“And I think The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of his worst books. I used the title because the songs were pointing me in that direction. I felt like there were a lot of gray tones in the themes and musical sounds, whereas my last record had earth tones. This one is more subtle and musty and I liked the play on words.” A vital and unconventional artist in his own right, Cohen is quick to point out the parallels between Wilde’s famous novel and his own work on this record.
Just as the main character in that tome, Dorian, stays young while his portrait reflects age, the musician says his own art has yielded a similar result. “I’m not only young in spirit and childlike,” Cohen insists, “But I’m physically 20 years younger than my chronological age. It’s the music and the writing and the painting I do that absorbs the mental and experiential aging.” Case in point is the sweet and warm offering “Palm Of My Hand,” which serves as a gateway for the uninitiated with its uplifting musical feel and accessible tone. But it’s the set opener, “Prayer In The Black And White” that offers real insight into the life and times of Cohen.
A product of 1950s Hollywood – his parents both worked in the entertainment biz – Cohen’s nod to television characters like Andy Taylor and Barney Fife on the latter comes completely naturally. “Growing up in that L.A. atmosphere has always had a huge effect on everything I do,” Cohen says. “TV has always been a huge influence and that song is in service to today’s overt political statements. 1950s American television characters would have balked at the loss of civil liberties and personal freedoms and the prevalence of corporate greed.” And by depicting Bush as the clone of Alfred E.
Newman and using a New Orleans funeral arrangement to underscore the death of old America, Danny is praying for the TV icons of yore to rise from the dead, if only symbolically. Deciding to keep the disc mostly organ-based – Cohen still retains elements of his last album and 2004’s Dannyland by balancing The Picture of Dorian Gray with what he calls, “guitar dominated gothic folk-blues.” Hatched largely in the clubhouse of his Paradise, California condo complex on a three-keyboard organ, Cohen initially thought some of the songs were a little too baroque sounding for Anti-. But the reception fans gave the material when he performed some of it in a live setting changed his mind. Recorded on a half-inch Ampex tape machine, a mobile garage studio and at Ralph Carney’s San Francisco facility, the end result is music that is as artful as it is different. Which might explain why, as a self-professed “outsider” artist, Cohen has received his share of mixed criticism. In fact, one misguided music writer suggested that he belonged on a psychiatrist’s couch because of his offbeat lyrics.
To which Danny says emphatically, “Journalists have drawn conclusions about me from I don’t know where. Anybody’s lyrics don’t completely tell you what they’re really like. Nor does a novel or even a biography – they get embellished.” Lumped in with everyone from Tom Waits, Vic Chesnut and Jad Fair to Daniel Johnston, Cohen – a one-time cohort of Captain Beefheart – scratches his head about the last observation. “I hadn’t really heard his music until I watched [the documentary] The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” says Danny.
“And I thought, this guy can’t sing! Although I did think there was something to his music – I liked some of the simplicity and childlike approaches to melody. But I never got quite that far out there to draw any certain comparison. So I thought, ‘If I don’t write songs like the guy and I’m nothing like him, why would they lump us together? Probably because we’re all outsiders and it’s easier to do that than be imaginative. I mean, maybe in some of my songs I try to be weirder than I actually am.
But that’s just my prerogative as an artist.” Suffice it to say, Shades Of Dorian Gray – replete with ghostly figures and morbid fascinations – paints with broad strokes. From the haunting “Avian Blues” and the lilting intoxication of “Drawing In The Dark” to the warped allure of “For George Bailey, LaPado And Bottom.” On “The Fall” – which Danny calls “Neil Young meets Rosemary’s Baby – he uses his familiar, allegorical approach, as a witch’s fable doubles as an examination of our own dark sides and original sins. Elsewhere “Noah Baine” tells the tale of a man who feels dead and a similar woman who writes a gothic ditty while locked in the bathroom. And, as with his 2005 disc, this mortal coil again twists around “Death Waltz” (which Danny calls “a nod to Procol Harum about the nobility of death”) and “Rigormortis (On The Ridge)” until Cohen winds up with the deep “You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch”-styled baritone of “Beneath The Shroud.” Of the latter, which is built around the true story of a visit to hell after the subject loses his virginity to a gorgeous Laurel Canyon witch, Danny says, “I was going to sing it normally.
But it just doesn’t suit the song. So against my practical judgment I submitted it with the deep, computer-altered delivery. It’s strange, but I think it’s effective.” That last point nicely sums up Cohen’s contribution to music over five decades. In his unpublished memoir – penned some thirty years ago – Danny reveals how he was criticized early on because “his music is too weird for his time.” Laughing while reading the entry aloud, he reveals, “His lyrics are too nasty… he’s a maniacal visionary.” Known for being “the first open eccentric in the L.A.
city schools,” there is little denying that Cohen was indeed an underground trailblazer, putting the proto firmly in punk. Fronting the infamous Charleston Grotto – which featured his brother and future Tom Waits bassist Greg – Danny brought forth titles like “Kill The Teacher” as early as 1961. “It’s been substantiated – We were the first punk band that people talked about,” Cohen says of the pioneering outfit that plans to come out of retirement in Los Angeles in early 2007 around the time Shades Of Dorian Gray hits the market. “We can say it without fear of reprisal. Charleston Grotto recorded every practice we ever had on a Sony reel-to-reel.
So there’s very clear evidence that we did it first, some 45 years ago. We had a chemistry that was unbeatable.” Equally peerless is Cohen’s latest musical contribution, again produced by his alter ego, Sir Errol Sprague. “There’s a different temperament that approaches the production end,” he admits. “So I slide into my other mode.” As for his own take on the evolution of Shades Of Dorian Gray, Danny says, “We kept having these opportunities in the studio.
And I kept coming back to the album to tweak it and re-do it, and it really gave it this painterly-like thing. Where you go back and add to what you already have. And it builds up a density.” “It’s funny how things turned out,” Danny admits. “When I started the album, I envisioned it being just a simple thing with an organ and a drum machine and a bass line.” At its core, Cohen’s existential, Kafkaesque stories give this Gray its life.
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