There’s music on Clinton Street all through the evening…

Some year ago, I heard Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” for the first time. The exact year is lost but I was old enough, and pretentious enough in my music tastes, for it to be an embarrassing revelation. Yet, there’s also a visceral rush in stumbling upon something fabulous that you should not have, but somehow did miss, As one accumulates cultural totems–albums, films, images, and philosophies–the thrill they can inspire dissipates. In youth, even a subpar insight, groove, or visual can effect an unbidden realignment of the self, as it makes what did not fit suddenly cohere, or reveals a dimension of the world not yet perceived. But as the self solidifies–hopefully doesn’t congeal–it becomes ever rarer to have those moments of realignment and insight. By the time I heard “Famous Blue Raincoat” I had already tripped over unremembered scores of literary popular songs, like every pretentious muso-boy I had my infatuation and then falling out with Dylan, defended Springsteen from… well, from Springsteen. I had built up my own library of story songs that, if I’m honest, I’ll always really believe are more powerful and insightful than any philosophy, film, painting, or novel. But I was also becoming a collector, a curator, no longer a seeker of songs that could repair mysterious misalignments or reveal needed, welcoming spaces in the world. But “Famous Blue Raincoat” felt like that again, and the embarrassment gave way to joy, even in the sad emotional ash of Cohen’s three-on-a-match-tale.

I had another instance of this experience when I recently discovered Marshall Berman. Tracking down references on ‘urbicide’, led to Berman’s writing on the destruction and eventual rebuilding of the Bronx. Enticed by that essay and glowing descriptions of Berman’s work (the man has fans!), I’ve been beguiled by his whole approach to political theory. The cliche would be that it “speaks to me” but what it does is better described as speaking of, and for, me. Reading “Caught up in the mix” from his Adventures in Marxism, was inspiring, like an intellectual Rocky training montage. Its power over me is an outgrowth of how it gently and insightfully narrates a journey into the intellectual realm that is truly transformative–Berman’s encounter with the humanist Marx rearranges him, provides insight into the shape and texture of the world that he sensed but did not perceive. And Berman comes back to this again and again, reflecting on the way graffiti and hip-hop altered his understanding and connection to New York City, for example. I feel not just what Berman is saying, rather he’s saying things I’ve felt, saying them in a way I want to emulate. Like Cohen, Berman is no revolutionary in the cultural realm, he’s an innovator but the innovator needs a background culture to emerge out of, they remain connected to forms and traditions, both as an acknowledgement of what they provide, and because of their the fascination, maybe obsession, with how bits and pieces shape us–and with the hopeful pursuit of further consummate experiences.

In “Famous Blue Raincoat”, Cohen’s narrator is happy with where he’s living, where there’s music on Clinton Street all through the evening. Berman, too, draws joy and power from the energy of street life, its musical and rhythmic movements, its rush and tangle, in the way the stagnant human water of urban life can suddenly release into a great flow carrying you faster than you wanted towards what you never expected. The encounters with Cohen and Berman–and so many others–are the stuff of intellectual inspiration, and important to keep listening out for, in the old and familiar, in the new and unexpected, but that sound is rather less reliably heard in the trendy, the urgent, the prescribed, which tends to congeal around the intellect all too often these days.

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