Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Stocking Up on Leonard Cohen

Lately, you can't throw an Old Testament or a pair of silk panties without hitting a Leonard Cohen song
. Earlier this week, it was "Bird on the Wire" at the end of "Sons of Anarchy." Last week, it was five different songs on a two-part "Criminal Minds." In the endlessly charming "Pirate Radio," it's a generous helping of "So Long, Marianne." On "American Idol," it's not if but when someone will sing "Hallelujah." I've heard his songs on "Without a Trace," "House," and "Lie to Me," and his songs are just as likely to be performed on shows I don't watch. From "Shrek" to "Secretary" to "Natural Born Killers," you can find his distinctive brand of sex and spirituality, of nakedness in all its forms, of repetition, juxtaposition, and parallel construction that are by turns too much and not enough. So, in case your collection has some holes in it, here's a list of albums, in the order you should buy them.

The Essential Leonard Cohen (2002)

This is desert-island music: 31 songs spanning 34 years. The hopeless is balanced
or at least amelioratedby the hopeful, so wrist-slashing can be deferred. Allow these exquisite songs (performed in chronological order) to help you get your bearings. The first time through, the album should be listened to in its entirety, with earphones, while sprawled on the bed, alone. This technique should also be employed by first-time listeners of Pink Floyd's "The Wall" and Janis Ian's "Between the Lines."

When I'm listening to "The Essential LC" in the car, I only skip one song ("First We Take Manhattan"), and I don't always skip it. Another song ("Ain't No Cure for Love") is in sore need of a ruthless edit and a new arrangement. I'd suggest that to Leonard, if he and I were sitting together at a sidewalk cafe in Krakow, or Toronto. I'd drink tea. He'd drink room-temperature milk. I'd wear a black skirt, tall boots, and a cashmere scarf I purchased at a second-hand store. He'd talk about a woman, and how they once spent a weekend at a nearby hostel. Her thighs were flawless, and she had a birthmark near the small of her back. The birthmark was the color of nearly ripe plums, and the shape of Krakow, or Toronto.

Also, feel free to spend a couple of hours locked in the bathroom with the album cover.

Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)

Now, it's time to trace the roots. I bought this record album for two dollars in the early 1970s when it was remaindered in a drugstore bin. I was in high school, and this music was somewhat of a departure from "Rocky Mountain High" and "Sweet Baby James."

"Some girls wander by mistake, into the mess that scalpels make," Leonard sings. There are songs about strangers, and teachers, and masters. Masters! Imagine! I sneaked out of school during mandatory pep rallies, rushed home, and lay face-down on the shag carpet to listen to this album on the console stereo. "Are your lessons done? Are your lessons done? Are your lessons..."

So, I don't recommend it lightly. I haven't been able to face it in decades. The sepia photo on the album cover looks like a passport photo. It was taken "by machine." "Of course it was," I imagine my younger sister saying, as she slips her hand between her legs.

This album contains five songs we haven't yet heard, and all are good. Four of the five will not show up on subsequent albums, and "One of Us Cannot be Wrong" will be addressed soon. Of course, you could listen to this album before "The Essential LC." I'm simply trying to protect you from spending too much time in the fetal position.

Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979 (2001)

This album features live versions of three great songs that
inexplicablydo not appear on "The Essential LC." They are "The Window," "The Smokey Life," and "The Gypsy's Wife." There are live versions of songs we've already heard, and we're introduced to several more good songs.

I've noticed that the live version of a song perfected in the disciplined confines of a studio is not always a treat (a lesson that was driven home at a very disappointing Don McLean concert). But Leonard is an exception: The live versions are sometimes better than the studio versions. The arrangements are interesting; the pace is unhurried. I don't know how he elicits the necessary discipline from the musicians and singers. Maybe he threatens to stop sleeping with them.

The album cover features another black-and-white photo of Leonard. On the album mentioned above, he looks a little wounded. On this album, he looks like he'll be the one doing the wounding, thank you very much.

