Saturday, June 21, 2008
Writer friend Robin Slick made me laugh recently when she said that nowadays Simon and Garfunkel looked like they could be her Jewish uncles - Uncle Mo and Uncle Schmo.
This morning's Guardian carries a feature on the lyrics of Bob Dylan, alongside a performance review of Leonard Cohen, currently touring the UK. Here are two more Jewish uncles, venerated and venerable, still both plying their schtick. It's interesting to see how they've all weathered the years.
I wasn't really aware, when I was young, that the great songwriting triumvirate of Dylan, Simon and Cohen happened to be Jewish. I don't think many young UK fans had the kind of radar to pick up on the fact, or that it would hold any significance for those that did. It seems no more than coincidence to me now, although questions of faith have often been prominent in their work. Cohen turned to Buddhism, Dylan became born again, with a fearful washed-in-the-blood-of-the-Lamb vengeance. Simon seems to remain as circumspect as ever whilst still namechecking God every once in a while.
Those of Jewish origin are as prevalent in UK arts and culture as in the States, but I don't know that Jewishness is something that we take much notice of over here. It came as a surprise to me to learn that Sgt. Bilko's character was intentionally Jewish, and that to Americans this was an important element of the humour. I just thought Phil Silvers was very funny. Likewise Lenny Bruce. I'm a few years too young to have been able to appreciate Lenny Bruce when he was at his peak, and this may be the reason I never saw his Jewishness as being central to his act. Again I just thought he was brilliant. Plus he swore a lot, much to my schoolboy delight. Jewish Americans have an underlying culture, rich and self-referencing, that doesn't exist in quite the same way over here.
Of the three aged uncles, Uncle Paul still holds the middle ground to my mind, bridging that gap between the often wilfully tossed-off scribblings of latterday Uncle Bob and the more precise and thoughtful haikus of Uncle Len. Simon is probably the most musically accomplished of the three, the most experimental in terms of exploring world rhythms and influences, and the most accessible in some ways. Yet he's difficult to feel close to. I don't know why. There's always been an air around Simon of someone admired rather than loved.
And then there's poor old Uncle Bob. Stick frail he's become, his pockets apparently empty of the pearls he once cast before us. It's hard to remember how funny he once was, especially in some of those early songs, '115th Dream' for example, where he couldn't even get past the first line for collapsing into helpless giggles. 'I was riding on the Mayflower, when I thought I spied some la-ha-ha-ha-nd...ha ha ha...start agin...' Not many laughs left in the guy nowadays, although I've enjoyed some of his radio shows.
It's Uncle Len who turns out to be the revelation. Once famous for writing songs to commit suicide by, he now seems as jolly as you like, cheerfully admitting that he's having to tour because his agent robbed him of $5 million whilst he was off being a Buddhist - which equanimity is a pretty good advert for Buddhism itself. I recently heard Cohen being interviewed by an utterly crass Radio 2 DJ, whose identity I won't give away, except to say that he's famously on 'in the afternoon'. It was a lesson in good humouredness under the most trying of circumstances. Plainly Mr. DJ had only the vaguest idea of whom he was talking to, giving every impression that he was working from a crib sheet hastily thrust into his hand just before the start of the programme. But Cohen came through it like a pro, affable and intelligent, ready to chuckle both at himself and the less than perfect world around him. Good old Uncle Len.
In fact, good on them all. Good old Uncle Paul, still crazy after all these years. Good old Uncle Bob, still a rolling stone. And good old Uncle Len, still my man. Oy.