Rabbi Avi Weinstein

So Beautiful, or So What?

In Uncategorized on June 6, 2011 at 9:32 am

Paul Simon’s latest, and certainly one of his greatest solo albums “So Beautiful Or So What” has been recently released. The music is evocative and the lyrics border on poetry. In my mind, the three most artful masters of contemporary song are not incidentally Jews. Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Paul Simon stand far and above the many talents who emulate and innovate at their feet.

Dylan gives credence to the Talmudic axiom that prophecy is now the province of children and the insane.  Barely coherent in speech, something magical happens when Dylan smiths a tune that shackles his flood of consciousness into a respectable order, and even a refrain. He is the least musical of the three, but the discipline of the simple tune makes his mad language accessible, powerful, and evocative of the traditional.

Leonard Cohen is truly a student of the spirit not afraid to let all that education emerge in song. He knows his Bible and observes Jewish tradition to a point. Musically, he is quirky, but his lyrics stand on the shoulders of poets and books that matter.  Like Paul Simon, for Cohen, it is only love that is sacred and eternal, and both return to those themes time and time again. Dylan, in contrast, is the master of the moment, the rant, and the opaque narrative.  If you don’t know what he means, that must indicate a modicum of profundity.

I always know what Cohen and Simon mean, and I always wish I would have thought of their words first.  The only way that Simon disappoints in this album is his reliance on Christian symbols throughout.  I always feel sorrow that somehow the richness of Jewish tradition evaded him, and therefore he avoided it.  His musicianship, however, and the arrangements of these songs, is something to behold.

I saw Simon in Jerusalem thirty years–a lifetime–ago. He was welcomed as a native son returned, and he was so visibly moved he tried to bring Garfunkel back the following year.  At the end of the third encore, someone threw a yarmulke up on stage. He picked it up from the floor, kissed it, and put it on his head. The not so religious crowd cheered with approval. Proof positive that Paul Simon had been to Hebrew school, probably had a Bar Mitzvah and never looked back.   This was the Bar Mitzvah trip he never had.

Cohen on the other hand, a son of the Montreal Jewish community subtly evokes his heritage throughout his oeuvre, and, more than all three, certainly knows his Bible. He entertained the Israeli troops during the Yom Kippur war, and despite the twists and turns of his spiritual journey, being Jewish and drawing from that heritage is very much embedded in who he is.  If you doubt this, just listen to, “If it be Your will”, or “Who by fire” both evocative of Jewish liturgy. His understated and haunting voice has echoes of the chanting of traditional Jewish prayer. Where Simon’s insights abound with emotional and sometimes spiritual intelligence, Cohen’s songs are anchored in the wisdom of the ages. To me, it is the difference between the tutored, and the untutored Jew.  With Dylan, it is the rantings of the quadraphrenic Semite.  The echoes are there, but as echoes tend to be, they are distorted. Making sense is just not a high priority.

Just one more thing, in Simon’s song “Love and blessings”, the opening sounds much like Randy Newman’s classic, “I think its going to rain today”. One of Newman’s lines is “Human kindness overflowin’ but I think it’s going to rain today.” Simon sings, “Love and blessings, simple kindness fell like rain on thirsty land.” Is Simon giving an artful nod to another great Jewish tunesmith? Well, maybe. For me, the opening melody clinches it.

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  1. Both Dylan and Simon will be here in Israel this summer (Cohen was here last year). Unfortunately, Simon is coming during the 3 weeks, leaving me with something of a dilemma…

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