A Banjo interpretation

Leonard Cohen's previous album (January 2012)
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Andrew (Darby)
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A Banjo interpretation

Postby Andrew (Darby) » Wed Mar 28, 2012 5:33 am

I have listened to Banjo (and the whole album, of course) many times, but found these particular lyrics to be quite baffling and so had simply accepted it as a quirky and somewhat obscure little number. :?

However, yesterday I played Old Ideas for a friend who is in the process of writing a book on "Grieving". I was quite taken by his strongly felt view that the broken banjo is symbolic of a coffin and death, with references to it bobbing "On the dark infested sea" (of life?) and the instrument being taken "Off of someone's shoulder" (pall bearers), "Or out of someone's grave". Then there is the "It's coming for me darling, No matter where I go"!

I have to say I find his interpretation fairly convincing, especially when allied with the "Going Home" intro track. My friend's overall summation of the album was that it was Leonard's album in which he is looking towards or preparing for death.

Anyway, I'd be interested to hear comments on this interpretation.

Cheers,
Andrew :)
'I cannot give the reasons
I only sing the tunes
The sadness of the seasons
The madness of the moons'
~ Mervyn Peake ~
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brightnow
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Re: A Banjo interpretation

Postby brightnow » Wed Mar 28, 2012 5:53 am

It is a fascinating interpretation! Thanks for sharing Andrew.

If we're going to peel the layers of this song, it is probably worth it to mention the outer, most obvious layer: "Banjo" is a song inspired by the tragedy of hurricane Katrina. It has a very distinct New Orleans sound, and much of the imagery (the deadly, contaminated sea, washed-out graves, debris made of people's belongings floating out to sea) is taken directly from the scenes of that particular natural disaster.

Now, on to the inner layers! 8)
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MaryB
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Re: A Banjo interpretation

Postby MaryB » Wed Mar 28, 2012 6:31 am

Andrew,

I also thought of this song as 'quirky', with a dixieland flavor. Your friend's interpretation makes sense to me. Then.....

Avi,
While reading Andrew's post, I got the same feeling. New Orleans funerals usually have a rendition of 'When the Saints Go Marching In'. Most of the time, when this song is played, there is a banjo in the band. Maybe LC used this image as a metaphor - banjo=death.

I also found this interesting http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q= ... bDSI6xPX9w

Kindest regards,
Mary
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brightnow
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Re: A Banjo interpretation

Postby brightnow » Wed Mar 28, 2012 6:42 am

MaryB wrote: I also found this interesting http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q= ... bDSI6xPX9w
Yikes, Mary. I found that review appalling! It starts with the patronizing insinuation that only "religious people" get the themes of "sorrow, suffering, death, healing, redemption, and mercy", continues to bend each song to the writer's religious views and blends in some gross errors that simple fact-checking would have sorted out (no, the Webb sisters did NOT sing backup vocals on "Come Healing", it is actually Dana Glover, overdubbed).
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Re: A Banjo interpretation

Postby MaryB » Wed Mar 28, 2012 7:04 am

:lol: :lol: :lol: I'm laughing because I have a confession to make - I only read the part about the banjo :oops:
Still haven't read the whole thing and probably won't because of what you wrote. Life's too short and time is precious.
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Re: A Banjo interpretation

Postby hadley » Wed Mar 28, 2012 1:41 pm

Interesting discussion. I guess we all have different interpretations of these things but for what it's worth here is mine...

I think the Banjo = the body. "There's something that I'm watching, means a lot to me" - the 'me' here being Consciousness watching the body going about it's business on the "Dark infested sea" (of life)

"Don't know how it got there, probabaly taken by the wave" hints at how we're all basically a product of the universe and didn't have much of a choice in where we are (nobody chooses when they're born, to which parents, which genes they will carry, what conditioning they will experience etc) - I've seen a couple of times Leonard has described free will as "exaggerated" and how "nobody can help the way that they are." In Going Home there is the line "he does say what I tell him, he just doesn't have the freedom to refuse."

"Off of someone's shoulder, or out of someone's grave" - hints at how we are all connected, not only physically (i.e. if you think about it, the majority of our bodies are made up of water, which has in the past formed many other bodies, as well as the food we eat being part of a cycle) but also psychologically in terms of taking on the moods / behaviours of other people (e.g. spend 10 minutes with someone who is angry and your mood may change.... now consider the cumulative impact of all the people you've encountered within a lifetime and the effect on your character)

The "It's coming for me, no matter where I go" verse to me signifies how Consciousness needs a body to experience the world and how, as a result, we're stuck obsessing over our bodies that we find "no matter where we go" which of course harms us as it leads to the creation of the ego (in a psychological sense, not so much as in 'pride') which makes us obsess over trying to protect and better ourselves all the time.

I don't know if I've explained what I think well here but if not then maybe these words by the teacher (Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj) of Ramesh Balsekar, himself a teacher who Leonard visited, might explain things better. "Don't you see that all your problems are your body's problems - food, clothing, shelter, family, friends, name, fame, security, survival - all these lose their meaning the moment you realize that you may not be a mere body."

