A couple of weeks ago, I awoke to the sad news of the death of singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen and it sparked off a host of memories, especially musical memories, from my childhood and teenage years. I grew up in the 1950’s in a tenement flat in Partick. My mother and father slept in the recess bed in the kitchen while myself and my two brothers, Hugh and Patrick, shared a room with a single bed and a double bed that folded up into a cabinet during the day. Around the corner, and opposite the church, was my grandmother’s house, the family focal point. She was a widow who lived in a room and kitchen with her brother, whom we called Uncle Tony. Whenever Hugh and I were serving the early morning Mass in St. Simon’s, which was frequently, we slept in Uncle Tony’s room, Hugh on the couch, and me on two armchairs pushed together. Now, Uncle Tony had a gramophone, and how well I remember him, for our entertainment, putting a pile of 78rpm’s on the spindle and listening to them drop one by one on to the turntable, hearing the crackle of the needle on the vinyl, and then delighting in the greats of that era, like Buddy Holly, Pat Boone, Perry Como, Paul Anka, Bobby Darren, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and many more.
When we got a gramophone of our own the first records I remember, now 45rpm’s, were Frank Ifield singing “I Remember You”, Ketty Lester singing “Love Letters”, and bizarrely, Frank Haffey, the Celtic goalkeeper, singing “Slattery’s Mounted Fut”. Frank Haffey had famously let in 9 goals against England at Wembley, and on the back of it had emigrated to Australia where he carved out a singing career for himself. My father died in 1960 and not long after we moved to Drumchapel, which is where I spent my teenage years in that bludgeoning era of pop music. In the battle between the Beatles and the Stones, Hugh was a Beatles fan and I was a Rolling Stones fan, having now progressed onto LP’s at 33rpm. Our younger brother Patrick, always one to be different, preferred the Dave Clarke Five (someone had to) but in truth he was much more interested in Doctor Who anyway, and still is, although his musical tastes have much improved. Mum had her own bedroom, and we three had a double bed and a single bed in another room. Claiming seniority of age, Hugh not only had the single bed but also control of the radio and our nights, before sleep, were spent listening to Radio Caroline; more often than not we all fell asleep with the radio still on.
But then came 1967, memorable not just for Celtic winning the European Cup, but also for the beginnings of BBC Radio One and a disc jockey called John Peel, whose late-night shows introduced us to music and artists that nobody else had even heard of. One night in 1967 he introduced us to a Canadian artist, a poet turned singer/songwriter, and his name was Leonard Cohen. He played “Suzanne” “So Long Marianne” and “Bird on the Wire” and I was hooked, and have been ever since – may he rest in peace. Isn’t it extraordinary how many of our memories revolve around music?
Leonard Cohen once said about the 1960’s that “we didn’t know then it was the 60’s, we just thought it was ordinary time”. I’m sure he must have got that phrase from the Liturgy of the Church, as this weekend we leave Ordinary Time and enter into that special time we call Advent, preparing us for that beautiful and wondrous time we call Christmas, and the celebration of the Birth of the Saviour; no doubt the music of Advent and Christmas will help us to enter into it, and celebrate it well.
I came across this little prayer in thanks for the gift of music:
God, we give thanks for the gift of music, for horn and flute, for strings and drums, for crescendo and staccato, for the gift that gives our spirits a divine voice.
Hear this prayer for those who write music, arranging sound, seeking beauty.
Hear this prayer for those who play music, creating sound, releasing beauty.
Make their music Your vessel; let heaven pour joy and sorrow, love and loss through them, so that they overflow with Your most secret prayers for Your people, drawing others to Your blessings; so that when we hear their music our souls turn back to You for shelter. Together, we offer our voices back to heaven and rejoice. Amen.