ONLY NOISE: Memento Mori – Leonard Cohen


No one really wants to be a curmudgeon all of the time – not even me. If Only Noise leans more towards the darkness one week, I strive to be more upbeat in subject matter the following week. But in addition to the numerous tragedies that befell us last week, including the election, the death of Leon Russell and the election, we also lost one of the greatest poets of all time, Leonard Cohen. His name has now been added to a long list of the year’s casualties. The enormity of the musicians 2016 has robbed us of – David Bowie, Prince, Alan Vega – is seemingly colossal, as if the stars were perfectly aligned for the fall of giants. I fearfully wonder who will make it through the year, and dare not speak a word for fear of cursing anyone.

When David Bowie passed in January, I was distraught with the rest of the world. Having just pitched an article to The Guardian the night before his death investigating what Blackstar could teach contemporary musicians about longevity, I felt cosmically complicit in his death after the fact. Imagine the spook I felt waking to “RIP David Bowie” tweets the following morning. That night I sat at my desk, staring straight ahead at the wall, until my phone buzzed, and I boarded a cab to Sunset Park. I entered a sweet-smelling, steamy apartment that felt like it was in another city – in a house perhaps, with books and scraps of paper everywhere. The man who lived there offered me seltzer water and Oreos. A framed Leonard Cohen poster hung to the right of his bed.

I could barely express the overwhelming sadness I felt from the loss of Bowie that night. My companion was less distressed, but had witnessed such mourning all day long as his work was a scant block from Bowie’s SoHo home. “It is sad of course, but honestly, I’ll be more upset when Leonard Cohen goes,” he said gravely.

Ten months after we lost The Thin White Duke, I found myself slowly ascending the escalator of a theater in Times Square, meeting the very man with the Sunset Park apartment for post-election, action movie distraction. Tweets suddenly flooded my phone: “RIP Leonard Cohen,” “Now Leonard Cohen! Fuck this year!” and the like. I was already wobbly from the political climate, but I nearly fell off the goddamn escalator at the sight of such news.

It is only now I am learning that Cohen himself suffered a fall the night he passed, which directly contributed to his death. As the press release from his manager said, Cohen’s death was, “sudden, unexpected and peaceful,” which contradicts the songwriter’s claim in an October interview with The New Yorker that he was “ready to die.”

When Cohen’s parting masterpiece You Want it Darker came out last month, I thought of another pitch idea – one that never made it into an email but that I’d mentioned to friends and family. It went something like: “Is You Want it Darker Leonard Cohen’s Blackstar,” insinuating that the aged poet, like Bowie, knew his fate before we did, and was saying goodbye in the best way he could. Given this pattern, I am now convinced that I am slowly killing my favorite musicians by way of my unsuccessful pitches, which is depressing on numerous levels.

We have lost a songwriter, yes – a poet, of course. But we have also lost an invaluable translator of human emotion, in all its unperceivable complexities. When I came to his music in high school, his abstract yet exacting lyrics left me stupefied. I believe that his words truly altered my approach to writing, and while I am not and never will be anywhere near the caliber of a writer he was, I know I am all the better for being exposed to him.

And isn’t that the point of pop music? Of any kind of music, or art? To better know ourselves, in ways we couldn’t imagine were possible. Cohen’s art, his words particularly, cut so sharply to the core of human experience that you can’t really feel the incision until after his knife is removed. It is a clean cut – the effect of a specter whose impression lasts far longer than its presence in the room. He was a subtle legend. A quiet titan.

As with most musicians who have altered my perception of what makes great art, there is typically one or a few people that I directly associate with the artist. With Leonard Cohen, it is no different. One friend who is much older than I am bears an eerie resemblance to a young Cohen. He was the person who played me his music, despite the fact that a copy of Songs of Leonard Cohen had been nestled in my dad’s record collection my entire life. So when I heard “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong” for the first time, and it effectively floored my soul, that album was waiting for me right at home.

