An Animated Leonard Cohen Offers Reflections on Death: Thought-Provoking Excerpts from His Final Interview

A month before Leonard Cohen died in November, 2016, The New Yorker's editor David Remnick traveled to the songwriter’s Los Angeles home for a lengthy interview in which Cohen looked both forward and back.

As a former Zen monk, he was also adept at inhabiting the present, one in which the shadow of death crept ever closer.

His former lover and muse, Marianne Ihlen, had succumbed to cancer earlier in the summer, two days after receiving a frank and loving email from Cohen:

Well, Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.

The New Yorker has never shied from over-the-top physical descriptions. The courteous, highly verbal young poet, who’d evinced “a kind of Michael Corleone Before the Fall look, sloe-eyed, dark, a little hunched” was now very thin, but still handsome, with the handshake of “a courtly retired capo.”

In addition to an album, You Want It Darker, to promote, Cohen had a massive backlog of unpublished poems and unfinished lyrics to tend to before the sands of time ran out.

At 82, he seemed glad to have all his mental faculties and the support of a devoted personal assistant, several close friends and his two adult children, all of which allowed him to maintain his music and language-based workaholic habits.

Time, as he noted, provides a powerful incentive for finishing up, despite the challenges posed by the weakening flesh:

At a certain point, if you still have your marbles and are not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance to put your house in order. It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an analgesic on all levels. Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable.

He had clearly made peace with the idea that some of his projects would go unfinished.

You can hear his fondness for one of them, a “sweet little song” that he recited from memory, eyes closed, in the animated interview excerpt, above:

Listen to the hummingbird

Whose wings you cannot see

Listen to the hummingbird

Don’t listen to me.

Listen to the butterfly

Whose days but number three

Listen to the butterfly

Don’t listen to me.

Listen to the mind of God

Which doesn’t need to be

Listen to the mind of God

Don’t listen to me.

These unfinished thoughts close out Cohen's beautifully named posthumous album, Thanks for the Dance, scheduled for release later this month.

Dianne V. Lawrence, who designed Cohen’s hummingbird logo, a motif beginning with 1979's Recent Songs album, speculates that Cohen equated the hummingbird’s enormous energy usage and sustenance requirements with those of the soul.

Read Remnick’s article on Leonard Cohen in its entirety here. Hear a recording of David Remnick's interview with Cohen--his last ever--below:

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, December 9 for her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Provocative Art of Modern Sketch, the Magazine That Captured the Cultural Explosion of 1930s Shanghai


"With its newspapers in every language and scores of radio stations, Shanghai was a media city before its time, celebrated as the Paris of the Orient and 'the wickedest city in the world.'" So British writer J.G. Ballard remembers the Chinese metropolis in which he grew up in his autobiography Miracles of Life. "Shanghai struck me as a magical place, a self-generating fantasy that left my own little mind far behind." Born in 1930, Ballard caught Shanghai at a particularly stimulating time: "Developed on the basis of 'unequal treaties' successively instituted after the First Opium War in 1842," writes MIT's John A. Crespi, Chinese port cities like Shanghai "experienced a welter of technological and demographic changes," including automobiles, skyscrapers, rolled cigarettes, movie theaters coffeehouses, and much else besides.

Such heady days also gave rise to media that reflected and critiqued them, and 1930s Shanghai produced no more compelling an example of such a publication than Modern Sketch (时代漫画, Shídài Mànhuà).




Among its points of interest, writes Crespi, "one can point to Modern Sketch’s longevity, the quality of its printing, the remarkable eclecticism of its content, and its inclusion of work by young artists who went on to become leaders in China’s 20th-century cultural establishment. But from today’s perspective, most intriguing is the sheer imagistic force with which this magazine captures the crises and contradictions that have defined China’s 20th century as a quintessentially modern era."

Published monthly from January 1934 through June 1937, the magazine first appeared on newsstands just over two decades after the collapse of China’s dynastic system.  The modernization-minded May Fourth Movement, nationalist Northern Expedition, and purge of communists by “Generalissimo” Chiang Kai-shek were even more recent memories.




But the relative stability of the "Nanjing Decade" had begun in 1927, and its zeitgeist turned out to be rich soil for a wild cultural flowering in China's coastal cities, none wilder than in Shanghai. To the reading public of this time Modern Sketch offered treatments of material like "eroticized women, foreign aggression — particularly the rise of fascism in Europe and militarized Japan — domestic politics and exploitation, and modernity-at-large," writes Crespi.

The magazine's attitude "could be incisive, bitter, shocking, and cynical. At the very same time it could be elegant, salacious, and preposterous. Its messages might be as simple as child’s play, or cryptically encoded for cultural sophisticates."