It's interesting that Going Home was mentioned, because to me in Banjo, Leonard is taking a similar detached stance that he took in Going Home where, to my mind, the narrator in the song is Consciousness or the "real self" (I hate using these terms as they can be so misleading) looking across at Leonard the body /ego character, getting ready to let go of the "burdening costume" of the body / mind before finally reaching Home.
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Re: A Banjo interpretation

Postby Andrew (Darby) » Wed Mar 28, 2012 4:20 pm

Mary and brightnow,
Thanks for your appreciative comments. I’ve now read that (WOF) review too and whilst I didn’t react negatively to it, it surely did have the expected Christian “angle”, though the angle would have been far blunter or obtuse in some more fundamentalist Christian circles I think! ;-)

Hadley,
Thanks for your analysis too, though you have outstripped my capacity to respond too knowledgeably on that level.;-)

Cheers,
Andrew :)
'I cannot give the reasons
I only sing the tunes
The sadness of the seasons
The madness of the moons'
~ Mervyn Peake ~
davidwebb
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Re: A Banjo interpretation

Postby davidwebb » Wed Mar 28, 2012 11:32 pm

There have been some exceptionally clever interpretations and readings of this rather less than obvious song; some or all of which might be true, wholly or partially so. I do take my hat off to you all. You have unquestionably enhanced my enjoyment of this. Thankyou for sharing your thoughts and the insight. Thankyou for your effort and time. I hope to catch the tour, and will bust a gut trying to do so, and see the great man just one last time.
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brightnow
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Re: A Banjo interpretation

Postby brightnow » Wed Mar 28, 2012 11:54 pm

Reminder: while we are all mortal, Mr. Cohen is (as far as we know) in good health and will (hopefully) live for many more happy and creative years. Let's hold the eulogies and farewells and just enjoy the work.
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Re: A Banjo interpretation

Postby holydove » Thu Mar 29, 2012 10:00 pm

brightnow wrote:Reminder: while we are all mortal, Mr. Cohen is (as far as we know) in good health and will (hopefully) live for many more happy and creative years. Let's hold the eulogies and farewells and just enjoy the work.
Hear, hear!! Thank you for that, Avi. I'm too tired (from being up 2 nights in a row buying tickets) to go into any detailed analysis right now, but I just want to mention this: Leonard Cohen has written & sung about death/mortality from day one of his artistic career. The fact that he is still singing/writing about it doesn't indicate anything about how close or far away from it he is; like Avi said, Mr. Cohen does seem to still have a rather super-human supply of energy, more than most people who are decades younger than him, so I would agree that we are likely to have a long way to go before any "farewells" are called for. There are many people who, like Leonard Cohen, start contemplating immortality/death at a very young age (& it is a very pervasive theme in Zen/Buddhist teachings).
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Re: A Banjo interpretation

Postby brightnow » Thu Mar 29, 2012 10:57 pm

holydove wrote:...There are many people who, like Leonard Cohen, start contemplating immortality/death at a very young age
For me it was 19.

I recently had dinner with the childhood friend who, at the age of 16, loaned me a tape titled "I'm Your Man" by an artist I never heard of before. He's a doctor now (the friend, not the artist) and, among other things, he performs surgery on cancer patients. He told me about a patient who started to contemplate the fact that he was going to die some day only after his cancer diagnosis, at the age of 85. Shocked, I replied: "But how can anyone truly live without a firm grasp on the fact that we are all going to die?!"

I'm off to listen to NEeMA's "Bone to Pick with Time".
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Andrew (Darby)
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Re: A Banjo interpretation

Postby Andrew (Darby) » Fri Mar 30, 2012 2:48 am

brightnow wrote: If we're going to peel the layers of this song, it is probably worth it to mention the outer, most obvious layer: "Banjo" is a song inspired by the tragedy of hurricane Katrina. It has a very distinct New Orleans sound, and much of the imagery (the deadly, contaminated sea, washed-out graves, debris made of people's belongings floating out to sea) is taken directly from the scenes of that particular natural disaster.
Hi Avi,

I think I'm missing some vital piece of information: where did you come across the reference to this lyric being a derivative from hurricane Katrina or is this your postulate? ;-)

Cheers,
Andrew :)
'I cannot give the reasons
I only sing the tunes
The sadness of the seasons
The madness of the moons'
~ Mervyn Peake ~
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Andrew (Darby)
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Re: A Banjo interpretation

Postby Andrew (Darby) » Fri Mar 30, 2012 2:58 am

With regard to the contemplation of death, I have to say that, as I'm getting older, it comes into focus more sharply: it's just a simple mathematical equation and statistical probability exercise (with little reminders from the body) - I've forgotten the term for it in the life insurance/assurance context, but it's where I'm coming from (and perhaps Leonard), though this is not the happiest of realisations for me! ;-)

Cheers,
Andrew :)
'I cannot give the reasons
I only sing the tunes
The sadness of the seasons
The madness of the moons'
~ Mervyn Peake ~
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brightnow
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Re: A Banjo interpretation

Postby brightnow » Fri Mar 30, 2012 6:01 am

Andrew (Darby) wrote: Hi Avi,

I think I'm missing some vital piece of information: where did you come across the reference to this lyric being a derivative from hurricane Katrina or is this your postulate? ;-)

Cheers,
Andrew :)
Oh no, I am not that original. I was just repeating what Leonard said:
He [LC] is reluctant to say too much about where his inspiration comes from, but reveals that "Banjo" came from Hurricane Katrina. "After Katrina ... I saw that culture dismantled, and I think that the image of a broken banjo floating in the dark came out of that deep discomfort that had been imposed on all our psyches."
Source: http://www.npr.org/blogs/allsongs/2012/ ... n-new-york
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Andrew (Darby)
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Re: A Banjo interpretation

Postby Andrew (Darby) » Fri Mar 30, 2012 6:18 am

Thanks Avi and for the link! I had missed that explanation from Leonard. ;-)

Cheers,
Andrew :)
'I cannot give the reasons
I only sing the tunes
The sadness of the seasons
The madness of the moons'
~ Mervyn Peake ~

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