by John Kendall Hawkins
A few days ago, I listened to a podcast titled, "Ballad for Two Friends: How Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan built a tower of song," produced by the online Jewish cultural magazine, The Forward. It brings together in conversation Forward culture reporter PJ Grisar; Larry "Ratso" Sloman, author and musician; Denise Sullivan, music journalist and author of Your Golden Sun Still Shines, a collection of San Francisco stories; and Avery Hillman, singer-songwriter, who not only talks Dylan-Cohen, but performs cover songs of Dylan and Cohen. She's got an album out -- Songs of Sonoma Mountain -- that you can sample here.
The Forward had been the oldest print outlet for Jewish news, opinion and culture pieces, dating back to 1897, with the banner slogan: "Jewish. Fearless." As its name implies, it was largely an espouser of progressive views, and it seems unlikely that a publication so old and venerable would fold, but its print edition did in 2019, citing diminishing revenue streams. Last year, Columbia Journalism Review had a piece that told the story of its demise, "What happened to The Forward? How America's Jewish newspaper lost the left" by Mairav Zonszein, an Israeli-American freelance journalist who covers Israel and its role in US politics.
In a 2019 fundraising drive, subscribers received an email from Forward management "rebuking Congresswoman Ilhan Omar with the message, 'If you're only fighting anti-Semitism on one side, you're not really fighting it.'" They followed that up with an assault on another member of the Congressional Squad team, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who had written and "compared immigrant-detention centers to concentration camps, The Forward had more coverage of how Jews on Twitter responded to that characterization than of the conditions themselves." Oy. The funds dried up, as rage poured out. The print edition closed down. It exists online only now. A quick survey of its current contents indicates that it continues to maintain a broad progressive agenda.
The podcast, hosted by PJ Grisar, is a mildly interesting hour of anecdotes, fan praise (through live comments), rehashed insights, and live music -- covers of songs of the famous balladeers. Full disclosure: I was in a cranky mood; I'm dealing with issues. Maybe I wasn't as attuned as I like to be for these kinds of encounters. But it was like sitting in on friends -- accomplished as writers, singers, and hippies -- brought together to talk about these musical heroes, but didn't come prepared to rock the casbah. At times it seemed like they all had just woken up in their zoom rooms and were still processing their first cup of coffee. Ratso may have had the DTs. Or the ganja equivalent. Or anti-Nam flashbacks.
But it was Larry "Ratso" Sloman who drew my interest to the program. His relationship with Dylan and Cohen made me want to hang around to see what he had to say. I was pre-rapt, you might infer. Sloman, in addition to being the former executive editor of National Lampoon -- one of favorite magazines -- has written lots of compelling books, including one of my favorite books on the '60s counterculture, Steal This Dream, a kind of Studs Terkel-esque oral-history romp, which, had it been adapted for film, would have shamed Aaron Sorkin's Borat-as-Abbie 2020 waste of my fuckin time (see my beloved review). Steal This Dream would have been worth stealing just for the anecdote about Timothy Leary (LSD) claiming that Mr. Belonging and Peak Experiences -- Abraham Maslow -- was a gloomy Gus and never had a peak experience himself; then, rubs salt into the wound by implying that Abbie was providing Maslow's daughter, both students at Brandeis, plenty of peak experiences. I may have wet myself.
Alas, this podcast get-together, also, had no peak experiences, although it remained pleasantly afloat, at times, with Ratso's reminisces about the road experiences of each artist in question. But host PJ Grisar wanted to stick with his agenda: the shared Jewish heritage of the two and how it's reflected in their music; the speed at which they composed music; their love for each other; life on the road for a musician in his 80s; and, What's Your Favorite Song? All potentially meet areas for interrogative persuasion.
But, we know they are said to have been fond admirers of each other's work, and it would have been nice to hear an anecdote about how they shared a cab one time, got in a beef, and ended up beating the lyrical snot out of each other, the fuckin' cabbie putting out a bootleg a year later. We find that they both lied about the speed at which they composed music: Cohen, gasp, took more than the two years he told Dylan, in a Paris patisserie one morning, both hungover, to write "Hallelujah"; Dylan, we're told, spent more than 15 minutes writing "I and I," off his Infidels album, but I thought maybe 5. (Ratso did pipe up here and tell of one of the few times he "yelled" at Bob, after discovering that the highly critically regarded "Blind Willie McTell" had been left off the album.) What's Your Favorite Song? Do my ears doth deceive me, PJ? Dylan: "Love Minus Zero." Cohen: tie between "The Future" and "Everybody Knows." I definitely like it darker.
