Tag Archives: Leonard Cohen

5 Songs About New York

I’m in the middle of Patti Smith’s fantastic memoir Just Kids which recounts her early years in New York City with Robert Mapplethorpe.  I’ve compiled a mix of songs about New York as a soundtrack while reading it.  Here’s a few of the songs I picked.

Leonard Cohen – “Chelsea Hotel #2”

It seems like every artist that lived in New York during the 1960s resided in the Chelsea Hotel for a period.   With its sparse guitar and Cohen’s naked lyrics – “giving me head in the unmade bed” –  present a heartbreaking portrait of his affair with Janis Joplin.  She tells him that she prefers more handsome man, but she’d make an exception for him.   “We are ugly but we have the music” seems to represent not just Cohen and Joplin, but rather all of the artists that lived there.  For many artists the Chelsea was a mecca for artists looking for their muse.

The Clash – “Koka Kola”

At first, “Koka Kola” might seem like the weakest song on London Calling.  It’s short and concise.  But in under 2 minutes, Strummer manages to attack stock brokers, advertisements, and businessmen’s love for cocaine and party-girls.  “The money can be made if you really want some more,” Strummer muses.  London Calling was released in the December 1979, so in its own way “Koka Kola” could be seen a song that foreshadows what some saw as a decade of corporate greed.

U2 – “The Hands That Built America”

U2 has written several songs about New York.  Some are great (“City of Blinding Lights”) some are not (“New York”).   “The Hands That Built America” falls into the “forgotten” bin.  Written for Martin Scorcese’s under-rated “Gangs of New York”, the song recalls the trials of immigrants and how they shaped the US and specifically New York.  The bridge contains some operatic singing from Bono – a theme he would explore on “Sometime You Can’t Make It On Your Own” a few years later.  The final verse contains references 9/11 – “it’s early fall, innocence dragged across a yellow line”.  One of U2’s best songs in the past decade.

Simon & Garfunkel – “The Boxer”

I could probably write a whole post on this song – which remains one of all time favorite songs.  Largely known for its chorus, “The Boxer” contains some of Simon’s best lyrics, a first person account of struggling to find his way in New York.  There’s also some pretty fantastic guitar picking courtesy of Fred Carter, Jr. Urban legend had suggested that the song is an attack on Bob Dylan, however Simon said that the song is mostly an autobiographical account.  If you’ve ever heard Dylan’s version released on Self Portrait – it’s one of the worst things ever put to record.

John Lennon – “New York City”

One of Lennon’s best “rockers” from his solo career.  With its fast-paced lyrics recalling tales of wandering around New York, in some ways its similar to “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, except less serious.  There’s also hilarious lyrics as well: “the pope smokes dope everyday”, and “up comes a preacher man singing, ‘God’s a red-herring in drag.'”.  Lennon seems pretty animated throughout the song and sums up his feeling about the city at the end with: “New York City – what a bad-ass city!”

 

 

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5 Great Pogues Songs

Since Winter is officially here, and the Holiday has come and gone – it’s time to listen to the Pogues.  I rank them among my 10 favorite artists, but I don’t really listen to them outside of this season.  To me, The Pogues are one of the most criminally under-rated artists – and it’s a fucking shame that they get overshadowed by bands like Dropkick Murphys, when they practically invented the genre of Irish/punk.  So here are my top 5 favorite Pogues’ songs.  (I’m sure that some people I know will say I left out tons of great songs, but so be it.)

“The Sunnyside of the Street”

The best use of Spider Stacey’s tin-whistle by far.  Shane MacGowan mumbles his way through the lyrics.  The title would suggest that it is a song about redemption, but MacGowan’s claim that he “will not be reconstructed” near the end, make it clear that he’s enjoying his life as a libertine, and the sunnyside of the street is his steadfast defiance.

“The Body of an American”

For the un-intitiated, this would be the song I would play them.  It’s got all of the best elements of a Pogues song.  It starts off as a ballad, but quickly builds into the trademark mix of traditional Irish music played by a bunch of punks.  It also contains some of Shane MacGowan’s best lyrics (which is saying a lot considering he is one of rock’s best lyricists) about an American whose body is taken back to Ireland for a wake.  The song was given a new life on The Wire, when the song was used for policemen wakes.

“Boys From the County Hell”

The Pogues have a lot of angry songs, but “Boys From the County Hell” is among the angriest.  If “Sunnyside of the Street” finds MacGowan being defiant, in “Boys From the County Hell” he’s just violent.  He and his gang take care of his “bastard” landlord by grabbing “his fucking balls”.  He’s so drunk that he can’t recall whether it actually happened or not, but all he knows is that he doesn’t didn’t have a penny.  Throughout the song you’re left wondering what makes him so pissed until MacGowan reveals that, “me daddy was a blue shirt, my mother  madam, my brother earned his medals at mei lei in Vietnam”.

