By David Ball
“The Kids in the Hall” debuted on American national television on September 18, 1992. CBS picked up the rights to the popular CBC/HBO sketch comedy, airing repeats of Seasons 1 through 3 as part of its late-night Friday schedule. Already treasures in Canada and on HBO, cult heroes Scott Thompson, Dave Foley, Mark McKinney, Bruce McCulloch and Kevin McDonald and their brand of hilariously irreverent humour finally blew up across the United States via the partnership with one of the Big 4 broadcasters.
Although scripted dialogue dominated most episodes, house band Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet’s unforgettable theme song, “Having an Average Weekend,” plus the JUNO Award-winning trio’s omnipresent rock instrumental music score played a key role in the show’s overall production. I was fortunate enough to attend a live taping of “The Kids in the Hall” in the early ’90s (at the decrepit CBC studios on Mutual Street in Toronto), and watching Shadowy Men perform live throughout the taping was really freakin’ cool.
Some of the best-loved skits over the program’s 111 episode run were music-related, including the video starring a plaid-shirted Bruce McCulloch singing “These are the Daves I Know.” Since my name is David, people still sing this cursed song at me from time to time. (In case you’re interested, I’m mostly a Dave, but always a David in writing. The odd time I’ll answer to Davey and, for some unknown reason, far too many people call me Dave Ball, including my wife.)
Other memorable music-related skits included the recurring character “Tammy” (McCulloch as a vapid Britney Spears–like teen pop-tart known for would-be hit songs “Perhaps” and “Ain’t Gonna Spread for No Roses”) and “Bobby versus the Devil,” a skit involving a mullet-haired teenager’s metal guitar solo duel to the death with Satan – no doubt inspired by the cheesy Ralph Macchio movie Crossroads and/or the mythological Highway 61 and Highway 49 intersection in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where Delta blues great Robert Johnson allegedly damned his soul to Hades in exchange for fame and glory. In case you were wondering, Bobby more than held his own against the horned, red-skinned gunslinger.
Revered poet/novelist turned influential singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen was born in Montreal on September 21, 1934. The Canadian Music Hall of Fame and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, companion of the Order of Canada and all-around Canadian icon grew up in the English-speaking Montreal neighbourhood of Westmount. It was Cohen’s mother who sparked his creative fire in early childhood, encouraging her only son to explore poetry and music in school. Although he played guitar throughout his teen years, even forming a country-folk band, it wasn’t music that was his first calling.
During Cohen’s tenure at McGill University from 1951 to 1955, he won a prestigious creative writing award for a series of four poems titled “Thoughts of a Landsman.” Influenced by Irish poet W.B. Yeats, Canadian poet Irving Layton, American poet Walt Whitman and even writer Henry Miller, Cohen published his first book of poetry in 1956, the bulk of which was culled from writings from his teens and early 20s. After completing his undergraduate degree, Cohen studied law for a year at McGill and then briefly attended Columbia University in New York City before returning to his hometown in 1957 to focus further on his writing.
Cohen’s next three poetry collections were published between 1961 and 1966, and included the critically acclaimed The Spice-Box of Earth (1961), Flowers for Hitler (1964) and Parasites of Heaven (1966). He also had time to write two novels, The Favourite Game in 1963 and his infamous masterwork Beautiful Losers in 1966. Unfortunately, financial success didn’t follow critical reaction, so in the mid-1960s Cohen all but abandoned writing and moved to Nashville to pursue what would be his other more fruitful calling.
While in the country music mecca, Cohen hooked up with Judy Collins – the folk star had a 1966 hit with a cover of Cohen’s classic song “Suzanne” – who persuaded the Canadian ex-pat to return to performing. His live debut was at the 1967 Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, which he followed up with a series of sold-out shows in New York City. The appeal of “Suzanne,” along with his appearance at the Newport festival, caught the attention of legendary producer John Hammond, who signed Cohen to Columbia Records and had a hand in creating his debut, Songs of Leonard Cohen, which was released in December of 1967.
Cohen’s soothing monotone voice and highly personal lyrics brushed with a deeply melancholic and nearly whimsical style introduced the folk world to a unique and exciting, albeit low-key new talent. Songs of Leonard Cohen cracked the Billboard album chart and soon developed a devout following in the folk community. In fact, director Robert Altman famously embraced the album, showcasing three of the LP’s songs – “Suzanne” in particular – in his 1971 must-see modern western masterwork, McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
Cohen followed up his debut with two well-received minimalist efforts, 1969’s Songs From a Room (featuring “Bird on the Wire”) and 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate. Cohen’s success and notoriety allowed him to embark on his first tour, with sold-out dates across North America and Europe. In the summer of 1970, he took part in the infamous Isle of Wight Festival; kudos to the Canadian ultra-mellow singer for being neither heckled nor booed during his early morning performance (most acts, including Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell, were jeered at during the event).
Cohen took his act on the road for the better part of 1971, 1972 and 1973, but returned to the studio in 1974 to cut his most pop-friendly album to date, New Skin for the Old Ceremony. He continued to release bestselling albums and embark on sold-out tours throughout the remainder of the ’70s and early ’80s – also publishing several writing collections during this period – and worked on some important collaborations with Jennifer Warnes that further entrenched his mega cult-star status. Even his commercial misstep, Death of a Ladies’ Man, which was produced by Phil Spector, has aged well.
Although his musical output dropped off dramatically from the ’80s through the 2000s (his periods of self-imposed seclusion are legendary) Cohen produced one of his most-praised and eclectic records in 1988, the award-winning I’m Your Man. And the legendary singer-songwriter returned with a vengeance in early 2012 with his 12th studio album, Old Ideas, which became his highest charting release in the United States, peaking at No. 3 on Billboard.
While some may take issue with a few of the particulars regarding the following statement about Cohen by All Music Guide’s Bruce Elder, I think he’s bang-on – though I’d throw Neil Young into the mix as well: “Second only to Bob Dylan (and perhaps Paul Simon), he commands the attention of critics and younger musicians more firmly than any other musical figure from the 1960s who is still working at the outset of the 21st century…” Well put!
Kingston, Ontario–born, Vancouver-raised rocker Bryan Adams’ power ballad “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” was the United Kingdom’s No. 1 single for the 12th straight week on September 22, 1991. Talk about impressive! The hit song was co-written by the Canadian Music Hall of Famer, as well as noted songsmith Michael Kamen and producer John “Mutt” Lange, and was featured on both the 1991 soundtrack for the Kevin Costner Hollywood blockbuster Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Adams’ sixth studio album, Waking Up The Neighbours.
“(Everything I Do)” was the U.K. singles chart champ (try saying that after a few pints of IPA) for another month (the longest consecutive run at No. 1 in U.K. history) before finally being dethroned by U2’s “The Fly.” The JUNO and Grammy Award–winning single spent nine weeks atop Canada’s RPM chart, rested for nearly a month at the No. 1 spot on Billboard and sold over eight million records worldwide.
Next week: Glenn Gould and Anne Murray
“Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen, live at the Isle of Wight Festival (1970)