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Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Dos: Day 253
Saturday, Sept 22, 2012

“Bird on the Wire [Live at Isle of Wight] ”
Leonard Cohen

1969; 1970

“♫ like a knight
from some old-
fashioned book/ I
have saved all
my ribbons for
thee
♫”

I grew up in the city… alright, seriously I was suburban child born in Gross Pointe, Michigan. Rarely ever did I spend time outside, besides playing ball, the sport in season, Nature and me were estranged to say the least while I was growing up. My parents tried to make my brothers and I appreciate the great outdoors. We would go on mandatory family day trips to botanical gardens and a plethora of national parks but did I appreciate it back then…hell no. I was a ColecoVision kid who would rather spend his Sundays watching football. Sadly, looking back, I was some spazzed out over caffeinated, spoiled, hyperactive Mama’s boy. The only thing I was pondering while out in nature what the score was from the NFL games we were missing.

So what changed? I was always too fidgety and over wired with sweets and sugary treats to appreciate the outdoors. I met my future wife. She attempted to take her soon to be high maintenance husband camping. I felt like Evan Dando trying to weasel my way out of camping telling her “♫ I lied about being the outdoor type. ♫ ” But she knew, something deep inside, that I needed the outdoors. What was it that sold me? It was being literally unplugged. No TV, no internet, no telephone just peace and quiet. And this was coming from someone who loved the noisy street cars bustle of New Orleans and Red Line train speeding by at all hours of the night in Chicago.

Quiet was something that scared me. It was more to do with being alone with my thoughts from someone who was wandering in his private universe lost, alone and fear of being who he was destined to be. Out in nature was where I discovered who I truly was. DH Lawrence said it best quoted in Tony Tost’s 33 1/3 tome on Johnny Cash’s American Recordings, when he wrote, “Men are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes.” It was on one of those camping trips when I rediscovered my calling. We were staying at a campsite off the 101. My wife and I wandered to a nearby beach watching all the seagulls and birds flying above us, I began to write a poem in my head. With every fly over by the birds and every step I took in the sand, I wrote another line from this poem I began making up in my mind. After a few moments, I kissed my wife explaining to her ‘I had to get back to the campground. Why she asked? “Because I’m writing a poem in my head.” She smiled and let me go back alone. Because of my worsening memory, I just remember revising the poem in my head, as I passed cars, tents, campers, bridges, trees and bushes. I made it back to camp and that poem lives today. When I hear “Bird on the Wire” I think about that moment with the seagulls above me is where my inner light-bulb was a creative reawakening of my true poetic self. When Leonard sings, “♫ But I swear by this song/ and by all that I have done wrong/ I will make it all up to thee. ♫” I understand now, this is how I felt, at the time, about my poetic voice, which I had abandoned for years. “Bird on the Wire” reminds me of how Leonard Cohen once described the life of a poet, “It’s much like the life of a catholic nun. You’re married to mystery.”

The mystery inside is what most people avoid uncovering. The journey of a true poet is trying to answer our internal ambiguities with our own lyrical snapshots in poetic form. No one is better at this craft that the master—Leonard Cohen. Cohen once introduced “Bird on the Wire” as, “I wrote this song a long time ago, under the most prosaic circumstances. I noticed outside of my window that there was a wire directed by the telephone company. On that wire, there was a bird… (singing)…..Like a bird”……. (applause) …. (stops playing). I really enjoy your recognizing the song but I’m scared enough as it is up here. I think something’s wrong every time you begin to applaud. So, if you do recognize the song, will you just wave your hand? I would really like to see you all wave your hands if you recognize the song. I hope you bear with me. These songs are kind of, they become meditations for me and sometimes I just don’t get high on it and I feel that I’m cheating you. So I’ll try it again, okay? And if it doesn’t work, I’ll stop in the middle. There is no reason why we should mutilate a song just to save face. But here it goes…”

I believe the best rendition of “Bird on the Wire” is on the 2009’s release of Leonard’s Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 show. One of my favorite aspects of the Isle of Wight show was the way Cohen changed some of the lyrics of songs like “Bird on the Wire” if only slightly. But just like a master poet, once you replace a word with another one it changes the meaning completely. Instead of saving the ribbons Cohen switches that line with “♫ I have saved all my sorrow for thee. ♫” It matches the reflective mood of his desolate life of unrequited love.

But the most amazing part of “Bird on the Wire” is at the end of the second verse when Leonard updated his lyric from “♫ and if I have been untrue/ I hope you know it was never to you,♫ ” to “♫ and if I have been untrue/ It’s just that I thought a lover had to be some kind of liar too.” ♫ His one lyric was a reflection of my own past lies and romantic failures. Who else can do this? With one line he encapsulates a lifetime of heartache. This is why, to me, just like Dylan and Shakespeare, Cohen is one of the eternal lyrical geniuses.

I have learned, loved, lied and lost, yet I still have survived the other side— older, a little wiser, married, lover and most of all a reborn poet. Not only has Leonard Cohen guided me on my journey to reclaiming my calling with my poems but I cannot forget the importance of one Johnny Cash. Cash’s cover of “Bird on the Wire” in 1994’s American Recordings, was so timelessly incredible, Johnny inspired me to open my mind and ears to the music of Leonard Cohen. How could I call myself a true poet without rediscovering the magic prose of Leonard Cohen?

“Bird on the Wire” is one of the classics which reminds me of a time when I felt caught in my own personal cage afraid of letting my poetic voice fly. It was that day while camping when my true voice came out under the wings of the birds. “Bird on the Wire” reflects that day and the journey that I am continuing on today. When I sing on my page, I come closer to a reflection of who I am, who I was and what I long to see. It’s easy to play a role for someone else, thanks to Leonard Cohen, what I’ve discovered – I write… therefore I am.

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