Recent Songs (1979)

What a pleasure to listen to this album! We know one song from "The Essential LC" and three from "Field Commander Cohen." Five more good songs are included here, and nowhere else. All are beautiful, all are brilliant, but my favorite is "Ballad of the Absent Mare." This song, perhaps more than any other, reminds us that Leonard is a poet, unsurpassed in this century or the last. The themes pile up, one on top of the other, each more intimate and enduring than the one before, until I can hardly draw breath.

It seems to me that Leonard's abiding popularity stems from his willingness to look at a situation long past the point when others look away. He keeps watching, he keeps writing, while others avert their eyes in an attempt to avoid pain and shame. Usually, his gaze is turned inward, and he shares what he sees, without making it pretty, without making it easy. He offers no excuses. "Here's to the few who forgive what you do, and the fewer who don't even care," he writes (but not on this album).

I frequently skip "The Lost Canadian," which he sings in French. One might suppose that would be enough of a draw, but it is not.

Cohen Live (1994)

Let's enjoy one more live album. It includes an orchestral version of "One of Us Cannot be Wrong" that should not be missed. The barely-in-check emotions, the wretched humility, the truly impressive rhyme scheme...this song is perfect. The 1967 version no doubt tore you apart, and now you can suffer along with this larger version. The album includes many songs we've already heard (including additional verses of "Hallelujah"), and we're introduced to a couple more good songs.

Songs from a Room (1969)

Now that we're feeling more emotionally robust, we can revisit the 1960s, and another heartbreaking album. Don't be fooled by the cheery melody of "Tonight will be Fine." It's tragic. Not in a French-resistance-fighter way like "The Partisan," but in a more typical way, as a lover anticipates things ending poorly. Again.

More than half of the remaining songs on this album are excellent. There's some fairly grim subject matter (suicide, abortion, ritualized abuse), but I always smile as I sing along with "Lady Midnight."

Songs of Love and Hate (1970)

This is your only chance to hear "Love Calls You by Your Name," which is lovely. The songs on this album (those that we haven't already heard) are mostly good. And it's the only cover photo in which Leonard is smiling.

The Future (1992)

My younger sister gave me this album several years ago, and it served to reignite my love affair with Leonard. I listened to it dozens of times before calling her and declaring it the perfect album. It has social commentary, old-time religion, and senior citizens getting some action. In my opinion, it also offers the sexiest song ever written, "Light as the Breeze" (which manages to be even sexier when performed by Billy Joel). Most of the songs, though, are on "The Essential LC." Those that did not make the cut are not up to Leonard's usual standards. So, the only reason to buy this album is to hear "Light as the Breeze." Do it. Also, buy "Tower of Song," for Billy Joel's cover, along with several other topnotch covers.

Dear Heather (2004)

This is Leonard's last studio album. (He has released three live albums since, but I don't have them.) It would be a mistake to let this album serve as an introduction to Leonard, because it is not representative of his body of work. In fact, the song "Dear Heather" is baffling. I don't know if Leonard is outsmarting us, testing us, or messing with us; I do know that I always skip this song. However, there are other songs that make this much-maligned album worth owning. I love "The Letters" and "The Faith," among others. There's a heartfelt song about the attacks of 9/11, and there's a song about a woman and her small child "...caught in the grip of an undertow." So...enjoy!

This album reminds us that Leonard adores women, and that they adore him in return. I think he adores women. He seems to. I saw him on film once, alluding to the possibility that it's all just a con (but maybe that was the con). We're all con men to some degree, willing to manipulate others to get what we want. Leonard admits it, though, which makes women trust him. Which sounds a bit like the premise of a "Criminal Minds" episode...

Ten New Songs (with Sharon Robinson) (2001)

We've heard the best songs from this album (pay attention to "Alexandra Leaving"). The other songs are romantic, and seem to encourage slow dancing. I'm glad these kids collaborated.

