Redemption Song by Bob Marley

Bob Marley wrote the song just after he had found out that he had terminal cancer. I think you can hear that in the lyrics and in the way that he sings the song, as if he wants to leave a message behind. He was only 36 years old when he wrote it, but he sounds and looks so much older here.

Redemption Song is the last song he ever recorded on the last record he ever made, but the first time he records a song that doesn’t follow the traditional reggae-beat. Instead he’s playing the song more like it’s a traditional American folk song, and he’s playing it alone without the Wailers backing him up. It’s just him andhis Ovation guitar.

This song has been covered by endless other musicians, with an unusual disparity in styles. Johnny Cash and Joe Strummer, Rihanna, the Swedish “new-age rocker” Tomas Dileva, Stewie Wonder, Yannik Noah… even Eddie Vedder and Beyonce have done a duet together. But the only version I’ve ever heard that come close to the original is performed by the late Chris Cornell, who maybe better than most others could understand Bob Marley’s feelings when he wrote it.

 

But what is Bob’s message then? What is it that Bob Marley wants to leave behind, as he’s now standing on the verge of eternity? My reading is that he acknowledges that life is painful, difficult, harsh, as expressed in the opening lines:

“Ol pirates yes they rob I, sold I to the merchant ship”

… but that we all can be saved if we fight against powers that are bringing us down, if we work together:

“We forward in this generation, triumphantly” (forward in = moved forward)

So it’s in essence a protest song, urging us to get up, stand up, and fight.

But in those last words he ever recorded, I also think he tells us what he wants his life to account for, what he hopes to have achieved with his music:

“All I ever had: Redemption songs. These songs of freedom, songs of freedom.”

 

 

A Hard Rain’s Gonna fall by Bob Dylan

There are a few fascinating facts about this song.

First of, Bob Dylan was only 21 when he wrote what Rolling Stones magazine has described as the “greatest protest song by the greatest protest songwriter of his time”.

Secondly, each line of the song is supposedly the beginning of another song. But Dylan did not think he would live long enough to finish all those songs, so he decided go “all in” and put them all in this one. And I guess you can tell, because even if the lyrics are beautiful, it would be a stretch so say that I understand it all.

My favorite line is deep into the 5th verse: “Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison”. Two very vivid and conflicting images, which also sums up the distressing feeling of the song.

A third interesting fact: Patti Smith performed this song in Stockholm when Bob Dylan received the Nobel prize. She was so overwhelmed by emotions that she had to stop and start the song over, which is completely understandable. Her whole story, with her own words here.

Chelsea Hotel #2 by Leonard Cohen

I was introduced to this song through Rufus Wainwraight, who performed it at a tribute concert in Sydney in 2005. Rufus version is actually better than the original, in my opinon. Over the years many other artists have covered the song, Lana Del Ray being the most recent.

Cohen has admitted writing the song about a meeting with Janis Joplin at the Chelsea Hotel in NYC, a revelation which he later regretting making. In an interview with BBC in 1994, he said it was “an indiscretion for which I’m very sorry, and if there is some way of apologising to the ghost, I want to apologise now, for having committed that indiscretion.”

As with most of Cohen’s songs, the lyric is poetic and beautiful, so the phrase he’s so ashamed of is right in the beginning of the song: “…giving me head on an unmade bed, while the limousines waited in the streets”. ‘

Janis Joplin was later interviewed about the song and her meeting with Leonard. According to her, he sexual encounter wasn’t a very productive one:

“Sometimes, you know, you’re with someone and you’re convinced that they have something to… to tell you.  Or, you know… you want to be with them. So maybe nothing’s happening, but you keep telling yourself something’s happening. You know, innate communication.  He’s just not saying anything. He’s moody or something.  So you keep being there, pulling, giving, rapping, you know. And then, all of a sudden about four o’clock in the morning you realize that, flat ass, this motherfucker’s just lying there”.

 

The number #2 in the title has nothing to do with the room where he was staying, as I believed for a long time. Instead it’s a reference to the order of versions of songs that he wrote. So there’s actually an original Chelsea Hotel #1 , which was never recorded but only performed live. In large parts it’s the same song, but it’s shortened significantly. I prefer #2, for that reason.

The song was not written in NYC, but rather in Ethiopia (!) where Leonard Cohen went in 1974, “looking for  a suntan”.

“It rained, including in the Sinai desert, but through this whole period I had my little guitar with me, and it was then I felt the songs emerging – at least, the conclusions that I had been carrying in manuscript form for the last four or five years, from hotel room to hotel room”.

There seems to be something magical about the Chelsea Hotel itself, if you study the list of musicians who have had the hotel as their permanent home. Instead of giving you the full list, I think 3 names are sufficient: Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix. And Alice Cooper.