27 September 2014

‘I believe there’ll come a day when the lion
and the lamb will lie down in peace together’

Buying ‘Popular Problems’ in Tower Records earlier this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

Culturally, the week was book-ended by Leonard Cohen and Joan Baez, so to speak.

I woke early on Sunday morning [21 September 2014] to listen to Cathal Murray’s two-hour programme on RTÉ, The Weekend on One, from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., marking Leonard Cohen’s eightieth birthday.

He played classic numbers from many Leonard Cohen’s albums, with seven alone from The Essential Leonard Cohen: ‘So Long Marianne,’ ‘Tower of Song,’ ‘Take this Waltz,’ ‘Closing Time,’ ‘In my Secret Life,’ ‘Anthem,’ and ‘Suzanne.’

But there were interpretations of Leonard Cohen by other artists too, including Jeff Buckley (‘Hallelujah’), Rufus Wainwright (‘Chelsea Hotel No 2’), Antony (‘If It Be Your Will’), Trisha Yearwood (‘Coming Back to You’) and Jennifer Warnes (‘Bird on a Wire’).

He also played ‘You Got Me Singing,’ a track from Leonard Cohen’s new album, Popular Problems, which was released on Sunday.

Between the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday morning and the ordination of five deacons in the cathedral on Sunday afternoon, I was in Dawson Street at lunchtime, and bought Popular Problems in Tower Records.

Popular Problems is Leonard Cohen’s second album in the past two years, and follows the success of Old Ideas in 2012.

Behind Popular Problems are the perfect background voices of singers Charlean Carmon, Dana Glover and Donna Delroy, strings played by Joe Ayoub (bass) and Alexandru Bublitchi (violin), James Harrah on guitar, Brian Macleod on drums, and trumpets made of computer sounds.

Once again, Cohen has found his perfect way in his poetry and his voice, in filling sadness with triumph and filling triumph with sadness, in being weary while being optimistic, in suffering while renewed, in finding a light touch to conceal the deep and the serious. But he is at a more sedate pace this time, his gravitas underlined by his whispery baritone voice that at times slows from singing to talking.

The songs here – including ‘Almost Like the Blues,’ ‘Samson in New Orleans’ and ‘Born in Chains’ – deal again with the great Cohen themes of love pursued and love spurned, doubt and faith, war and genocide, his Judaism and his questioning engagement with Christianity, sensuality and spirituality, being naked before those he loved and being naked before God:

There is no G-d in heaven
And there is no Hell below
So says the great professor
Of all there is to know.
But I’ve had the invitation
That a sinner can’t refuse
And it’s almost like salvation
It’s almost like the blues.

The reverential spelling of the name of G-d in the sleeve notes for ‘Almost Like the Blues’ indicates his respect for the traditions of Orthodox Judaism. In ‘Born a Slave,’ he examines his Jewish roots:

I was born in chains
But I was taken out of Egypt
I was bound to a burden
But the burden it was raised
Lord I can no longer
Keep this secret
Blessed is the Name
The Name be praised

In ‘Nevermind,’ he shows his compassion for the plight of refugees and displaced people, and with a flourish of Arabic singing hints at his wider compassion.

Popular Problems is Leonard Cohen’s second album since his return to the stage in 2008. Since then, I have been at concerts on each of his return visits to Ireland. It is not clear yet whether or not he will support Popular Problems with a tour.

Although he has indicated that he will not be doing any shows in 2014, hopefully he is planning to be back in Ireland soon.

UFO at the Leonard Cohen birthday tribute in the Hot Spot Music Club in Greystones (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Later on Sunday evening, we were in the Hot Spot Music Club above the Beach House Pub at Greystones Harbour for a tribute evening marking Leonard Cohen’s eightieth birthday, when the UFO Band paid tribute to the Canadian poet and author, singer and songwriter.

Hot Spot is home to the Universal Funk Orchestra (UFO) who perform regular gigs there covering David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Fleetwood Mac. The first half of the show on Sunday included 12 numbers, mainly from the classic Best Of album from 1976, followed in the second half with eight other Cohen numbers – including ‘Slow,’ a track from Popular Problems, before closing to an encore, almost inevitably and predictably, with ‘Closing Time.’

Joan Baez on stage in Vicar Street on Thursday night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

If we don’t know when Leonard Cohen is returning to Ireland, then Joan Baez was back in Dublin later in the week for three intimate nights at Vicar Street on Wednesday, Thursday and tonight [24, 25 and September 2014].

