Category Archives: Music

Books: “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah’” by Alan Light

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How many times have you heard a song and said, "I wish I'd written that"? With me it doesn't happen very often; sure, the royalties on "Call Me Maybe" must be off the charts, but I rarely hear a song I think is clever and moving enough to wonder what was in the writer to create it.

Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is one of those beautiful songs I want no part of after reading Alan Light's book about it, The Holy or the Broken.

Cohen's been so tortured by the song throughout his career that he had his agent send the author an email giving his blessing to the project, but the artist himself wasn't going to be part of it.

It took Cohen years to write and finally record the song – he put 80 verses together before finally getting it together in the studio in 1984, and when he finally did, his record company said the album he put it on was awful and refused to release it.

So it languished, again.

Cohen is one of the tortured writer set. Every detail has to be perfect. He's spoken in interviews, Light writes, about being drunk in his underwear on a hotel room floor with papers scattered around him. This is not romance; these are demons.

The version many people are familiar with originates with Jeff Buckley, but the song's history takes a stop-off at John Cale, formerly of The Velvet Underground, first.

Listen to Cohen's version (above, top). It's road-weary. It's weathered. It's sarcastic. On the whole, it's more pessimistic than optimistic.

Cale's version (above, lower left) has the same weathered, pessimistic feel. He is a few years younger than Cohen, but still someone who has been around and lived some life. He first did the song for a Cohen tribute record. When he asked Cohen to send over a lyric sheet, he came home to 15 faxed pages on the floor, with all 80 verses. He picked five for the tribute album, and it was that version that Jeff Buckley (above, lower right) first heard.

You can see how his simple accompaniment derives from Cale's, along with his selection of verses. But Buckley is young – eternally; he died while taking a swim on the way to a recording session – and his version is optimistic and romantic. And there's another thing: Buckley was a perfectionist. If you're familiar with the studio recording he did for "Grace," you know it starts with a breathy sigh. You could certainly interpret that as intimacy, given how sexy his version is. But, Light writes, it was a sigh of exhaustion. They'd done so many takes that night, he was beat.

The song, though, probably would have kept languishing if it weren't for two things that both happened in 2001: The September 11 attacks in the U.S. and the animated film 'Shrek.'

John Cale's version made it into 'Shrek' (Rufus Wainwright is on the soundtrack because Dreamworks had the film and Wainwright), and Jeff Buckley's started appearing over photo montages on the music networks.

And all of a sudden, it was everywhere. It became the default overlay for tragedy montages on TV dramas and sitcoms and in films. And everybody decided they had to cover it, and they had to do their best Jeff Buckley. Here are Wainwright, Allison Crowe and John Bon Jovi:

And somewhere along the line this happened, and Bono – who loved the sardonic humor in Cohen's version when he first heard it – nearly destroyed the song forever, on a 1995 Cohen tribute album.



Oh, my, Bono, what have you done?

It's also now appeared on many seasons of "American Idol" and "X Factor," because, well, it takes some concentration and some range to do the Jeff Buckley version, which is really what's done these days.

My take on the song: I love Buckley's guitar intro; it has such an incredible resolve after a minor buildup. But Cohen's closing verse isn't done nearly enough. It goes like this:

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel so I learned to touch
I've told the truth; I didn't come to fool ya
But even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

My take on the book: This is great if you're a real music nerd. Really, it's not for the weak, the casual fan or the "Pop-Up Video" crowd.

One more version – one of my favorite covers, even if it's not iconic, to go out with.

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12/03/2013

What do you have to offer your heroes?

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You can let that video run while you read this; it's primarily audio. To sum up so you don't have to check for the visual cues to figure out what's going on, Usman Riaz is a 21-year-old percussive guitarist. He plays the first song. He learned the art by watching YouTube videos of one of his heroes, percussive guitar master Preston Reed. Reed plays the second song. The third song is both of them playing together (if you know anything about playing music, that'll shock you when you hear it). There's a little chatter, then a 3-minute jam session between the two of them.

That Riaz can stick with Reed and even make it fun for Reed is just fucking awesome.

It's easy for most of us to name some people we might call "heroes" or "inspiration." It's another thing altogether for us to be able to offer them something if we ever have a chance to meet them.

I may not be writing professionally at the moment, but I'm still a writer. But what could I offer Tom Waits, or Chuck Palahniuk, or even someone like Chris Guillebeau? I'm a decent conversationalist. I know my way around town and could certainly hold my drink even with anybody. I doubt I could give them seven solid minutes in co-performance with them. Which means I'm the one who's lacking and need to grow.