Sometimes it didn't encode its messages cryptically enough: as a result of one unflattering depiction of Xu Shiying, China's ambassador to Japan, the authorities suspended publication and detained editor Lu Shaofei. Not that Lu didn't know what he was getting into with Modern Sketch: "On all sides a tense era surrounds us," he wrote in the magazine's inaugural issue. "As it is for the individual, so it is for our country and the world."

As for an answer to the question of whether the strange and tense but enormously fruitful cultural and political moment in which Lu and his collaborators found themselves wold last, "the more one fails to find it, the more that desire grows. Our stance, our single responsibility, then, is to strive!"

You can read more about what project entailed, and see in greater detail its textual and visual results, in Crespi's history of this magazine that strove to capture the everyday reality of life on display in 1930s Shanghai — "though I sometimes wonder," Ballard writes, "if everyday reality was the one element missing from the city."

via 50 Watts

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How Magazine Pages Were Created Before Computers: A Veteran of the London Review of Books Demonstrates the Meticulous, Manual Process

The London Review of Books is celebrating its 40th anniversary, but somehow the magazine has always felt older than that: not like the product of a stuffier age, but of a more textually and intellectually lavish one than the late 1970s. Pick up an early issue and you'll see that, as much as it has evolved in the details, the basic project of the LRB remains the same: publishing essays of the highest quality on a variety of subjects literary, political, and otherwise, allowing their writers a length sufficient for proper engagement of both subject and reader, and — perhaps most admirably of all — refusing, in this age of internet media, to burden them with semi-relevant pictures and clickbait headlines.

"Much in those early numbers still looks fresh," writes Susannah Clapp, who worked at the LRB during its first thirteen years. "But the apparatus and surroundings that produced them seem antique. Typewriters. Letters covered in blotches of Tipp-Ex, for which the office name was 'eczema.' No screens; hand-drawn maps for layout; tins of Cow Gum." The cow gum was an essential tool of the trade for Bryony Dalefield, who since 1982 has worked "pretty near continuously" for the LRB as what's called a "paste-up artist." In the video above, she describes how her job — whose title remains "pleasingly still in the vocabulary in the digital age" — once involved "literally cutting up copy and pasting it onto a board so it could be sent to the printers and photographed for printing."




Dalefield doesn't just recount the process but performs it, summoning a presumably long-dormant but well-honed suite of skills to paste up a current page of the LRB just as she did it in the 80s. First she takes the text of an article, fresh from the print shop, and cuts it into columns with scissors. Then she spreads the Cow Gum, with its "strong petrol smell," to fix the columns to the board, fearing all the while that she'll stick them on out of order. Even in order, they usually require the addition or removal of words to fit just right on the page, and at the LRB, a publication to whose meticulous editing process each and every contributor can attest, another round of edits follows the first pasting. We then see why X-ACTO knives are called that, since using one to replace individual words and phrases on paper demands no small degree of exactitude.

With the wrong bits cut out and the right ones pasted in and held down with Magic Tape, the completed page is ready to be sent back to the printer. Pasting-up, which Dalefield frames as a marrying of the work of editors and typographers, will seem astonishingly labor-intensive to most anyone under the age of 50, few of whom even know how magazines and newspapers put together their pages before the advent of desktop publishing. But the very word "desktop," in the computer-interface sense, speaks to the metaphorical persistence of the old ways through what Dalefield calls the "falling out of trades" in the digital age. I myself have done a fair bit of "cutting," "copying," and "pasting" writing this very post — but I suppose I never did say, "Oh, that's very sticky" while doing so.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour Teaches a Course on Creativity & Leadership

Imagine a famous magazine editor, and smart money says the image that comes to mind has a bob haircut and sunglasses. No one has defined the role of magazine-editor-as-cultural-force, and so consistently lived it, more than Anna Wintour, and the online education company Masterclass has somehow convinced her to take her hand off the wheel of Vogue — and put aside those oversized shades — just long enough to star in a course about how she steers that behemoth of a publication through the waters of fashion. "I know many people are curious about who I am and how I approach my work," Wintour says in the trailer above. "This is a class for those who want to understand my leadership style, and then understand the experiences that have helped me become an effective leader."

You may well have already heard a thing or two about Wintour's leadership style, the famously exacting nature of which has provoked different reactions from different people (and possibly even inspired a bestselling novel and its feature-film adaptation).




But as Wintour herself explains it, "you need someone who can push you, that isn't pulling you back" — sensible advice even for leaders of companies, teams, and classrooms who don't mind projecting a somewhat more laid-back image. But even for those who want to project as much individual strength and resolve as possible, "it's really, really important to surround yourself with a team whose opinions that you trust, who are not in any way frightened of disagreeing with you, and you have to listen."

