Music

Leonard Cohen: Songs from the Road

Leonard Cohen continues to remind us why he's held in such high esteem.


Leonard Cohen

Songs from the Road

Label: Sony/Legacy
US Release Date: 2010-09-14
UK Release Date: 2010-09-13
Artist Website
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When Leonard Cohen announced his first tour in fifteen years, it was only natural to view it for a split second as a cash grab. The tickets weren't cheap, and the tour came on the heels of Cohen learning that an ex-business manager had embezzled the majority of Cohen's fortune. It was pretty obvious that his dire financial straits were pushing him to tour, especially since he hadn't felt compelled to hit the road in support of recent albums.

Once the shows started, though, rapturous reports made every Cohen show sound like a giant lovefest. Adoring fans filled the seats as a grateful Cohen took the stage, and goodwill from both parties met and mingled into something resembling a religious experience for many. So even if Cohen was refilling his coffers, he was giving just as much as he took. That was only fitting. Throughout his career, one of Cohen's enduring traits has been a feeling of reverence for his subjects, not to mention for the act of singing and writing and creation itself. Even at his most rakish, Cohen always gave an impression of being an equal partner in something sacred and rapturous. Maybe it's his way with words. Maybe it's that voice that sounds old and wise enough that it could have narrated the birth of the universe. Whatever the case, fans of Cohen's work have always detected something strange and different in his work.

The give-and-take of Cohen's recent tour has already been preserved for posterity on the excellent Live in London, which captured a single night at London's O2 Arena. Already a cornerstone of PBS pledge drives, Live in London felt like a perfect testament to Cohen's strengths as a songwriter and performer, so why do we need another live disc? Well, for one thing, a catalog as deep as Cohen's doesn't get covered in a single show: Of Songs from the Road's twelve songs, only four appeared on Live in London. For another, it's possible, just possible, that other nights held better performances. Songs from the Road (which comes with a matching DVD of its performances) sets out to collect some of the tour's most magical moments.

After listening to it, it's hard to argue. From the nimble and spirited "Lover, Lover, Lover" that opens the disc to the version of "Closing Time" that rounds it out, there's really not a bum moment to be found here. "Chelsea Hotel", anchored by soulful organ, strikes a perfect note of weathered nostalgia, and its closing line, "I don't even think of you that often," continues to kill. "The Partisan" is a showcase for both Cohen's vocals (especially the way he growls his way through the French portion of the lyrics) and Javier Mas's amazing bandurria playing. "Famous Blue Raincoat" strikes with a delicate blend of accusation and forgiveness, aided by Dino Soldo's light saxophone work. Throughout the disc, it's striking how Cohen makes you not only reconsider songs you might have dismissed as lesser efforts (such as "That Don't Make It Junk" from 2001's Ten New Songs), but also marvel at how songs you've heard a thousand times before (such as "Hallelujah", "Suzanne", or "Bird on the Wire") continue to offer something new.

I suppose there are some Cohen fans who cringe at the smoothness of his live sound, its instrumental edges sanded down so that it's all on Cohen's shoulders to summon forth the shadows, but that seems a little silly at this point. Cohen hasn't trafficked in brooding folk in at least twenty years (brooding pop, sure...). If anything, Cohen's current sound can be seen as a recognition of the openheartedness and humor that's often been overshadowed by his darker material. With Songs from the Road -- which, along with Live in London, comes pretty close to capturing all the Cohen catalog you might be craving -- we continue to get a fuller portrait of one of our best and more enigmatic songwriters.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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