Friday, 11 November 2016

Goodbye Old Friend

I knew Leonard Cohen for well over 40 years, not personally, of course, but like many others across the world his beguiling, often mysterious songs helped me make better sense of a strange and sometimes daunting world.

Leonard Cohen was inspired to write by the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, murdered by General Franco's fascists during the Spanish Civil War.

But despite his early reputation as the 'godfather of gloom' the singer/songwriter went on to win a whole new generation of admirers for his unique musical style where the spoken word was king. 

Goodbye old friend.

Lenard Cohen: 21 September 1934 - 7 November 2016


So Long Marianne

Leonard Cohen wrote a beautiful letter to Marianne Ilsen, the inspiration behind one of his most famous songs 'So Long Marianne', when he learned that his one-time muse and lover was approaching her death. 
Apparently the letter was read to Marianne who slipped into unconsciousness and died soon after she heard the following words: 
“Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.

“And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”

I got the chance to hold my Mum's hand and say goodbye before she died, and I like to think it meant a lot to her as well as me.

Death of Lorca (22/06/16)

I wrote a post about the death of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca back in 2014, but I was in Madrid recently and stumbled across the house from which Lorca was abducted and murdered by the fascist right.

The building has a plaque on the wall in memory of these terrible events in which three of Lorca's companions were murdered as well. 

Now if you ask me the word 'fascist' is bandied around all too frequently these days and it's a common term of abuse to put down a political opponent on both the left and right of politics.

But this kind of cold blooded killing of completely innocent, peaceful people is what real fascism is about whether in Franco's Spain, Hitler's Germany or by the religious fascists of the Islamic State.   


Death of Lorca (31/01/14)

I just finished reading a book by Paul Preston, The Spanish Holocaust, which is a fascinating work but hard going because it documents events surrounding the Spanish Civil War including the cold blooded murder of thousands of innocent civilians.

Peter Preston is even-handed in his criticism of both Republicans and Nationalists, but he is unafraid to call a spade a spade and does so repeatedly, in a painstakingly researched book which concludes that the fascists were the main culprits in their campaign to overthrow the elected Republican Government.

Here's a brief excerpt from the book which recounts the death of the famous Spanish Poet, Federico García Lorca (38), who was murdered o
n August 18, 1936 along with a teacher and two bullfighters.

"When rightists hunting for 'reds' began to look for him, Lorca took refuge in the home of his friend the Falangist poet Luis Rosales. On 16 August, at the home of the Rosales family, Lorca was seized by Civil Guards who were accompanied by the sinister Ramon Ruiz Alonso, a one-time deputy for the local CEDA, Trescastro and another member of Accion Popular, Luis Garcia-Alix Fernandez. Ruis Alonso, who had hitched his cart to the Falange, harboured grudges against both Lorca and the Rosales brothers. Lorca was ludicrously denounced by Ruis Alonso to Valdes as a Russian spy, communicating with Moscow via a high-powered radio. Valdez sent a message to Qeipo de Lano asking for instructions. The reply was 'Dale cafe, mucho cafe' - 'give him coffee' being slang for 'kill him'. Federico Garcia Lorca was shot at 4.45 am on 18 August 1936 between Alfacar and Viznar to the north-east of Granada."

Trecastro later boasted that he personally killed the poet and others, including the humanist Amelia Augsutina Gonzalez Blanco. 'We were sick to the teeth of queers in Granada. We killed him for being a queer and her for being a whore'. On the day after the poet's death Trecastro entered a bar and declared: 'We just killed Federico Garcia Lorca. I put two bullets in his arse for being a queer.' Murdered with Lorca were a disabled primary school teacher, Dioscoro Galindo, and two anarchists who had fought in the defence of the Albacin. The cowardly murder of a great poet was, however, like that of the loyal General Campins, merely a drop in the ocean of political slaughter." 

Qeipo de Lano was a key figure in the Nationalist rebellion and a henchman of the fascist dictator, General Franco who went on to rule Spain with an iron fist for almost forty years.

Yet before he was brutally executed 'for being a queer', Lorca was clearly dehumanised and made unworthy by the climate of intolerance in Catholic Spain shown towards people with a homosexual lifestyle.   

Ring any bells with what's happening in modern day Nigeria or Russia or parts of the Middle East? 


Great Nights Out (21/02/14)

I saw Leonard Cohen some years ago at a well attended performance in Barcelona, would you believe, as part of his 'comeback' tour which forced the signer out of semi retirement after being defrauded by his agent cum manager.