New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974)

We've heard several of these songs, and the rest are good, with an occasional glimpse of greatness. He's so young here. He seems...undefended. Here, and elsewhere, he invites us to watch him suffer (he demands that we watch). I bought this record album when I was seventeen, listened to it once, and decided I hated it. I didn't throw it away, because I liked the name of the album, and the scandalous cover art. But I refused to listen to it a second time, until I was in my forties.

(I've been listening to this album more since I wrote about it, and I've fallen quite in love with it. I can't get enough of the nearly overwrought "Leaving Green Sleeves." Whenever I listen to it in the car, I think "That's a little weird," and then I hit Repeat and listen to it until the car pulls into the driveway. He's so naked in the song.)

The Best of (1975)

This is an excellent compilation, but you have all of these songs if you've been following the recommended order (up to and including "Songs of Love and Hate").

I'm Your Man (1988)

This is also a very good album, and another decidedly sexy song. Almost all of these songs, though, are on "The Essential LC," and the remaining two are forgettable.

Various Positions (1984)

We've heard the best songs from this album. There are a few we haven't heard, and they're fine, but not...essential.

Live Songs (1973)

We've heard the good songs from this album. Enjoy the album cover, though, and the somewhat menacing photo. In earlier and later photos, he appears earnest. Here, he looks a bit ruthless, like the "thin gypsy thief" he mentions in an earlier album.

More Best Of (1997)

Again, we've heard the good songs from this album.

Death of a Ladies' Man (1977)

This unfortunate album was produced by Phil Spector, who is currently serving a prison sentence of 19 years to life (for unrelated crimes). The only good song is "Memories," and it's much better on "Field Commander Cohen" than it is here.


Buying and listening in this order will ensure that you don't miss any really great songs, or any exceptional arrangements. Of course, there's nothing wrong with buying all the albums (minus the then-unnecessary Greatest Hits albums) and listening in chronological order. That sounds like a fun (if long) day.

And there's nothing wrong with taking a more haphazard approach to loving Leonard. I'd like to study him in college, the way one might study Jane Austen or Marcel Proust, graduating with no discernible skills. But I realize that others are content to hear "Suzanne" on the radio occasionally, or "Anthem."

There's a film in which we watch a young Leonard order room service in French, wearing somewhat-ratty skivvies and T-shirt. When the grilled cheese sandwich and glass of milk arrive, he eats standing up. One can imagine (well, I can imagine) that he's thinking about what to do next, that he's weighing his options, both sacred and profane. And as quickly as those lines are fixed, they are blurred. And those blurred lines fuel a career that spans 43 years and counting.

So, go buy some music. Preferably before we're subjected to "Famous Blue Raincoat" as performed by the cast of "Glee."

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Bootstrap Myth

Everybody knows that the fight was fixed,

the poor stay poor and the rich get rich.
That's how it goes.
Everybody knows.

L. Cohen

In the United States, there exists a deeply held belief that the poor can rise to the ranks of the middle-class or upper-class through hard work and perseverance. Examples abound. Most of us know of someone who started off poor and ended up rich. The tendency is to celebrate these outliers and to ignore the masses that stay poor. Here, we examine the masses that stay poor, and the circumstances that conspire to keep them poor.

“Being poor matters a lot,” states Corcoran (1995:261), who studied four ways in which poverty is transmitted from generation to generation. First, low-income parents…have low incomes. They raise their children in disadvantaged neighborhoods with lower quality schools, fewer good role models, fewer job networks, and less social control. These children are likely to have poorer health, delays in physical development, more stress, a less stimulating environment, and lower cognitive skills. They are likely to acquire less schooling, make less money, work fewer hours, and cycle in and out of poverty as adults.

