Sunday, November 3, 2013

"I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get? Hank Williams hasn't answered yet."

Leonard Cohen is my favorite song-writer of all time.  I could talk about him for hours, but one aspect of his career that I've always found wonderfully defiant is that he didn't release an album until he was thirty-five years old.  That's an anomaly in a culture that only lends its ears to musicians when they're barely pubescent, then sneers at any of them who labor on past early adulthood.  It should be the other way around.

The songs on Cohen's first album demonstrate a lyrical maturity that would, with a few peaks and valleys, remain consistent throughout his entire career.  One of the reasons for this is that when he wrote them, he'd already seen enough of life to know what he was talking about.  The majority of recording artists cut their first record in their early 20's, and what the hell do you know about life by then?  Looking back, I was barely aware of a world that existed outside of my own raging hormones until I was at least twenty-five.  As I get older, I'm increasingly glad that that wasn't the hour when I produced my life's great work.

Cohen has spoken at length about his admiration for Hank Williams, Sr.  Notwithstanding my respect for Hank, one part of his body of work that's always rubbed me the wrong way is his breakup songs.  While Cohen revels in the complexity of relationships, Hank's tragic love stories are invariably one-sided: he gave his heart to some merciless ice-queen, and she tore it to shreds.  That kind of narrative would have appealed to me ten years ago.  These days, I'd wager the ice-queen was probably a decent girl who saw that the relationship wasn't working, and had the presence of mind to break it off.  One indicator of maturity is a willingness to accept responsibility for your life rather than point the finger.  Hank died at the age of twenty-nine.  In this regard, he never had the chance to grow up.

We like our rock stars young.  That's understandable, because youth lends an energy and fresh perspective to music.  Also, when you're twenty, it's good to hear from others who know what you're going through.  But it's also good to hear from someone who's a little further down the road.  They can let you know what's coming, and on occasion, they can help you put your breakup-of-the-week in context.  At its best, music is a form of moral guidance.  By continuing to assign the very important job of song-writer exclusively to people who are just out of adolescence, we're keeping our culture developmentally stunted.

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