Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Recommended Canadian Content of the Week: Leonard Cohen

The choice for my second RCCotW blog post was easy. Leonard Cohen is one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Canadian or not.

I was introduced to Leonard Cohen fairly early, but I guess I wasn't ready for him. A grade 7 a teacher whose name I can't recall (and who I didn't appreciate at the time) split us into groups and had us do a presentation comparing two artists. I wasn't assertive enough at the time to choose two artists I liked (and at 12, if I was aware of the creators of the music, books, movies and TV I enjoyed, I'm sure I didn't think of them as artists), so my partner (who I also don't recall) and I asked (or more likely whined) that we couldn't think of anyone. The teacher suggested two artists that I would enjoy comparing now, but back then I had never heard of: Leonard Cohen and Margaret Atwood. I'm sure our analysis didn't go very deep—we may not have done much more than describe their biographies and that in addition to them both being Canadian, that they are both poets. I think I recall showing an 8 mm movie about each (that the teacher found).

Unfortunately I missed that opportunity to discover the music of Leonard Cohen. I'm sure I heard it occasionally on CBC Radio, but neither of my parents listened to him so I didn't hear his music around the house.

I finally didn't come to enjoy his music until I heard an interview on CBC with Jennifer Warnes, who was promoting her album Famous Blue Raincoat, which is "a tribute to Leonard Cohen, with whom Warnes had toured as a backup singer in the 1970s." (That must have been late 1986 or early 1987.) I bought the CD (one of the first I bought as I began to replace my vinyl collection) and it became one of my favorites. As so often happens, I over-listened to it until I was tired of it, and I haven't listened to it much since then. (It would be interesting to come back to it and see if I enjoy it.)

I remember raving about it online, and someone else responded that I should really listen to Leonard Cohen himself. Later I remember enjoying the song "Everybody Knows" in the movie Pump Up the Volume (in 1990). But it wasn't until 1993 (or maybe late 1992) that I bought my first Leonard Cohen album The Future. Wikipedia tells me it is one of his most popular, so I guess that makes sense.

Not long after that I bought The Best of Leonard Cohen (and noticed how much his voice has changed since he was young) and later More Best of Leonard Cohen. A couple years ago I bought the soundtrack to the Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man movie, which I haven't seen.

I recommend all of these albums, but I recommend you start with The Best of Leonard Cohen or maybe The Essential Leonard Cohen.

The songs I've marked 5 stars in iTunes are:
Famous Blue Raincoat
Take This Waltz

And these two tributes from Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man:
Antony's If It Be Your Will
Rufus Wainwright's Chelsea Hotel No. 2

What did I leave out?

Update: I remembered a very good interview of Leonard Cohen with Terry Gross on Fresh Air.


Ian said...

Cohen is a quintessential songwriter but I tend to like his choice tunes performed by, uh, choicer vocalists. I remember watching the Junos in '92 or '93, around when The Future was released and he won the Juno for best male vocal of the year.

He started his speech with, "Only in Canada could I win an award for singing..."

That always makes me chuckle.

So yea, I'll put out Jeff Buckley's take on Hallelujah as the most sublime version of that song ever recorded. And Jennifer Warrens take on First we Take Manhattan as being the voice for that track.

Keep 'em coming man. I can gab Canadian music until the cows...err..moose come home. :)

yacitus said...

I think Cohen's voice is what kept me from appreciating him for so long. But discovering Tom Waits helped me appreciate singer/songwriters who may not have a beautiful voice, but who usually put more soul into their songs than others. (Compare Rod Stewart's and Wait's versions of Downtown Train for an example.)

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Future documents his "Only in Canada..." quip.)

It's rare that I prefer a cover version to the original (especially if the cover uses the same arrangement), but I'll keep an open mind. I downloaded Jeff Buckley's version of Hallelujah—$1.29 on both iTunes and Amazon :-( —I'll give it several listens and report back.

I do agree with you on Jennifer Warnes' version of First We Take Manhattan. I'm not a big fan of Cohen's "quasi-synthpop" version. I learned from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_We_Take_Manhattan that Warnes' version was the first. (And it was be hard to top Stevie Ray Vaughan's guitar on that track.)