Anyway, I couldn't agree more with Arthur Smith (a well known comedian with hidden talents it seems) because Leonard Cohen was bright, sparky and funny on stage - and his music was full of verve; not in the least dull or grim.

So if you get the chance, I would say that Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen sounds like a great night out and here's one the the tracks that he played several years ago in Barcelona - 'Dance Me to the End of Love'.  

My life with Leonard Cohen

Comic Arthur Smith is back singing his songbook on stage. Here he charts his enduring fandom

I first did Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen back in 2000.

Originally, way back, my plan was to do a trilogy of Arthur Smith Sings… shows. The first one was Arthur Smith Sings Andy Williams, which I’ll grant you sounds like a bit of a joke, and the second was Leonard Cohen. I thought singing Cohen promised the grimmest evening of entertainment possible; it was almost anti-comedy, and I liked that, I liked it a lot. So much so, that I never did complete the trilogy. Instead I’m back now, with Cohen Volume 2.

I have my reasons. Leonard Cohen is coming up on 80, I’m coming up on 60, and as clichéd as it sounds, the man has provided the soundtrack to my life. There hasn’t been a single album of his, I think, that hasn’t left me going “woah!” over at least one track. I love his maudlin croak, the melancholy of him; the humour, too, which I think is often overlooked. He’s funny, Leonard.

Of course, there’s another reason I wanted to do this: just as every politician secretly wants to be a comedian, so every comedian secretly wants to be a rock star. And Leonard, I thought, was the kind of rock star I could aim for. I’m no great singer, but then he never called himself a great singer, either. “If I want to hear great singing,” he once said, “I go to the Metropolitan Opera House”. Same here. My voice is in the same range as his, and I even resemble him, vaguely.

I must have been 16 when I first heard him. My older brother brought back one of his albums, and I thought he sounded so cool: a poet with a transcendent air about him. 

And then, in the mid-1970s, he did me a very big favour. I was living in Paris at the time, and I’d been seeing this French girl, who I fancied like crazy, for three months. Things were going well, but she would not let me into her boudoir. Then I took her to see Leonard in concert, and later that night… she did. I’ve been grateful to him ever since.

In that first show I did on him, back in 2000, I talked about addiction a lot. I was interested in Leonard’s – apparently he liked speed, which leads me to conjecture what his songs might have sounded like without the speed – and I was also considering my own attachment to booze. I suppose I advocated that we embrace our addictions. Ironically, not long after, I was admitted to intensive care with pancreatitis caused by alcohol. It was pretty serious; I nearly died. I don’t drink any more: well, the odd glass of red wine with my steak every now and then, perhaps, but little else. A Leonard lyric that I particularly like is from “Take this Waltz”: “This waltz, this waltz, this waltz. Waltz – with its very own breath of brandy and death...”

You will be relieved to hear that my new show isn’t about addiction. It’s about decline, departure, dementia and death. Leonard’s last studio album, Old Ideas (2012), ran along similar themes. The opening track, “Going Home”, would be perfect for funerals. But it’s a wonderful album. He sounds miserable as hell, but there is always a little uplift at the end of every song, always a crack in the ceiling where the light gets in.

I like to think the same is true of my show. In it, for example, I talk about my mother’s dementia. She started being found wandering around the streets, and conversations between us turned increasingly into some kind of Samuel Beckett play, with their endless repetitions. It was very concerning at times, but then she also said such funny things, too. In one of Leonard’s old songs, “Love Calls You By Your Name”, he sings about stumbling into movie houses and climbing into the frame. That struck me as the sort of thing my mother was doing, climbing into different frames. It was a very difficult time, but I loved her, she loved me, and it was our love, I think, that got us through.

As to whether I’ve met the great man, I couldn’t possibly comment, not here, not now. Anyone who is interested will have to come and see the show. But I would like to point out that I’m a fan, not a stalker. There’s a difference.

He’s dealt with a lot in his life, old Leonard. He struggled with depression, and even became a Buddhist monk, sitting for hours on end in silent meditation and contemplation. It must’ve worked, because you look at him now, and he seems so graceful and serene. When he performs, it’s like there’s an inner light within him. I guess the moral is that if you live long enough, you end up resolving your demons. I’ve had a few myself, demons, so it’s encouraging to look at him the way he is now, a magnificent 80-year-old.

He’s my inspiration. Always was, still is.

As told to Nick Duerden. ‘Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen (Volume 2)’ is at London’s Soho Theatre from 16 Feb to 2 March