was World Music before it had a name, with the flamenco melodies, the gypsy violin and the Moorish oud. Backstage for a meet and greet, we were struck dumb. The next morning, having breakfast at the next table, we were even more tongue-tied.

Leonard, Hand In Pocket, photograph by Michelle Clement.

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