“Bottle of Smoke ”

Probably the Pogues’ best fast song.  It’s all about betting on a horse named after a bong – what else could a horse named Bottle of Smoke be named after?  It also have James Fearnley’s best use of the accordion – it practically drives the song.  Never has betting on a horse sounded so glorious and fun.  When MacGowan screams in jubilee during the bridges, you wonder if the tale about betting on the horse and winning is actually true.

“Thousands Are Sailing”

The only song on here not written by MacGowan, and perhaps the Pogues’ most heartbreaking song.  A devastating song about Irish immigration, it spans different decades – from the late 1880s until to the present day.  Those who died on the long-trip across the Atlantic Ocean to Ellis Island are not forgotten as “their ghosts still haunt the waves”.  I was recently lectured by a friend of mine for thinking that the hats tipped to Mr. Cohan was Leonard Cohen, instead of George M. Cohan.  But they’re in Times Square, and Leonard Cohen is associated with New York City so it made sense to me.

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Songs for a Flood

It’s raining pretty hard in Baltimore today, and parts of the area are under a flood-watch.  A friend of mine told me that Fells Point is flooding.  I don’t find that hard to believe.  So here’s a list of flood themed songs for you today.

1.) Theme From Flood – They Might Be Giants

2.) Lost in the FloodBruce Springsteen

3.) Who Will Stop the Rain?Creedence Clearwater Revival

4.) High Water (For Charley Patton)Bob Dylan (Dylan has many choices, but I decided to go with this one because it’s one of my favorites of his latter-day career, less obvious.)

5. March into the Sea – Modest Mouse

6.) Walk to the Water – U2 (Joshua Tree-era B-side)

7.) The River in Reverse – Elvis Costello & Allen Touissant

8.) When the Levee Breaks – Kansas Joe McCoy, Memphis Minnie

9.) Down by the Water – PJ Harvey

10. Famous Blue Raincoat – Leonard Cohen

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Idol Does “Hallelujah” Again

On last night’s American Idol we had Lee DeWyze cover Leonard Cohen’s”Hallelujah” on last night’s American Idol at Simon’s request.  “We always talk about the moment. I wanted him to do something that shows he has the potential to be a great artist.” Cowell said.  Like “All Along the Watchtower” (which everyone seems to do as well) I have heard dudes at bars play “Hallelujah” and no big moment has come from that.

The idea that a great song will be a great performance is laughable.  If nothing else, my post on Bad Bob Dylan Covers reflects that.  It’s not so much the song, but what you do with it.  “Hallelujah” has now become the new standard for wannabes to think they can achieve credibility.  Whether or not Cohen views it this way or not remains to be seen, but he has definitely gotten tired of the countless covers – last year he asked artists to stop performing it.  It becomes a cliche – “oh this guy covered ‘Hallelujah’ so we must pay attention.”  The original loses its power and resonance as a result.  When I saw Leonard Cohen perform “Hallelujah” last year, I had to remind myself  I was seeing the guy who actually wrote the damn song performing it live, otherwise I might have groaned.

Some might say I’m being too cynical about “Hallelujah” and that I shouldn’t blaspheme a great song.  (It is by the way.)  And I’m all for introducing great songs by great artists to new audience.  But dig a bit deeper, and discover some of Leonard Cohen’s dozens of other great songs.  Covering “Hallelujah” doesn’t bring you rock glory.  Just ask that to the next guy  who performs at an open-mic night.

And for starters on Leonard Cohen, here’s one of my favorites by him:

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Cover Songs That Need To be Retired

I love Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”.  The Jeff Buckley version is great as well.  But after that, do we really need a version by KD Lang, Rufus Wainwright, Alexandra Burke, Kathryn Williams, Justin Timberlake among dozens of others?  This isn’t even counting the hundreds of jokers doing their own “version” during open-mic night.  

Which other songs should be retired from people covering them? (Note these aren’t songs you hate, just one you hate people performing all the time.)

Here’s mine:

All Tom Petty songs: He’s the patron saint of open-mic.  Enough already.  Discover a new artist.

All Along the Watchtower

Hey Jude

No Woman No Cry

Redemption Song

Knocking on Heaven’s Door

One (U2)

Wild Horses

Piano Man

Crossroads

Cecilia

Rockin’ in the Free World

Old Man

Sweet Caronline

What are your thoughts?

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