GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

November 2, 2012

Journal Pages: The words of aging 'rock' stars

Journal Pages Susan Emerson
Gloucester Daily Times

---- — If you pay attention carefully, you must see that there is no coincidence.

Within exactly 12 hours that spanned Tuesday night and Wednesday morning this week, I received photographs (from their youths) of my two favorite rock stars — Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen.

I call them rock stars, not “music stars,” because J. S. Bach and Amadeus Mozart butt heads on another list completely.

It was just before “Closing Time” at my shop (no coincidence that’s my favorite Tom Waits song) on Tuesday, that my friend John dashed in on his way to play music somewhere.

“Here’s a little present for you,” he said, slipping me a crisp postcard portrait of Tom Waits in his early 20s. I shrieked like a teenaged girl.

Then, up the next morning at 4:30, I sat down to keep company with my coffee and a pile of unread New York Times Book Reviews that lay stacked, waiting for me to delve in. Often times, they save me needing to read the whole book.

The October 14th issue was on the top. I opened it, always scanning the non-fiction first, only to have it jump right off the page: “I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen” (no coincidence that “I’m Your Man” is my favorite Leonard Cohen song) by Sylvie Simmons.

I flipped to page 13, featuring an early photo of Cohen, and shrieked like a teenaged girl, devouring every word of A. M. Homes’ review. I wondered if I could even wait a month to have the book for my birthday.

Shrieking like a teenaged girl? How very unbecoming, maybe even ridiculous, you say. But, hold it! One of these guys is only three years younger than I, and the other, twelve years older. So actually, the three of us were teenagers at pretty much the same time. Give me that, at least, as a passable excuse. Thank you.

I have a friend who went to high school with Tom Waits in southern California. Their mothers were acquaintances, and once when her mother stopped for a brief visit, Waits’ mother said, go on up to Tom’s room — he’s just playing his guitar. She said, “All I could think of was — he’s such a jerk. He didn’t even look up at me, so I left. Who knew?”

What has appealed to me most about these two aging rock stars (both still writing and performing new material, both releasing new, brilliant albums this year – Waits still screaming, and Cohen, still enigmatic and sultry), is not the music so much as their lyrics.

Cohen is quoted in the book as having said to the N.Y. Times in 1969: “There’s no difference between a poem and a song. Some were songs first and some were poems first and some were simultaneous. All of my writing has guitars behind it, even the novels.”

How difficult it is, the reviewer of Cohen’s biography says, “to write about a writer whose work is so language- and phrase-specific, so intimate and distant at the same time, so perpetually engaged in the dance of seduction.” And this, of a man who is nearly 80!

In the review, I got a good taste of what I was hoping for, namely, what makes one of my heroes tick. I always listen carefully to the words in the music of Waits and Cohen when a new album is released. In recent years, the printed lyrics inside the jacket make the job easier.

When I’d finished the review, I thought I should write to them both. “Hey, if only you’d known me when we were teenagers, you might have fallen in love with me, written a song about me.”

But recognizing that for the silly, flirtatious, teenaged strategy that it was, instead, I simply embrace their words, as long as they’re still turning them out for me, and me alone, in song.

Susan S. Emerson is a regular Times columnist.