I called my old friend as soon as I could upon hearing of Cohen’s death, and asked him what the poet had meant to him. This friend, who often speaks in florid non-sequiturs, said that to him Cohen seemed like “the standard for effortless grace…you can listen to him over and over and it just keeps opening up. He really is a sort of sacred ground that’s vast, elusive, and hard to talk about.”

It is perhaps even harder to speak of for my friend, who was sired into the lugubrious cult of Cohen by his mother in the ‘70s. Not long after, his mother died when he was only 12, and I sometimes wonder if Leonard Cohen is a signifier for her in the same way that Bowie is for my mother. Memory cuts deep and clean just like a perfect song.

Leonard Cohen, though enormously different than David Bowie, was similar in the sense that he never tarnished. In his decades of writing and recording, he remained at his own golden standard, one that few others have touched. Despite his grave, death-welcoming remark to The New Yorker last month, he adjusted his statement in a later press conference, smirking and clutching a cane with his right hand:

“I said I was ‘ready to die’ recently, and I think I was exaggerating. One is given to self-dramatization from time to time. I intend to live forever.”

Regardless of Cohen’s dry humor as he spoke those words, and the uproarious laughter that met them, there is a peaceful truth within them. Yes, it is eerie that Cohen died not long after redacting his pact with death, but I think he knew exactly what he was saying. And who’s to say that he hasn’t lived forever already?

Perhaps true immortality lies in the ability to look death in the face and acquiesce to its beckoning, imparting one last gift to the world as you leave it.

ONLY NOISE: Memento Mori-Alan Vega

alan vega

“I think all art comes out of conflict.” It was the American novelist Joyce Carol Oates who spoke these words, but it was Alan Vega who lived them.

Vega, who fronted the indescribable proto-punk duo Suicide from 1970 to Saturday, has unfortunately passed away over the weekend at 78. His death lengthens a devastating list of artists we’ve lost this year. Henry Rollins broke the news with a statement from Vega’s family.

I woke Sunday morning to word of his death, and instantly that phrase sprang to mind: “all art comes out of conflict.” Art is not only born of chaos, it is chaos. Art is conflict. And what artist exemplified this truth more than Alan Vega? His 46-year partnership with Martin Rev as Suicide (they never called it quits) produced a body of work that is sublimely discordant-like an Edgerton snapshot of fruit being eviscerated by a bullet. An explosion made delicate by means of destruction.

Vega’s music is a monument to the avant garde, the dark, and the soulful. And it is, for me, the embodiment of everything I look for in art. Something dangerous, yet repulsively gorgeous. Something that makes you fear for your own sanity. Suicide’s eponymous debut from 1977 is as awash with this kind of dissonance as it is sounds of the future. Its severity is matched only by its simplicity-Vega’s croons and shrieks loping over Rev’s unrelenting synths and drum machine. That record predicted post punk before punk had learned how to spell its own name. You can hear its influence in Throbbing Gristle’s work, and Sonic Youth’s and even Bruce Springsteen’s; the latter admittedly an enormous Suicide fan. The Boss has not only attributed “State Trooper” off of 1982’s Nebraska to Suicide’s influence-he also covered the duo’s song “Dream Baby Dream” throughout his career.

Springsteen recently paid homage to Vega with a eulogy he published on his website:

“Over here on E Street, we are saddened to hear of the passing of Alan Vega, one of the great revolutionary voices in rock and roll. The bravery and passion he showed throughout his career was deeply influential to me. I was lucky enough to get to know Alan slightly and he was always a generous and sweet spirit. The blunt force power of his greatest music both with Suicide and on his solo records can still shock and inspire today. There was simply no one else remotely like him.”

It might seem a stretch that one of America’s most successful musicians would have such obscure tastes, but if you listen to Suicide tracks like “Ghost Rider” and “Frankie Teardrop,” the influence might not be so shocking. Springsteen is known for his pointblank narratives of working class drudgery. That same desolation can be found in “Frankie Teardrop,” a disturbing tale of a disgruntled factory worker who massacres his family in a fit of insanity.

