Saturday, November 14, 2009

Music. Prayer.

It's just past midnight. Little Babe is lying on the couch watching the Black-Eyed Peas perform on SNL, HOBB is camped out in our bedroom on his laptop and I'm writing at the dining room table, listening to Leonard Cohen's live recording of "Gypsy Wife" from the 1979 Field Commander Cohen concert tour through headphones for possibly the hundredth time this week.

Earlier tonight, the three of us went to see Pirate Radio, the most joyous, entertaining and rock-saturated film I've ever seen. For those who HATED such films as Across the Universe and Moulin Rouge as much as I did -- not just for the thin plot line but for the torturous experience of hearing great songs performed by mediocre singers -- Pirate Radio is a thrill-fest, offering a flash flood of the best rock music of the late sixties alongside a kick-ass cast and creative storyline.

Even as the credits rolled at the end of the film, the audience was loathe to leave the scene of so much musical defiance and transcendence.

This week was a music-saturated adventure, which included a Monday evening performance by Mimi Cohen of a show based on the life and music of Laura Nyro; my second singing lesson with the legendary Mary Rodgers where I worked on Leonard Cohen's "Halleluyah;" an obsessive infatuation with a recording of Elton John and Mary J. Blige singing "I Guess That's Why They Call it the Blues," from the One Night Only concert (which I love so much that I sang it at the top of my lungs several times in a row while driving around the Upper West Side on Thursday morning trying to find a parking spot); a similar fixation with "Higher and Higher," the title cut from Neshama Carlebach's newest CD (which caused me to spontaneously choreograph -- and then perform -- a dance in my kitchen late one night); a half-hour spent listening to George Harrison's "Cheer Down" over and over while pumping my way through two miles on the elliptical trainer at the JCC; a visit to the Metropolitan Room on Thursday night to hear Karen Oberlin perform caberet songs...and finally the good-spirited fun of rock 'n roll captured in Pirate Radio.

Like my focused fiction reading, I listen to songs intently, delving deep into the world of a particular artist through one or a select few songs. I sometimes feel as if I am stuck eternally in adolescent fascination with music, especially rock music, which is my medium, going as far as to ponder the lyrics of a given song and the weird coincidence of their relevance in my life at that particular moment in time.

In Mimi Cohen's impressive one-woman show-in-progress at the Cherry Pit Theatre in the West Village, she brings Laura Nyro to life in all her obstinate artistry and integrity. I openly admit that prior to this past week, I had no idea that this young, quirky, awkward woman with unruly dark hair had written so many of the iconic songs of her era, had indeed been clueless about the extent of her legacy and incalculable contribution to music from the sixties through the present day. Mimi's Laura is a fragile yet stubborn hippie girl-woman, refusing to lose weight or prettify her ethnic features, understanding her destiny as a singer-songwriter and ideological purist, speaking in synesthetic imagery about the colors of particular musical phrases, insisting that her music be played a certain way, refusing to compromise.

My crash course in the life of Laura Nyro comes at exactly the right time for me - b'sha'ah tova. She and the other artists who are my current faves are my rebbes, imparting wisdom, guidance and truth couched sometimes in riddles. As I score my life with songs that speak to my soul, I take their lessons to heart. I am empowered by Laura Nyro to insist that things of importance be done a certain way. I am inspired by Elton John, who sought out Mary J. Blige to bring soul to his sixties-inflected song. I am uplifted by Neshama Carlebach who opened up the music of her father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, to brand-new interpretation through the portal of a gospel choir, I am gladdened by the Beatlesque essence and sweet playfulness of George Harrison's message, I am endlessly moved by the prayerful songs of Leonard Cohen.

It is the quiet essence of prayer that I am aiming for when I sing "Halleluyah," I explained to Mary Rodgers by way of asking if I could sing the chorus an octave lower instead of reaching for the higher notes, which sounded to my ears like a preteen auditioning for High School Musical.

Ever flexible, Mary complied, and we took the song from the top. I sang about King David's secret chord and when I reached the first Halleluyah, it poured from my soul -- mournful and elegant, respectful and sad -- just as I had intended.

Meeting my eyes in the mirror above the piano, Mary nodded, almost imperceptively. I continued crooning Halleluyah, my voice a searchlight, my brokenness revealed. Halleluyah morphed and bloomed, unfolded, contracted, expanded and took flight; God's word, His song, my song, my prayer, my name, my destiny.

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