Monday, August 20, 2012

book of longing, book of mercy; or, literally the best thing ever: Leonard Cohen

I love Leonard Cohen so much.

I was a teenager when my elder siblings saw fit to gift me with Leonard Cohen's Greatest Hits.  The one with this picture on the front:

Then I fell in love with him.

I named my favorite brown corduroy hat "Leonard"; I still vow that he's the only only artist I would gladly be impregnated by, in real life, for real.  Fun fact: this happens so much to women in his life that he wrote a poem about it called "Because".  All about how these women love his words so much that they still totally want to get with his geezer self.  I am one of them.

Still not sure why, at 15 & 16, I felt intimately familiar with emotions of bitter regret when basically all I had to regret was not kissing a dude I liked, and pranking my counselors at summer camp.  Not to get all horoscope-y on you, but I think this album and its iconic existence for me  is representative of my Scorpio Moon.  Airy Libra exterior; cold deep dark emotional center!!!  On the one hand, folksy jews' harp!  On the other hand, the words, "like a baby stillborn/ like a beast with his horn/ I have torn/ everyone who reached out for me".

I have a bit of a running mental "musician tarot", and I'm still not sure where Leonard Cohen is.  Nick Cave is the Devil, I'm sure about that.  I think that Joni Mitchell is the High Priestess.  Joan Baez could be the Star; Roscoe Holcomb could be Death....or maybe Dock Boggs is Death...anyway.  Cohen could be the Heirophant, but I think he might be more like the Hanged Man.  He has some elements of self-abasement.

What's so great about L. Cohen?  Everything.  He was a Zen monk.  He's Canadian.  He has this vast detached compassionate monk's-eye view of everything, but he still believes in love and romance and sex.  Sex is a big theme for Cohen, and he treats it reverently and also self-deprecatingly.  Other themes include: religion, Western Culture, Eastern poetry, sacrifice, and Jazz Police.  Sometimes you wonder what in the heck he is talking about, and why it makes you feel so sad, or so pleasantly dirty.  He wrote a song based on a Cavafy poem!  Cavafy, an intellectual Greek poet who writes about obscure heros' purple capes.  He wrote this:

Dear Heather
please walk by me again
with a drink in your hand
and your legs all white from the winter.

One time I read a novel that was in the Oprah Book Club, and also I had seen someone perform an excerpt of it as a monologue.  The novel was White Oleander by Janet Fitch.  One of the characters is real real sad a lot of the time even though she has this great-on-paper suburban life and she sits in the bath for hours listening to Leonard Cohen and crying.  I was like, whuuut?  Turns out "Leonard Cohen is for depressed people" or "Leonard Cohen makes your depressed" is a trope; it shows up in The Devil Wears Prada novel as well, where the best friend goes into this self-destructive spiral and the main character is all "whyyy didn't I notice the signs, she was listening to Leonard Cohen!!", and it showed up in a real conversation I had at music camp two weeks ago.

I don't think I'm so depressed guys.  It's not prostrating sadness to me in his songs.  It's prostrating beauty.  As in, it drips into me like drops into a pool and I feel still and I think revelatory thoughts.  Joyfully I sing along, Take this longing from my tongue...let me see your beauty broken down, like you would do for one you loved.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Emma at Clifftop, WV

This past week I was campin out in the woods at the Appalachian String Band Festival at Camp Washington Carver up in Clifftop, West Virginia.  Foolishly I only brought one book with me, but it was a good one.  My second Jane Austen novel: Emma.  I think it's even better than Pride and Prejudice.  It made a beautiful little space of relief anytime I wanted to get away from the crowds of the fest.  I heard there were four thousand there on Saturday.

The weather was strikingly beautiful, with a full-then-waning moon, a very blue night sky, and shooting stars.  Usually evening is my favorite time of day, when there's still a bit of sun, but the moons were really the highlight of the week--supplemented and balanced by candle-light.  Fun to watch musician's faces in dim lighting, or lit from below by a gas lamp on a table.  Performer's bodies are fascinating, there are as many facial expressions and stances and movements as there are unique voices or bowing patterns or whatever.  I talked to S. for a while about the allure of instruments and their players, and part of it is surely the concentration, the unconsciousness with which the players move.  Sometimes music takes you out of your body.  One time when I was just watching and listening I thought a fiddler looked like an imp, crouched on a low camp chair, elbows flying to the rhythm of the tune, candlelight flickering around like some rite under the moon.  The tune was "Cold Icy Mountain".

Candles and moons are thematically appropriate because Anna and I filmed a video of our Lost Gander crankie, which we set up in a little clearing in the woods past the tents and got folks to walk out to holding candles and lanterns.  The crankie ends with the image of a full moon, made of paper with lanterns shining behind it, and the silhouette of a bird flying across.

Back to Emma, Emma is like a goose because the character is silly; also I sometimes imagine the Gwyneth Paltrow movie version of Emma, and it strikes me that she looks a little like a goose in some way?  In a very pretty way.

The book made me chuckle and it also made me nod and wince in recognition of those times when you realize you are kind of a twit, and worse than a twit.  And I found the descriptions of love and affection really touching and lovely.  You don't get a lot of that for real until the end of the book, but there is throughout this very sweet constant thread of non-romantic love: Emma's love for her former governess; and especially her love and care for her father. This anchors Emma's character for me because every time I became dangerously close to being totally disgusted with her, I was reminded of that obviously "disinterested" (to use the word with Austen's meaning--without selfishness) bond.  Just a beautifully crafted story.  Several times during the week, independent of thinking outright about Emma, I was struck with the thought that "people just want to care for each other so much".  Cheese factory, I know, but I'm not complaining about any positive thoughts that come my way.  Grateful old me.

Now I'm away from home for the second week in a row and I'm book-less.  But it was worth it.