Back in 2008-2009, she celebrated the fiftieth anniversaries of her debut residency in 1958 at Club 47 in Cambridge, and her debut appearance the following year at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959. She began her recoding career in 1960 at the age of 19, and it was she who introduced Bob Dylan to the world in 1963.

In the 1960s, she marched with Martin Luther King, inspired Vaclav Havel, played at Woodstock and sang on the first Amnesty Interna¬tional tour. She took to the fields with Cesar Chavez and marched against the Vietnam War.

Later she stood with Nelson Mandela at his 90th birthday in Hyde Park, London’s, and saluted the Dixie Chicks for their courageous protest against the Iraq war. Amnesty International honoured her in 2012 with the naming of the Joan Baez Award for Outstanding Inspirational Service in the Global Fight for Human Rights.

As she told us on Thursday night, she is still marching.

She is the daughter of pacifist parents: her father, Professor Albert Baez, was the son of a Mexican-born Methodist minister, her Scottish-born mother – Joan (Chandos Bridge) Baez, who died last year – was the daughter of an Anglican priest, the Revd William Henry Bridge, curate of Saint John’s Episcopal Church at Edinburgh’s West End (1910-1913), where she was baptised, before emigrating to Canada. They became Quakers, and although she was raised a Quaker she says today: “Living is my religion.”

The “Evening with Joan Baez” was a journey through her past and her interpretation of folk music and ballads over the past fifty years or more, with tributes to Bob Dylan as well as some of her long-time favourites, including ‘Farewell Angelina’, ‘Baby Blue,’ ‘Joe Hill,’ ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot,’ ‘The Night they drove Old Dixie down’ and ‘God is God.’

She recalled with emotion her tours of South America and her feelings for the people of Argentina and Nicaragua.

She paid tribute to Violeta Parra and Mercedes Sosa when she sang their hymn ‘Gracias a la Vida.’ And she sang ‘Mi Venganza Personal’ (‘My personal revenge’), written by a founding Sandinista, Tomás Borge in the 1980’s as his response to being asked what would be his personal vengeance on those who had tortured him in prison:

“After having been brutally tortured as a prisoner, after having a hood placed over my head for nine months, after having been handcuffed for seven months, I remember that when we captured these torturers I told them: ‘The hour of my revenge has come: we will not do you even the slightest harm. You did not believe us beforehand; now you will believe us.’ That is our philosophy, our way of being.”

Some of those themes that recur in Leonard Cohen albums were there too in her songs. But the living legacy of her mixed Quaker/Anglican upbringing was also to the fore in the lyrics of many of her songs.

I believe in prophecy

I believe in prophecy
Some folks see things not everybody can see
And once in a while they pass the secret along to you and me
And I believe in miracles
Something sacred burning in every bush and tree
We can all learn to sing the songs the angels sing
Yeah, I believe in God and God ain’t me.

I’ve travelled around the world
Stood on mighty mountains and gazed across the wilderness
Never seen a line in the sand or a diamond in the dust
And as our fate unfurls
Every day that passes I’m sure about a little bit less
Even my money keeps telling me it’s God I need to trust
And I believe in God but God ain’t us.

God, in my little understanding don’t care what name I call
Whether or not I believe doesn't matter at all
I receive the blessings
That every day on earth’s another chance to get it right
Let this little light of mine shine and rage against the night
Just another lesson
Maybe someone’s watching and wondering what I got
Maybe this is why I’m here on earth and maybe not
But I believe in God and God is God.

Jerusalem (by Steve Earle)

I woke up this mornin’ and none of the news was good
And death machines were rumblin’ ’cross the ground where Jesus stood
And the man on my TV told me that it had always been that way
And there was nothin’ anyone could do or say.

And I almost listened to him
Yeah, I almost lost my mind
Then I regained my senses again
And looked into my heart to find

That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem

Well maybe I'm only dreamin’ and maybe I’m just a fool
But I don’t remember learnin’ how to hate in Sunday school
But somewhere along the way I strayed and I never looked back again
But I still find some comfort now and then.

Then the storm comes rumblin’ in
And I can’t lay me down
And the drums are drummin’ again
And I can’t stand the sound.

But I believe there’ll come a day when the lion and the lamb
Will lie down in peace together in Jerusalem

And there’ll be no barricades then
There’ll be no wire or walls
And we can wash all this blood from our hands
And all this hatred from our souls.

And I believe that on that day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem.

No comments: