Until I was about fifteen years old I never realised that you could make music up as you go along. I mean, who knew? Virtually all my exposure to music was through records or the radio – which just played records. ‘Pop’ music came in neat two and a half minute packages that always sounded exactly the same – because it was exactly the same. Even classical musicians were reading from a script – albeit one that was quite incomprehensible to me.
Then, through a combination of John Peel’s radio programmes and schoolmates who were rather more ahead of the curve than me, I started listening to groups that not only played different music – the blues, predominantly – but also had this magical ability to do it on the hoof, as it were.
And the greatest of these was Cream: the short-lived supergroup featuring Eric Clapton (so that ticks the box on another very strong ‘honourable mention’ contender) but also, in my view, the greatest rhythm section that ever trod the boards. Eric provided the brilliant pyrotechnics of course, but he was given the freedom to do so by Ginger Baker on drums and, especially, Jack Bruce’s bass guitar.
Cream made me listen to music properly and to glean some appreciation of how the separate instruments fitted together to make the whole greater than the sum of its constituent parts. Of course there’s no ignoring Clapton’s lead, but this track in particular – from the double album ‘Wheels of Fire’ – made me appreciate that great music isn’t just about the fireworks. Listen, if you will, to the bass guitar burbling away in your left ear.
It made me think that I really wanted to be the anchor rather than the showman. Except that I couldn’t play bass either.
Just as The Beatles were the soundtrack to my (senior) schooldays, so Leonard Cohen is synonymous with my three years at 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 subsequently appeared on British TV a few times, 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. So, 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. To the best of my knowledge, therefore, my first hearing of Leonard Cohen was when a new friend put ‘Songs From A Room’ on his record player.
It was a revelation: this was poetry – properly melancholic, introspective stuff for any self-consciously tortured young intellectual. Naturally, I lapped it up and soon acquired the first three albums. It was a great comfort to know that, however bad things got (it would be more accurate to say however bad you told yourself that things got), there was always someone worse off than yourself.
The Leonard Cohen collection was also an important part of the soundtrack to the courting of the future Madame. We both loved it, but he didn’t go down well with the parents at either house. 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 was vaguely aware that he gave it all up and entered a Buddhist monastery for a few years but came out of this meditative retirement when his manager stole all fhis money, Now, sadly, it’s too late. To me, though, nothing comes close to those first few albums, not only for the music itself but also its ability to summon up remembrance of things past.