Non-classical songs that kinda sorta have a classical vibe

Volume One: "The Guests" by Leonard Cohen

The first decade of Leonard Cohen’s musical career was pretty damned successful abroad and a little frustrating for the Columbia folks here in the US. His first four albums were mostly reviewed positively, although I’m simply delighted to mention this quote from Rolling Stone in a review of ALBUM NUMBER TWO, Songs From a Room:

"Well, it looks like Leonard Cohen's second try won't have them dancing in the streets either. It doesn't take a great deal of listening to realize that Cohen can't sing, period. And yet, the record grows on you..."

By the way, Alec Dubro, the prescient author of those three sentences, is still around, writing about foreign policy and labor unions. I’d love to know his thoughts on Cohen’s voice by the time of the “I’m Your Man” years.

Anyway, Cohen never really broke through in the category all success is measured by in the record business: album sales. His fourth, New Skin for the Old Ceremony, didn’t even crack the Billboard 200, this despite the presence of several songs that are pretty well-regarded today, including “Chelsea Hotel #2.” Clearly a shakeup was needed. Time to bring in the big guns, pun not intended when I started the sentence but upon reflection decided that I do intend it because it’s a good one.

By the time Cohen recorded Death of a Ladies’ Man in the summer of 1977, Phil Spector was already a legend, his famed Wall of Sound recording technique producing hit after hit for some of the greatest artists of all time. His career had begun to slow down a bit on account of his reputation for behaving, let’s say, erratically, including the infamous incident of him firing his pistol in the studio with John Lennon during the recording sessions for Rock ‘n’ Roll. As it turns out, Spector always kept guns around, which Cohen mentions in a 2001 interview with Mojo Magazine:

There were lots of guns around in the studio and lots of liquor, a somewhat dangerous atmosphere. He had bodyguards who were heavily armed also. He liked guns - I liked guns too but I generally don't carry one, and it's hard to ignore a .45 lying on the console. When I was working with him alone, it was very agreeable, but the more people in the room, the wilder Phil would get. I couldn't help but admire the extravagance of his performance, but at the time couldn't really hold my own.

You know how they’ll have those “man on the street” interviews with the neighbors or relative of people who commit heinous crimes and everyone always seems to say some variation of the same thing, that thing being “I never saw it coming. He was quiet, but I never had any problems with him,” you know, those interviews? No one said that about Phil Spector. Quite frankly, it was surprising that it took him until 2003 to shoot someone in the mouth.

A simple glance at the Wikipedia page for Death of a Ladies’ Man tells you all you need to know about the utter derangement of these sessions. The critical reception was not good, and Cohen’s own response to the album wasn’t very good, either. In 2002, Cohen would hand pick the selections for a two-disc greatest hits collection for Sony’s “The Essential” series which, by the way, is an outstanding collection and very well worth owning. Every album is represented in the collection except for Death of a Ladies’ Man.

Lessons were learned, and when Cohen recorded his next album, Recent Songs, everything was the opposite. He produced the album himself with an assist from Henry Lewy (he of several Joni Mitchell albums), a sure sign that he was looking to get back to some folk roots. He ended up treading down the path of “world music,” whatever the hell that actually means, using a mariachi band and an oud player on multiple tracks. He also collaborated for the first, and very much not the last, time with a violinist named Raffi Hakopian. The violin would be the secret weapon of the first track on the new album, “The Guests.”

In 2012, Elizabeth Boleman-Herring shared excerpts of an interview she’d done with Cohen in 1988 with the Huffington Post. Among Cohen’s responses to her questions were some thoughts about the genesis of “The Guests,” and it’s quite a lovely tale:

The Guests was the nicest song that ever happened to me. The music I’d had for a long time, unusually, but I didn’t know what it was for. And then there was this girl who went to Persia to study with the Sufi order of the Whirling Dervishes. She became entitled to teach the dance and went back to America and began to teach. To be entitled to teach the dance, you must not only have mastered it, you must have mastered its implications. So, I’d written my song, and this girl had begun to form Sufi groups and, when she was in the Middle East, she’d formed an association with a Sheikh who was interested in her personally. After she’d been teaching for a couple of years, this man came to America to review the progress of the various Sufi groups and he told her his own were dancing to a song written by a Westerner. And she asked what song. And he said, The Guests—it has the spirit of Rumi in it. Rumi, who lived in the 13th century, was the founder of the Dervishes. He was probably the greatest ascetic religious poet—in the same league as King David.

There is clearly some sort of deeper meaning behind the lyrics to “The Guests,” but I’ve long since given up trying to understand the lyrics as anything other than a poetic description of a mystical gathering in this Rumi-adjacent world. It doesn’t make a lick of difference to me anyway because the music is so damned beautiful. I was about to type out something resembling a description, but that really sounds so stupid compared to just listening to the song.

This live performance from Munich circa 1979 is also very much worth a listen:

Phil Spector’s gun to my head I’d probably say The Guests” is the most beautiful non-classical thing I know. That seems like as good a place to leave it as any!