Saturday, June 21, 2008

Jewish Uncles

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.


RobinSlick said...

Ha! Too funny...and too true.

Hey, the blog layout is great - first time I'm seeing the new design.

Congrats on the July 4 gig - that does look cool! I'm touring Canada that weekend...well, until July 11, actually...with "the band" - I've never been there before and I hear it's yet another country I'm going to visit and not want to leave.

My favorite recent Leonard Cohen lyric? I think I may have shared this on Zoetrope before, but it totally knocks me out.

"And quiet is the thought of you,
The file on you complete,
Except what we forgot to do,
A Thousand Kisses Deep."

Steve Augarde said...

Thanks Rob. It's Glastonbury this weekend (can you believe that?)and Cam now has a press pass. Her mother's angling for a photograph with guess who? Laughing Len...

dovegreyreader said...

But I ADORE Uncle Paul..I WAS Kathy when he sang that song, and then of course there was the day we boarded the Greyhound in Pittsburgh when Michigan seemed like a dream to us and of course the man in the gaberdine suit was definitely a spy, it was obvious and Paul agreed so then we read our magazines...I could go on but I'll stop.

Steve Augarde said...

Well, maybe it was a girl thing. Like Paul McCartney was always the girls' favourite Beatle. I liked Simon's songs though. 'Still Crazy' is up there with the best.

He does quite a nice line in self deprecation, too. There's that story of him and Art Garfunkel sitting in a car together in some out of the way place. Lonely, bored, nowhere to go. Then 'The Sound Of Silence' comes on the car radio.

'Boy', says Paul. 'I bet those two guys are having a great time...'

dovegreyreader said...

Bless Paul, that's his sense of humour alright,I expect they bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs Wagner's pies because me and Paul used to do that all the time!
Might need to put the CD on now, I've gone all nostalgic for Bookends.