Wednesday, April 22, 2009

On Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Leonard Cohen

I spent a good amount of time (well, okay, about 20 seconds) looking for a good thematic link between the two topics on my mind, but I couldn't come up with anything clever. I know it's doable. If being an English major taught me anything, it's that you can tie any sort of random bullshit together as long as you use semi-proper grammar, and no one, except smartypants dillweeds trying to impress the professor, is really going to call you on it.

Anyway, since this is not an English class essay, I can dispense with theses and themes entirely. Hell, I don't even need proper paragraphs! I can do it in a numbered list! I don't need no education! I don't need no thought control! Yeah! Whoooo!

Without further ado:

1) Buffy the Vampire Slayer is awesome. I know I am seriously LTTP on this one--doy--but hey, a man can't watch everything on TV all the time without falling behind in other important areas of life, like getting geared up for WoW raids. I missed Buffy the first time around probably because of the name, which seemed ridiculously silly, which, of course was the whole point--which whooshed right over my tiny head. My introduction to the wonderful wit and storytelling of Buffy creator Joss Whedon came instead with "Firefly", which I also missed at the time, but caught on DVD a year or so ago and absolutely adored. (Add me to the large group of males with a permanent man-crush on Nathan Fillion).

With my daughter now in high school and with not much good on TV and with only the horrific prospect of books, or, worse, actual conversation, looming before us, the time seemed right for "Buffy." And, yeah, it's what most you all already knew: It rocks. As folks warned me, Season 1 is a bit shaky, with characters still in a primordial state, with overly wooden dialog, but the seeds of greatness are definitely there. (I was sold on the show as soon as the first principal...well, I shouldn't spoil it I guess). We're a bunch of episodes into Season 2 now, though, and the rise in quality is exponential--with the writing just firing on all cylinders now. Super funny stuff with genuine moments of suspense and scares mixed in. Really, though, though it's the dialog I'm in love with, just as in Firefly, with characters gloriously riffing off each other, commenting knowingly and sarcastically on the ongoing ridiculousness of their situation and yet fully living in it, too.

It's not all irony for irony's sake, which is why I think the show is so loved: In between the snark, there is real passion and heartache and drama, giving the show a surprising resonance. So, yeah. I'm hooked. (The one thing that is still annoying, me, though, despite being the funniest guy on the show: Xander is far too good looking to be the show's "nerd"--but that's always a fault of TV casting. Still, the actor's coming timing more than makes up for his lack of nerdiness.)

2) The Leonard Cohen concert that my wife and I attended last week was one of the best concert experiences of my life. I really should devote a whole separate, gigantic post to it, but even that wouldn't do it justice. I've seen tons and tons of great shows, ones that I'll never forget and that ROCKED MIGHTILY, but I've only ever seen a handful that I would characterize as transcendent, or life-changing experiences--where the bond between artist and audience is so electric, with everyone riding a wave of epiphany, that one can say, without either exaggerating or belittling the term, that they were "religious experiences."

Off the top of my head, I can recall three:
1) Van Morrison at the Greek Theater in Berkeley circa 1987. Morrison is a notoriously erratic performer--prone to bad moods and crankiness (I once saw him perform with his back to the audience for a number of songs--and I've seen more bad shows than good ones)--but when he has it together, he can be great, and when he REALLY has it together, it's, well like sitting in a congregation. At least that's how it felt that summer day in Berkeley.

Morrison is the great white soul singer of the last 50+ years, and if you only know him from "Moondance," then you don't know him at all, as the real beauty of him is not the FM radio-friendly "lite jazz," but the growling, searching, restless poet who can sing the same word 30 times in a row and make each time sound different, and vital, and alive. At the Greek Theater that day, for whatever reason, the muse was with him. He was feeling it. He took off on some kind of spiritual voyage with that voice of his, and we were all there with him. It doesn't matter to me now how much he goes through the motions, or sinks further into cranky old man-hood. For that one show alone I'll always be grateful.