As for their mutual affection, expressed often". PJ offers up a Dylan assessment of Cohen's oeuvre:
When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius. Even the counterpoint lines -- they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs. As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music. His gift or genius is in his connection to the music of the spheres.
This is wonderful. But there was also that time, Ratso relates, when Dylan showed up at Cohen's dressing-room door after a concert, and when Cohen was told that the Bard from Duluth was waiting to see him, Cohen is said to have said, "So?" Isn't that a kick in the face? as Nancy Sinatra would say, her boots not the only thing walking.
Okay. But Denise Sullivan saves the day, reminding the podcast listener that Cohen also called Dylan "a Picasso". More specifically, Sullivan says,
I came across many quotes where Cohen referred to Dylan as a genius. At several points, he says he's like the Picasso of song. I kind of take that to mean that he's a master of many different types of song, you know? Cohen called it like 'the rough hewn and the polished and everything in between' and his fluidity of moving between types of songs through the years. So genius in that regard.
I can relate to the Picasso ref myself, not because I'm a masterpiece, but because at times I'm the very picture of annihilation -- horse fire screams, cubist thinking, the world as representation.
I thought PJ missed a golden opportunity to bring out fruitful connections in the religious thinking of each artist. To highlight their Jewish heritage (and the Jewish heritage of most of the Western world -- whether some of us like it or not: We're all Jews. Hitler, in this framework, was self-loathing), it would have been potentially enlightening, even in such a short podcast, to have talked Abraham, from the POV of songs they've written. At the end of the podcast, singer-songwriter, Avery Hillman, favors us with a cover of Cohen's "Story of Isaac," a kind of update of the old Mono Trickster's fun with Abe from the victim's POV.
It might have been a good idea for PJ to have led a discussion that compared "Isaac" to the amazing opening lyrics of Dylan's "Highway 61." Check out the opening lyrics of the song:
Two victims, Abe and Isaac, and all of us later, after Abe got revenge by inventing the three competing religions from the same root. No wonder there was a sigh of relief when Sheriff Nietzsche, and his posse of relativists, announced that they had blown out that Loki-like god's brains, execution style. And ain't the world better for it? Come on, PJ, this is meat.
As for two old goats being on the road at 80 years old. Well. This would have been a good chance to consider further the wonderful silver lining of having not one, but two Wandering Jews going around spreading the blues, seemingly endlessly. The old tale goes that on his way to Calvary a hawk-tooey spitter said something so crass and mean to fellow Jew, Christ, that our Messiah stopped in the tracks of his tears and condemned the f*ck to wandering Earth until the Second Coming -- and then back to lachrymose morality and salvation suffering. That would help explain Dylan's conversion and 'eternal recurrence', as well as Cohen's "Hallelujah" and the menacing darkness of his last years. (For a little gender balance, we could have thrown in "Jewish" Taylor Swift, who, too, goes on and on, although I can't remember any of her songs.) But did PJ go for this Rhinegold? No. Nyet. Nuh-uh. And you call yourself a member of the world's premiere diaspora?
In the podcast, The Road comes up. PJ tells us that Cohen was "forced" to go on the road again because his manager had skedaddled with his old-age money. This is unchallenged, and sounds a bit like mythmaking, but who knows? The podcast doesn't address this issue. But it brings up an interview in Rolling Stone a while back, when his back-up singer (and co-writer of "Everybody Knows") Sharon Robinson told the hip zine,
About 10 years ago, he turned to her when his dwindling finances forced him back onto the road at age 74 for a tour that ultimately stretched across five incredible years.
She goes into intriguing detail:
I think it's safe to assume that he wasn't expecting to be touring again. But in 2007, we were working on some material that wound up on Old Ideas. He came over to me one day and said, "Sharon, I think I'm going to have to go on tour. My bank accounts are empty. I went to the ATM and I couldn't get any money out." That came as a real surprise, not something he was prepared for or expecting.
But this information wasn't in the podcast.
Robinson adds in that RS piece that Cohen, never a big hit-maker, was terrified that he had no viable audience to sell tickets to. Boy, was he ever wrong. Robinson says,
Obviously, it did work out well and the audiences just grew and grew. But he wasn't a pop star by any stretch of the imagination. That was the irony of the whole thing. Eventually we were doing arenas.