In her Masterclass, Wintour teaches, in other words, "how to be a boss." That phrase appears at the top of its syllabus, whose twelve lessons include "Anna's Management Tips" and "Editorial Decision-Making" as well as "Photographers and Models," "A Look Back at Iconic Covers," and "Transforming the Met Gala." Though geared toward viewers with an interest in the business of fashion (case studies include the careers of Miuccia Prada and Michael Kors), "Anna Wintour Teaches Creativity and Leadership" also offers principles for any human endeavor that requires invention, group work, and meeting hard deadlines over and over again. You can take the course individually for $90 USD, or as part of a $180 yearly all-access pass to every course on Masterclass, including another one on creativity by a similarly productive cultural figure, similarly recognizable by personal style alone: David Lynch.

FYI: If you sign up for a MasterClass course by clicking on the affiliate links in this post, Open Culture will receive a small fee that helps support our operation.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

David Byrne Launches Reasons to Be Cheerful, an Online Magazine Featuring Articles by Byrne, Brian Eno & More

Happiness, we know, is hard to come by, even in the best times. And if we agree on nothing else, we might agree that these are not the best of times. An air of gloomy dread and outraged alarm prevails for good reason. There have been many other times in history to justifiably feel this way. In 1944, German Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno—exiled for ten years from his home and sojourning through a U.S. he found increasingly fascist in character—resigned himself to quiet despair.

“There is no way out of entanglement,” he wrote in his trenchant, gloomy collection of aphorisms, Minima Moralia. “The only responsible course is to… conduct oneself privately as modestly, unobtrusively and unpretentiously as is required, no longer by good upbringing, but by the shame of still having air to breathe, in hell.”




Adorno’s absurdist melancholia came from many places: his assessment of capitalism’s inescapability, his survivor’s guilt, his generally morose temperament…. He rarely confessed to having happy thoughts even when things were going well. Another thinker of the period, philosopher of the absurd and a writer for the French Resistance during World War II, had a very different take on the question of happiness in dark times.

Albert Camus reminded us that all times are dark times for someone. Speaking after the war in 1959, he castigated the idea that we should be shamed into misery. “Today happiness is like a crime,” Camus sneered, “never admit it. Don’t say ‘I’m happy’ otherwise you will hear condemnation all around.” One pertinent question both of these very different perspectives address is whether happiness is morally responsible.

Former Talking Heads frontman, record label maven, and frequent cultural critic David Byrne has answered the question in the affirmative with his project, Reasons to Be Cheerful, first an online compendium of news stories, now a curated online magazine designed to be a “tonic for tumultuous times.” Reasons to Be Cheerful starts with the premise that we are subjected daily to “amplified negativity” that wildly skews our view of events around the world.

It’s an old complaint; we’ve all heard, or voiced, a version of why don’t they ever show any good news? Byrne put his creative energy and resources behind the criticism to do something about it, “collecting good news,” he says, “not schmaltzy, feel-good news, but stuff that reminded me, ‘Hey, there’s positive stuff going on! People are solving problems and it’s making a difference!’”

In their blurb for the introductory video at the top, the Reasons to Be Cheerful team describe the site as “an online editorial project” that is “part magazine, part therapy session, part blueprint for a better world.” The site’s “stories of hope” don’t shy away from sentiment, but they are “rooted in evidence” and purport to show “smart, proven, replicable solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.”

A sampling of articles currently on the site gives us a story about how lawyers might “end up saving the world” by taking on polluters the way they took on the tobacco industry; a piece about how cheap solar in China has “fueled the world’s green-energy revolution”; and essays about education in prison and the creation of a public waterfront from donated private property on Lake Erie. This being a David Byrne project, there is also, of course, a story about "the way to a two-wheeled utopia." The current edition features several articles by Byrne himself, and another by Brian Eno.

Byrne and the editors and writing staff make no explicitly political statements, but they clearly value things like quality public education, clean air and water, a sustainable climate, and the creation of more public space—all areas that are now vastly under threat. Whether or not you find your own reasons to be cheerful in this commitment to positive journalism may depend on who and where you are, and whether you tend to see the world more like Adorno or Camus.

via Rolling Stone

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

When MAD Magazine Ruffled the Feathers of the FBI, Not Once But Three Times

Many of us grew up reading MAD, the soon-to-be-late illustrated satirical magazine. But only the generations who went through their MAD periods in the publication's first couple of decades, from the 1950s through the 1970s, enjoyed it at the height of its subversive powers. As hard as it may be to imagine in the 21st century, there was even a time when MAD came under scrutiny by no less powerful an organization than the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation, and faced the wrath of its first and most feared director J. Edgar Hoover at that. But did the heat stop its creators from doing their necessary work of irreverence? Most certainly not.