That's not a slam on myself there, it's just a recognition that I'm still a work in progress.

What about you? Think about who you count among your heroes, why you do that, and what you're doing to emulate them. What do you have that you could offer them to keep them interested for 10 minutes – alone, or in front of an audience in their chosen field?

16/07/2012

Who are your favorite writers? Why?

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My favorite writers are songwriters.

This is, in no small part, because I am also a songwriter (and I've dabbled in performance poetry).

When I sit down to write or edit, I either have Mozart in my ears (I have a CD with his 40th and 41st symphonies on it that has irretrievably increased my productivity with frequency), or I have Tom Waits graveling in the headphones, hoping that maybe something will rub off on me. This small bit from "The Ghosts of Saturday Night (After Hours at Napoleone's Pizza House)" is what puts me over the edge.

...a solitary sailor who spends the facts of his life like small change on strangers paws his inside P-coat pocket for a welcomed 25 cents and the last bent butt from a packet of Kents as he dreams of a waitress with Maxwell House eyes and marmalade thighs and scrambled yellow hair.

. Yeah, that.

I'm also a big fan of the late Bill Morrissey, an unassuming, small-framed New Englander who died in his 50s right about this time last year. In addition to recommending to me one of my favorite guitar pickers, Mississippi John Hurt, he wrote a book called Edson, which is one of my favorites because it feels right – like four feet of soft powder on a grey Sunday with a fire in the fireplace and the power out and no chance of getting to the grocery store so you're stuck with the last of the week's wine and Oreos.

Local Twitterer Jason Mintz recommended I read Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I've only read him in translation (he writes in Spanish), but if ever ink spoke like satin sheets, Zafon has found the recipe.

You'll also see in my current reading list I'm back to Hunter S. Thompson. Most of you know I'm a recovering reporter, and Thompson taught me one really important thing that a lot of reporters still won't admit: if I'm part of a story and I still think it's a story, it is a story. "I" and "we" are even more powerful than "he" and "they" because I can describe how someone else thought something went, or I can describe how I saw it. Guess which description is going to come out more interesting reading? The second, of course.

Who should I be reading? You tell me!

10/07/2012

Soundtrack

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I'm off-grid at the Finger Lakes Wine Festival this weekend. Here are 10 songs with no particular reason other than I like them (just happens I must be in a male songwriter mood, I guess). Also, check out some of Mike Dobbs's favorites.

1. Tom Waits, "Step Right Up" (With tuning!)

2. Michael Franti & Spearhead, "What I Be"

3. Jackopierce, "Vineyard"

4. Spring Heeled Jack, "Jolene"

5. Seth Horan, "Something Pretty" (You won't see that hair at the CNY house concert!)

6. Cheb Tarik, "L'histoire"

7. James O'Brien, "After the Prom"

8. Hank Williams, "Honky Tonkin'"

9. Ellis Paul, "Take All The Sky You Need"

10. Leonard Cohen, "Hallelujah"

16/07/2010

2010 Shaun Luu Horror Fest

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I got this press release regarding the 2010 Shaun Luu Horror Fest, which will raise money for Golisano Children's Hospital and the Westcott Community Center. Last year, the festival kicked off a successful $10,000 campaign to raise money for a nursing station at Golisano Children's Hospital. Hopefully you'll be able to get out and support the event!

***

The 2010 Shaun Luu Horror Fest will take place Friday, June 11th to  Sunday, June 13th, with all raised funds to benefit the Westcott Community Center and Upstate Medical University and Golisano Children's Hospital.

The 2009 Shaun Luu Horror Fest completed a pledge of $10,000 to Upstate Golisano Children's Hosptial in memory of Shaun Luu.  Shaun died in 2005 at 23 after a long battle with brain cancer.   The horror movie/ music festival raised $5,840, which included a $1,775 contribution from the Palace Theatre, a host of the film festival.  The latter gift represents a portion of the proceeds from the theatre's monthly "Brew & View" 35mm themed film series.

This year’s events kick off at 6:30 pm on June 11th with a six-band bill at the Westcott Community Center, followed by horror films at The Palace Theatre from 12 pm, Saturday, June 12th until 5 am Sunday, June 13th.  The horror fest wraps up with an all-day music fest at Monirae’s starting at 12 pm, followed by an afterparty hosted by the Half Penny Pub in Armory Square at 12 am, June 14th.

