Bird on a Wire

What is it with this sudden Cohen revival going on in our household? I went to bed last night and Clemency was sitting up under the covers with 40 year old sheet music scattered all around her, going over the tablature for Suzanne and The Stranger . I only have to play a few bars of Hallelujah (any version will do, but Jeff Buckley works best) and she's speechless - drifting around the room with a dreamy look on her face. It's very handy, but also puzzling in a woman whose usual taste runs to Teleman Beethoven and Rachmaninov. Why is it that I woke this morning with a burning desire to listen to Rufus Wainwright singing Chelsea Hotel? Why is it that since about 5 I have been awake with the song - well, actually, not the song, but one line from the song - running through my brain? It happens doesn't it? A catchy phrase or a haunting bit of melody gets stuck in the gray matter like a piece of gristle between the teeth and no amount of mental licking and pushing can dislodge it. Perhaps it's a small and instructive window into obsessive compulsive disorder for those of us who are 9 on the enneagram and INFP on the Myers Briggs and consequently don't get too exercised by too much at all.

Perhaps it's something about the structure of music. Nobody can rest if there is a baby crying nearby: hard wired into our brains is an alarm response triggered by the particular note emitted by an infant in full voice. Perhaps there are other notes or combinations of notes that trigger some deep response for goodness knows what evolutionary reason from our ancestral past;

I heard there was a secret chord
that David played and it pleased the Lord... goes like this, the 4th, the 5th
the minor fall and the major lift,
the baffled king composing Hallelujah

Leonard Cohen's music must be full of those little gristly bits that call you back and back and back.

Perhaps it's the associations we have with the music. The first time I ever saw my wife was in a folk concert at Canterbury University. Clemency and her friend sang Bird On A Wire. They were both beautiful and they both had memorable names: Paula Feather and Clemency Underhill. It made quite an impression on an 18 year old Cohen fan but apart from the obvious Pavlovian response, there was more.

Like a bird on a wire,
like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free... a baby stillborn, like a beast with his horn
I have torn everyone who reached out to me...

The evocative phrasing of the song had already helped me give voice to a painful early adulthood, and I heard it then presented freshly and clearly and somehow innocently - but is the memory shaping me or am I shaping the memory? Anyway, the rest, as they say, is history;

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
you were famous, your heart was a legend
You told me again you preferred handsome men
but for me you would make an exception...

Perhaps it's other deeper things. Perhaps around me the Universe shifts and folds lovingly, opening itself at the prompting of the Old Wise One and in any way open to it, draws my attention to things I need to know. Wisdom breaks in on every side and leads me to herself. I am astonished at the number of small synchronicities involving birds on wires that have happened over the last few days.

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch,
He said to me, you must not ask for so much.
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
She cried to me, hey, why not ask for more?

OK wisdom. Got it. But perhaps a little clearer, for those of us who are hard of hearing?.


Anonymous said…
So much of the music of that era was great but there was so much to admire it seems it takes a lifetime to appreciate it.I am very fond of Roberta Flacks' version of Suzanne. That special time taught us to listen to the lyrics and many songs hold the very spirit of those times. I'm thinking of Don Mclean, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins and so many others. I've just found a double LP of Tommy by the Who, great in its own right. Craig.
VenDr said…
So much was good, but so much was not. I was also a great fan of Emerson Lake and Palmer. I hadn't heard any of their stuff in years but recently I got some of their music again (isn't the internet wonderful). What a load of overblown self important pretentious twaddle it was. Time has been kinder to Yes. I also managed to get Don McLean, who has aged well, at least in parts. And then there's the whole back catalogue of Bob Dylan, and Jethro Tull, and Led Zeppelin, and Jackson Browne and...