Sometimes the best songs are those spoken, never actually ‘sung’
Just before his death late in 2016, Canadian singer-songwriter and auteur Leonard Cohen was receiving rave reviews for his 14th studio album, You Want It Darker. It was the first time I had spent any considerable time listening to his music.
Like many people, I had never gone near Cohen’s records on account of not finding his singing voice easy to listen to. As with his contemporaries, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed, Cohen’s somewhat unconventional singing style has meant that many music fans avoided him, or rather he alluded them. which also explains why his music rarely troubled the charts and amounts to merely tens of millions (rather than nine figures) on streaming services.
However, Cohen’s music legend will remain intact long after thousands of singers with the most perfectly angelic voices have long evaporated from the culture. For a number of reasons — his enigmatic image, his charismatic beauty, his poetry, his art and ultimately, his voice and his songs. An app I downloaded recently — called WeCroak — tells me that in Bhutan, they say contemplating death five times a day brings happiness. Well, You Want It Darker is a pre-death album well worth spending time with.
Of course, it’s Cohen’s life story that remains a source of fascination and is indeed the subject of jet another music documentary (they do come thick and fast don’t they!). I once had the idea to put on a music film festival — and boy do I regret not doing that now there is music film every other week. Anyhow, in cinemas this week (be quick, for demand is such that, unlike most other music films, cinemas are giving it the one week treatment — as opposed to one night only) comes Nick Broomfield’s ‘Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love’. The source of those words of course, was Cohen, not just in the form of poetry and song but also the last letter he wrote to Marianne just before her death (and his too) in 2016.
But it’s the song, ‘So Long, Marianne’ that is at the heart of Nick Broomfield’s documentary film, which tells the story of Marianne Ihlen and Cohen as lovers living among the Bohemian expat community of the Greek island Hydra during the 1960s. The film is another example of how the cultural impact as well as the personal lives, of the world’s music icons, continue to bring us the most fascinating stories.
It seems timely then, that we release the first in our new playlist series ‘Talking Voices’. These playlists celebrate classic and lesser known ‘poems to music’, from Cohen to Cobain, and from Dylan to Dave. The idea behind it, is that those singers that don’t really sing (or that don’t sound like angels when they do) are those that can make the most memorable songs. We are forced to pay more attention to their words somehow. With this first volume, we imagine Leonard hosting his own Talking Voices show, with special guests — very special guests.
Consider new tracks from Marianne Faithfull (with backing from none other than the darkest living balladeer himself, Nick Cave). Marianne’s latest record Negative Capability has won rave reviews, and no doubt it is something of a pre-death album (but then all albums are when it comes down to it). Then comes Nick Cave’s Into My Arms, to remind us that the most important topic besides death, is love.
You get the idea then. A smattering of beautiful Leonard tracks are broken up by guest slots from those we know very well for their poetic stylings — Suzanne Vega, Lou Reed, Bobby Dylan and Tom Waits — to those we perhaps don’t — Terry Reid and The Go Betweens. Terry Reid was almost one of the most famous singers ever by the way, but he passed up the job of lead in a band called Led Zeppelin to a bloke called Robert Plant. Plant nearly killed me once. He almost ran me over at a WOMAD festival. He was driving a very old beat-up brown Mercedes, and was very apologetic. But that’s another story. Reid’s E.P. The Need To Know Sessions, from last year, is worth discovering.
As for The Go-Betweens, they too have been the subject of yet another documentary, called ‘Right Here’, released last year and worth watching if you can find it. Their joint-singer Grant McLellan died in 2006, aged just 48. Along with Robert Forster, he wrote very alternative, lyrical indie-pop, much of it excellent, which is why they are considered legends in their native Australia. They’ll feature more on TSS at some point, but for now fit very well into Leonard’s programme. As do tracks from as motley a bunch as Nico, Bardot, Lennon (in fine cynical talking voice on Working Class Hero) and even Nirvana. From Cohen to Cobain, it’s all about the words here. Sometimes, artists require us to do something different from what happens when we usually fire-up playlists. And this lot most certainly do, dealing as they do in love, heartache, pain, ghosts and yes, death.
Speaking of which (again), in Cohen’s letter to Marianne on her deathbed, he wrote:
I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand. This old body has given up, just as yours has too, and the eviction notice is on its way any day now. I’ve never forgotten your beauty. But you know that. I don’t have to say it any more. Safe travels old friend. See you down the road. Love and gratitude,
Talking Voices requires a focused listen. Before we die.
Marianne & Leonard Words of Love is on cinema release. Find more music on www.songsommelier.com