Blog on the Tracks
I know I've written before about songwriters who fancy themselves as poets and poets who move into music - but it's on my mind this week. And so I thought we could look at the best - and maybe the worst - examples of lyrics that stand out, stand proud, on the page; lyrics that have been bound together and sold as poetry, collected, collated and are well-served in book form.
The most famous example, to my mind, of an actual poet achieving success and fame with and through music is Leonard Cohen. And that's the obvious reason this stuff about poetry and lyrics has been on my mind. I told you earlier in the week about interviewing Sylvie Simmons on stage as part of an evening celebrating the music and words and life of Leonard Cohen - and promoting Sylvie's wonderful biography of Leonard.
And it was a wonderful evening. A great celebration.
And since then there have been many conversations - one that came up was about the connection between Cohen and Suzanne Vega. I'm a great fan of her music and her collection of lyrics (which features an interesting piece where she and Cohen interview each other) is one of my favourite collections of songs and poems. Vega is to my ear - and eye - a fantastic writer. She takes it seriously. She's smart, she has something to say and manages to nail it; beautiful, thoughtful images, well crafted, well placed.
I returned home from the Cohen evening and purchased the Kindle edition of Fifteen Poems; new Cohen poems to chew over. I've collected up as many of his poetry books as I can find - and the novels. And the collection of his poems and lyrics, Stranger Music, is my all-time favourite book of poetry I reckon. Top five at any rate. And it's the poetry book I've returned to most often, also the one I've loaned out more regularly than any other.
When I was five years old I remember asking my father and uncle who the fourth member of The Beatles was. I had John Lennon and Paul McCartney in mind; knew them straight away. I also knew Ringo Starr - but I couldn't for the life of me remember the fourth member. It was, they told me, George Harrison. I got my father to write it down on a piece of paper. He and my uncle were wallpapering a room. The radio was playing. I was drawing on a piece of paper. A Beatles song was playing.
This is my first musical memory.
This is the first story I think of connecting me to music.
I was five. And my uncle and my father hummed and haaa'd, they bumbled about, pretending to not know who the fourth member of The Beatles was; they asked each other - almost mocking the question, pretending to buy time, to stall. Teasing the answer out.
And I was almost angry, because I knew they knew. That is why I had asked them - I knew it was an obvious answer; I knew they had the information at hand. So they had their little game and then gave me the answer. I got it in writing. To help me remember.
GUEST BLOG BY JEREMY TAYLOR
Guest Blog: The Omnivore's Jeremy Taylor steps up (yet again) and gives me a break. Yes, yes, he should write more music blogs. And I shouldn't. And blah blah blah - thanks very much (yet again) for this, JT.
In the very rare instance that anyone asks me "what's your favourite album of all time?" I usually find myself terribly conflicted. I mean, I know who my favourite band is - The Smiths, no contest. And even then, I don't think they are the best band of all time (that would, realistically, be The Beatles) - they are just the band who opened the gates of the kingdom for me, a band whose progress was contemporaneous to my own developing tastes. I would actually find it difficult to pick a Smiths record over the others (at a push, Hatful of Hollow, even though I know it is a compilation, so it's sort of cheating).
I love the first Stone Roses record - I think it is pretty well perfect (even if I do usually skip the backwards track), and has probably the best opening and closing track combo (I Wanna Be Adored/ I Am the Resurrection) on any debut album, at the very least.
I love the second Bill Fay album, Time of the Last Persecution - so austere, such genuine warmth, and such great playing, much of it improvised.
But the record that I keep coming back to, that I have played as much as any record I own, is the second studio album by the Perth, WA band The Triffids, Born Sandy Devotional.
So I reviewed the new album by The National last night. The record is called Trouble Will Find Me and this trouble found my stereo last week. The album was released on Friday, May 17; it's the band's sixth full-lengther.
I got pretty hooked on Alligator when that was released, ducking back to the two earlier records and staying on board for Boxer. The band's audience seemed to really swell around the time of Boxer and on to 2010's High Violet, a record I wanted to like - but ultimately couldn't.
But here's the thing - even when playing Boxer and Alligator, which is never all that often these days, but even when I was first discovering this music, I just never got the fervour. I have felt a wee twinge of embarrassment for every mustard trouser-wearing, cuffs-rolled clown who proclaimed one or other of their back-to-back series of a small handful of shows in Auckland the other year to be some sort of religious experience.
If by religious experience they meant dodgy scam then perhaps there's something in it. But otherwise, I just don't get it.
People seem so excited to blurt out that the band is so compelling live, so utterly transcendent. But to me that's just a band doing its job. Being good at playing live is part of the thing; releasing great albums - that's just another part of the thing too. It used to be that we weren't so wowed by every artist that managed one or both - because so many were capable of these deeds. You just expected it. You always experienced it. It was noteworthy when someone wasn't great.
Tomorrow I'll be chatting with Sylvie Simmons live on stage in Carterton. I've previewed the event here and here - Simmons is in New Zealand to celebrate her Leonard Cohen biography. The event in Carterton will feature some of Cohen's songs performed by Simmons and by some local artists. Sylvie will also read from her book, talk about the three years spent writing and researching the book - and she and I will talk about her life in music.
I met Sylvie Simmons in San Francisco last year. She invited me over for a cup of tea. I was on holiday - she was finishing off the Cohen book.
Since then - almost a year to the day when I met her - Simmons has worked her way around America plugging the book, performing shows that feature songs (she's a ukulele player, singer, songwriter - and has been performing Cohen songs as part of the celebration of the book and Leonard's life and career) as well as talking about the book, reading from the book, signing copies, doing what an author needs to do.
She's now in New Zealand, having participated in weekend events in Auckland as part of the Writers and Readers Festival and will soon travel to Britain, her first time "home" in a while.
Simmons told me over the phone recently that the shows came about simply as a way to celebrate Leonard's life and work - and of course to plug the book. Her American publisher was less than helpful in organising speaking events and so Sylvie started calling people up, organising gigs, meeting up with old friends, making new friends, bonding over the music.
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