"In a memo dated November 30, 1957," writes Mental Floss' Jake Rossen, "an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation identified as 'A. Jones.' raised an issue of critical importance." That issue had to do with what the FBI file on the case described as several complaints made "concerning the 'Mad' comic book," and specifically "a tongue-in-cheek game about draft dodging. Players who earned such status were advised to write to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and request a membership card certifying themselves as a 'full-fledged draft dodger.' At least three readers, the agent reported, did exactly that." Agent Jones also weighed in with a judgment of MAD itself: "It is rather unfunny.”

You can see all this for yourself in the documents from the FBI file, excerpts of which are available to download at thesmokinggun.com. "Criticizing or lampooning the FBI has become standard media fare," says that site, "but when J. Edgar Hoover ran the joint, the bureau wouldn't stand for such swipes — and often retaliated by investigating its foes. So that's why it's great to see that MAD magazine wasn't intimidated by Hoover and seemed to take pleasure in needling the Director." It did it again in 1960, two years after publisher William Gaines promised never to mention Hoover's name in the pages of MAD, when it made fun of the FBI's top man twice in a single issue, once in a faux advertisement for a vacuum cleaner called “The Honorable J. Edgar Electrolux.”

The exchanges that ensued, says thesmokinggun.com, reveal the FBI's possession of "one lousy sense of humor." But they also reveal no small degree of courage on the part of a still-new humor magazine in the face of an intelligence organization more than empowered to seriously disrupt lives and careers. Not long thereafter, MAD would become a recognized American institution in its own way, poking fun at seemingly every phenomenon to pass, however ephemerally, through the national zeitgeist. But now that its own run, which adds up to a highly non-ephemeral 67 years, has come to an end, we'd do well to reflect on what its history tells us about satire and the state. The condition of that dynamic today may cause some of us to do just what MAD mascot Alfred E. Neuman never did — worry.

via Mental Floss

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The End of an Era: MAD Magazine Will Publish Its Last Issue With Original Content This Fall

As a cultural reference, MAD magazine may have died decades ago. This is a not a disparagement, but a statement of fact. The kind of satire the august, anarchic comic first unleashed on the world of 1952 debuted in a cultural milieu that is no more, and a form—the illustrated, satirical periodical—that is increasingly niche. MAD left an indelible impression on American publishing’s past, but as the magazine’s legendary cartoonist Al Jaffee tells The Washington Post, “it’s mostly nostalgia now.”

Responding to the market’s cues, MAD will more or less disappear from newsstands, publishing legacy content on a subscription-only basis and on the direct market, “a.k.a. specialty and comic book stores,” writes Gizmodo, “like the vast majority of DC’s comics output is already.” MAD shaped itself in opposition to Cold War paranoia and never seemed to find a new edge after favorite targets like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan left the scene. The magazine turned almost exclusively to pop culture parody in the 90s. As ABC News reports, MAD “peaked at 2.8 million subscribers in 1973,” then began its decline, with only “140,000 left as of 2017.”




The magazine’s founding editor, cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman, passed away in 1993. His successor Al Feldstein, who brought the magazine to international prominence, died in 2014. MAD's longtime, tight-knit staff of writers and cartoonists are mostly retired, and most are sanguine about the winding down. “It’s been a logical development,” comments another MAD cartooning legend, Sergio Aragonés. To wit, after Issue 10 (MAD re-numbered last June) comes out this fall, there will be no new content, “except for the end-of-year specials,” notes The Post. “All issues after that will be republished content culled from 67 years of publication.”

This still represents a great way for newcomers to MAD to catch up on its wildly skewed view of the last half of the 20th century, though some imagination is required to appreciate how subversive their humor was for much of its run. MAD inspired countless offshoots in the decade after its founding, setting the tone for radical campus publications, countercultural cartoonists, and comic writers, some of whom went on to become Stephen Colbert and Judd Apatow, who both wrote in the pages of MAD about how much the magazine meant to them during their apprentice years.

The list of MAD devotees, both famous and not (I count myself among the latter), runs into the millions, but it runs along some obvious demographic divides. As the magazine is poised to become a gift-shop version of itself, tributes have poured in for its editors, writers, and cartoonists—all of them, to a man, well, men. And most of those tributes—those from prominent cartoonists and writers claiming MAD as a formative influence, at least—are also from men of a certain generation, most of them straight and white.

Such market segmentation, one might say, speaks to the way MAD's brand of political satire remained embedded in its heyday. As laid-back cartoonists Jaffee and Aragonés recognize, you can’t stay young and relevant forever—though MAD had a remarkably good run. The Post offers a notable example of Mad’s passage into history. When the current president “mockingly referred to Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg as Alfred E. Neuman”—the once-ubiquitous, gap-toothed symbol of take-no-prisoners irreverence—the 37-year-old Buttigieg replied, “I’ll be honest. I had to Google that.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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