2) And speaking of grateful! HAHA! The Grateful Dead at the Greek circa 1983-4. (Sorry anal-retentive Deadheads, can't remember exactly when.) This was my first Dead concert, and I went into it, I'm fully willing to admit, as a hater. I was still in my punk-ish faze. I even wore black, even though it was a hot summer day at an outdoor concert. I was dragged there by my friend Lynne, and was determined not to enjoy myself. I spent the first few songs, in fact, doing just that, making fun of the whole thing to myself, scoffing at the hippies, unable to see what the big deal was about a bunch of old guys noodling around. But after about a half hour, a funny thing happened: It got to me. I started hearing it, and feeling it, despite myself, while simultaneously having an uneasy moment of realization: I was the only asshole in the place. I was the only one in the entire place not having a great time.

As I began to let my guard down, and let my preconceptions go, and started listening to Jerry's guitar the way everyone else was, the way he was exploring and storytelling and singing through that instrument, I started to get it. Then I really got it. I've been on the bus, at least casually, ever since--I saw them about 8 times total, a paltry amount, I know. With time I realized that this first show I happened to see, the one that "converted" me, was indeed a special one, with the entire crowd responding in time with the band as one that day. When I think about the many great moments in my life so far, this one stands out with the best: A sea of happy, smiling people--including me--dancing in the warm California sun, cheering ecstatically with every musical epiphany the band kept reaching.

3) Finally, there was Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. Again, another show that I had to be dragged to. And again one that I walked out of transformed. "Indian music"? No thanks. (And, yes, I know now it's actually Pakistani, and, specifically, a style of music known as Qawwali.) My wife got tickets for this, and I couldn't have walked in less enthused. I remained unenthused, too, when the show started, and there on the stage was a really fat dude sitting on the stage floor, surrounded by other dudes also sitting on the floor. Yeah! Let's get this party started!

And, then, much to my surprise: They did. Big time. Like Garcia and Morrison, Nusrat was just simply tapped into something else--"the mystic", in Morrison's words--that has the ability to sweep everyone along who's willing to listen. I won't pretend to know much at all about Qawwali music, but what I heard that day (and ever since on the CDs I bought) changed my life, by opening me up to non-Western music and ideas that influence me to this day. I didn't understand one word he sang that night, but I did understand the sweep of emotion and passion expressed in his unbelievably aching, beautiful voice, and the fervor that such passion aroused in the audience. I actually don't think I've ever seen anything quite like what happened at that show before or since: A crowd sitting respectfully and quietly in their seats, transformed by show's end into some crazy cross between rave party and religious revival. In one night, it completely changed my understanding of what "cool" music was.

Which leads me, in a rather longwinded way(yikes, sorry!), to the Leonard Cohen concert. This one I didn't need to be dragged to. But I was coming more as an admirer than as a passionate fan, like my wife. I loved "I'm Your Man" when it first came out, but I never connected with him even a fraction as much as I did with Bob Dylan. He struck me as more lachrymose, and even dull, lacking the bluesy roots and humor of Dylan. Seeing him at the beautifully restored Paramount Theater in Oakland last week, at the creaky age of 74, I realized, instantly, just how much I have underrated him. Because this was a show for the ages.

For over three hours, Leonard Cohen absolutely owned that stage, and everyone in the building with him. I think many of us in the crowd didn't know what hit us, so strong was the emotional intensity of his performance. A woman one row in front of us at one point burst into tears and got up, which sounds comical and exaggerated now, but I promise you, in that moment, probably all of us around her were thinking, "I hear ya, sister." More than any of the shows described above, this one was probably more of a "you had to be there" thing. Listening to any of his recorded songs, it's still hard to imagine he could pull off this kind of musical and spiritual feat. (Though Jeff Buckley's deservedly famous cover of Cohen's Hallelejah points the way.) But he did. There was something about seeing this somewhat frail, grey-haired, 74-year-old man up there, pouring his heart out so transparently and openly, that was just almost profound. At a few key points in the show, the band stopped playing and he simply recited lyrics like the poems that they are, and it was in those recitations that I realized just how much I *hadn't* been hearing in his lyrics all these years, and now for the life of me can't understand why. All I know is I walked out of that show, like the other great ones in my life, transformed--more alive, more aware, and more grateful than ever for the healing power that music has for me.

