It’s no good talking about the three most of this or the three best of that because they change – with age, with health, with mood, with time. But I can think of a number of songs I have liked and still do and I can bring three to the fore right now.
At school, aged 16 or so, I heard down a long bleak corridor, a man with a deepish, sonorous voice singing about a woman called ‘Suzanne’ – singing in a way I had never heard anyone sing before. A fellow pupil who was always ahead of the game when it came to music had bought yet another new LP. With him around, we were always moving on – listening to Elvis and forgetting Cliff Richard, finding the Rolling Stones and knocking the Beatles; Dylan and Baez were in there too. The great debates of school – which group/singer do you like the best? Tenuous friendships could be won or lost with the answer.
Anyway, Leonard Cohen was the man for me then and has remained so for all of fifty years. His lyrics hint at a world out there that I never quite entered – well, perhaps a little, but only a little. He has carried me forward and given thought and pleasure in equal quantities. He is still out there singing.
Coincidentally, his current partner, Anjani, sings another song that is with me right now – hers is one of the current batch of CDs that are in favour in this house. The song is, appropriately, ‘Thanks for the Dance’. Just before we left the South Island of New Zealand in April, we spent an enjoyable night with friends in Richmond. During the evening, a DVD of Anjani singing this song was on the screen. It reminds me of our time in New Zealand, of the friends we made and remade and beyond that it reminds me of Leonard Cohen towards whom I guess the song was aimed.
The third is not a single song but a series of songs that always get to me – the songs of exile. It doesn’t particularly matter where the singer comes from, it’s that yearning for home that grabs me. The Irish have the edge on these – the ‘Mountains of Mourne’ is a particular favourite. From Cornwall, it’s ‘Lamorna’ that makes me pause and remember, but it could equally be ‘Little Lize’ and ‘Camborne Hill’ or even ‘Trelawney’ itself. Paradoxically, the inner sadness that these songs bring tends to revive the spirit – or perhaps renew it. Like tears – the feeling is better afterwards – a catharsis – maybe all music has a large cathartic element.
Mendelssohn wrote that you can’t put music into words, not because it is vague but because it is too precise for words. Maybe we all need the music.