Andersen: Leonard Cohen and Leon Russell — poets of our time
Leonard and Leon are gone, survived by a multitude of music that spoke to a generation. The great songwriters are passing, those pivotal artists who came of age in an era of rebellion.
The Beatles stood at the top of the pyramid. The Fab Four changed the world, not only with their close harmonies and expressive lyrics, but with their iconic mop tops and a fetching sense of playfulness. The fun they had making music became a contagious celebration of what it meant to be young on the vanguard of the baby boom. Everyone I knew wanted to be a Beatle.
When I was a young teen in those formative years, rock music was the lingua franca of a rising social consciousness. Blaring through that consciousness was the war in Vietnam and the embattled fronts of civil rights, women’s liberation and environmentalism.
Born was a cultural phenomenon in concerts that were called “happenings,” where young people packed in tightly before stages stacked with banks of amplifiers and walls of speakers that had the power to shake your very core.
We could use some of that unity now as a way of mending the social fabric that has been torn and rent. But there’s no replacing that early force of music or the artists who made it with inspired genius in a truly harmonic convergence.
Leon Russell, who died last week, stands out because I listened to the first of his albums on vinyl while living in an old miner’s house in Crested Butte in 1969. Those tunes bring me back to those days like an audio time machine, rich with the laughter of friends, an abundance of long hair and the pungent smell of weed.
Leon’s 31 albums and 430 published songs comprise a vast compositional achievement. His most cherished tune, “A Song for You,” was a love poem meted out in Russell’s raspy Oklahoma drawl. His Shelter Records label became synonymous with the Russell brand of clanky piano and unique vocals.
When Russell teamed up with Marc Benno in 1968 for the Asylum Choir II album, his words gained biting social commentary, largely focused on American intervention in Vietnam.
His ode to Lt. William Calley (“Ballad for a Soldier”) is a haunting hymn for My Lai. His parody of militarism (“Down on the Base”) was rich with a cynical rancor that appealed to dispirited draft-age boomers.
As the war went grinding on, churning out body bags by the tens of thousands, the artful rockers made their guitars bleed, like Hendrix, and weep, like George Harrison. The honeyed voice of Joan Baez was angelic in her pleas for peace. Most of these moving musical messages were not aired on commercial radio and you had to know the right record shop just to find them.
“Working Class Hero,” John Lennon’s solo album (1970), was perhaps the most poignant and disquieting. The title song begs the question of how we raise and educate our children and toward what vision do we point them in their life journeys:
“There’s room at the top, they are telling you still/But first you must learn how to smile as you kill/If you want to be like the folks on the hill. A working class hero is something to be …”
Leon died within days of Leonard Cohen, the Canadian poet who communed through lilting dirges of sorrow and despair, a downer’s downer. There is magic in his art, soul in his words, a methadone-like bleakness in his melodies.
The rock and folk era is capped by Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize. Dylan’s poetry stands as a musical memorial to an age where an unprecedented upwelling of creative and technical talent germinated in the fertile medium of war and social turmoil.
The clearest voices in recent times speak in rap and hip-hop, the poetry of the streets, which echoes the Beat Generation, which fueled the lyricism of rock ‘n’ roll.
The great songwriters are remembered by those who felt solace and company in their songs, who witnessed the madly spinning world through their myriad lenses, who boogied to their driving beats — and still do today.
Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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