The following is a detailed schedule of events:

DAY 1

Friday June 11th @ Westcott Community Center - benefit for Community Center
6pm doors open/ all ages/ $7
6:30pm - music

LIKE WOLVES http://www.myspace.com/likewolves666
MANDATE OF HEAVEN
END OF THE YEAR http://www.myspace.com/endofayear
MISTLETOE http://www.myspace.com/mistletoe315
TIGER FLOWERS http://www.myspace.com/tigerflowersnyc
COWARDS http://www.myspace.com/wearecowards

Westcott Community Center
826 Euclid Avenue
Syracuse - (315) 478-8634

DAY 2 -
THE 2010 SHAUN LUU HORROR FEST:

SATURDAY JUNE 12th
@ The Palace Theatre
2384 James St. Syracuse, NY

All movies on original 35mm film!
All ages matinee, Noon-3:30pm, $8.00
INDIANA JONES AND TEMPLE OF DOOM
THE GATE

Adults 16+, 4:30pm, $20.00
DEATH RACE 2000 (Corman version)
HENRY PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER
STREET TRASH (Q & A and FIRST ever Live Commentary over 35mm print with Writer Roy Frumkes)
TORTURE DUNGEON (1970 Andy Milligan film)
EVIL DEAD (Official GRINDHOUSE TOUR DATE)
WEIRD SCIENCE
HALLOWEEN 3 SEASON OF THE WITCH
ALIENS DEADLY SPAWN

Planning to come to all 10 movies? Get in for just $20!

This is a tentative. Films may run ahead or behind schedule. Use this as a general guide.

NOON - 2pm : INDIANA JONES TEMPLE OF DOOM
2:00-3:30pm : THE GATE
3:30pm - 4:15pm : DINNER BREAK
4:30 - 7:30pm : DEATH RACE 2000 (1975)/ HENRY PORTRAIT OF SERIAL KILLER (1986)
7:30pm - 7:45pm : Break
7:45pm - 10:00pm : STREET TRASH/ TORTURE DUNGEON (1970)
10:00pm - 10:15pm : Break
10:15 - ? : EVIL DEAD, WEIRD SCIENCE, HALLOWEEN 3, DEADLY SPAWN

DAY THREE
Sunday June 13th - 100% benefit towards Golisano Childrens Hospital and Upstate Medical Center
@ MONIRAE'S
688 County Route 10
Pennellville, NY 13132-3314
(315) 668-1248

( 16 BANDS ONLY $10)
Doors open at noon/ all ages w/ re-entry
first band 12:30pm. Show goes down at 11:30pm
Band line up from headliner to opener

ANOTHER BREATH http://www.myspace.com/anotherbreath
GHOSTxSHIP http://www.myspace.com/ghostxship315
THIS IS HELL http://www.myspace.com/thisishell
ARCHITECT http://www.myspace.com/architectkills
RINGWORM http://www.myspace.com/ringworm13
FREYA http://www.myspace.com/freya
THE LAST SEASON http://www.myspace.com/thelastseason
WALK THE LINE http://www.myspace.com/walktheline315
IRON RAIN http://www.myspace.com/ironrainchicago
ROSETTA http://www.myspace.com/rosetta
EAST OF THE WALL http://www.myspace.com/eastofthewall
FOUND DEAD HANGING http://www.myspace.com/founddeadhangingBTG
PUBLIC ASSISTANCE http://www.mediafire.com/?iwneiyon4kz
EBONY SORROW http://www.myspace.com/ebonysorrow
LUCERTOLA http://www.myspace.com/lucertoladoom

STRONG WILLED http://www.myspace.com/strongwilledxxx

POST SHOW AT HALF PENNY PUB SUNDAY NIGHT
Sunday Night MIDNIGHT- 2am Post Party @ The Half Penny Pub - 21 and over FREE SHOW )
ADELPHIA http://www.myspace.com/musicbyadelphia
Mayflower http://www.myspace.com/mayflower
Night Owls

The Half Penny Pub
321 West Fayette Street
Syracuse, NY 13202-1201
(315) 478-3091

12/05/2010

The truth: The Internet is a great big rumor mill

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I tend to check Google Trends in the morning. It's one of the things I do in terms of a morning coffee ritual when I get to work. For those not familiar, it's a list of the things people are searching for on Google; typically it's updated every hour or so, but sometimes it goes on for a few hours before it updates. Whatever.

