Today’s instalment of ‘365 Days of Writing Prompts’ tells us to write a post about the first thought we had when we woke up this morning. Well, I’m not going to do that – mainly because I can’t remember what it was – but it has prompted me to revisit something that has been sitting around in draft form for about a year now (you simply can’t rush these things).
So, after all this time, here is the next in what is proving to be a very occasional series of meditations on some of the songs I find running through my head when I wake up.
Bird On The Wire
Anything by Leonard Cohen is a major step up from ‘Doing The Lambeth Walk‘, that’s for sure, and in terms of summoning up remembrance of things past the connection is easier to make. For me, Leonard Cohen = university.
I’m not entirely sure when I first heard anything by Leonard Cohen. His first album was released in December 1967, but my Christmas present LP that year was definitely ‘Sergeant Pepper’. He appeared on British TV a few times subsequently (Youtube has an appearance on the Julie Felix show, for example), but I don’t recollect having watched any of them.
What I do remember – to this day, and never without a wince of sheer embarrassment – is that I slept through his performance at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970.
You may think that’s not too difficult, given that (a) it’s basically just a man with a guitar and a couple of backing singers and (b) it was the middle of the night. However, you need to be aware that I had also managed to sleep through the act that preceded him: The Who. How can anyone sleep through The Who?
Anyway, having missed out on that August weekend, I’m positive that I headed off to university at the beginning of October without any Cohen in my collection. Although I was, of course, fully equipped with the complete works of Bob Dylan, like any self-respecting eighteen year-old with any pretence of coolness.
So, to the best of my knowledge, my first hearing of Leonard Cohen was when a new friend (later the best man at my wedding, sadly long out of touch) put ‘Songs From A Room’ on his record player; ‘Bird On The Wire’ is the opening track on that album, so it’s quite possible it was the first piece I actually heard.
It was a revelation: this was proper poetry – and properly miserable stuff for any self-conscioulsy tortured young intellectual. Naturally, I lapped it up and soon acquired the first three albums. How comforting it was to know that, however bad things got, there was always someone worse off than yourself. And far better to have any suicidal feelings vicariously rather than directly.
The Leonard Cohen collection was also an important part of the soundtrack to the courting of the future Sugar Magnolia. We liked it, but at neither house did it go down well with the parents. There were several complaints that the mournful music emanating from the front room was spreading gloom and despondency. Apparently, this was supposed to make us change the record. It didn’t work.
After university, real life rather overtook matters in the Leonard Cohen appreciation department, and I have never added to my collection. I had a vague idea that he had given it all up and entered a Buddhist monastery so I was surprised to discover, a few years ago, that he was still churning it out and was back on the road and even had, in ‘Hallelujah‘, a major ‘hit’ on his hands. To me, though, nothing comes close to those first few albums, and ‘Bird On The Wire’ is probably my favourite (closely followed by ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’).
Nowadays, I don’t hear those songs very often – and then usually only in my head – but I’m always glad when I do.
“I have tried, in my way, to be free” – wouldn’t be a bad epitaph, would it?