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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Legends of Note: Leonard Cohen

I would like to start this edition of Legends of Note with a bold claim: Leonard Cohen is the greatest English-speaking lyricist of all time. Not the best English-speaking poet of all time (although his poetry is indeed a thing of wonder, and his novel “Beautiful Losers” is a true masterpiece), but the finest artist we’ve had who has put words to music. I’ve been known to say, with only a little hyperbole, that if I had to live with only Cohen’s first 5 albums to listen to, I would die a happy man. The beautiful, sparse, stark sadness of Cohen’s work is brave and wonderful. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Cohen has turned to Zen Buddhism in his later years, as much of his lyrical canon dwells on the impermanence of things small and grand, finding beauty in unlikely corners, and confronting sexuality with an honesty unparalleled in the Western folk tradition.
Who was it who said they don’t trust singers with good voices? They could easily have been talking about Cohen. His is not the harmonic pleasantry of Simon and Garfunkel’s, yet also not the unique put-on of Dylan’s. Rather, Cohen’s is a humble, small-ranged voice that that carries a subtle tune, and allows the listener to focus on the lyrics, always the main attraction. To be sure, Cohen’s output since the 80’s has come to be characterized by his extremely deep vocals, but this a later development, and serves to illustrate my point: while still an amazing lyricist, the focus has shifted; some of the magic is gone.
There is no better place to start than the beginning, with Cohen’s 1968 debut, “Songs of Leonard Cohen.” Right from the start we have perhaps Cohen’s best known work, “Suzanne.” Breezy and melancholic, “Suzanne” mixes images of time spent with a woman in Montreal with ruminations on the life of Jesus, mixed in with some possible sexual allusions, and beautiful descriptions of the landscape. I have listened to this song more times than I can even venture a guess at, and it still moves me. The story told, the story hinted at, Cohen’s quiet delivery, the beautiful background vocals… It’s the closest thing to a perfect song I can think of.

Suzanne takes you down to
her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by
You can spend the night beside her
And you know that she's half crazy
But that's why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her
That you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer
That you've always been her lover
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you've touched her perfect body
with your mind

And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said "All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them"
But he himself was broken
Long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
And you want to travel with him
And you want to travel blind
And you think maybe you'll trust him
For he's touched your perfect body
with his mind

Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbour
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she's touched your perfect body
with her mind

And they’re all like this! The album works its way through its song-cycle, and each song is something to spend days with. I’ve had days where “Songs of Leonard Cohen” has terrified me, has lulled me to sleep, has made me incomparably joyous. I know had this album not come to me when it did, I would be a very different person today.
Each subsequent album, in turn, is a thing of beauty in its own right. “Songs from a Room,” Cohen’s follow-up, plays much like an extension of his debut, and features one of his finest works, “The Butcher.” With its stark exploration of slaughter and drug use, this quiet little song masterfully draws connections between our conceptions of a higher power and the violent use of power in the terrestrial world.
I came upon a butcher,
he was slaughtering a lamb,
I accused him there
with his tortured lamb.
He said, "Listen to me, child,
I am what I am
and you, you are my only son."
Well, I found a silver needle,
I put it into my arm.
It did some good,
did some harm.
But the nights were cold
and it almost kept me warm,
how come the night is long?

I saw some flowers growing up
where that lamb fell down;
was I supposed to praise my Lord,
make some kind of joyful sound?
He said, "Listen, listen to me now,
I go round and round
and you, you are my only child."

Do not leave me now,
do not leave me now,
I'm broken down
from a recent fall.
Blood upon my body
and ice upon my soul,
lead on, my son, it is your world.
Next up is “Songs of Love and Hate,” which features another of Cohen’s best known songs, “Famous Blue Raincoat.” If no other song could convince you of Cohen’s place at the top of the lyricist ladder, this should do it:
It's four in the morning, the end of December
I'm writing you now just to see if you're better

New York is cold, but I like where I'm living

There's music on Clinton Street all through the evening.

I hear that you're building your little house deep in the desert

You're living for nothing now, I hope you're keeping some kind of record.

Yes, and Jane came by with a lock of your hair

She said that you gave it to her

That night that you planned to go clear

Did you ever go clear?

Ah, the last time we saw you you looked so much older

Your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder

You'd been to the station to meet every train

And you came home without Lili Marlene

And you treated my woman to a flake of your life

And when she came back she was nobody's wife.

Well I see you there with the rose in your teeth

One more thin gypsy thief

Well I see Jane's awake --

She sends her regards.

