14 November 2016

A Fine Song

(In memoriam: an article first published on 20th March 2013 on the Mslexia guest blog.)

“This is a fine song. A fine song.”

With this statement, I was introduced to the work of Leonard Cohen. His praises were being sung in Woodroffe High School, Ottawa, by my English teacher – an inspirational individual who was inclined to deliver a class from inside the closed store cupboard, or encourage us to graffiti over the blackboard and then award a prize for the most biting witticism, or write in huge lettering across an exam answer: GADZOOKS GIRL!!! READ THE QUESTION.

For such a person, how would we not sit up and listen?

We had the word-sheet and we sang along. And yes, we were prepared to concede: Leonard Cohen’s So Long Marianne was a fine song.
Although I didn’t take at the time to Cohen’s rather scratchy thin voice – nor appreciate that the bouzuki sound towards the end of the song was a neat allusion to the Greek island of Hydra where Cohen lived with the eponymous Marianne – a couple of verses from that song began to imprint themselves and have never left me:

Well you know that I love to live with you,
But you make me forget so very much.
I forget to pray for the angels
And then the angels forget to pray for us
Your letters they all say that you’re beside me now.
Then why do I feel alone?
I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web
Is fastening my ankle to a stone.

Now as I contemplate the prospect of writing my own lyrics, it occurs to me there is much to learn from Leonard Cohen, who at the age of 78 is still out on the road, performing his latest album Old Ideas. It is not so much his personal longevity that interests me, admirable though that is, but the endurance of his songs.

Perhaps Cohen’s lyrics were always destined for a superior kind of polish given that he was first and foremost a printed-page poet.  A number of collections that won praise in Canada before be became a singer and a name on the world stage – Let us Compare Mythologies (1956) The Spice-Box of Earth (1961) and Flowers for Hitler (1963) – established his craft before ever Marianne, as it is rumoured, handed him a guitar on which to compose tunes as well.

It is his poet’s attention to detail, to syllabics and rhyme, that have, I feel, given his songs their legs. But though one might think this set of skills would make for an easy transition to songwriter, Cohen has spoken about the sheer slog of finding the right words to link with melody. He is famed for drafting and redrafting, for notebooks stuffed with ideas, for songs that have taken years to write.  But even after all that, he is aware that there is still something indefinable in the songwriter’s task. As he says in Songwriters on Songwriting:

Well, things come so damn slow. Things come and they come and it’s a tollgate, and they’re particularly asking for something that you can’t manage.  

They say: “We’ve got the goods here. What have you got to pay?” Well, I’ve got my intelligence, I’ve got a mind. “No, we don’t want that.”I’ve got my whole training as a poet. “No, we don’t want that. “I’ve got some licks, I’ve got some skills with my fingers on the guitar. “No, we don’t want that.” Well, I’ve got a broken heart. “No, we don’t want that.” I’ve got a pretty girlfriend. “No, we don’t want that.” I’ve got sexual desire. “No, we don’t want that.” I’ve got a whole lot of things and the tollgate keeper says: “That’s not going to get it. We want you in a condition that you are not accustomed to. And that you yourself cannot name. We want you in a condition of receptivity that you cannot produce by yourself.” 

One of Cohen’s most extraordinary successes is Hallelujah, a song that has been recorded some 370 times by artists of larger and smaller note, used as soundtrack in films and TV series such as Shrek and The West Wing, and requested at funerals and  weddings. The song, alluding to the Biblical story of David, to sexual temptation, to the sacred and the secular, and to questions of faith, had a difficult gestation of three years and seventy verses. “I remember being on the floor, on the carpet in my underwear, banging my head on the floor and saying, ‘I can’t finish this song’” Cohen said, quoted in a  BBC article on Ian Light’s recently published book about the story of Hallelujah.

When Cohen finally came to the recording studio, the song had been honed to four verses. But compared to later versions, Cohen's original is a surprise – a rather cheesy number, with staccato endings in the chorus and a swing feel.  Columbia Records had such commercial reservations about it and the entire album Various Positions, that the decision was made to release first in Europe, in 1984, before a launch in the US the year later.