Umm, and that's all I have to say today. I think I thought I was gonna write about four sentences. I guess this is what happens when you go into the mystic.


Tim said...

Fun to hear about someone discovering the pure awesomeness of "Buffy". If you think "Season 2" is good now, just wait until those last few episodes. That's all I'm sayin'!

I actually discovered it quite late (Season 6 premiere) and went back and watched all the rest before it even finished!

Did I read correctly you are watching it with your daughter? That's cool but trust me when I say stop after Season 5. I'm guessing not matter how cool your relationship is with your daughter, you will not want to watch Season 6 together. You have been warned! :)

Will said...

Nathan Fillion's on Twitter. Now you can express your man-crush to him directly.

Kim said...

That was a great read. There are only a couple of gigs that I could talk in that way about the musical experiences but I have a bit of time left yet! It seems like Cohen has been leaving audiences in awe all around the world on this tour as I can remember reading similar sentiments down here in Australia. I'd love to read more music related blog posts Jeff!

Macroe said...

Good for you. I've never listened to Cohen, but I'll have time now with the swine flu coming down hard in Mexico City and my kids and I boxed in for the next week at least. Enjoy the crowds while you still can!

Apocalyptic trek to escape doomsday? We get it, Mr. McCarthy.

OnTheRoad22 said...

Great to see you on the Buffy train. A quick tip on watching Buffy & Angel. Make sure when you finish season 3, try and watch Buffy & Angel episode by episode as they originally aired. There are tie ins between the two and sequential events you will miss out on if you don't watch it as intended.

Anonymous said...

Damnit Jeff, you're a writer.

Anonymous said...

Season 3-5 of Buffy are my personal favs. You'll have a lot of fun when you get to them

Anonymous said...

Great article man. Seeing as you like the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan, I suggest checking out Jackie Greene, he's an up-and-coming musician that played with Phil Lesh at multiple concerts, and is compared to and inspired by Bob Dylan.

spate said...

From one Nathan Fillion fan to another... are you watching Castle? It's like CSI with Nathan Fillion--which makes it possibly the most fun crime drama on television atm.

evilkumquat said...

To OnTheRoad22 above:

Did Marvel Comics handle the Buffy/Angel production schedule?

I just love snagging back issues of older comic book titles, just to find out that if I want to learn the ending to the story, I have to start hunting for some random issue of another book I would never have picked up any other time.

Anonymous said...

Give Farscape a shot too. Same deal: 1st season seems a bit random until near the end when you realize they're pulling everything together for a major story arc. ~Hamilton

Kevin Elgar said...

Wow, I remember hearing something about Leonard Cohen in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (where I am now) sometime ago. And sure enough he is here April 28th! I would almost go based on your recommendation alone except for various reasons:

- I have never heard Leonard Cohen in my life
- Actually don't listen to much music at all
- Leave for home the very next day since college is over
- At this date, tickets seem to be going at $190
- I have no clue how I could convince someone my age to go with me!

Dammit! Now I feel like I'll be missing out on a life changing experience. Thanks Jeff. Though I think I will at least try some of his music now.

Paulo Marques said...

In case you don't know, Fillion appears near the end of Buffy... With quite an interesting performance, to be honest. I don't even know how to describe it without spoiling it, since it's so impactful. Well, it was for me, anyway.

Unknown said...

I hear you on the power of music, Jeff. It's amazing what a performance can do to your senses when everything comes together. The last time I felt that was seeing David Gilmour with my old man. I'll never forget it.

dLindner said...

OMG! 2 weeks ago I bought 100 Years of Solitude (100 aƱos de soledad) and began reading it!

I knew we were connected!

Anonymous said...

Whenever the topic of Canadian recording artists comes up in my international travels, people will often chuckle and say "Celine Dion" like it should be a slap in the face (it is) and use that as a point of reference for the kind of material that comes out of Canada. Two words -- Leonard Cohen -- typically kicks that line of reasoning in the groin. Haven't seen him "live" in years so it's awesome to hear that he's still got it.

Anonymous said...