Second, low-income parents have other disadvantages. They have less schooling themselves. A poor family is more likely to be headed by a woman, which leads to less access to community resources and higher rates of high school dropout, teen pregnancy, and joblessness (even when income is held constant). In addition (and the subject of much debate), low IQs may contribute to parental poverty, and those IQs may be passed genetically.

Third, low-income parents are often mired in a stigma-free welfare system that leads to self-defeating attitudes and poor work ethics, which are passed on to children. Girls are more likely to drop out of high school, have children out of wedlock, and go on welfare. Boys are more likely to drop out of high school, father children out of wedlock, avoid work, and break the law. The negative effect of welfare use is much stronger if the welfare is received during the child’s adolescence as opposed to the child’s early years, and if the welfare use is long term.

Fourth, well-paying manufacturing jobs have been shifting from urban areas (where the poor live) to suburban areas. This causes an outmigration of the middle class (and a reduction in the tax base and in public services), while leaving the poor highly concentrated, socially isolated, and unemployed. Many of these parents are unable to teach their children strategies for job networking, risk taking, and confidence building; however, they may teach their children ways of dressing, talking, dealing with authority figures, and relating to small groups that will hinder their ability to land a job.

Barton (2003:1-37) focuses on conditions that lead to differences in achievement between students from poor and non-poor families. “This is a search for the roots—those aspects of the life and school experience found to be correlated with school achievement,” he writes (Barton 2003:1). At home, children from poor families are more likely to have been of low birth weight, to have been exposed to lead paint or pipes, to be hungry, to live in single-parent households, and to change schools during the academic year. They are less likely to be read to by parents, and they watch more television.

At school, students from poor families have higher class size and less-experienced and less-proficient teachers, with higher rates of teacher absenteeism and turnover. There are fewer computers and less internet access in classrooms, and fewer students pursue a rigorous curriculum. These schools are more likely to have street gangs present.

Inner-city joblessness is the target of Wilson’s research (2000:300-310). He lists three reasons for the scarcity of jobs for the inner-city poor: the computer revolution, the internationalization of jobs, and the suburbanization of jobs. He examines the impact on children of parental joblessness versus parental poverty. “The consequences of high neighborhood joblessness are more devastating than those of high neighborhood poverty,” he writes (Wilson 2000:301). Work in a formal economy provides a framework for daily activities, with expectations and goals; it requires regularity and consistency; it demands discipline. A child growing up in a home with employed adults will tend to develop good habits, such as "a recognition of the hierarchy found in most work situations, a sense of personal efficacy attained through the routine management of financial affairs, and endorsement of a system of personal and material rewards associated with dependability and responsibility” (Wilson 2000:301).

Wilson also asserts that the social conditions of the inner-city poor make them less desirable as employees. In the greater Chicago area, an overwhelming majority of employers—both white and black—expressed negative views about inner-city poor, including a lack of reading and language skills and poor grooming.

Wilson’s work is bolstered by that of Small and Newman (2001:23-45), which examines how cultural and behavioral patterns perpetuate the conditions of the poor. “Long-term unemployment generates a low self-efficacy among urban dwellers, making it difficult for them to take advantage of economic opportunities if and when these arise,” they write (Small and Newman 2001:38). People find it difficult to start working, even when jobs become available. Neighborhood poverty can cause residents to develop a culture that is directly opposed to the norms and values of the middle class, and consequently reject employment.

They are also likely to reject marriage. Once the poor are isolated in neighborhoods—without role models, job networks, or social networks of employed people—adolescents have a difficult time envisioning success for themselves. Small and Newman offer three possible cultural explanations for the high incident of teenage births among the urban poor: a shared code whereby promiscuity (versus virginity) improves a girl’s social status; a girl’s desire to have a satisfying relationship with a child (as opposed to the unsatisfying relationships she has with parents, teachers, and boyfriends); and a link between loneliness and poverty.