Nonetheless, Cohen, whose career had hit a slight doldrums, was still doing live appearances and Hallelujah, aired at times with substitute verses, met favour with audiences.  Even Bob Dylan, arguably the most famous of the 60s generation wordsmith singers, performed it in 1988.  But then the song underwent two important regenerations – first by John Cale (originally from Velvet Underground) who used a simplified piano arrangement and a different set of Cohen’s verses, and then, in 1994, by Jeff Buckley, who stood before a microphone with spell-binding vocal inflections and an echoing guitar.  His tragic death by drowning two years later at the age of thirty made a threnody and cult classic out of this haunting – and many would argue definitive – version.

Both Cale and Buckley sang the same first two verses as Leonard Cohen did in his original recording, but added a different final three, rooted in relationship and  physicality, and with a bleaker end line: It’s a cold and broken Hallelujah rather than Cohen’s more defiant: With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.

Leonard Cohen original recorded version
Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
John Cale/Jeff Buckley version
Verse 1 – same

.Verse 2 – same

.Baby I’ve been here before
I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor (you know)
I used to live alone before I knew you
And I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
and love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, hallelujah,
hallelujah, hallelujah…

There was a time when you let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show that to me, do you?
But remember when I moved in you
And the holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

Hallelujah, hallelujah,
hallelujah, hallelujah…

Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah,
hallelujah, hallelujah…

Other artists have endeavoured to put their own stamp on the song – from K.D. Lang’s acclaimed performance, through Bon Jovi, Rufus Wainwright and Alexandra Burke, winning contestant on the UK’s X Factor in 2008 who, despite the de rigueur schmaltzy key change for the final verse, gave a creditable interpretation, and all the way to a highly idiosyncratic recording by Bono.

Even the  ukelele-playing Jake Shimabukuro has finessed an instrumental version, drawn he claims, to the tune. But it is my assertion that he would not have been captivated by this song had it not been for the musicality mined in it by Jeff Buckley via Jim Cale. And those versions may never have existed were it not for a compelling set of lyrics that invited reinterpretation. I think Shimabukuro would not have heard the song in the way that he did but for those who passed it on. It’s like the end of a Chinese Whispers round.

Yet this song, to me, was cemented through its lyrics. 

So, what can a would-be lyricist learn from Leonard Cohen?
  • That sweat and tears may be the sine qua non of great lyrics. Cohen has talked eloquently about frustrations.“If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition. It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery.”
  • That words in which a sentiment is authentically conveyed become more than just a simple plate on which a tune is delivered.
  • That a poem, sung, might have much wider reach than a print version.
  • That evocative lyrics can transcend a rather average musical arrangement…
  • …and that, therefore, other people with different rhythms, inflections and music within them can run differently with the blueprint.
About this last point, I am reminded of “the eye” referred to by the poet Alice Oswald on a recent Radio 4 programme, The Echo Chamber presented by Paul Farley. “There’s something mysterious about what animates a poem,” she says. “I always try to create an eye in a poem … which I see as a kind of pinhole through which light can pass….It’s a kind of exit point in the poem that stops it from being a solipsism….But when I see that it has a pinprick hole in it through which something different can enter then I’ll be satisfied. Even if it’s an imperfect poem, at least it’s got a kind of consciousness of its own.” 

I think that Leonard Cohen’s lines in songs such as So Long Marianne and Hallelujah have such an eye – giving them a “kind of consciousness” that inspires other performers to sing the words again and again. There could be no better accolade for a lyrics writer.

14 October 2016

Dig Down

All about spadework and treasure, our latest song Dig Down is actually based on the blog entitled Gem.  Does that make it a blong?  In any event, hope you enjoy it!

Photo from indulgy.com

5 September 2016

Saint Teresa's Knick-Knacks

Front page of Diario de
Ávila - a selfie with St Teresa

'Are you on pilgrimage?' A friend asks. 
That has not been the intention.  