Suicide is an album that still sounds treacherous today. This cannot be said of much from its era. It is a difficult thing to admit, as it was an exceptional period in American music. However, I am aware of its historical relevance-that perhaps a Television gig in 2016 might not be as reckless as it was in ’77. Suicide on the other hand, has remained a lung-splintering scream frozen in time. A photograph taken with a rapatronic shutter. But don’t take my word for it. Go ahead. Cut the jams at your next party and put on “Frankie Teardrop” instead. See what happens.

It is important for music, or at least some music to incite panic. In their earlier years Vega and Rev did just that, and drank up the repercussions firsthand. Their shows bear the deviant legacy of hell raisers like Iggy Pop and GG Allin. In 2008, Vega recounted an especially perilous gig to The Guardian:

“That would be the show in Glasgow in 1978 when someone threw an axe at my head. We were supporting the Clash and I guess we were too punk even for the punk crowd. They hated us. I taunted them with, ‘You fuckers have to live through us to get to the main band.’ That’s when the axe came towards my head, missing me by a whisker. It was surreal, man. I felt like I was in a 3-D John Wayne movie. But that was nothing unusual. Every Suicide show felt like world war three in those days. Every night I thought I was going to get killed. The longer it went on, the more I’d be thinking, ‘Odds are it’s going to be tonight.'”

I sometimes feel that Suicide were the Dylan-going-electric of punk rock. And while I suspect that thought would cause Vega to roll in his grave, it’s a comparison I find comfort in. When the world cried “Judas!” at Dylan’s new noise, it wasn’t the sound they were screaming at-it was the icon he burned and the bird that rose from it. Punk was so busy edifying its defiant image that it was out-defied by Vega and Rev…the ultimate prank. It’s pretty funny, if you think about it.

But despite all the mayhem in Suicide’s history, all the near-death evenings and endless assaults, Vega remained a sincere artist, a loving family man, and a hilarious interviewee. In the same interview from ’08 he recalled the shift between being public enemy #1 and becoming an “entertainer”:

“People were looking to be entertained, but I hated the idea of going to a concert in search of fun. Our attitude was, ‘Fuck you buddy, you’re getting the street right back in your face. And some.’

The axe in Glasgow was just one of many weapons hurled at us. When we played in Metz, someone scored a direct hit on me with a monkey wrench. I’ve still got the scar on my head. Supporting Elvis Costello in Brussels, we provoked a full-scale riot and the venue was stormed by police letting off tear-gas canisters. Then something very strange happened. We headlined our own tour of Britain and ended up in Edinburgh. Two songs in and there was no riot, which was very, very unusual. Then we started to see people move around. I turned to Marty and said, ‘Here we go – watch out for flying objects.’ To my amazement, people started dancing. I turned back to Marty and said, ‘We’re finished, our career is over.’

We’ve turned into fucking entertainers. It was never meant to turn out that way. But what can you do? People are completely unshockable now. Even if you brought a fresh corpse out on stage and started eating it with a fork, no one would bat an eyelid. Still, one of the things about playing live these days is that at least we know we’re not going to die on stage. That’s kinda nice, man.”

Vega’s wry sense of humor always peeked through his work, even when veiled with the most hideous snarl. It surprisingly wasn’t always doom and gloom with Suicide; their fragility surfaced on cuts like “Girl,” “Dream Baby Dream,” and “Child, It’s a New World.” The former being my personal favorite-and not a bad tune for a romp might I add. In spite of the band’s propensity for violence and distortion, they were also vulnerable…far more than they’d have liked you to believe. This diversity was apparent to those who took time to listen between the crashing beer bottles. For them, Suicide were a beacon of possibility; a manifesto for undefined sound.

Alan Vega may have not wanted to be an entertainer; that’s just what happened over time. More accurately, Vega was an artist. A real conflicted motherfucker.

R.I.P Alan. Thank you for the noise.