Agreed about Xander. Although by the end of the shows run, everybody else got hotter and he got a bit heavy and sweaty, actually fitting the role better IMO. Always thought Bruce Campbell should have played his dad or his uncle, who turned out to actually be his dad.

Becky Jay Wallace said...

Hey Jeff Gren,

impotant message fo yas.

Spoiler alert: Buffy dies in season six.

~The Moose

Anonymous said...

Jeff, if you're enjoying Buffy, I'd also recommend Angel (finish watching S3 of Buffy first). In some ways I like it better than Buffy. Plus, Angel has the best episode ever in "Smile Time"

Anonymous said...

Leonard Cohen played here in Vancouver, at General Motors Place, right after having gotten back from doing Califonria, and I was given a free ticket to the show - Green, I'm almost embarrassed to write this after having read your eloquent post on the subject, but the show did absolutely nothing for me.

What can I say except that there's simply no accounting for taste.

Actually, there 'is' more that I can say about that:

I remember seeing Springsteen play The Pacific Coliseum in October of 1984.

Me and seven other friends (me and another guy had skipped school a month earlier to stand in line all day so that we could buy four tickets apiece - the only time I ever missed a day of classes) were seated directly behind the stage, about 50 feet away from The Boss.

The first song Springsteen played was 'Born in the U.S.A.' and I can remember being so shocked by the power of this that I was unable to get out of my seat. Springsteen, after having played about three songs, had been unable to whip the typically reserved Canadian crowd into a frenzy, and was clearly puzzled by this, and shouted, in the middle of a song: "Come on, what the hell are you waiting for!"

I remember that after about a half an hour (at that point I felt like I was dreaming - time seemed to be moving so quickly) he played my favorite song from Born In The USA, which was "Working On A Highway!" - and after this he stopped the show for a full fifteen minutes because he had to work on 'crowd control'. There was a massive bottleneck of people in front of the stage, which was obviously potentially dangerous, and he just stood there, with his arms crossed, refusing to play until people returned to their own seats. It got to be comical after a while, and my best friend, seated right beside me, shouted: "I'm not paying for this!", which got a huge laugh from the crowd. Springsteen himself turned around and looked at us and and said: "No... no... it's okay, you're not payin' for this..."

His show, with an intermission in the very middle, lasted for four-and-a-half hours, and by the end of the night, with the house lights on, every person in the building was up on their feet, screaming for yet another encore. The final song he played was "Santa Clause Is Coming To Town" - yes, this was in October. Before he and the E-Street Band played this song, his then band-mate, Patti Scialfa, put her hand on his arm, pleading with him to end the show. But the crowd was going crazy, and Springsteen just laughed and shook his head and launched into the final song of the night. (And I've not seen Springsteen perform live since)

When he left the stage that night, he passed right beneath us, into the tunnel, and to this day I can still picture the look of utter triumph on his face - he had completely won over the tough Canadian crowd, and was just basking in the glow from the applause. (It's impossible for me to believe now that at the time Springsteen was just 35).

My best buddy, being the type of guy that he was, reached down with his hand as Springsteen passed beneath us - the security guard closest to us immediately pointed at my friend and shouted at him to withdraw, but to my surprise... I think to everyone's surprise... Springsteen just jumped up and smacked my buddy's hand. It was exactly the type of thing that I wished I had done.

Anyhow, the point is that one of my friends had given a ticket away to this guy who was visiting from the interior of British Columbia. A complete prick, he was much more interested in trying to get girls to notice him than he was on the show itself. After the show I had to drive this asshole (and some stupid girl that he'd met) back to North Van - after ten minutes of silence, I finally I asked him what he had thought of the show, and he responded by saying that it was a bore.

That was very long drive back, and a very quiet one too.

The Goose

(Sorry about the long post, Green. Sometimes I can't help myself.)

Anonymous said...

Don't worry about the long post, Anonymous - we love what you write.

Anonymous said...

What, really!

shivam said...

you got to see nusrat before he died? He's one of the greatest musicians to ever come out of south asia. Hindus and Muslims alike saw god in his music, and his lyrics have become prayers that are still sung in mosques and temples throughout north india.

Needless to say, I'm insanely jealous. That guy could rock the mike like nobody's goddamned business, and his live sets tore the roof down.

