Saturday, 12 November 2016

A Darker Place

In 1967 I was in training to be a hippy. Actually, I didn't really like the expression "hippy" any more than did most of my contemporary, loon-clad, hair-growing, afghan coat-wearing peers, but that was the American term that was being used to describe those who didn't want to be stereotyped into the world's "straight" mould at the time.

I was only fourteen going on fifteen anyway, but since I was already a beanpole at over six feet tall I could get away with going into bars, even if I did find it difficult to justify buying a razor. I was working hard too in the field of music to not be classed as a "Top of the Pops" watcher, whilst of course always watching it in case Jimi Hendrix or Cream put in an appearance, which they occasionally did.

I knew very little about Greece that's for sure. One of the albums that everyone had to have at the time though, if they were to be considered "cool", was "Songs of Leonard Cohen", since he was serious, seen by the "uncool" as depressing and, to us budding non-conformists, cerebral. Of course looking back I see that teenagers trying to be different is nothing new and in fact we were all conforming, but simply to our own set of rules. You had to have long hair, hopefully an ex-military overcoat and at all costs when not at school or college wear loon pants. If you were a trend-setter you'd also unpick the last twelve inches or so of the outer leg seam and have your girlfriend (or more likely your mum) stitch in some contrasting material to make the bellbottoms even bigger.

The albums I'd carry around whilst walking through town in the late sixties would have included "In the Court of the Crimson King", Al Stewart's "Zero She Flies" and of course the aforementioned "Songs of Leonard Cohen". Just for the sake of it, I could also add anything by Cream or Hendrix, the first Led Zeppelin album, or "Ars Longa Vita Brevis" by the Nice.

In 1969 we all had been waiting with baited breath for two years for the second offering from Leonard Cohen. It finally came out with the title "Songs From a Room" and I for one was immediately intrigued by the location of the room in question. The album came in a simple envelope sleeve, not a gatefold, and the back cover was a full size black and white photo. This is it:

OK, so this is actually the back of the re-issued CD version with bonus tracks, but you're not supposed to notice.

There was I, struggling to be moribund most of the time (it didn't do to be seen with a smile, that would have meant you were shallow and not "aware" about the world's woes), agonising about the meaning of it all when I first thumbed through the racks in my regular record store and pulled out "Songs from a Room". That photo had me transfixed as much as did the amazing songs, which of course kicked off with the beautiful "Bird on a Wire".

Regarding that particular song, take a look at the Wikipedia page for this album and scroll down to the "Composition" section where the venerable poet himself discusses the background to the song. 

Little did I know then that eight years later I'd be standing on the harbour front on the very island where Leonard Cohen owned a house. Back then there were no motor vehicles on the island, although it had moved further into the 20th century from the time when Cohen had lived there. When I set foot on the stone harbour electricity was everywhere. When Mr. C . wrote the song they were only just installing the first phone wires, which was what inspired the song. The room in which LC's girlfriend Marianne was photographed for the album sleeve was now within walking distance. A momentous moment for me, still only 24 years old.

I wouldn't want to insult my readers, but I'm willing to assume that there are many who didn't know of Leonard Cohen's relationship with the Greek island of Hydra. He lived there for about ten years at one stage in his life. There is a piece of video that's really lovely for both Grecophiles and Lenny fans, click HERE. It's a fifteen minute film showing LC arriving on Hydra in 1988 and walking up to the house. When he arrives there are then some lovely scenes inside too. Spliced into the piece is some concert footage as well. Stick with it for the duration and I don't think you'll be disappointed. Among the scenes inside the house is a moment where one of his female companions sits at the very table which appeared in the photo on the back of the "Songs From a Room" album.

I kind of lost my taste for listening to Leonard Cohen for a decade or two (progressive rock got in the way), although the occasional listen to his first two albums, as well as Songs of Love and Hate, were always on the agenda, but I returned to his music full throttle with his 1988 album "I'm Your Man". Apart from the amazingly diverse and, for LC, adventurous musical arrangements, which even had one reviewer saying "you can actually dance to Leonard Cohen!", I was intrigued to see that the album artwork once again included a photo of the great man at his Hydra house again. 

Released in the same year that the video mentioned above was shot, I bought it on CD and there, on page 4 of the CD booklet, was a photo taken on the roof of the Hydra house...

Of course, by now I'd been to Greece a dozen times and visited Hydra three or four times too. So I was - as they say in the North of England -  "right made up" about this. 

A nice web page with info about the history of Leonard and his Hydra house is here
And another piece, from a website dedicated to LC, with a nice colour photo of his front door on Hydra is here.

Apparently, Cohen fans even hold events on Hydra, take a look here.

Finally, as far as links are concerned, there's even a touring duo (Australia-based) putting on a show called "Leonard Cohen on Hydra" and they have a Facebook page

Ever since the album "I'm Your Man" I've stuck with him, because he ranks up there with Bob Dylan and Tom Waits as one of the great lyricists of our age. His power to absorb the listener with his words is immense and I'd probably call him a poet first, a songwriter second.

His last album, released very recently when he was 82 years old, is called "You Want it Darker" and it's a triumph of lyrical genius yet again. His voice has dropped in pitch over the years and on this album it's barely above gravel-pit level, which makes most of the songs even sound more spoken than sung, albeit to a musical accompaniment, but I love it. Listen on phones and it sounds like he's whispering the songs into your ear.

The man has died, as you'll no doubt know. But for the past four decades he's done wonders for the Greek island of Hydra, raising its profile on the international stage whilst not betraying its spirit, as would all-inclusive resorts have done. 

Hearing the news today though, I can't help now but muse that the world is just a slightly darker place for his leaving it.

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