The music that made me, the music that moved me: Leonard Cohen, Tracy Chapman, Counting Crows and The National | Rodney Reiners

From Rodney Reiners Blog

I feel music.

I don’t listen to it, I don’t hear it.

I feel it.

As the ‘laat lammetjie” [late child] in the family, and my siblings much older, I spent much of my childhood alone. Trapped inside my head, and unable to make sense of the bizarre South Africa I was born into, music provided an escape route, a safety valve, a mellifluous, lyrical conduit to quell the encroaching demons.

So, even today, music, songs that appeal to me, simply seep into my consciousness; it wriggles under the skin and pervades my emotions in a manner that’s almost textural, tangible.

“Music is the emotional life of most people,” said Leonard Cohen.

Wherever we come from, whatever we are, whoever we are, irrespective of race, culture or religion, notwithstanding colour or creed, music is something we all have in common.

We might like different types, different sounds, different rhythms – rock, pop, classical, jazz, country, folk or even all the new musical genres  – but there’s no disputing the fact that music evokes emotion and memory.

As the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow so aptly summed up: “Music is the universal language of mankind.”

For me, it’s always about the listening, the feeling. I have an album of Paul Williams that I remember playing on repeat at the age of 12 – and I’ve always been charmed, captivated by the inscription on the back: “There are those who listen and those who wait to talk. This album is dedicated to the listeners.”

Earlier this week, my son, Rustin, and I watched the new Cohen documentary – “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song” – and it triggered, inspired this blog post.

As the movie credits scrolled down at the end of the documentary, the curtains to the screen of my life opened. It catapulted me back to my childhood, to the starting point where my love for music and, more importantly, lyrics and words, were first awakened.

Poet, singer and songwriter, Cohen’s inner strife, his pain and passion, has always intrigued and inspired. His dexterity with words, to make it come alive, to make emotions come oozing out of a phrase or sentence, provided comfort, cheer and clarity to this young kid growing up on the streets of Factreton.

In addition to the new documentary out on the circuit now, I’ve also seen the 1974 documentary, “Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire”, and the hauntingly beautiful “Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love”.

I also have his book, “The Flame”, which Rustin gave me as a birthday present a few years ago.

But, back then, musically, it wasn’t just Cohen…

It actually all started with John Lennon and the Beatles. As a young boy, I was obsessed with Lennon and his revolutionary, non-conformist approach to life. There was no TV, there was no social media, so I spent hours in the local library, reading just about anything that was available on Lennon and the Beatles.

In addition to Cohen and Lennon, there was Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Carole King, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Jim Croce, Don McLean, Janis Ian, Peter Sarstedt, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Bread and Fleetwood Mac [including the husky vulnerability of that most idiosyncratic voice, Stevie Nicks].

But music doesn’t only elicit emotion, it also freezes a moment in time. And that particular moment, that memory, endures – eternally. For me, that instant etched in time is Rustin, as a little boy, probably around 3 or 4, seat-belted in the back of my car, and singing along, at the top his voice, to the words of Alanis Morissette’s “Thank You, India/ Thank you terror/ Thank you disillusionment…”

And, I guess, as fate would have it, Rustin is a talented musician/singer/songwriter himself today.

In the same way that he was introduced to my love for music, he is now able to expose me to new singers and new sounds – like Phoebe Bridges, Gregory Alan Isakov, Novo Amor, Paolo Nutini, Harrison Whitford, City and Colour, Iron and Wine, Noah Gunderson, Sufjan Stevens, Ben Howard and Paper Kites, to name a few.

Rustin doing his music thing

My musical past, though, cannot be complete without three more names – Tracy Chapman, Counting Crows and The National.

When Chapman released her first album in 1988, it blew me away. “Fast Car” and its lyrics spoke to the socio-economic issues affecting so many South Africans, and “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” echoed the political struggle we were faced with.

The unique sound of the Counting Crows and the raw, emotionally-charged lyrics of enigmatic lead singer Adam Duritz always renders me exhausted and breathless. Duritz’s brutally honest, heart-on-a-sleeve style often brandishes a metaphorical razor blade at your emotions, your intellect. And, like a poet, he leaves you, spread-eagled in admiration, eager to craft your own interpretation of what you’ve just listened to, of what you’ve just felt.

I have almost every album the Counting Crows have released. There are so many good songs, so many good lyrics. But to share just one.. It comes from a song called, Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby: “If dreams are like movies, then memories are films about ghosts.”

It’s a kaleidoscope of words and thoughts and pictures and images and similes and metaphors – it’s just so clever, so complicated, so devilishly ingenious, that you wish you could have written it yourself.

Rustin introduced me to The National, and I’ve been hooked ever since. I never thought anybody could pen lyrics/words as good as Cohen and Duritz, but in The National’s lead singer, Matt Berninger, they certainly have a rival.

I have two of the band’s lyrics tattooed on my arms: “There’s a science to walking through windows”… and… “I’m the rocks they weigh down the angels with”. Explaining the words, and what it means to me, would take another 1 000 words – so take from it what you will.

I also have a tattoo featuring a Cohen lyric – it’s from a song, called Anthem: “There is a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in”.

In a world, in a life, so difficult to negotiate, so inaccessible, so bewildering to comprehend, Cohen’s glimmer of optimism in that meaningful line is something to desperately hold on to.

I still have a Cohen album [we called it LPs back then], in which Kris Kristofferson says he will carve the words of a Cohen song – “Bird on the Wire” – on his tombstone: “Like a bird on the wire/Like a drunk in a midnight choir/I have tried in my way to be free…”

The cover of the album, featuring Kris Kristofferson’s promise

Cohen died in 2016 at the age of 82. The music lives on.

I still listen, I still feel his music, the words, the emotions… And I will – until, in Cohen’s words: “I’m leaving the table/I’m out of the game…”

Emily Dickinson’s immortal words in the poem: “Because I could not stop for Death/He kindly stopped for me…” Sooner or later, we all have to get on that carriage. Cohen’s acceptance is summed up in the letter he wrote to Marianne Ihlen, his muse, the woman who inspired the song “So Long Marianne”.

Leonard’s letter to a dying Marianne

Cohen died four months later.

And I am left with my favourite lyric/image from ‘So Long, Marianne’ – which gave me goosebumps, as well as succour, at a time in my child/teen/hood when I needed something to staunch the flow of hopelessness: “I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web/is fastening my ankle to a stone.”

It’s now decades later – and those words are still as relevant as ever.

I’m still on a ledge, my ankle is still tied with a fine spider web…


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