March 12, 2008

Rock on

My introduction to Leonard Cohen came probably 24 years ago courtesy of a Spanish professor who ended up teaching me a lot about the power dynamic between students and professors, though as in the best tragedies, I didn't realize I'd been taught the lesson until long after I should have implemented it. I'll have to come back to that amusing autobiographical anecdote sometime; it gets better every time I tell it.

So I woke up the other day musing rather tritely about how far Leonard Cohen would have gotten on American Idol. I guess it depends to some degree on whether by "American" we mean "Born in the USA" or from the Americas. Let's assume that his country of origin would have been no barrier. Hell, there's no point in even pursuing this ... he definitely never had "what it takes," whatever that is, just like most people who have made music that should have mattered in the last fifty years or so. Elvis, who was a hero to most, is an exception.

I don't know whether Leonard Cohen's greatest commercial success to date has been the version of "Hallelujah" Rufus Wainwright did for the Shrek soundtrack. If so, more power to both of them, but in spite of how much I liked the movie, I think the song is somehow above it. One could probably argue that the song's juxtaposition of Old Testament imagery and allusion with contemporary life makes it a good fit for the film, which derives a lot of its humor from similar juxtaposition between fairy tale an contemporary pop culture, but one would need to be smacked for doing so.

While there have been several musical constants in my life, there through thick and thin, Leonard Cohen music has been a more mercurial thing for me, attracting my attention briefly but intensely. The first time I listened to New Skin for the Old Ceremony I was driving up the interstate after--well, never mind after what--and it hit me as viscerally as an album ever has. This was twelve years after I became aware of Leonard Cohen as a result of my Spanish professor loaning me Cohen's first album ("grooming," I think they call it), and six years after a colleague loaned me The Future. (Said colleague, a tenure track guy at a place where I adjuncted, will forever be associated in my memory with The Future and Schindler's List, since I saw it with him. No story there.)

I don't suppose being anointed by the Rock Hall will get Leonard Cohen a new audience, but it's worth hoping, and it's worth checking him out ... as opposed, say, to the always irrelevant Madonna. I like the work of the other inductees well enough, but none of them is in Cohen's class, aside from the "Class of 2008."

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