Ore (2003:182-204) also links culture to intergenerational poverty. She defines “cultural capital” as the “social assets that include beliefs, values, attitudes, and competencies in language and culture…the ideas and knowledge people draw upon as they participate in social life, including ‘proper’ attitudes toward education; socially approved dress and manners; and knowledge about books, music, and other forms of high and popular culture” (Ore 2003:193). The rich usually decide what counts as cultural capital, discounting the values of the poor. And the educational system perpetuates class stratification by unevenly applying the lessons of cultural capital: Schools in poor neighborhoods focus on rote memorization, while schools in affluent neighborhoods focus on creative and critical thinking and the application of abstract principles to problem solving.

Schwarz and Volgy (1992:159-173) take a very practical view as they examine two working families living at 150 percent of the poverty line. “Life is grim,” the authors conclude (1992:169). They describe the economy budget that must be embraced by families at this income. At a very modest level, they can pay for food, an apartment, utilities, an older car, clothing, personal/incidental expenses (tampons, light bulbs), and some medical care. They cannot afford movies, museums, concerts, ball games, or any establishment that charges admission; preschool, summer camp, lessons or any activity that charges a fee; books, magazines, music recordings, or toys (except for a $50 per year allotment for each family member for birthday and holiday presents); or pets, children’s allowances, cable TV, fast-food or restaurant meals, vacations, haircuts, alcohol, cigarettes, charitable donations, life insurance, college funds, pension plans, or emergencies.

To some degree, this paints a happy picture of a frugal family, eating wholesome made-from-scratch meals at home, spending time at libraries and parks, and avoiding many types of over-indulgence. But (in addition to living without a financial safety net), this level of near-poverty offers a paucity of opportunities to learn financial responsibility (no allowance), devotion and selflessness (no pets), and public manners (no restaurants). Apartment living doesn’t allow for frugal choices such as growing fruits and vegetables in the backyard, hanging laundry to dry, or keeping cars, bikes, and tools safe and out of the elements in a locked garage. One cannot depend on stable and well-known neighbors with whom to swap services such as babysitting or sewing. And a world can grow small without travel, and with limited cultural and educational opportunities.

In her lyrical and timeless analogy, Frye (1983:4) writes: “Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires.” When the cage is observed so closely, it’s unclear why a bird—eager to escape—wouldn’t just fly around the wire. It’s necessary to step back and look at the entire cage. “It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which could be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the walls of a dungeon” (Frye 1983:5).

And so it is with long-term poverty. Any of the obstacles, taken individually, might be overcome. A person might be able to clear the hurdle of a mediocre school or a less-than-stimulating home environment, and find success. But when taken in totality—when faced with hunger, stress, lower cognitive skills, fractured families, social isolation, neighborhood crime, teen pregnancy, an oppositional culture, poor work habits, joblessness, and a marked lack of community support and role models—it comes as no surprise that people are unable to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They flounder, and the rest of us watch, unwilling or unable to help.

References Cited

Barton, Paul. 2003. Parsing the Achievement Gap: Baselines for Tracking Progress. Educational Testing Service 1-37.

Corcoran, Mary. 1995. Rags to Rags: Poverty and Mobility in the United States. Annual Review of Sociology 21:237-267.

Frye, Marilyn. 1983. The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. Trumansburg, New York: The Crossing Press.

Ore, Tracy E., ed. 2003. The Social Construction of Difference and Inequality: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Schwarz, John E. and Thomas J. Volgy. 1992. Economic Self-Sufficiency in Present-Day America. In Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States. Thomas M. Shapiro, ed. Pp. 159-173. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Pub.

Small, Mario Luis and Katherine Newman. 2001. Urban Poverty After The Truly Disadvantaged: The Rediscovery of the Family, the Neighborhood, and Culture. Annual Review of Sociology 27:23-45.

Wilson, William J. 2000. Jobless Ghettos. In The Social Construction of Difference and Inequality: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. Tracy E. Ore, ed. Pp. 300-310. New York: McGraw-Hill.