Tag Archives: Neil Young

Poem or Song? – the words of Leonard Cohen

After being blown away by the power of Neil Young this week, I am now hotly anticipating the arrival of fellow Canadian, Leonard Cohen. He has not toured these shores since 1985 when this Lost Shark was just a pup and he has made no secret that this is the final international tour, so to put it bluntly, I am crawling out of my skin to see him.  

leonard-cohen

With so much talk on the site recently about poetry and song lyrics I thought it was a great time to post this interview with Cohen from 2006. With eight collections of poetry and eleven albums to his name, there is arguably no one better to talk about lyrics and poetry. Interestingly, Cohen has never really accepted the title of poet or singer:

“I had the title poet, and maybe I was one for a while. Also, the title singer was kindly accorded me, even though I could barely carry a tune.”

What cannot be doubted, is that his words have mesmerised more than four generations of fans and often defy genre. Here Cohen talks about the different tempo of poetry and song, the inescapable lousiness of growing old, autobiographical writing and claims himself to be ‘one of the fakes.’ As always he illumiates.

Read the interview here.

Then check out this ‘spoken word’ performance of A Thousand Kisses Deep from the recent tour.

Oh yes… I am crawling out of my skin!

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Neil Young & the Inauguration of Barack Obama

neil-young

 Last night I watched Neil Young live by his own maxim…

It’s better to burn out, than to fade away.

And burn Neil did. Brightly. Young is a rarity in the music world. His career has spanned more than forty years, he is the author of countless songs that are part of the very fabric of their generation and yet there is not a hint of nostalgia in what he does. Young is as vital now as he was in the early-mid sixties when he first recorded with Buffalo Springfield.

In front of a packed house, Young revealed his many layers. We saw the rock monster tearing through songs like Hey Hey, My My and Rockin’ in the Free World, the stark realist laying bare Needle and the Damage Done, the environmentalist (Mother Earth), the folk/country singer (Harvest Moon), the white noise experimentalist (A Day in the Life) and the swirling psychedlic (Cortez the Killer). And every layer was imbued with passion. The shifts in tempo never equating to a drop in intensity. Every word, every note was delivered with the conviction of an artist who still has much to prove, who is still on the journey.

Highlights for this Lost Shark were the power pop of Cinnamon Girl. I tell you, when the drums and guitars kick in to that rhythm my heart just beats a little faster.

The sweet country of Old Man. Hearing the lyric, Old man look at my life, I’m alot like you were, I could not help but feel that Neil is still the one looking forward, never the Old Man looking back.

And the raucous Rockin’ in the Free World. As Neil belted out the opening lyric:

There’s colours on the street/ red, white and blue

the significance kicked me in the head and heart. Here I was, not 24 hours after the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, listening to one of the most outspoken musicians of our time (for his comment on the Bush government check out the album Living With War) rock us into the dawn of a new era.

Young is on record as saying:

‘No one song can change the world. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop singing. Somewhere on Earth a scientist is alone working. No one knows what he or she is thinking. The secret is just within reach. If I knew that answer I would be singing the song. This is the age of innovation. Hope matters. But not hope alone. In the age of innovation, the people’s fuel must be found. That is the biggest challenge. Who is up to the challenge? Who is searching today? All day. All night. Every hour that goes by. I know I am.’

Watching Neil as he crouched like a caged tiger, sneering the lyric ‘We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand’, his faithful ‘Old Black’ guitar pointing toward the audience spitting out notes that to quote the great Woody Guthrie would have ‘killed fascists’ I was aware that this was a moment in my history I would never forget.

On the day of Obama’s inauguration I had my hands in the air singing along to Rockin’ in the Free World… What were you doing?

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Poetry and the Song Lyric

My recent post about The Wrestler featuring Springsteen’s lyrics, the interview with Max Ryan – Chains of Flashing Images and my ticket to tomorrow night’s Neil Young Concert at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre have got me thinking about song lyrics as poetry.

I like many others feel that songs are the first exposure we get to the use of poetic language, but take the lyric from many of the songs that you love and slap them on a page sans the music and they are often found wanting. Some even develop a contrivedness and lose the tone with which they are delivered by the author. In short, without the music, most lyrics lose their explosive nature.

That said, there are exceptions to the rule. Bob Dylan is the obvious example. Take the opening lyrics to Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands:

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times,
And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes,
And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes,
Oh, who among them do they think could bury you?
With your pockets well protected at last,
And your streetcar visions which you place on the grass,
And your flesh like silk, and your face like glass,
Who among them do they think could carry you?
Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands,
Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes,
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,
Should I leave them by your gate,
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

Here, the imagery and power of the words remain true to the authors vision. None of the magic is lost.

Other songwriters who have been called poets include Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young & Tom Petty. All rightlfully so. I would certainly love to lay claim to any of these lines:

Even before my fathers fathers
They called us all rebels
Burned our cornfields
And left our cities leveled
I can still see the eyes
Of those blue bellied devils
When Im walking round tonight
Through the concrete and metal

(Tom Petty, Rebels)

The ragamuffin gunner is returnin’ home like a hungry runaway
He walks through town all alone
He must be from the fort he hears the high school girls say
His countryside’s burnin’ with wolfman fairies dressed in drag for homicide
The hit and run, plead sanctuary, `neath a holy stone they hide
They’re breakin’ beams and crosses with a spastic’s reelin’ perfection
nuns run bald through Vatican halls pregnant, pleadin’ immaculate conception
And everybody’s wrecked on Main Street from drinking unholy blood
Sticker smiles sweet as gunner breathes deep, his ankles caked in mud
And I said “Hey, gunner man, that’s quicksand, that’s quicksand that ain’t mud
Have you thrown your senses to the war or did you lose them in the flood?”

(Bruce Springsteen, Lost in the Flood)

And then there are the many Australian artists including Archie Roach, Kev Carmody, Nick Cave, Steve Kilbey and David McComb to whom the label poet has been assigned.

The lyrics to Wide Open Road lose none of the fire and yearning with which McComb delivers them:

I lost track of my friends, I lost my kin
I cut them off as limbs
I drove out over the flatlands
hunting down you and him

The sky was big and empty
My chest filled to explode
I yelled my insides out at the sun
At the wide open road

(The Triffids, Wide Open Road)

And Kilbey’s opening lines from Aura continue to damn and probe:

We all came back from the war
I wish somebody would tell me the score

(The Church, Aura)

So just what is it that elevates a lyric to poetry?

For me a lyric establishes itself as a poem when the words on the page create their own music. When they have the intensity and distance that Wordsworth so beautifully described as ’emotion recollected in tranquility’. When they make my head spin and my body sigh.

So what are some of your favourite lyrics? What makes a lyric really sing?
Love to hear from you…

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