Best tunes of 1992: #7 Leonard Cohen “Closing time”

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Believe it or not, “Closing time” was the song that first turned me on to Mr. Cohen: the poet, novelist, singer, songwriter, and Canadian Icon. I loved his voice right from the start and his easy sing-speak delivery and his cool demeanour. Shortly afterwards, I connected Cohen to that awesome song that Christian Slater’s character used to open his pirate radio show in the film, “Pump up the volume” and well, a lifelong love affair was born. I didn’t know this then but “Closing time” was one of two singles released off what would be the last album he recorded before entering a Buddhist monastery, touching off a prolonged break. “The future” is now considered a classic album in his catalogue but it was a struggle to create for the man from beginning to end.

“Ah we’re drinking and we’re dancing
and the band is really happening
and the Johnny Walker wisdom running high”

Around the time that “Closing time” was making the rounds on MuchMusic, I was taking a driver’s training class with Young Drivers of Canada. I was getting my license later than many of my friends, mostly to beat the implementation of graduated licensing (yes, I’m that old), and yeah, so many of those in the class were a few years younger than I was. I remember there being a teen girl in the class who wore a Leonard Cohen concert T-shirt to class one day and we all ribbed her to no end. Leonard wasn’t a “cool” choice amongst all the alt-rock kids but a few of us in the know, came to her defence after things got carried away. No one should have to pay for being a fan of Cohen. I’m sure all those kids know that now as adults.

“All the women tear their blouses off
and the men they dance on the polka-dots
and it’s partner found, it’s partner lost
and it’s hell to pay when the fiddler stops”

It was also around that time that my older brother Andrew came back to live at home for a while. After years of living in the States, he had been indoctrinated into listening to Country music, yes, he wore cowboy boots and the whole bit. Interestingly, “Closing time” got its hooks into him, perhaps it was the fiddle, which was part of what got its hooks into me. Unfortunately, though, that meant that the cassette tape I had this on was always in the player and he would replay it to the point where I was almost sick of it. Then, he would drag me out with him to country bars to pick up women, none of whose companions I was ever remotely interested in, and then, drunkenly sing the few lines he knew of “Closing time” over and over again as we were staggering home in the early hours of the morning.

“Yeah we’re drinking and we’re dancing
but there’s nothing really happening
and the place is dead as Heaven on a Saturday night
And my very close companion
gets me fumbling gets me laughing
she’s a hundred but she’s wearing
something tight”

I only recently learned that “Closing time” is Leonard Cohen’s love poem to Toronto’s famous dive/after hours bar, The Matador, sadly now defunct (though I hear plans to resurrect it are in the works). I have only ever been to the Matador once in my life and that was on my friend Tim’s birthday, probably more than a decade ago now. We were all rather drunk already, which made a surreal experience all the more surreal. Nobody seem to know its precise address but the mere mention of the name to the cab driver got us all there without incident. Once there, we stood in line for an unknown amount of time but I distinctly remember our friend Mark saying to me, “If they ask you if you’re a cop, just say ‘no’.” There are plenty more stories that I could tell of that evening inside The Matador but I’ll leave those for another evening over beers. Let’s just say that when closing time actually rolled around, we stumbled out blinking in the morning sun and into waiting cabs bound for our beds.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1992 list, click here.

Best tunes of 2002: #10 David Bowie “Everyone says ‘hi'”

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Wow. It took almost three and half years for this blog to see its first proper post to feature David Bowie. Fittingly, it was his 2002 album, “Heathen”, that really set me on the course to fandom. Of course, I’d heard him before, knew many of the hits, heard a few of his compilations, but I feel sure that this was the first of his albums to which I listened in full and took an immediate liking.

Seen by many at the time as a comeback of sorts, David Bowie’s 22nd album was his highest charting album since the early 80s and was generally as well-received by the critics as it was the buying public. It saw him easing back from the electronic sound he focused on in the 90s, consecutively dabbling in soul/jazz, industrial, and electronica/rave sounds, and instead, playing with a more fulsome and organic palette. The cover art of “Heathen” felt like a play or self-parody, an older Bowie looking clean cut and almost too normal, except for those eyes, those eyes felt alien. Yeah, alien.

Right neat the end of album, at track ten, sits this tune, “Everyone says ‘hi’”, the album’s second single. You might think by its title that it’s a happy and light number and listening to it superficially might find you in the same place. But this big sounding tune that mixes solid acoustic strumming and plenty of chameleonic synths, is really a song about loss and missing someone so terribly that you can’t accept it and instead, choose to imagine them having gone temporarily, vacation-like.

“Said you took a big trip
They said you moved away
Happened oh, so quietly
They say”

This song is magic and the more you listen to the words, the deeper they cut. And suddenly, the cheerful tune becomes haunting, the saxophone rings in nostalgia, recalling his youth, the strings gather you all in. “Everyone says ‘hi’.” Everyone misses you, Bowie is saying, the pain is so great that everyone feels it, like pathetic fallacy. Just amazing.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2002 list, click here.

Best tunes of 2012: #24 John K. Samson “Heart of the continent”

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With apologies to my youngest brother Mike*, I didn’t really get into and start appreciating the songwriting of John K. Samson until somewhere between the time of The Weakerthans’ last record and when they went on the extended hiatus that continues to this day.

It’s not like I didn’t have my chances. I actually saw them live twice. The first time was in 2001, when I hadn’t yet heard of them at all. They were the opening act on a card supporting Billy Bragg and The Lowest of the Low in Toronto, the latter of whom I recall Samson claiming were a huge influence on his own songwriting. The second time I saw them was in 2008 and they played in the afternoon on the second day of Toronto Island’s Virgin Fest. I was much better prepared this time, having brushed up on pretty much all of their records, and even finding a few favourite tunes on these. Yet still, though I enjoyed their set quite a bit, I wasn’t quite as into it as was my friend Mark, though truth be told, his enjoyment might have been enhanced by the bit of cannabis he had partaken in just beforehand.

What really did it for me was a couple years after that second show when I happened to be in Winnipeg around the time of their renowned Folk Festival. One of the sets that I managed to catch there was an afternoon songwriting workshop that included members of Jon And Roy, Works Progress Administration, and Swell Season and which was led by a genial fellow that I thought looked familiar right from the beginning. It turned out that it was local legend and the unofficial poet laureate of Winnipeg, John K. Samson, and of course, the theme that afternoon was on writing about home.

This is something Samson does often. His hometown of Winnipeg and other bits of Canadiana often entered the conversational tone of the lyrics of The Weakerthans’ songs. And there is no good reason why he would change his thinking when he released his debut solo album, “Provincial”, in 2012, which is the host of today’s song, “Heart of the continent”. Indeed, the title of today’s song is Winnipeg’s slogan, which is why many consider it like a sequel of sorts to The Weakerthans’ “One great city”, which was, of course, Winnipeg’s old slogan.

“There’s a billboard by the highway
That says welcome to
(Bienvenue à)
But no sign to show you when you go away“

It’s a lovely tune. Samson’s lyrics take the front seat, his now recognizable voice all soft and wistful, while his fingers brush and pluck away at the strings of an acoustic guitar. It’s like he’s busking on his favourite street corner (perhaps on Memorial), complete with his foot stomping on the kick pedal drum. Little by little, the people passing to and fro join him in the chorus, perhaps there’s another guitar and snare that make their way out from the abandoned building in front of which Samson sings, his hat still empty in front of him.

Yep. With this tune and this album, I became a full fledged Samson fan.

*My youngest brother Mike is a pretty big Weakerthans fan and was behind “One great tribute”, a tribute album to the band that was released last year.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2012 list, click here.