Artists-On-Albums: AOA#20 (Damon Krukowski on Various Positions)

Damon Krukowski (Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi) on…

Various Positions by Leonard Cohen (Passport Records, 1984)

Leonard Cohen - Various Positions

“I went to see Walter Yetnikoff… Walter said, ‘Leonard, we know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good,’ and he turned down Various Positions for U.S. distribution because it wasn’t contemporary.” (Leonard Cohen quoted in Yakety Yak by Scott Cohen, 1994.)

I’ve been taking stock of what some of the musicians I most admire were doing at my age, and come to the sobering realization that many of them were making the most neglected albums of their careers. Various Positions is that record for Leonard Cohen — it didn’t even warrant release, in the eyes of his once-and-future label Columbia Records. Yet this is the record with Cohen’s most covered song in recent years, “Hallelujah.” It’s the one that starts the same way he still begins his live shows, with “Dance Me To The End of Love,” and ends with the exquisitely sincere “If It Be Your Will.” It’s an amazing batch of songs, in other words.

But Walter Yetnikoff wasn’t all wrong — it’s a bad record in other ways. The production is hair-raisingly mid-‘80s, with live drums mic’d to sound like a drum machine, and synthesizer parts that sound like presets being put through their paces at a Guitar Center. The arrangements and mix only really sound good on my equally dated car stereo. And yet lately I can’t stop listening to this record.

The reason Various Positions speaks to me so clearly right now is the lyrics. In them, Cohen speaks poetically about all his usual heavy concerns — love, fear, death, God — but in a manner that is not so cleverly egoistic as on his earlier records. Here he approaches these topics without vanity — there are no self-mythologizing tales of having slept with Janis Joplin, or stared down suicide in the bathroom mirror. Instead we get a middle-aged man, actively thinking about the present — his pleasures (“Dance Me To The End of Love”), devotion (“Coming Back To You”), loss (“The Night Comes On,” “Hunter’s Lullaby”), doubt (“Hallelujah”), despair (“The Captain,” “Heart With No Companion”), and, at the end, acceptance (“If It Be Your Will”). It’s the best written mid-life crisis I know.

Is that what Columbia Records meant when they passed on Various Positions because it “wasn’t contemporary”? It’s certainly of its era, production-wise. But in no way is this a young person’s music. And I suppose ‘adult contemporary’ wasn’t yet a marketing term…

The idea of pop music being used to explore middle-aged concerns is still a bit quixotic — old rockers who continue performing tend to take the Dorian Gray route, aging on the inside while singing the same forever-young hits to the public. But Cohen seems to have let his youth go, and had done so already I think when he made Various Positions. The move cost him in the music business. Maybe emotionally, too — watching live footage from the era, he looks angry. (His next album, the far more popular I’m Your Man, bears marks of that anger to my ears.) But artistically, I think the transition allowed him to continue developing — to blossom, even — as a songwriter.

And perhaps working through this new stage of life in song helped him grow into such a comfortably old man, as we see him today? I can only hope.

Notes On The Artist:

Damon Krukowski

Between 1987 and 1991 – across three studio albums and innumerable world tours – Damon Krukowski was the drummer in the still much-loved and influential Boston art-rock trio Galaxie 500.  Since the band dissolved, Damon has worked continuously with Galaxie 500 bassist (and wife) Naomi Yang, largely under the twosome’s Damon & Naomi umbrella.  Beginning with 1992’s More Sad Hits, Damon has cut seven studio albums and compiled one live collection with Naomi.

Aside from making music, Damon and Naomi co-run the 20|20|20 label (primarily as a latter-day home for their own recordings as well as for the recently reissued Galaxie 500 back catalogue) and the Exact Change publishing house (as an outlet for avant-garde and experimental literature).  On top of all that – away from working with Naomi – Damon is also a published poet, sometime teacher and occasional music critic.

After a four-year gap – plugged primarily by retrospective releases – Damon & Naomi’s new studio set, False Beats And True Hearts, is released on 20|20|20 (in the US), Broken Horse Records (for the UK) and P-Vine (within Japan).