Thursday, September 21, 2006


I said to Leonard Cohen, How lonely does it get?
Lenny Cohen hasn't answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
Oh a million floors above me in the Tower of Song
--Nick Cave's version of Leonard Cohen's "Tower of Song"

In Cohen's version it's Hank Williams who is "a hundred floors" above him. I won't try to decide if these numerical relations are accurate, but if they were I'd say that Nick Cave, since '97, has gained considerably, moving on up the tower to become one of the best we've got working in what I will sardonically call "the popular song."

The reason I yoke these two together is that today is Lenny Cohen's birthday (he's 72) and tomorrow is Nick Cave's (he'll be 49). Which means the least I can do is pay tribute to these two meisters of somber song, these two darkly accoutered personae of sharp perceptions and grand indulgences, of self-styled poetics that have done more to enlarge what can be done with a song lyric than anyone, short of Mr. Dylan himself.

Cohen's musical career is an on again, off again affair, but as I look at his place in my musical collection, I realize that there are periods of my life where he was the bard above all others. What odd periods of metaphysical suffering they were too; what twisted and glowing ironies abounded. Anyone who hasn't heard New Skin for the Old Ceremony should forthwith purchase it and commit it to memory, particularly if they've been anywhere near the fraying ends of a love affair. Cohen knows all about the bitter surrender of the heart to its own fantasies of love triumphant and no one has more imaginatively plumbed the areas of jealousy, compromise, despair, and the aching mysticism that focuses on the beloved as savior and persecutor in one. And if there's one song that I'd like carved on my tombstone it's "The Traitor" (1979).

Nick Cave was, to my mind, for years a kind of grotesque clown of alternative rock. Like a guy who dressed like Johnny Cash, wrote like Tom Waits, and wanted to sing like Elvis -- but, y'know, punk. But he recurrently surprised me with songs so unabashedly lyrical (check out "Sad Waters" on Your Funeral, My Trial) that I was forced to concede that he might indeed be hanging out in Leonard's Tower. Ever since The Boatman's Call ("Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere" strikes me as New Skin revisited), he has been keen to show that he's the premier song-poet of his generation (which is to say, my generation) and I'm inclined to concede that status if only for his double CD release of 2004: Abbatoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus whose "There She Goes, My Beautiful World" is one of the most infectious raves I've ever heard, coupling the likes of Nabokov ("wrote on index cards in his socks") with the New York Doll's Johnny Thunders ("was half alive when he wrote 'Chinese Rocks') and, memorably, Philip Larkin ("stuck it out in a library in Hull") and Paul Gauguin ("he buggered off, man, and went all tropical'). But don't go straight to that album. No More Shall We Part was released in 2001, the same year Dylan released Love and Theft and Cohen New Songs, and muscled its way to the top of the heap, in my estimation. Cave, unlike those other worthies, isn't reclaiming a bit of his early glory in the late glow of twilight, he's in the fine flush of his mature worth, delivering on a promise, and it's a welcome sight to see him grappling for the right to be crowned the moodiest dude of them all.

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