June 20, 2006
“I felt so good, I couldn’t feel a thing”: Striking Revelations From Somewhere Near the Bottom of the Human Shitpile

fagen cohen.jpg
(The Nominally Irish) Donnard Fahen: A PBW Level-Up In the Raw, Free World of Custom Jpegging

The other night Alfred and I were in the midst of a long phone conversation about Steely Dan’s Gaucho when I looked down at my desk and noticed some flecks of blood on a CD. A mortal with mortal concerns, I’m always tempted to wonder where blood came from when I see it, especially when I see it on my desk. I looked at my hand and I had somehow gouged some portion out of my middle finger; it was covered in blood, which was streaming into my palm.

“Alfred, I’m sorry, but my phone is dying and I somehow cut myself and am bleeding everywhere.”

I only later realized how poetically appropriate the incident was—in the midst of mining strong feelings about the strikingly affect-less Gaucho, I actually wasn’t even registering enough to notice I was physically hurt. (Not surprisingly, the last time I had cut myself and not noticed was when I was on psychedelics a few years ago; when I noticed, I couldn’t do anything but just stare at the blood—the very legitimate side, I think, of Frank Kogan’s concern that psychedelics turn you into an Instant Aesthete. [The not-feeling feeling was also a significant swoop in my fading, regrettable waltz with a certain narcotic.])

Anyway, this past week, I’ve been more or less consumed with Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies Man and re-consumed by Steely Dan’s Gaucho (an album that actually seems more complicated and enthralling every time I hear it, rather than less). Listening to both back-to-back, I realized two things, one quickly and one slowly: one, I have a very broad soft spot for Hilarious Jewish Assholes (Cohen and Death of a Ladies Man producer Phil Spector, Lou Reed, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen). Two, and this took a little while longer, I realized that both Gaucho and Death of a Ladies Man are records that really want to fuck with a listener’s emotional make-up and challenge what place emotions have in music—sounds huge, I know; bear with me.

Death of a Ladies Man is constantly indulging in schlocky barroom bullshit—corny backing singers, sax solos, and pulpy, swooning melodies. Spector’s production drenches the mix in phasers and short echo; your cigarettes are gone, you are likely face down, you are definitely sweating. It’s pretty appropriate, actually. It’s a unique perversion of the romantic grandiosity/purity that Spector achieved with the Ronettes, or what I see as the apex of “romantic” Spector, The Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me.” There’s something sonically about those Spector records—the cavernous wall of sound—that left room for getting lost, just like you get lost in love; it’s not altogether different then Loveless in how it strikes me: if capital-R Romanticism is some smoke about introspection, the apex of romance is succumbing to something held apart from you; it’s getting lost in the cave of “I Love How You Love Me” or under the covers of Loveless.

What Cohen deals with on Death of a Ladies Man is the painful transition of coming out of the cave and seeing the light. The dumb, thumb-in-the-ass country shine of “Fingerprints,” though my least favorite song on the record, is also the album’s preposition: Cohen loses his fingerprints on a woman’s hair, and instead of lamenting it in a cold, Canadian bedroom, he plays it like it’s the cheapest regret in the world. On “Paper Thin Hotel,” he confesses/repents/finds salvation over the closest thing the album gets to a hackneyed “amen” break: “A heavy burden lifted from my soul / I learned that love was out of my control.” So what’s the function of the schlock? Well, it’s irony, it’s distance. Cohen almost seems too ashamed to admit the fact that he can’t control love; it’s the death of the ladies man. The ladies man, paradoxically unfettered by love and yet constantly messing around on a fundamentally emotional scene, can’t ever really believe his feelings. Is he in love? Well, on “Paper Thin Hotel” he is, but he immediately writes it off, too pained by hearing howling orgasms through the walls. But the astounding, essential “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On” is the kind of advice that comes equipped with a drunken punch in the shoulder and not just a back-pat; Cohen growls it like his life depends on it. Because it basically does. The dick needs to be milked. It’s a compulsion. But not a particularly romantic one.

What really gets me, or really complicates things, is that he accepts the circularities his own emotional ambiguity; on the title track, he says “I guess you go for nothing if you really want to go that far.” He plays it like he’s sitting in the crook of the moon cooing into a concert hall—it’s like a Disney movie. Over the saccharine music, there’s the sense that what Cohen’s saying is that, like on “Fingerprints,” the part of the ladies man only deludes you into thinking you can control your feelings. “If you really want to go that far,” if you really want to be the ladies man, you have to be prepared to erase yourself, to lose yourself to emotion. The tension, inherent in the idea and supplemented by the music’s alternation between boozy indifference and over-the-top earnestness, is what makes Death of a Ladies Man such a fascinating listen.

That epigram—“I guess you go for nothing if you really want to go that far”—could just as easily be applied to Gaucho. In 1980, Walter Becker told Musician: “Donald and I followed a certain line of thinking to its logical conclusion, and then perhaps slightly beyond—that was what we realized when we’d finished Gaucho: it was not as much fun…It wasn’t fun at all, really.” The exhaustingly slick Gaucho really does, in a sense “go for nothing”; it tries to go beyond feeling. But where Cohen’s efforts at shrugging off his emotions ultimately sends him back to a storm of them, Gaucho whites out; it just breaks at a void. And what constantly gets me about the album is that it somehow comes back around; somehow, in its utterly exacting lack of feeling, it could break your heart if you weren’t careful.

I don’t want to give too much away, because I’ll have an On Second Thought on the album going up next week on Stylus. But I guess my revised boiled-down reaction is to say that while it’s sterilized to the point of making the hellish scenes underneath its slick veneer pretty inaccessible, it still reaches for them; it reaches actively through Fagen’s grotesque delivery and passively through the, well, the horror of feeling numb. (It’s somewhat uncanny like that, which is why I posted it as the crowning jewel on my dog show exercise.) It’s like trying to watch a terrible event transpire and not get emotional about it; you end up completely breaking apart, harder than you would have had you accepted the process of being affected. (Interestingly, and I won’t talk about this at length, I finally watched Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions last night, which was a really fucking fascinating complication of all these ideas. I highly recommend it if you haven’t seen it.)

I’ve gone through a lot of personal shit in the last six months, which I’ve done an OK job of keeping off here (ha, like none of you have noticed the hailstorm of anecdotes and birth of the now-standard PBW Confession. We grow, we learn). Gaucho finally clicked with me at the onset of winter, the beginning of a low point that lasted until about a month ago. I started coming up again. So I’ve graduated to the mess of Death of a Ladies Man. When I talked to Alfred, I hadn’t listened to Gaucho in months; revisiting it was nightmarish. When I heard the album, when I saw the blood in my hand, I realized that the feeling of not feeling, experiencing the great grey powers of Gaucho, the drugs, the abstractions of horror movies and Philip K. Dick (had to quit those, too), were some of the most ridiculously intense and complicated emotions I’ve had in my entire life.

GETTING WARMER at 1:39 pm, .