Frequently, it's people wanting to watch one of last night's TV episodes. There's usually something that's been featured either on The Today Show or Good Morning America. Sometimes there's sports scores. And sometimes it's people in a large enough market searching for school closings.

And then sometimes it's dead celebrities. The Internet loves to kill people. Failing that, maybe the Internet is retiring athletes mid-season.

Tuesday morning, there were two. The top search was justin bieber dead; the second hottest search was casey johnson dead.

Being a pop-culture-ophobe (OK, not really, but I'm pretty dim when it comes to this stuff), I'd never heard of either of these people. Which means that I had to wade through the search results to figure out who they were, never mind if they were actually dead.

Bieber, it turns out, is a 15-year-old kid who is some sort of pop sensation or something. He appears to be living and breathing and making teenage girls cry with his sensitivity instead of in mourning. This, apparently was not the first time the Internet killed Justin Beiber (via WikiAnswers:

Casey Johnson is the great-great-granddaughter of one of the founders of the Johnson & Johnson Company (if you've ever read a label on anything in a bathroom, you've heard of them). She's also the daughter of Robert Wood "Woody" Johnson, the owner of the New York Jets.

Casey Johnson is, in fact, dead. She died this week at the age of 30, and at this writing, we're not sure why.

So, what did we learn from this? That Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes was correct: Newspapers (and other traditional news outlets) are going to turn into truth filters.

While we'll get most of our news from places like Twitter or Facebook (not necessarily those places, but places like them), where we select who we get the news from so the news will be relevant to us, we'll still need places like The New York Times to tell us whether the news we got is actually true.

The lesson: If you're not sure, check with someone you trust. Don't freak out over something you heard from someone who heard from somewhere that something may or may not have happened, which means it absolutely did.

Just like in many aspects of your life, you need to actually use your brain to use the Internet effectively.

06/01/2010

Thank YOU for 2009, and happy 2010

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Two songs to end 2009.

1. Auld Lang Syne. Robert Burns wrote this in 1788. I'm not really sure how it became a New Year's tune, but the lyrics speak to friendships across time and space. It's traditionally sung slowly, almost mournfully, as Dougie MacLean sings it here. The final verse is about raising a toast.

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere
and gie's a hand o’ thine
and we’ll tak a right gude-willy waught
for auld lang syne.

If your Scots is wanting, here's a rough translation:

And here's a hand, my trusty friend
and give us a hand of thine
we'll take a right good-will drink
for old times gone by.

I've always thought that was too somber a note to go out on; it makes me believe the friends drinking their toast are parting for too long a time. Sly and the Family Stone's "Thank You" is how I prefer to think about those around me. So, here's to you. I hope you dance into 2010.

Thanks for you. I hope you dance into the new year.

31/12/2009

Book review: The Protest Singer

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Too many books have been written about me, at too great length. What's needed is a book that can be read in one sitting.

Alec Wilkinson writes that he was worried Pete Seeger would not agree to another biography, so when the folk icon told him to write something brief and readable, Wilkinson must have been thrilled. He succeeds in the task with The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).

Seeger turned 90 this year, and while longevity runs in his family, his voice is starting to falter and, well, he's 90. He's active, but by necessity less so than in his younger years. He's still an active voice for workers' rights and for the First Amendment, and if you don't know much about him or of his music, you really should catch up.

His stepmother told him once that he had "a talent for song leading," and that he should develop it, and develop it he did. Watch that video above. He sings one line, waves his hand, and if he didn't do anything the rest of the song, no one would have noticed. That was recorded in 1993; compare it to a video taken 30 years earlier. One line, and everybody's singing.

Seeger's life story is a great narrative. He used to hop boxcars with his banjo and ride with Woody Guthrie. He was drafted during the second World War, and later wound up blacklisted by HUAC. He took a "world tour" with his family as a cover while the last of the blacklisting faded out. He built the first home he and his wife Toshi lived in, a log cabin in Beacon, N.Y. (they still live on the property, though in a house that was built later).

He has stood up for workers' rights, civil rights and all sorts of other things. Even into his 80s, he'd stand outside in the rain on the side of a highway with a sign that said, "Peace."

To me, his legacy is song and song leading. There's nothing better you can do with a guitar than get everyone around you singing, in key or out, the right words or not. Seeger truly is an American treasure, and Wilkinson's book will take you little enough time to read that you'll have plenty of energy to do more research, listen to some music, and maybe pick up your guitar and play some songs.

13/12/2009