The following article was written by Rob Marenghi. Rob also makes music (think early Dylan, Cohen, Nick Drake) and recently recorded his album ‘Lets Compare Mythologies’ with U2 producer Andrea Lepori. His stuff is on Soundcloud, Spotify, Itunes, Facebook etc… www.soundcloud.com/robmarenghi https://open.spotify.com/artist/6Hy2p5NfookdyN05PkI6hz
Songs of Love and Hate
This album is, for me, Leonard’s greatest. It is dark, rich, deep, funny, heart breaking, satirical, sarcastic, poetically brilliant… What more could one want?
The album kicks off with the incredibly powerful and dark song ‘Avalanche’. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried playing guitar like that, or singing like that, but let me tell you it is an ability reserved for the very few. It opens with an intense orchestral build up, giving one the feeling something wonderful and yet potentially terrifying is about to happen (as indeed it is - Dress Rehearsal Rag isn’t far away!). Avalanche finds Leonard in a particularly low and snarling singing key and delivery, the words dripping with venom, force and Leonard’s trademark dark humour and self-effacement. Lines like ‘I have begun to long for you, I have no greed. I have begun to ask for you, I have no need’ do a fantastic job of encapsulating Leonard’s uphill struggle with spiritual pursuits and their conflict with the sensual desire he so often wrote about. ‘I know you’ve gone away from me but I can feel you when you breathe’ show that poetic and poignant brilliance that I personally believe only he and Dylan are capable of in the musical world; perfectly describing powerful longing and acute loneliness. Longing is something Leonard conveys very well (one of his poetry anthologies is indeed called ‘Book of Longing’). This song would be a scorching and beautifully ominous opener to any album!
Next up is ‘Last Year’s Man’, a veritable short film of a song. This 6 minute epic finds Leonard at the height of his ability to weave romance and religious symbolism to create a powerful dark landscape of sensual desire and disaster. This has some of my favourite lines ever and the production of the song is so deep, rich and intimate that you feel you are in the room with the ‘stems of thumb tacs that still throw shadow on the wood.’ Leonard could, I believe, be describing either himself or Dylan in the opening lines – ‘The rain falls down on last year’s man, that’s a Jew’s harp on the table, that’s a crayon in his hand.’ Both men were Jewish, both played the harmonica (although Leonard never on record I believe) and both were seen as leading the charge of culture of the time – ‘Everything will happen if he only gives the word.’ There is wonderful triple metaphor deployed in this song, such as combining his lover’s antics with a period of war – ‘The wounded boys you lie beside, good night my friends, good night’ and ‘I was in that army, yes I stayed a little while.’ No-one can give casual sex epic significance like Leonard. The subtle orchestration and sparse backing vocals are also a delight, as is the deep dark powerful classical guitar that is Leonard’s musical trademark. This song almost reads like a verse from the old testament and, indeed, uses religious language to criticise monotheistic religion. I absolutely love ‘We read from pleasant bibles that are bound in blood and skin, but the wilderness is gathering all of its children back again.’ What a beautiful way to describe the loosening of the grip of Christianity from around our culture’s throat. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this song in a Top 50 songs of all time list. It’s probably too dark to be considered though!
Track 3 is probably the darkest song I’ve ever heard. It is a stark description of a suicidal man struggling with being at 4 o clock in the afternoon. His lodgings are falling apart, as is his eye sight, and the song is a relentless exploration of the darkest night of the soul. ‘If you can get your trembling fingers to behave why don’t you try unwrapping a stainless steel razorblade’ is particularly brutal, as is the descriptions of veins on the wrist ‘standing out like highways’. The first time I heard this song I could not relate at all to the suicidal mindset. I remember being impressed that somebody would ‘go there’ in a song, especially a folk song, where the lyrics play a more prominent part than in other genres of music. Since then I have been in that mindset for prolonged periods of time and now I am deeply grateful that Leonard ‘went there.’ That kind of brutal white-knuckle honesty is very rare and to know someone has felt that depth of darkness is a great comfort when one is down there oneself. The poetic brilliance is maintained of course and the song never becomes like a Foucault book – it’s not nihilism for the sake of nihilism. It’s a confession. The song culminates with the line ‘then the cameras pan, the stand in star man, dress rehearsal rag.’ All along the man in the song, which must have been for all intents and purposes Leonard himself, was indulging in self pity and knows all along that he won’t actually ‘do it’. It was probably this song that served as the final nail in the coffin of Leonard’s reputation as a gloom monger. I must disagree though; I’ve never found one second of his music depressing. Quite the opposite. But then our temperaments dictate what we like.
Next up is ‘Diamonds in the mine’, one of two songs that provide the album with a little comic relie. Leonard sings this like he’s chewing gravel. The line ‘I saw the man in question it was just the other night, he was eating up a lady where the lions and Christians fight’ is a particularly strong jolt to the imagination and particularly growly and gravelly. I guess a song like this was needed after the all-out stark brutality of ‘Dress rehearsal rag’. There is also more blatant instrumentation on this song and the lyrics are in general more simple and noun focused than the first three – ‘there are no chocolates in your boxes anymore and there no diamonds in the mine.’ This song is also a bit scruffy and reminds me of Dylan’s live version of ‘Quinn the Eskimo’; it has a shambolic live feel, much in contrast to the preceding three perfectly constructed pieces.
‘Love calls you by your name’ takes us back down into powerful moody Leonard. The beautiful yearning finger picking guitar part still sends into a trance when I hear it. I think this track has some of his most beautiful and memorable lines – ‘between the snowmen and the rain love calls you by your name’ or ‘you stumble into this movie house and you climb you climb into the frame.’ It comes across like a more mellow and forgiving version of ‘Avalanche’ and is, in a way, still soothing us after track three! I would recommend playing this to people who say Leonard can’t sing, as I would recommend playing Dylan b-side ‘Blind Willie McTell’ to people who say Dylan can’t sing.’ I remember once seeing a very immature and bitter interviewer, who’s opening question to Leonard was ‘What made you think you could sing?’ Leonard asked for a cigarette and replied ‘it’s not about that’. This is true, as it’s really all about can you convey the mood of the song or not, but play this song to even that interviewer and, internally at least, he would have to admit Leonard’s technique cannot be questioned when he wants to apply it.
Next up is what some consider to be Leonard’s greatest work, ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’. When you listen to it it becomes hard to dispute this claim. You really are in the room with him in this song as he writes his letter to his ‘brother’ and ‘killer’. Great production is needed to achieve this, but great production has to have masterful performance alongside it to create the desired effect. The dynamics of the finger picked guitar, the gentle wind chimes, the subtle female backing vocals, the gentle haunting lead vocal, the excellent lyrics…all these combine to make a song so intimate and poignant that the best adjective I can think of to describe it is ‘Shakespearian’. The words in this song really are truly inspired, cementing once again Leonard’s place in that elite group of lyricists. ‘Thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes, I thought it was there for good so I never tried’ is just perfect in its wisdom and confessional tone. ‘I see you there with a rose in your teeth, one more thin gypsy thief’ is truly beautiful poetry – the stark image of the gypsy, the juxtaposition of what is considered beautiful with what is considered ugly and the acknowledgement that both are temporary and in abundance. This was the first Leonard song I had to learn how to play. It called to me in a way very few songs had done before or have since.
‘Sing another song, boys’ is the second and final dose of comic relief we get in the album. The live shambolic feel and reminds me again of some Dylan songs, the lyrics too – ‘the money lender’s lovely little daughter, she is eaten she is eaten with desire, and she will learn to touch herself so well.’ Leonard’s trademark dark comedic wisdom comes out in full force in this song – ‘he stands where it is steep, I suppose he thinks that he’s the very first one’ is my favourite of these, showing again his self-effacing humorous descriptions of struggles with spiritual matters. The song begins with Leonard drawling ‘Let’s sing another song boys, this one has grown old and bitter’ and moves into the first line ‘His fingernails I see their broken, his ships are all on fire.’ So vivid, so dark, so Leonard. It’s the throwing in of songs like this that make the album eclectic and interesting. I, and I’m guessing you, am not sure I could handle 8 Dress Rehearsal Rags.
The masterpiece closes with Joan of Arc, the wonderful story of Joan’s wedding with the fire and the conversation they strike up during the ceremonial process. Joan of Arc is also mentioned in Last Year’s Man. It is rare for Leonard to repeat himself and I find this exception intriguing. Many have said this song is about Hungarian singer Nico, formerly of the Velvet Underground, and famous heroin addict. Leonard does indeed express his desire to win ‘such a cold and lonesome heroine.’ These double and triple meanings are common in Leonard’s work, as they are with any great poet, and weaving together seamlessly the horrific burning to death of Loan of Arc with a wedding story is territory reserved for very few wordsmiths, especially in the medium of music where I personally think the number of great poets can be counted on one hand. This song is the only piece on the album that finds Leonard being his own backing singer, saying each line rather crudely and flatly just after he sings it. This works well but I’m glad he didn’t do it in every song. I mean, it would have destroyed Suzanne right!
Throughout the album there is very beautiful and subtle orchestration with a variety of classical instruments. These are much lower in the mix than one usually hears them and, in this album as in much of Leonard’s work, they serve to colour the songs. The same is true of the rich and haunting female backing singers often deployed. These beautiful additions are very much in the background though; it’s all about the guitar, the voice and the words, a triptych which, any Leonard fan would agree, should always be at the forefront of his work. This is easily in my top 10 albums of all time and is easily my favourite Leonard record. If you haven’t heard it I envy the artistic experience you are about to embark on.
By Rob Marenghi