And what can I tell you my brother, my killer

What can I possibly say?

I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you

I'm glad you stood in my way.

If you ever come by here, for Jane or for me

Your enemy is sleeping, and his woman is free.

Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes

I thought it was there for good so I never tried.

And Jane came by with a lock of your hair

She said that you gave it to her

That night that you planned to go clear --

Sincerely, L. Cohen

More is told in this 5 minute song than in most feature-length films.
Album #4, “New Skin for the Old Ceremony,” adds some new instrumentation to the mix, but Cohen’s detached delivery never falters. The sexually-blunt “Chelsea Hotel #2” is another Cohen classic, and seems to somehow mark a break in his discography (if only lyrically). Here, Cohen reflects on his music career, and the insanity surrounding it. He seems eager to leave it behind, and envies a past lover who managed to do so.
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
you were talking so brave and so sweet,
giving me head on the unmade bed,
while the limousines wait in the street.
Those were the reasons and that was New York,
we were running for the money and the flesh.
And that was called love for the workers in song
probably still is for those of them left.

Ah but you got away, didn't you babe,
you just turned your back on the crowd,
you got away, I never once heard you say,
I need you, I don't need you,
I need you, I don't need you
and all of that jiving around.

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
you were famous, your heart was a legend.
You told me again you preferred handsome men
but for me you would make an exception.
And clenching your fist for the ones like us
who are oppressed by the figures of beauty,
you fixed yourself, you said, "Well never mind,
we are ugly but we have the music."
And then you got away, didn't you babe,
you just turned your back on the crowd,
you got away, I never once heard you say,
I need you, I don't need you,
I need you, I don't need you
and all of that jiving around.

I don't mean to suggest that I loved you the best,
I can't keep track of each fallen robin.
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
that's all, I don't even think of you that often.
In my opinion, Cohen’s next album, “Death of a Ladies’ Man,” is the endpoint of the perfect Cohen trajectory. It is by no means a perfect album: it’s uneven, boozy, over-produced, kind of a mess. But thematically, that all works. Here is not Cohen the sage, here is Cohen the drunk (a side no doubt equally important to explore). The best moment of “Ladies’ Man” is a track called “Paper Thin Hotel.” Listening to others make love through the hotel wall, the narrator, a loser in love, reaches an epiphany. Sadly, no video of this exists on youtube. Here is a link to the lastfm page for it:
The walls of this hotel are paper-thin
Last night I heard you making love to him
The struggle mouth to mouth and limb to limb
The grunt of unity when he came in
I stood there with my ear against the wall
I was not seized by jealousy at all
In fact a burden lifted from my soul
I heard that love was out of my control
A heavy burden lifted from my soul
I heard that love was out of my control

I listened to your kisses at the door
I never heard the world so clear before
You ran your bath and you began to sing
I felt so good I couldn't feel a thing

I stood there with my ear against the wall ...

And I can't wait to tell you to your face
And I can't wait for you to take my place
You are The Naked Angel In My Heart
You are The Woman With Her Legs Apart
It's written on the walls of this hotel
You go to heaven once you've been to hell

A heavy burden lifted from my soul
I heard that love was out of my control
Again, with its blunt sexuality, Cohen has tapped into something rare and true. We should all be so lucky to see things so clearly, let alone be able to express them in song.
Let me know your favorite lyricist in the comments! Thanks again everyone.


  1. Elvis Costello and Townes Van Zandt!!
    But also I wanted to make sure you knew about this:
    Jeffrey Lewis - Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song

    Also: Thanks for doing these - the first two albums of his I had were "Songs of L~ C~" and "I'm Your Man" (which had "Tower of Song" and "Take this Waltz" and "First We Take Manhattan") and it seemed impossible they had come from the same brain...

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  3. Oh man, Townes Van Zandt is the best. One of my top 5 favorite lyricists for sure. But he always makes me extremely sad.

    And yes, that Jeffrey Lewis song is great!

  4. I have so many favourite LC songs! "Everybody Knows"! "Chelsea Hotel 2" (it's about Janis Joplin, ps)! "I'm Your Man"!
    Additionally, Leonard Cohen covers are often the best covers. There's just so much there for other talented artists to work with. I imagine you're familiar with kd lang's Hallelujah?

    Liz Phair is another one of my favourite lyricists.

  5. I was having a really intense Warren Zevon moment the other day ... truly one of the best. Also Dan Bejar.

  6. Ashamed to say that I did not even listen to, like, any Leonard Cohen until I saw this: