Some 40 years ago, a friend had a cassette tape of some guy belting out a song called “UP AGAINST THE WALL MOTHERF*CKER.” Tonight, Martine was telling me about one of her new exercises, which is basically a form of “planking,” but done with your back against a wall. In one of those things where time collapses — like in those illustrations of how faster-than-light speed could be possible by folding space/time — the song came back to me.
It took about 15 seconds to find it on YouTube. I encourage you all to play this really loud, over and over again.
Oh, BTW, you should read up on the anarchist group the “Up Against The Wall Motherf*ckers” — usually abbreviated as simply “The Motherf*ckers.” No particular reason why. Just a thing to do. You know… inspiration.
Every June, as the Montreal International Jazz Festival approaches, I find myself thinking about Pat Metheny. I’m not a fan. It has nothing to do with Metheny’s immeasurable talent and skills; I just don’t care very much about his medium: jazz guitar.
Back in 1989 I had not even heard of Pat Metheny until it was announced that he’d be headlining the festival’s big open-air free megashow. Oh, the city lit up and was abuzz with Pat Metheny! Posters everywhere, articles in all the cultural tabloids and so on. Not a beer was raised in any bar before someone said “are you going to see Pat Metheny?” Not for weeks did friends and acquaintances meet on the street without beginning their salutations with “are you going to see Pat Metheny?”
It was infectious. Overnight, half the city became rabid Pat Metheny fans despite the fact that many people had never heard his music. The sad truth was that – hardcore jazz geeks notwithstanding – most people knew nothing about Pat Metheny other than:
Thus began the drinking of Kool-Aid and the parade of bullshit. By “bullshit” I mean more than the conventional lies and stupidity that we endure daily; I mean a fog of groupthink and blind optimism resulting in a city-wide mass hallucination.
The more people talked about the upcoming show, the more the fog spread and the more people believed they were about to experience the most mind-blowing musical experience of all time. This was long before YouTube and Wikipedia, so we had nothing to go by except those badass pictures and the hype. Oh, the hype!
Then it was show time. The venue was Ave. McGill-College, with the stage set up near rue Ste-Catherine. 100,000 people clogged the avenue, all the way up to Sherbrooke street and beyond.
It was still daylight when the show began. Having arrived a bit late, my friends and I found some space at the back and settled in for a listen. And it was a listen, since there was nothing to see. The stage was far away and there were no video screens. If I stood up and squinted, I could see a crazy-haired guy way, way over there on the stage with his back to the audience, pondering his six-string as he plucked out mild ditties that sounded like the theme music for daytime talk shows.
On and on it went. A fuzzy-haired guy plinking dork music two football fields away. This wasn’t growling and moaning blues guitar as many people probably thought it would be; it was pure jazz guitar. It sounded like something you’d listen to in the den of your mid-century modern in 1964, while wearing slippers and smoking a pipe.
Meanwhile, the audience – at least in the back where we were – barely paid attention. People were sitting on the ground, smoking and chatting. Some were reading. At one point I noticed that the band had taken a break and the filler music didn’t sound any different. I left before it was over.
For the next few days people cautiously remarked on how the show was “awesome” and “amazing,” the way you’d describe some foreign folk dance that you didn’t understand. After about a week no one I knew ever mentioned it again.
Coda: this malformed memoir should not be seen as a criticism of Pat Metheny and his music. As I said in the beginning, it’s just not to my taste. Rather, this is a commentary on the nature of megashows, the malleability of groups, and the nature of bullshit as the cement that holds many aspects of our society together. There are a few videos from the show on YouTube (this one is typical, this one gives you a sense of the venue, and this one might even wake you up), and in them you can see that the crowd — at least the ones up front — were clearly enjoying the show. But those are probably the hardcore jazz geeks. It’s my opinion that the 80,000 people behind them had no idea what was going on and were probably wondering when the Muzak was going to stop so the show could begin.
I‘ll skip over the obvious reasons why Leonard Cohen must not die any time soon and cut to the matter at hand: Leonard Cohen must not die because people are ignoring his request for a moratorium on the song Hallelujah. Worse, most of the people who “interpret” the song seem hung up on a single variation: the mournful and funereal Jeff Buckley version.
Yes, the Buckley version is an interpretation. And it’s not a bad one. But it’s not the only one, and its tear-jerking style has thrown a weepy cloak of misunderstanding across the whole thing.
Take four minutes and watch the video below. It’s from some wacky Berlin TV show in the 1980s. Whether you like it or not is irrelevant. Pay attention to how Cohen sings the song. Look for the mournful parts. Hint: there aren’t any. It’s quirky and kind of funny, actually. It’s hard to sing with your tongue in your cheek, but Lennie does it because that’s how he wrote it.
The clincher for me was when Stephen Page, who I generally quite like, rolled out a rather thin and reedy rendition of “Hallelujah” at Jack Layton’s funeral last summer. Let me say it again: Hallelujah is not a funeral song! It’s not even a sad song! It’s a crazy, sexy, sometimes silly song about sex and orgasms. Or something like that. (Ironically, it was Jeff Buckley, not Cohen, who told Rolling Stone magazine that his version was an hommage to the “hallelujah of the orgasm.”) It’s completely out of place at a funeral. That is, unless it’s a funeral attended by people who don’t listen to lyrics; people whose emotional pushbuttons are large, fully exposed, and easily pushed by melodies.
Therefore Leonard Cohen must not die anytime soon; not until some other song comes along and replaces Hallelujah as the general public’s knee-jerk tear-jerker for sad moments. When the day finally comes that Cohen achieves equilibrium with room temperature, no one should sing Hallelujah at his funeral. Doing so will be a direct slap in the face to Cohen’s intentions with the song, and it will probably cause my head to explode.
So do Leonard Cohen and me a favour and give it up. While you’re at it, do the memory of Jeff Buckley a favour and let his mournful version live on as his version, not to be repeated and continually rehashed. But if you absolutely must sing Hallelujah then give it a whole new spin. Make it a polka, or a hip hop song. Do a Black Keys-like version, or give it the Iggy Pop treatment.
There are, by some accounts, 15 verses in the full version of the song, whittled down from – according to other accounts – the original 80. Below is a sampling of the lyrics from two different recordings by Cohen. The first version is how he recorded it in 1984, for the album Various Positions. That is followed by the lyrics as he sang them on Austin City Limits in 1988, which was released in 1994 on the Cohen Live album.
Read it and don’t weep:
Hallelujah (from Various Positions)
I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
You say I took the Name in vain;
I don’t even know the name.
But if I did, well, really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word;
It doesn’t matter which you heard;
the holy, or the broken Hallelujah!
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
Hallelujah (from Cohen Live)
Baby, I’ve been here before.
I know this room, I’ve walked this floor.
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch,
but listen, love is not some kind of victory march,
it’s cold and it’s a very broken Hallelujah!
There was a time you let me know
what’s really going on below
but now you never show it to me, do you?
I remember when I moved in you,
and the holy dove she was moving too,
and every single breath we drew was Hallelujah!
Now maybe there’s a God above
but as for me all I ever seem to learn from love
is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.
And it’s not a complaint you’ll hear tonight,
it’s not the laughter of someone
who claims to have seen the light —
it’s a cold and it’s a lonely Hallelujah!
I did my best; it wasn’t much.
I couldn’t feel, so I learned to touch.
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come all this way to fool you.
And even though it all went wrong,
I’ll stand right here before the Lord of Song
with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!
Last week, CBC Television aired part one of a two-part series about the formative years of the Canadian music industry called “The Beat Goes On.” Part 2 airs this Thursday night, September 3, 2009 (check the web site for exact times and repeat dates). I only caught a few minutes of it, as I was on my way elsewhere on the dial when I happened upon it. It was fun to see some old clips from bands that I haven’t hear from for years, but I was a bit put off by all the self congratulation and back slapping. I suppose it’s to be expected from a show that aims to celebrate the industry, but it was just a bit too glad-handy. I finally switched it off when they got to the part about Trooper.
Trooper. Before I say any more I need to explain that I had no musical mentors as a teenager. There was no music played at home (aside from country music rattling through my mother’s transistor radio in the afternoons) and few of my friends had anything to say on the topic. The one thing I did know was that most mainstream pop music bored me. But with no one to help steer me elsewhere I didn’t really have an alternative.
Which brings us back to Trooper. Trooper always reminds me of Air Cadet Summer Camp at CFB Greenwood, Nova Scotia. In particular, it brings me to the couple of summers when, at ages 17 and 18, I worked there as an employee, aka a “corporal” Those were really excellent summers in so many ways; I was away from home (I never was the type to get homesick), I was earning money, I got to boss people around (the “cadets”) and I got to fly gliders. The days were filled with the roar of airplanes, the blast of propeller wash, blue skies, and a marvelous feeling of growing independence and responsibility. The nights belonged to booze, dark corners, throbbing desire for the girl corporals, and Trooper.
Cpl. Hawco ready to kick yer arse!
The Corporal’s Mess opened every night after dinner (in military terms, a “mess” is where you eat during the day and socialize at night — in our case it was a socializing mess only). It was crude as messes go — just a dimly-lit back room in an aircraft hangar with some tables and chairs, a cheap stereo, and a couple of pop machines. It served about 30 corporals. Cadets were strictly forbidden from entering, even though some cadets were older than some corporals. But this was the military, so it was all about rank and hierarchy.
Whaddaya mean no Facebook? Nuthin’ else to do but fly these airplanes.
The drinking age in Nova Scotia is 19, and corporals were generally 16 to 18 years old. There was no booze at the Corporal’s Mess because underage drinking on the base was strictly forbidden. However, as soon as you were half an inch outside the base’s perimeter, all eyes were off and you were on your own.
The typical scenario was to rendezvous at the Corporal’s Mess after dinner, at about 18:30. Then we’d head off base by way of a path into the woods to the west of the runways. From there, a recon mission was planned to the liquor store in the town of Kingston, conveniently only a kilometer away. The next couple of hours were passed happily drinking strange elixirs while the sun set and the forest darkened. Suitably fortified, we’d head back to the base as night fell, and would gather at the Corporal’s Mess to listen to music and do whatever else boozed-up teenagers do when they’re away from their parents but still under threat of being nabbed by higher-ranked (adult) officers — or worse, the MPs (Military Police).
Rare photo! Cpl. Hawco with a girl Cpl.!
I mostly remember sitting around playing cards and board games, or just talking, while somebody played records on the stereo. The music was always bad — mass appeal songs of the day, with the occasional dips into “prog rock” which I found even more annoying than top 40 pop.
The Alan Parsons Project was played a lot. Although there were two or three tolerable songs from the APP, the tendency was to put on the album and let it play through. So I suffered. Later in the evening someone would decide it was time for dancing, so they’d start DJing danceable songs. That’s when the Trooper showed up. “We’re Here for a Good Time, Not a Long Time” was the defacto theme song at Air Cadet Summer Camp back then, because the sentiment was right. Therefore, to my ever growing annoyance, it was played many, many times. The song bugged me, and I was doubly bugged by the way everyone clung to the theme as if it was the most meaningful thing they had ever heard (sadly, it might have been).
This was always followed by the highly annoying yet anthemic “Raise a Little Hell.” Again, the sentiment was OK, but I hated the song. The chorus was somewhat energetic and catchy, but the rest of the song sounded watered down and preachy, like a lecture from someone’s long-haired and earnest dad who was instructing us on how to stand up and (oooo!) make noise. But not too much! It was like the Velveeta-ization of angry rock. And boring, musically, besides.
So, I’d flail around a bit, half a jug of Seagram’s 5-Star sloshing through my system, while I contrived ways to get this or that girl corporal the Hell out of there. Conveniently behind a nearby hangar, and facing the runways, was a World War II Lancaster bomber stuck on a post over a patch of grass. For some reason that was an excellent place to make out at night. With any luck I’d be under the bomb bay before the DJ got around to Bohemian Rhapsody, but most times I’d be stuck there in the dingy Corporal’s Mess, suffering through another round of Bob Seger or The Eagles (to this day I can recite the entire lyrics to “Hotel California,” but not because I want to). I found some respite in the Steve Miller Band, because although they were popular (and thus, I felt, bad) they at least played some cool jangly guitar riffs.
Lancaster bomber; snogging runs well into the 1970s.
I still carry a lot of good feelings and good memories from those summers. You’d think those good feelings would affect how I feel about the music, and to some extent it does. On the rare occasion when I hear a Trooper song these days I feel a bit melancholy and nostalgic. I might even get a bit thick in the throat for a moment before I reach over and change the station.