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Tim Chipping

Ranting & Reeling

Tim Chipping’s monthly column

Death where is thy sting? Where did thou last see it? It’s probably in thine jacket pocket. No not that jacket the other one.

That’s as far as I’ve got with my attempt at a poem in tribute to Leonard Cohen. I felt like he deserved a poem since I made him the benign butt of a joke in my last column, shortly before he passed away. Terrible timing on my part and death’s.

Not that I think he would’ve minded my Nobel-oriented joshing. He liked a laugh did Leonard. True, it’s not what he’ll be most remembered for. It’s not even in the top five things they’ll mention in his section of the book called 2016 – Have You Tried Switching It Off And On Again?

But Cohen was funny. His live introductions in particular were an existential hoot. In 1970 at a show in Frankfurt he introduced the song Bird On A Wire by telling the audience, “You know people have asked about how the song was written. And it’s very hard to decide. But this song was written looking at a bird on a wire.” He recycled that joke eighteen years later in Antwerp before performing what was then the brand new First We Take Manhattan, announcing: “It’s a curious song. I used to know what it means but I don’t remember what it means anymore. And I think it was just a moment ago that I wrote it. I think I intended to take Manhattan and then Berlin.”

It’s a gimmick he most likely learnt on the folk club and coffee bar circuit of the late ’60s. The requirement that a performer must make the punters laugh between songs of love and hate persists today. As a singer of traditional ballads, picker of old time tunes or their accepted contemporary spinoffs, it is incumbent upon you to have them rolling in the aisles both before and after the raffle. And I wonder if it’s something musicians are entirely comfortable with. No-one ever insisted Picasso share an amusing anecdote about what happened on the way to paint Guernica.

Some acts are so good at what I hate myself for calling banter that they report being asked by one gig goer to record an album entirely consisting of their between-song gags. I wince at the backhanded compliment whilst knowing there are some groups I wished never stopped talking. And I’ve heard from singers whose humorous interludes grew from an uncertainty about how their sombrely poetic material might be received, who now cannot stop; their fans expect it.

Because it’s you who’ve created this peculiar juxtaposition of art and arseing about that’s unique to the folk singer’s repertoire. You, the fans who see the exchange of money for a ticket as a contract between yourselves and the talent that states there can be no on-stage silence where there could be a self-deprecating reference to the amount of deaths in the next song, and no dramaturgical pause when you should be recounting an amusing tour van-based calamity.

But it’s all about timing. And the most important timing of all is knowing when not to joke. In 1985 in Montreux, Leonard Cohen began a rendition of his sacred and profane masterpiece Hallelujah with the words, “This is a song about the broken.”

Tim Chipping


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