All of the music I have aspired to and liked on a long term basis has been from singer / songwriters .That probably says more about me than it does about them but I still have a life long curiosity about creating and making sense of the worlds that we all live in. The other thing I have noticed is that in a few relatively high profile scenarios that some of these creator singer / songwriters have somewhat redeemed themselves later in life. I wonder if the music is responsible for their redemption as well as being their work.
The general theme seems to be that most people “gell” their personalities in their teens or early 20’s and don’t progress much beyond that. But my very non-scientific study leads me to speculate that creators who explore feelings and thoughts in song do seem to have progressed beyond their various younger stereotypical selves.
The particular artists I have focussed on for this post are Leonard Cohen, David Bowie and Nick Cave. I could have picked many others. Some of them sadly did not live long enough like Grant McLennan of the Go-Betweens who died at the age of 48 and while a primary collaborator of his – Dave Dobbyn is still around and generally supports my observations it is the higher profile guys who are easier to research. I am a huge fan of Paul Kelly and his songs and while he has progressed very far beyond an early narcotics addition I’m not sure he has done much of note for the last 20 years but he is not part of my random sample.
I’m also a fan of John Cooper Clarke who is also a survivor and a very insightful and entertaining one as evidenced by various podcasts and more recent performances but I don’t include him in my almost random sample. I am also a fan of a number of woman songwriter / singers too like Joni Mitchell and Natalie Merchant (among others) but harder to find anecdotes and supporting material on many of them. That probably says more about society and culture than it does about any of them but I want to write about that another time.
My observation is that a number of these singer / songwriters changed part of the way through their lives into much more fully rounded humans than they were or what we perceived them to be in their earlier lives. Again some of this comes from the context of what sells in the press and media of the day. And some of it is just perception and performance which goes with the territory.
Some songs are just absolute knockouts and they give rise to legends and create a platform off which the music company could launch a commercial enterprise. Just listen to the song “These Days” by a very young Jackson Browne and you get an idea of the magic that great songs can release into the universe of ideas.
Leonard Cohen had a charmed early life and was successful at getting some of his early poems published in Canada. I have the first few collections and while there are some absolute gems there is also an under current of much darker and less friendly ideas in more than a few of those poems (if you will excuse the pun.) On paper Leonard didn’t look like his music should actually work but his work ethic was legendary and writing 108 verses to Hallelujah over the course of ten years was just one example.
The irony of one of his more famous songs “So Long Marianne” references a long term friendship in which he behaved at best indifferently and more likely badly. But Cohen as a writer did evolve over a longer period of time and quite probably spending many hours and years in service of an old Buddhist monk at Mt Baldy helped him to reflect. It seems like a business setback which was triggered by a former manager of his misusing most of Leonards savings and earnings also helped to generate some insights and the touring musician / poet / performer of his later years was quite an inspiring character. Redeemed by the songs? I don’t know but his later artistic output seems to me to be much more transcendent than the early tones and attitudes he was infamous for.
David Bowie was a hugely influential musical chameleon and performer who used music the same way that painters use paint. The recent impressionistic movie Moonage Daydream which mostly concentrates on the first few albums up to his famous Berlin period was a wonderful movie as befits a great artist and author. But I also have a book by Woody Woodmansey whose autobiography Spider From Mars: My Life With David Bowie shows the early Bowie in a different light. Woody was the drummer for the first 4 albums and was ditched along with the rest of the band after that.
I’m a Bowie fan especially of the early years and it is clear in many of the video clips and interviews that David Jones / Bowie could run rings around almost all of the interviewers he met. He was articulate, clever and funny as well as aware of his own shortcomings. There is a wonderful anecdote in “David Bowie: A Life” by Dylan Jones. But I’m getting ahead of the story. From about ’74 till ’77 Bowie was increasingly subsisting on a diet of cocaine and milk. That must have been an enormous distraction and very unhealthy for any personal relationships not to mention personality development.
Somewhat mysteriously in 1977 Bowie moves to Berlin in an effort to get off the drugs and that seems to have been a major turning point for him personally and professionally. How did Bowie have the self awareness to do that? We don’t know and probably never will but I think music saved his life and the act of creation and collaboration with Iggy Pop who was along for the adventure worked.
I first came across Nick Cave in the early 80’s as music enthusiast writer at the student newspaper. Nicks band the Birthday Party were touring New Zealand at the time and seemingly falling apart on stage which was no doubt part of the appeal. I got to interview one of the guitarists in the band for Campus Radio and generally hang out with other media people at the time.
I wouldn’t have picked Cave as a long term member of the human race let alone a music legend at that time but I was wrong. My memory is a bit hazy as it was about 40 years ago now but pretty sure one of the stories was that the band could only function in NZ because they were on some kind of methadone programme to keep them functioning at all.
I listened to a few Cave songs over the years and even bought a few albums more recently. It seemed to me that ‘The Boatmans Call ‘back in the late 90’s was a tipping point for Cave. Despite having a couple of the tracks off that album I didn’t really listen to the full work until quite recently when I got a copy of the remastered album.
Now I just don’t get the Red Right Hand” song but clearly many of his fans do and he seems to have a great time performing that. It is also clear that in his personal and professional life he has had a few tragedies with two of his sons dying young and various band members who have also died early. However it happened Cave has clearly transitioned theatrical rock performer into a more fully formed human of insight and maturity sometime in the late 90’s. Red Right Hand is an extraordinary project (in this post) “In 2010 he told the musician Jarvis Cocker that he believes in God “in spite of religion, not because of it.” Note: Nick Cave on faith, grief, and music: The Newsnight Interview
What I’m fascinated about is that in the case of Cohen, Bowie and Cave is that despite some early indications of privilege and and excess that they all became more open and generous / enlightened / human ? towards the later stages of their lives.
I’d like to think it is because of their quest as songwriters that they gained an awareness and enlightenment as they “took notes” on some of the experiences they had. Unlike the characters in the Seinfield TV series Cohen, Bowie and Cave have all evolved and learned to become better humans and that is something we should all reflect on.