Should’ve Been A Classic: #2

Leonard Cohen: Live Songs (1973)

When the good folks at Legacy Records reissued remastered editions of Leonard Cohen’s first three albums, I was really excited.  Not only were they beautifully packaged (in slim, hardback, book-like sleeves), but I was hoping that this would lead to a reissuing of this live album recorded during his 1970 and 1972 European tours.  Sadly, this is (so far) not to be (although Sundazed Records has remastered and reissued the album on vinyl).

Now, 1973’s Live Songs is available on compact disc, but it sounds like shit.  Although the CD version was released in 1998, it sounds more like discs from the 80s when standard practice was to cheaply copy over a third or fourth generation master with no sound restoration (at the time, record companies were not sure that CD’s were going to stick around; it wasn’t until the mid-90s that full remastering for back catalogues became a standard practice).

This is a shame, since the album, I think, is sorely underrated and one of Cohen’s best records.  Out of ten tracks, four are songs unique to this album, and the remainder act like a kind of best-of of Songs From A Room (1969) and Songs Of Love And Hate (1971).  In fact, some versions are better than their studio originals: a brooding take on “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy” and a jaunty, countrifried “Tonight Will Be Fine“, for example.

The most familiar Leonard Cohen record to most people is his 1967 debut, Songs Of Leonard Cohen.  I’ve always felt that one to be rather overrated: sure, it does have some excellent songs (“Master Song” and “The Stranger Song” in particular), but John Simon’s production can get a little twee and cloyingly heavyhanded in parts.  When Dylan producer Bob Johnston took over for the next two, the sparser arrangements opened up Cohen’s songs and allowed his resonant, if monotone, baritone to swell out into this newly-created space.  The jawharp throughout Songs From A Room was a nice touch, also.

Johnston remained behind the controls for Live Songs, though the sound is not as good as his other work (such as Johnny Cash’s famous concert album At Folsom Prison).  In many places, the record sounds like a bootleg from audience recordings, though this could be just the shitty mastering on the CD.

Still, there’s a certain warmth and intimacy to the recordings (especially the final track, “Queen Victoria“, which was taped in a Tennessee hotel room).  Away from the controlled atmosphere of the studio, Cohen is at his nakedest in these performances.    He blows the lead on “Story Of Isaac” by prefacing it with an introduction which makes the song’s subtle anti-war theme rather crushingly obvious, but trades in inscrutable mystique for raw urgency.

Elsewhere, the thirteen minute long audience sing-along, “Please Don’t Pass Me By (A Disgrace)” finds Cohen eviscerating himself and identifying with the “freaks”, “cripples”, and other “curious mutilations of the human form” he sees strewn in the gutters of New York City.  What follows is a descent into Hell and Cohen takes his country-gospel tinged band along for the ride as he sings:

Well I sing this for the Jews and the Gypsies and the smoke that they made.

And I sing this for the children of England, their faces so grave.

And I sing this for a saviour with no one to save.

Well I sing this song for you Blonde Beasts, I sing this song for you Venuses upon your shells on the foam of the sea.

And I sing this for the freaks and the cripples, and the hunchback, and the burned, and the burning, and the maimed, and the broken, and the torn, and all of those that you talk about at the coffee tables, at the meetings, and the demonstrations, on the streets, in your music, in my songs.

I mean the real ones that are burning, I mean the real ones that are burning.

Yet out of this Cohen, upon destroying himself (“Oh don’t be the person that you came with. / Ah, I’m not going to be. I can’t stand him. I can’t stand who I am.”), emerges along with the audience newborn (albeit as a beggar):

Well I hope I see you out there on the corner.

Yeah I hope as I go by that I hear you whisper with the breeze.

Because I’m going to leave you now, I’m going to find me someone new.

Find someone new.

The back cover of the record features an ornate quotation from Daphne Richardson labelled “Transfiguration” and this idea of metamorphosis and rebirth seems to be the controlling idea of the album.

It’s rather a cliché to observe how live performance of songs gives a dynamic rebirth to their static studio versions, so I won’t say that.  Instead, let me say this:  Frequently, Cohen’s music is derided as depressing and I suppose it’s fair to admit that his albums do seem to be bathed in gloom. But here, on Live Songs, Cohen’s gloom becomes cathartic.

And throughout, the record is tempered with the faint hope of the humanism that is introduced in the gospel-cover-recast-as-existentialist-hymn “Passing Through” (“We’re all on one road, and we’re only passing through”) and reaches a radical apotheosis in “Please Don’t Pass Me By” where Cohen exhorts the audience to completely give themselves over to the all-too-marginalized Other.

And at this point a transformation occurs.  Most of the album’s tracks are taken from his 1972 European tour and, from the sounds of it, appear to be recorded in indoor halls.  The album’s penultimate track (before the hotel bonus “Queen Victoria”), however, is an ubpeat performance of “Tonight Will Be Fine” taken from his set at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival.

Recorded around dawn in the English countryside amongst a throng of congregated hippies, the track relieves the heavy claustrophobic ambience of the rest of the record with some (uncharacteristic for England) light, sunshiney warmth. Yet even here, Cohen’s repeated refrains that “Tonight, tonight will be fine” take on an urgency which, towards the end of the track, makes his anticipated joy indistinguishable from rage.  Of course, he could also be annoyed that his set started at four in the freakin’ morning.

Yes, the album is painful, but it’s a good kind of hurt, the kind of hurt that comes with healing.  And that is the point here — as he states himself in the opening track, the hauntingly poignant “Minute Prologue“:

I’ve been listening to all the dissention.
I’ve been listening to all the pain.
And I feel that no matter what I do for you,
It’s going to come back again.
But I think that I can heal it,
But I think that I can heal it,
I’m a fool, but I think that I can heal it
With this song.

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~ by Isaac Bickerstaff on August 12, 2009.

4 Responses to “Should’ve Been A Classic: #2”

  1. Dang. Didn’t get a “noted” joke in there.

  2. Good post. It figures that the moment the recording industry embracd the cd was precisely the same where that fomat begun it’s slow death. No where near dead yet of course, but it’s well on it’s way. Will the music industry be taken with it? The music itself will survive of course as this post illustrates. Cream rises to the top.

    • We eat pumpkins all the time Australia, but our pumpkins are a little different to the sort you get. We can’t make jalarcktteons out of ours. Not that we really do Halloween here.We eat pumpkin in roasts, and roast it with our potatoes. You can boil it and mash it. You can make bread, scones, soup with it. that’s right pumpkin pasta or gnocchi. We use it a lot, can you tell?

  3. I don’t know about that. I think that, as a format, the CD was embraced by the turn of the nineties. It just a took a while to get the back catalogues into shape. This process is still incomplete – indeed, the first proper Beatles remasters (not counting the ones from 1987) have only just come out. And Neil Young’s back catalogue, Harvest and “The Lost Four” excepted, has never been remastered (looks like he’s just going to skip CD’s and go straight to Blu-Ray).

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