Full disclosure: I had a chance to see Leonard in 2009 when he came to Australia and played at a winery not far from my home and I let my late-days agoraphobia have its way with me. I kicked myself. And now I have a bum knee.
Also not brought in, except for the brief allusion to the Paris hotel exchange about the speed of their song conquests, was Ratso's wonderful book, On the Road with Bob Dylan. Given the years and years that Dylan has been on the road you'd have expected a little more podcast splash in this area. But no. I would have settled for an explanation of the lyrics for the road tune, "When I Paint My Masterpiece" -- Newspapermen eating candy /Had to be held down by big police -- WTF does that mean? Or even a more soul-settling understanding of Dylan's "Country Pie" (Raspberry, strawberry, lemon, and lime / What do I care?/ Blueberry, apple, cherry, pumpkin, and plum / Call me for dinner, honey, I'll be there). Is this multiculturalism at work? I wondered. But I held my tongue. Another opportunism missed, PJ.
There was a brief gander into Dylan's early career struggle with identity, but not enough to satisfy this leftover from the lost '60s generation. Remember Dylan in the Kris Kristofferson vehicle (FWIW, I did go see KK sing when given the chance -- Sunday Morning Coming Down probably as bleak as anything Cohen ever wrote, if you know where KK's coming from), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, given a surprising 7.3 IMDB rating, and featuring Bob Dylan's soundtrack ("Knockin On Heaven's Door"), and Bob himself cameo-ing as Alias:
One of the gunslinger's asks him, "What's your name?" "Alias." "Alias what?" "Alias anything you please," quoth our moody bluesman in frontier leather. Check it out:
This could sum up his attitude to the whole lot of us labellers and pigeon-holers. It helps us make sense when he later eschews the "opportunity" to accept The Conscience of a Generation. I thought that the film depiction of Dylan's multifacets, I'm Not There (2007), captured this rejection well. Remember the scene where Pete Seeger almost loses his mind at Newport trying to figure out how to shut it up, shut it up, shut it up?
Jesus, first Dylan drives Pete crazy -- and now Cate Blanchett! Where will it all end?
But the film also reminds us, kind of obliquely if you ask me, that Dylan explicitly told the Left what to do with its mantle even earlier, just after JFK was assassinated ostensibly by Lee Harvey Oswald and Dylan, at a Civil Rights ceremony dinner thingy in his honor, tells the "old" fucks what to do with the cheese.
Well, anyway, the podcast didn't refer to any of this. However, there were some pleasant revelations. We're told that there's a new Leonard Cohen documentary out, Hallelujah, A Journey and a Song (2021). In addition, our ears discovered Cohen's dark new music video, Puppets. You, me, them, and who's the puppet master? And we learn that the Bob Dylan Center will be opening in Tulsa next May. Cool. I always wanted to travel to Tulsa to mingle with the Okies. That's cool. But getting back to Ratso, we learn that he's got his own fresh album out, Stubborn Heart. (Reminds me of the Dylan line, But my heart just won't give in from "Standing in the Doorway" off Time Out of Mind.)
There's some intriguing tracks on Stubborn Heart. I can't for the life of me understand how Ratso could do a cover of "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" that includes female vocals. (But Ratso has promised to tell me why in a future interview.) His duet with Nick Cave, "Our Lady of Light," is a nice little number, well-written, beautifully sung, and a good entry to the album.
Also, though time was limited, it would have been nice hear about to Dylan and Cohen's politics more. There's some mention. With Dylan, his "Hurricane" song is discussed, and it's valuable for Ratso to tell us that Dylan actually went see Rubin Carter in jail. But it might have been more entertaining had Ratso's National Lampoon years been allowed to briefly take the floor. I can still remember that great spin on Dylan being "arrested" for know more about the New Jersey murders than the cops and Ruben. Check it out:
Funny stuff. Here's the legible version at Archive. Org.
It's a brief get-together. For Dylan and Cohen aficionados it may offer less than required for sustenance. As I indicated, I was (and am) cranky, but, as you can see, I got some vibes and good associations out of it, and I'm confident that the reader of this review will feel similarly engaged should he/she choose to listen in on the podcast with song, available on YouTube.
(Article changed on Nov 20, 2021 at 2:06 AM EST)