Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Rootless Cosmopolites

by David Gordon

I first discovered Leonard Cohen in the garbage. I was dumpster diving with some friends in San Francisco, and we found (along with a Nakamichi tape deck I still have) a CD player that was jammed shut. We popped it open with a knife, and The Best of Leonard Cohen was inside. Since it was the only CD we had, we played it over and over. Then I went out and bought everything I could find with his name on it. No doubt I registered that Cohen was a Jewish name – is there a name more Jewish? – but at the time other things intrigued me more: the poetry, the pain, the grown up sex and wisdom. It was adult entertainment, in every sense of those words.

I became a Serge Gainsbourg fan later, after hearing “Bonnie and Clyde,” becoming utterly haunted by it, and realizing he was the same guy who sang those smart, sleazy, slick songs “Je t’aime…moi non plus” and “69 année érotique.” His legend fascinated me too: the louche ladies’ man always looking as though he’d been up all night at the orgy while secretly producing great art. Later I had a girlfriend in Paris who was obsessed with Serge, his grave, the graffiti-covered house. Recommending other singers I thought she’d like, I suggested Cohen. Why? The similar, gravelly voices. The talk-singing. The witty, dark, perverse lyrics. And, I suddenly realized, both were Jews, Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern European descent, a concept that barely made sense to a Japanese Parisian girl who barely knew any Jews besides me. My other suggestion, the CD I made her in NY, only confirmed this hunch: Lou Reed, another lone voice in another wilderness, a Jewish boy from Long Island who’d gone off the reservation into a life of crime, drugs, sex and art. Did every culture have one of these underground Jews? And did someone who loved one love them all?

When my current girlfriend told me on our first date that Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground were her favorites, I knew she was not only beautiful but a woman of rare taste for her generation, and I also realized, without a moment’s hesitation, what else to play for her: Cohen and Gainsbourg, of course, (and of course she loved them, and me for playing them) as well as that other Jewish star: Randy Newman, the strangest creature of all…A Jew with a Southern accent!

In the end, as with so many things, it all leads back to Dylan.

I never registered that Bob Dylan was Jewish until he got born again. As a profoundly secular, atheistic Jew living in the Jewish heartland of NY/NJ, I never gave Mr. Zimmerman’s ethnic or religious background a second thought, since, in my mind, it couldn’t have anything to do with his genius: by definition, nothing that reminded me of middle-class Jewish-American life could be of any interest.

Then he became a Christian, which was much worse. It seemed, frankly, ridiculous. (Although the show I saw during this period was terrific.) It made me realize that the best thing about being a smart, urban Jew was that we didn’t take it all so seriously. It also led me to think about how very Jewish his music had actually always been. There are the myriad Biblical references, too numerous to tally here, with the Old Testament far out-weighing the New. There is the voice itself, closer in some ways to a high, wailing cantor than to Elvis. Just like the other (sort-of) singing, wandering Jews, who are his secret brethren.

There are many other characteristics this group shares: They are intellectual, poetic, high-minded yet low-down, wicked and a little sleazy, portrayed sometimes as sexually depraved or ambiguous and morally or politically suspect. Their singing skills are, let’s say, unconventional, yet their voices became famous. They are seen as prophetic commentators, doom callers with obsessive fans, and as leaders and originators of forms, yet they remain always apart, more like each other than their supposed peers in folk, rock, punk, whatever. Eventually adopted as national or cultural heroes by their home-states, they nevertheless remain uneasy figureheads, critical and in a way forever foreign. They even, as they age, seem to look alike: the sharp noses, the slashed lines around the mouth, the deep-set eyes, open foreheads and thick kinky hair. They look…well they look kind of like some of my relatives…and it suddenly becomes possible to imagine that these guys, Midwesterner, Long Islander, Louisianian, Frenchman, Canadian, all have ancestors from the same shtetl in Russia, or a territory once conquered by Russia.

Weirdly, this profile is almost exactly in keeping with one of the classic anti-Semite stereotypes: the rootless cosmopolitan, the wanderer, the hustler, the intellectual, anti-patriotic, amoral seducer of Christian girls and boys, who insinuates himself into the culture, infecting it with his subversive ideas, his degenerate songs and decadent art, but nevertheless remaining eternally alien.

It turns out that they were right to be afraid, for the little sneaky Jews have triumphed. It is, I would argue, a counter-lineage, a line of Jewish development just as noble as, if less frequently acknowledged than, the rabbinical one, and among its great figures I would include Philip Roth, Larry David, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Walter Benjamin, Kafka and Freud. The dirty-minded, dark-hearted, deep-souled and golden-voiced Jewboys, who carried their weird little light all over this dark globe. I’m proud to be their humble descendant. Happy Hanukkah and YWHW bless us all!


"Tower of Song" mp3
by Leonard Cohen, 1988
available on I'm Your Man

"God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)" mp3
by Randy Newman, 1972.
available on Sail Away

"I'm Set Free (Closet Mix)" mp3
by The Velvet Underground, 1969.
available on Peel Slowly and See

"Ring Them Bells" mp3
by Bob Dylan, 1988.
available on Tell Tale Signs: the Bootleg Series Vol. 8

"Je T'aime... Moi Non Plus" mp3
by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin
available on Jane Birkin et Serge Gainsbourg


David Gordon's first novel, The Serialist, will be published by Simon & Schuster in March 2010.


DrHGuy said...

Intriguing analysis that I haven't seen articulated elsewhere so acutely. And, while the commonalities shared by Cohen, Dylan, Lou Reed, and Gainsbourg seem apparent enough, including Newman in that group was a surprising (at least to me) addition that provided a helpful insight.

This echoes the Cohen's perspective in these lyrics from The Future:

You don't know me from the wind
you never will, you never did
I'm the little Jew
who wrote the bible
I've seen the nations rise and fall
I've heard their stories heard them all
but love's the only engine of survival

Anonymous said...

what about sammy davis jr?

Anonymous said...

And don't forget Moishe Oysher.

Anonymous said...

Wonderfully written.

Jeff said...

very interesting indeed; my only differing comment being that Gainsbourg is the only one among them who manages to be non-maudlin, and thus the only one of this group who actually continues appeals to both me and the gurl who is now my ex but still my beast fren and bandmate. Gainsbarre rules avec poings de fer.

Anonymous said...

I like the artists that your are talking about - but when you say "Then he became a Christian, which was much worse." Well, I wonder if they would appreciate that a fan who knows their work, have only learned to make this kind of sentences.

Rene S. Saller said...

I loved this. Thank you.

jonny said...

god, that's why i love randy newman. american through and through.