Documentary Evidence 2016 Top 10 Albums: The Departed Ones

We lost some incredible musical luminaries in 2016, chief among which were David Bowie back in January and Leonard Cohen in November. Both artists released powerfully creative albums this year, underlining talents that seemed to have been snuffed out far too early, yet both records seemed to contain clues – in coded form (Bowie’s Black Star) and more obvious form (Cohen’s You Want It Darker) – that death was just around the corner.

I wrote a piece for Clash about David Bowie that was published just two days before he was announced to have passed away. It was written from the point of view of someone who was enjoying a new phase of life whereas in fact it was already over. For Cohen, moved though I was to write the piece below, I never placed it anywhere.

youwantitdarker

In was in Toronto when the news broke that Leonard Cohen had passed away. My first reaction, upon reading the news was somewhere between surprise, anger and sadness.
It was a little like the passing of a distant relative – someone who had always been there in the background, who you’d spent some time with but not enough, and who you just figured would always be there.

The front cover of Friday’s Globe & Mail was turned over to Montréal’s renegade troubadour, and it felt like the whole of Canada was undergoing a day of national mourning. Flags were flying at half-mast and there was a general feeling of glumness about the place; this was, of course, little more than optics and coincidence, since Friday was the 11th November and Canada was set for its annual remembrance of those who had lost their lives in the two World Wars of the twentieth century, but it felt like it could have been – should have been – all for Cohen’s benefit.

I never thought I’d get into Leonard Cohen. Growing up, immersing yourself in music magazines, you alighted upon Cohen’s legacy and legendary status, but he just didn’t seem like an artist I’d ever fully understand or whose music I’d ever be able to appreciate. This was mere narrow mindedness on my part, but such is the opinionated arrogance of youth.

Cohen’s ‘Avalanche’ was covered by Nick Cave on his debut album in 1984, but it was never my favourite track on that LP and, besides, at that point (I bought that album in around 1997) it was hard enough for me just to have made the switch the Mute electronic acts to Cave, let alone try to wrap my head around the music of Leonard Cohen as well.

It would take the purchase of Rufus Wainwright’s Want almost a decade later to fully start my appreciation. Wainwright, also coincidentally Canadian, covered Cohen’s ‘Chelsea Hotel No. 2’ at a tribute concert assembled by Hal Wilner, at which Nick Cave also performed. Wainwright’s live version of the song was included on the second part of his Want opus, and completely floored me when I first heard it. It helped that it was about New York, which will always get my attention, but it was the nakedness, the bluntness if you will, of Cohen’s lyrics that truly grabbed me. The Songs Of Leonard Cohen quickly came into my possession, and I’ve been collecting sporadically ever since.

Maybe I still haven’t completely ‘got’ him, but I’ve gotten a lot closer. What you start to appreciate as you spend quality time in the company of his music is that the stereotype of Cohen as this abject, depressed miseryguts is woefully misplaced. Upon announcing his passing, Cohen’s son drew attention to his father’s incredible sense of humour. It’s the only way to explain the song ‘Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On’ and some of the verses in ‘Hallelujah’ (a song that is both spiritual and utterly out-there, something lost on the multitude of pop acts that have covered it). Sure, it’s dark humour, but it’s humour nonetheless.

There’s also this theory that Cohen was just a hapless, thwarted romantic, but that’s also incorrect. A lot of Cohen’s lyrics were unashamedly, nay eyewateringly, frank and open about sex, so one could assume he wasn’t as unlucky as his wistful balladeering would have you believe. Let’s hope the smooth-talking, gravel-voiced, romantic is having the same fun he had in his corporeal existence up there in the heavens.

The untimely death of a perpetual ladies man.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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David Bowie: Loving The Alien by Christopher Sandford (Warner book, 1997)

  
Everything I learned to love about David Bowie came from this book.

