I remember the first time I heard Leonard Cohen, which was a moment not unlike first reading a previously undiscovered but instantly beloved poet. The comparison is hardly surprising: Cohen is known as a poet (among other things) as much as he’s known as a songwriter. It was like the shock of recognition you get when you bump into someone you know when you’re on the other side of the world. How can this be? Is it you? And it was very much like that, because I was on the other side of the world, and I felt I’d always known that voice and those words, as though they’d been visited upon me in sleep.
I’m a strange case musically. I’m hopeless with band names, just dreadful, but sit me down in front of a radio and play me some current tunes, and I’ll be able to identify stuff I like. I won’t know who’s singing or what the band’s called or what genre their marketing department at their record label says they belong to, but I’ll know straightaway if I like their sound or not. I tend to be quite definite in the case of music; much more so than in any other sensory and creative exchange. I’ve read bad books, the worst, genuinely appalling insults to the profession, ’til the bitter end, but you start up any heavy metal around me and I will make my excuses and walk out the door. In Jakarta, I knew before I put it in my mouth that the slimy snot-green dessert was not going to be to my liking, but I ate it anyway. All of it. Just to make sure. Rent a shit DVD that’s essentially unwatchable and a crime against my precious time on this earth? I can’t look away. But try getting me to listen to Shannon Noll. You don’t even have to tell me it’s him, and I wouldn’t know or care, not because it’s Shannon Noll, it’s got nothing to do with it. I don’t know anything about him. I hold no grudge against the man. Go sing from the highest mountain, Shaz. Please. I’m just quietly confident that you could call his music whatever you wanted to call it, and I’d politely listen to it for as long as I could stand it, and then I’d say, “I don’t like it. Get it off.”
My tastes in music are as variable as my moods (or as Llew and I like to call them, all my extra special personalities). I’ve actually danced in a Kathmandu store because they put a Scissors Sisters song on that made me feel like dancing. I think it’s even called ‘I Feel Like Dancing.’ I couldn’t help it. My toes started tapping and before I knew it, I was bopping past the tents and sliding down toward the billy cans and Swiss Army knives. Llew pretended he didn’t know me and went and stood behind the prussiking ropes until the song finished. I find some of their songs infectious. That is the only word for it. Curtis Mayfield also makes me want to shake. And the Jackson Five.
Then there’s Amy Winehouse, that poor, fucked up little girl lost. I had heard her music around the traps for ages and ages before I put that voice together with that frail little junkie with the beehive. It was a nasty shock, actually. I couldn’t believe that mess-head was responsible for that sound. Then again, I don’t know why I was so surprised. What did I think made her pen a song like ‘Rehab’? Not chocolate biscuits. She’s got a fine voice, Amy, and I just love hearing it out there in the world.
Singing is the only creative expression that human beings carry within themselves. Everything else requires material of some description. I was having this discussion again with the Jakarta Junket teamsters, and it’s one that has been cropping up a lot lately. I don’t know why. But think about it. I need materials to do what I do. I have notebooks and pens and sometimes I even write on serviettes. I’d write on toilet paper if it was all I had going. Writers need instruments. They have tools. Same with musicians. Same with artists. Painters, sculptors, photographers, cartoonists. Film makers. Chefs, if you want to take it that far. All of these creative endeavours require something external to the creator. Except singing. It is so pure for that, I think, and perhaps it’s why I admire singers so much (aside from the obvious reason, which is that I’m a woefully shit singer). They hold their creativity within themselves. They make it happen entirely from within, and many people can cite at least one time that the sound of someone else’s voice moved them to tears. I bow down to that – how wonderful.
What does this have to do with Leonard Cohen? Oh, just memories, I guess.