The Gifts of Leon
“I Love You in a Place Where There’s No Place or Time”
December 04, 2016
As fas as great lyrics go, how can you beat that?
“I love for my life, you were a friend of mine,” it goes on.
That’s from “A Song For You,” written by Leon Russell who passed on at 74 on Nov. 13. Almost a week after fellow musician Leonard Cohen passed at 82 on Nov. 7.
Both Leon and Leonard had songs worth remembering and revisiting. Great gifts to us.
Many fans—and Russell too—considered it his signature song. When he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011 he said every songwriter wants to get one song just right, and that was his.
Coincidentally I was recently watching a three-year-old movie on Netflix and it played in the background. The list of other artists who also recorded it is way too long to mention. Whitney Houston, The Carpenters, Willie Nelson and Ray Charles were a few.
Go to YouTube and type in “Elton John Leon Russell tribute” and you’ll get a great 14-minute taste or review of Russell. There you’ll hear him say that he was lying in the gutter of the highway of life when along came Elton John to lift him up.
The video shows John telling how Russell had the greatest impact on his music and style. Part of it: picture pianists in wild, flamboyant costumes.
Compared to Cohen especially, Russell had a more get-up-and-go tempo. “Delta Lady” showed that side of him and “Lady Blue” his more mellow side. Both “Roll Away the Stone” and “Hummingbird” were fun to revisit. The former a little irreverent, but who wasn’t in the early ’70s.
I had fun revisiting the lyrics at AZLyrics.com or viewing the YouTube videos. reading.
I always liked “Stranger in a Strange Land.” Good message to notice there. (Leaders take us far away from ecology/ With mythology and astrology/ Have got some to say/ About how we live today/ Why can’t we learn to love each other/ It’s time to turn a new face/ To the whole world wide human race/ Stop the money chase.) He wrote that in 1971, but it fits into today’s world just as easily. Leon’s good-bye? His passing at least brings attention to his message, as if he saying, remember this?
Songs were like that in the ’60s and ’70s. Songwriter’s had a lot to write about—a lot to say during those times of conflict.
While he had some great lyrics too, Russell was a pianist/guitarist/entertainer. He began playing in night clubs when he was 14. Since he was from Oklahoma, a dry state, he could play in night clubs, which gave him an early start.
He became a studio musician playing backup or recording with people such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, the Everly Brothers, Phil Specter, Delany & Bonnie, and worked on on every Beach Boys album.
He organized a tour for Joe Cocker and his Mad Dogs & Englishmen group and made a movie of it. Needless to say I enjoyed him.
Russell was the upbeat, wild entertainer who often appeared with aviator glasses, top hat, and muti-colored T-shirts to go with his long hair and beard.
When with Joe Cocker and Mad Dogs & Englishmen, Russell played at Woodstock. Leonard Cohen did not.
As much as Russel was upbeat and pulse-rising, Leonard Cohen was laidback and mellow—about as mellow as one can get.
He also put a lot of messages into his lyrics. He was normally the subdued poet, appearing in a more traditional hat and coat jacket and held a mic—not an instrument. His instrument was his deep, low voice that seemed to vibrate through you.
He wasn’t there, but did say that Woodstock impacted him. Seeing that turnout and appetite for music speaking of an alternative lifestyle made a lot of people notice.
He did play at a Woodstock offshoot in 1970 at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, arriving onstage atop a white horse. Not the normal entrance, especially for him.
Reviewing his lyrics, that might be a good way for him to arrive today—if he could. By leaving now, maybe he too was saying take another look at what I was saying.
Deeply spiritual, he frequently commented on society and justice.
A couple of years ago he said he thought his songs might fit today more than when he wrote them. While his songs were often in a more monotone and morose style, no doubt his message made people think, feel and question.
One of his best in that vein was “Everybody Knows” with “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded/ Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed/ Everybody knows that the war is over/ Everybody knows the good guys lost/ Everybody knows the fight was fixed/ The poor stay poor, the rich get rich/ That’s how it goes/ Everybody knows.” He also wrote a lot about relationships, love and life, not just society.
Ring the bell that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack in everything;
That’s how the light gets in
—from “Anthem” by L. Cohen
Some of the more magical and whimsical were in his earlier albums, such as “Songs of Leonard Cohen.” They were more enchanting than his later pieces, which were often very poignant. The earlier ones include “Winter Lady,” “Suzanne,” “Sisters of Mercy,” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.”
On “Teachers” we sang: “I met a man who lost his mind/ in some place I had to find/ follow me the wise man said, but be walked behind.”
One of my favorites was “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong.” I always smiled listening to those lyrics. “I lit a thin green candle, to make you jealous of me. But the room just filled up with mosquitos, they heard my body was free.”
One of his many later songs/poems that was popular was “Dance Me to the End of Love. “A Thousand Kisses Deep” is sad and full of images of a tough life. “Boogie Street” a great duet with Tara Hugo is hard to listen to only once. Intricate piece.
Just listening to him recite Paul Simon’s “Sound of Silence” is moving. His deep voice just seems to enter your space and imbue you with his message.
Nice that doesn’t have to be said in the past tense. It’s still available.
His spiritual side often came out as disappointment in mankind. “Hallelujah” was very popular as was “I’m Your Man.” It amazed me when I researched this to find I know so many of his songs. I would not have listed him as one of my favorites. I never waited of a new album from him, but see now how much I appreciate his music.
Cohen’s last album was released in 2016 and starts with “You Want It Darker.” (If you are the healer, I’m broken and lame/ If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame/ You want it darker.)
One song I want to recommend that I always make sure to listen to when I visit him is “My, Oh My.” Not for any political reasons written about here, but just because it always feels good to listen to it: “Loved you for a little while, didn’t have to try.”
The song that fits so well today that I referred to above was called “Democracy.” Judy Collins released an album by the same name that contained almost solely songs by Cohen.
The “Democracy” song seems more like a ’60s and ’70s song, but then again, the period we are in now seem more like that turbulent time than any other time I have lived through. They were a little irreverent, nothing as extreme as today’s presidential elections of course—but certainly uncertain and unpredictable.
Here’s some of “Democracy.” Another lament, but with hope for the future.
It’s coming through a hole in the air,
from those nights in Tiananmen Square.
It’s coming from the feel
that this ain’t exactly real,
or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there.
From the wars against disorder,
from the sirens night and day,
from the fires of the homeless,
from the ashes of the gay:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
It’s coming through a crack in the wall;
on a visionary flood of alcohol;
from the staggering account
of the Sermon on the Mount
which I don’t pretend to understand at all.
It’s coming from the silence
on the dock of the bay,
from the brave, the bold, the battered
heart of Chevrolet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
It’s coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It’s here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.
It’s here the family’s broken
and it’s here the lonely say
that the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.