But here in Avila, it is hard to escape the tracks of Saint Teresa, prominent Spanish mystic of the Middle Ages.  I’ve seen her right hand ring finger, preserved in a jar.  I’ve eaten a yema de Santa Teresa, yema meaning, ‘yolk’, ‘fingertip’ – or more prosaically, ‘confection made from egg yolk and sugar’.  And I’ve plonked myself down beside her brand new statue, sculpted by Óscar Alvariño, just outside the convent carrying her name and built on the spot where she was born in 1515.

Unveiled on the day before I arrived, the bronze Teresa sits alone on a stone bench – or rather she would be alone were it not for the constant stream of paparazzi and selfie-seekers determined to get snapped with her.  They come as individuals, couples, groups:  an immaculately coiffed old woman kissing her on the cheek.  Three generations of the same family celebrating a golden wedding  and setting up a team photo with Teresa as mascot in the centre.  A chubby boy running his toy plastic sword across her throat.  No mates a la santa!  Don’t kill the saint! exclaims his father, bedecked with three crucifixes.  

Golden wedding celebration with Teresa in the middle

About 20% bigger than life size, the sculpture holds a quill in her right hand and a notebook on her lap, symbolising  instructive works that she penned, including El Castillo Interior (The Interior Castle), El Camino de Perfección (The Way of Perfection), and her autobiography (Life of Teresa of Jesus).  She wrote often frenetically, as if taking divine dictation in a bold and flowing script that, for the most part, eschewed punctuation.  

Entering the Carmelite order at a young age, Teresa grew unhappy with the laxity around her and became the instigator of more severe rules - of silence, continual prayer safeguarded by strict enclosure and solitude, manual labour, perpetual abstinence, fasting, fraternal charity, the renunciation of property, and even the practice of self-flagellation (the coiled rope she used, her disciplina, is on display beside the ring finger).  These reforms eventually led to the creation of the Discalced Carmelites, discalced coming from the Latin meaning ‘shoeless’.  (The usual translation, ‘barefoot nuns’, is perhaps a misnomer, given that the order wore sandals.) 

Often running against the establishment, she tirelessly travelled by mule or oxen to other parts of the country to found and visit some 17 new convents and 15 new monasteries of the men’s order, until illness intervened and she passed away at the age of 67.  But that was by no means the end of her influence, fame or intrigue.  Curious events happened after she died in October 1582.  ‘From the grave of Teresa of Jesus wafted a scent so delicious that the Carmelites desired again to see the body of their mother,’ wrote Sister Ana de San Bartolomé, who had been her close companion and nurse during her final sickness.  Accordingly, some nine months after her death, her coffin was opened and, as is reported in a contemporary account from Jesuit priest Francisco de Ribero, although her nun’s habits had certainly rotted, her body ‘was as healthy and whole as if she had been buried the night before’.  Such bucking of the normal trend towards decomposition is known as ‘incorruptibility’ and in Catholicism is believed to be a sign of holiness.  But rather than being marvelled at, this body, so eerily intact, was subjected to a ghoulish dismemberment, inaugurated by her erstwhile friend and spiritual director, father Jerónimo Gracián, who was the first to step forward and cut off one of her hands.  

Body parts, then delivered and traded, found their way to disparate locations.  As well as the aforementioned finger in Avila, her right foot and portion of upper jaw are in Rome, her left hand in Lisbon, her right hand, left eye, fingers and scraps of flesh all over Spain, and her right arm and heart in Alba de Tormes, site of another important Teresian shrine.

Though these are part of the visual inheritance of Saint Teresa, another highly significant legacy is the account of her transverberación, English translation…..... ‘transverberation’.   Even the religiously educated Spanish teacher with whom I’ve had a couple of lessons does not know the meaning of this word, which describes the moment, as Teresa asserts, when an angel pierced her heart with a dart: ‘I saw in his hands a large golden dart and at the end of the iron tip there appeared to be a little fire.  It seemed to me this angel plunged the dart several times into my heart and that it reached deep within me.  When he drew it out I thought he was carrying off with him the deepest part of me, and he left me on fire with great love of God.’  Teresa’s mystical experience – one of many claimed by the saint -  has been explained away by some as psychological disturbance and by others as bearing more than passing resemblance to sexual orgasm.  What is clear is that Teresa believed herself to have been potently and definitively transverbed.   Her mystic union with God has been much celebrated in art, notably in works such as Bernini’s sculpture in the Church of Santa Maria della Vottoria, Rome.

Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Bernini

My curiosity thoroughly aroused, I decided to attend an event at the Convento de la Encarnación. Pushing past a group of teenagers who lunged and sliced the air with their hands in an impromptu self-defence lesson being given by a vigorous young priest with dog collar relaxed to one side, I entered the church.  ‘Are you here for a tourist visit?’ asked a volunteer, ready to usher me instantly back outside.  I stammered that I was here for the evento especial.  Ah, she said.  La misa.  The mass.

Sound of Ulster protestant forebears twirling in their graves.  

Convento de la Encarnación

And mass it was, with eight priests officiating and a long sermon in which transverberación was mentioned multiple times, this being its anniversary, but many words lost to me through the quickness of the Spanish and the reverberación of the PA system.  As the congregation filed to the front to take communion, I stayed put and swivelled round in my seat to stare at the back of the church.  What had seemed large rectangles of black on the back wall were in fact upper and lower level grilles through which ghostly entities could now be seen.  Two priests stood by a barred window that had opened.   From the darkness behind, nuns’ faces appeared, one by one, some thirty of them, each framed for a moment, each a portrait in the perfect head-and-shoulders sized space, their mouths opening, their tongues pushed forward to receive the host. 

As they disappeared back into the gloom, I peered as hard as I could at the floor above but only caught sight of the occasional billowing of robes in unexpected draughts of air.  The sisters had shrunk back into seclusion and anonymity.  Yet they are not the only ones of their kind in this city. Today, August 29th, I’ve come to the Convento de San José, first convent of Discalced Carmelites that Teresa founded in Avila.  Inside the small museum, despite my pleading, I’m not permitted to use my camera, even without flash, and thus am annotating in a notebook the sacred sundries displayed behind glass, while two receptionists carry on with their knitting.  A group of eight people hovering nearby have expressed the wish to go across the courtyard and round the corner to the church.  Both women lay down their wool projects and together get up to act as escort, shutting the door firmly behind them.  

And suddenly, for a long five minutes, I am entirely alone -  the sole custodian of Saint Teresa’s relics.  

Oh the temptation to defy!  Take photos! 

Instead, virtuously, I carry on writing:
  •      saddle used for sitting upon while riding round the countryside, founding new convents
  •       part of a shirt
  •       table
  •       writing box
  •       black coffin with gold lettering in which she lay for nine months after her death, presumably before the macabre butchery took place
  •        jar
  •        signature on piece of paper
  •        cross from a rosary
  •         keys
  •          money
  •          little chest
  •          handkerchief spotted with blood
  •         linen shirt used during her illness and stained with blood
  •         sheet of clean rectangular parchment          
  •      and tambourine!  (I add an exclamation mark.) Looks like an upmarket hamster wheel with silver? engraving on it. Perhaps Teresa still shakes it, keeping time with the click of knitting needles - knit one purl one, knit one purl one, knit one purl one…

Convento de San José

After the women return it is my turn to enter the church.  It is just past 1 pm and bells have been ringing deep within the confines of the convent.  Left again on my own, I sit down in a pew and stare at the substantial spatter of gold across the chancel.  And then, a quiet but unmistakeable rustling starts behind grilles over to the front and left.  They have come, those elusive Carmelite nuns, just to the other side of the wall, and I hear the sound of prayers and responses from voices sweet, sure, close but invisible, separate and disembodied.  I am spellbound and cannot move as the space fills with holy words.

Who are these women?  Why are they here?  What is it like to be locked away from the world?  Eventually I tear myself away from such thoughts, aware that the time for public visits has passed.  Yet as I exit the front door, I find that the heavy iron gates just beyond the entrance steps have been closed and bolted.  

There is a moment of intense panic, for no one is in sight.  I fiddle and work at the huge iron bar that will not budge, smearing my hands with grease that has gone sticky from the heat.  But at last, with one almighty heave, the great bolt moves.  The female voices in the church fade as the gates finally swing open, letting me slip out into the sunlight of the afternoon.