Allan said...

This post is awesome, Mr. Green. I particularly enjoyed the part where you recounted your mystical, musical experiences; the way you wrote it made me feel almost what you felt! Having said that, though, I totally understand what you mean when you say there are times when you just "had to be there."

I went to Video Games Live last Saturday and it was totally different from the performances that you would get from, say, watching it on YouTube. It was pretty amazing, having hundreds of people who love the video game culture enjoying the same, beautiful (and at times hilarious) music. No biases. No hateful language. Just pure enjoyment.

I don't mean to detract from your experiences (Video Games Live is not exactly on the same scale as a Leonard Cohen concert) but the effect is similar, and I just wanted to say I understand what you meant. There's that emotional attachment that an artist can share with his audience -- whether through the lyrics, a battered lover pouring his heart and soul out on the microphone for the world to hear, or through a rendition of the Metal Gear Solid theme, a crowd nostalgically reminiscing together their epic (and at times long-winded) journey with Solid Snake -- and being a part of that connection is something else.

I probably screwed up my sentence structure somewhere so please forgive me.

Glad to see you are writing again!

Also, Buffy is awesome.

Anonymous said...

Surely there is something heartwarming in the fact that here we have a jewish man engrossed by the performance of a muslim musician singing the praise of Allah. Almost makes you believe that this planet has a future!!

Matthew thorne said...

I saw the same concert down here in Adelaide, Australia. We listened to him play on Australia day out in the Barrossa valley (A world renowned wine area in South Australia) at a vineyard. An audience of more than five thousand sat, in complete silence for his poems, wept in unison during Hallelujah and listened to him calmly and soulfully open his heart to the audience under the starry sky.

The single greatest concert experience of my life - And I saw Bob Dylan the year before and The Who only two months ago.

He is, without a doubt, one of the greatest storytellers of our time.

Stephen said...

Re: Mr. Cohen

Myself and Canada would like to take this opportunity to say, "You're welcome!"

Re: BtVS

Yes, Jeff, it is an awesome series. Right up to the end. Or is it the 'end'? Mwahahahaha! And I hope you enjoy the "Once More, With Feeling" episode (season 6). Angel series is excellent, too.

Shobo said...

A word of warning, Buffy will eat your heart, chew it up and spit it out.

xian said...

we get it. you're gay for fat hippies.

shelly said...

As far as the Xander being to good looking... you should listen to the commentary on episode one by Joss Whedon :)

Anonymous said...

Xander is a dork, Willow is the nerd.

Eileen said...

I discovered Buffy late, too; I think a lot of people did. You inspired me, though, to go watch Youtube videos of Leonard Cohen (I know, it's not the same as being there), who I've always been familiar with but, like you, never quite appreciated -- maybe because his songs seem so deceptively simple. They creep up on you, and so does Buffy (see, there is a connection). Wish I could have been there; I missed his DC area performance.

My own favorite concert experiences: I was lucky enough to go to the Pete Seeger birtday celebration in May at Madison Square Garden which was quite amazing -- Richie Havens, another performer I knew of but hadn't really followed, completely blew me (and everyone else there) away, and the whole show really...well, "you had to be there." I've also seen Arlo Guthrie multiple times and he just gets better and better with time.

kassto said...

Shobo Coker — you are so right: Buffy will eat your heart and spit it out. It happened to me and it took years to get over it!

Anonymous said...

The final episode of season 2 is really as good as it gets. Of course, if someone were to just watch the episode without watching the whole season, it doesn't have the same impact, but when watched in order... you'll want to cry.

QuoterGal said...

I didn't exactly connect Buffy and Cohen thematically - but I did sorta connect them through The Master:

"Darla""I believe that you heard your Master sing
When I was sick in bed.
I suppose that he told you everything
That I keep locked away in my head.

Your Master took you traveling.
At least that's what you said..."
- from Leonard Cohen's "Master Song"

(though technically, this episode pictured is from "Angel" & not "Buffy" - but, hey, same mythology.)

I'm a big ol' longtime fan of Buffy & the works of Joss Whedon, and Leonard Cohen.

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