Growing up, a child of the mid-Seventies first exposed properly to music in the early Eighties, Bowie was clearly always there but he didn’t register with me. I still don’t know why. Music was always on in our family home but I don’t remember ever hearing one of his songs; I don’t recall watching Live Aid, though I can well imagine I did. I suspect my entire view of Bowie was informed by his ‘Dancing In The Street’ duet with Mick Jagger, and that view was that this was an artist for an older generation, and therefore not for me.

Like a lot of things – girls, guitars, passing my driving test – my appreciation of Bowie came very late. 1997 to be exact. By that time I’d had it drummed into my that Bowie was important, but I still figured he wasn’t an artist I’d ever fall in love with.

I was in my university bookshop one day when the arresting image of Sandford’s book caught my eye. Rather than looking at the words on the back, I instantly looked at the index to see who the book mentioned, and when I saw Erasure, I immediately flicked to that page it mentioned to find out why. In among various sentences I read that Bowie had influenced my favourite band. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but the notion that this artist who I couldn’t fathom of bring myself to appreciate had played a part in shaping either the music or imagery of Andy Bell in particular was compelling enough to make me buy the book.

In my quest to broaden my musical horizons it’s often been through academically studying texts or writings on the music before ever listening to it. If I look at my current passion, jazz, I know that this has come around twenty years after I first began reading about it, and I’d conservatively say it was ten years before I ever owned a jazz record. So it was also with Bowie, though not over such a long period.

I read ‘Loving The Alien’ avidly, fell head over heels in love with this man’s music, but never thought to go out and buy any music by him. Slightly ahead of him was the music of The Velvet Underground, another band who I had bout a book about before going out and buying The Velvet Underground And Nico. I thought it somewhat serendipitous that Lou Reed from The Velvets kept cropping up in the story of Bowie, either as a figure that inspired Bowie to create Ziggy Stardust, or on to when Bowie’s Belay Brothers pseudonym produced Reed’s Transformer. That convinced me, probably more than anything else, that I was going to go all out for Bowie further down the line.

I already knew I was going to head for Bowie’s Berlin period first. To someone schooled in electronic music, and who had already fallen for Brian Eno, and who already knew of the influence that this period had on Joy Division, that seemed like an obvious starting point. It also helped that I’d ready a great book about Berlin around the same time, and I thought that was another reasonable serendipitous matter, given how much I was interested in Berlin (I’ve still never been).

While I was reading the book, at my ex-girlfriend’s house, the BBC randomly broadcast a repeat of the Cracked Actor documentary. It seemed like too much of a coincidence. I’d built up a healthy interest in and knowledge of William S. Burroughs, though – typically – I’d never read anything by him, but I could appreciate the cut-up approach that Bowie was employing. To say I was by then enthralled by the man, his methods and his demeanour was an understatement. To my girlfriend’s father, the documentary was enough to make him leave the room in bigoted disgust. I sensed he wasn’t a fan. Too straight.

Rather than the Berlin period, it would turn out to be the song ‘Suffragette City’ that would provide the gateway to my Bowie collecting, specifically a live version from an Uncut cover-mount CD called Screenadelica, taken from the D.A. Pennebaker-directed final performance as Ziggy Stardust, a song delivered with punk-esque energy and sheer unbridled, antagonistic fun. That was May 1998 according to the date of the magazine, well over a year on from when I first started ‘researching’ Bowie. It hit my right between the eyes like Ziggy’s famous lightning bolt, and I was hooked. I played that track so many times, and at such severely loud volumes, that I’m surprised I can ever hear anything objectively today.

  
Since then, Bowie’s music has been a constant source of inspiration for me, and I find my youthful disdain for his music as somewhat risible now. My two daughters have grown up with his music, and Labyrinth of course, and, unlike I was at their age, are both well aware of just how monumentally important this man was, is, and always will be. I like to think that this has partially righted the wrong of me looking on him as too removed from my generation for me to like him.

Today ‘The Prettiest Star’ became the Black(est)star and music won’t feel quite the same again. I can only hope, as some surmised in the Sixties and Seventies, that he really was an alien after all, and has merely returned to his home planet now that his work here on Earth is done. I’d like to believe that.

David Bowie 1947 – 2016.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence