Friday, 17 May 2013

Albums for Life: 4: Leonard Cohen: Songs of Leonard Cohen

If it be your will that I speak no more
And my voice be still as it was before,
I will speak no more.
I shall abide until
I am spoken for,
If it be your will.
If it be your will that a voice be true,
From this broken hill I will sing to you.
From this broken hill all your praises they shall ring.
If it be your will to let me sing.

For someone whose singing voice seems commanded by God, it's odd that Leonard Cohen didn't see fit to record his debut until 1967, well into his 30s. He was already a noted literary figure in Canada so why did he choose to sing? The story goes that he went to a Bob Dylan concert in Montreal in 1967.
"This guy is so bad." he was reputed to have said "If that son of a bitch can make a living singing then so can I."
With this album Cohen commenced upon a lifetime's quest to articulate his romantic and personal life through poetry and music. He trod a similar path to Joni Mitchell; both are restless visionaries who recognize the wonders and mysteries of life. If they shared a t shirt it would say "There are more questions than answers". Joni once cited Leonard, her one time lover, as the only outside influence on her work besides Dylan. "Those two are my pacesetters'." Hard to believe but... They first met at the Newport Folk Festival in 1967. Both restless souls, they shared a wanderlust but also a soft spot for nostalgia:
'We're poets because we're such reminiscent kind of people. I love Leonard's sentiments, so I've been strongly influenced by him."
After their break up she mocked his influence and use of religious imagery, dismissing him as  'a holy man on the FM radio". Later she seemed a little more conciliatory, acknowledging his influence again in 'A Case of You':

You said 'love is touching souls'
Surely you touched mine
'Cause part of you pours out of me
In these lines from time to time.

'You're in my blood like holy wine" again recognises his familiar themes of sex and religion.
Although she later dismissed Cohen as a 'boudoir poet' she confessed "I'll always love some of Leonard's writing. He owns the words 'naked body', that's his. I don't think that he can write a song without using 'naked body'.

Stark naked kind of describes this affair. There's an austerity, even bleakness to the debut album that Cohen had to fight hard for. Producer John Simon wanted strings and horns. Len was right of course; I love the musical austerity, there's not a wasted note or word, making vital the intrusion of anything other than the voice and nylon stringed guitar.
The literary quality of Cohen's work has held me in awe ever since I first heard this album; if I had to define its tone, I'd go for 'erotic melancholy'. 
I'd love this record if only for that one famous line from Suzanne:
"and she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China"
I once taught a girl who swore that 'Suzanne' was her mother.
Maybe she meant Marianne...
Wisdom has it that the sexy, intelligent, neurotic heroine is in fact Joni.
Who could deny that when Cohen sings:

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

A traveller, a worldly man, a master of Zen, a student of Islam, Cohen's grace and fierce intelligence as the "poet of existential despair" , the 'patron saint of the sacred and the secular' continues to astound. Though his wisdom seems ancient and all encompassing, the modesty of his musical template ensures that he always hits his target; Bullseye! He can make the complex simple, he can render the mundane profound. And so he continues his journey, spiritually engaged, yet full of red blooded wit. Who wrote the line "You fucking whore, I thought that you were really interested in music. I thought your heart was somewhat sorrowful' and edited it down to 'but you don't really care for music, do you?'
Why, laughing Len of course. He also wrote the uncomfortable "Let your mercy spill on all these burning hearts in hell, if it be your will to make us well." He seems understandably preoccupied with death and redemption of late, although there's still enough juice in the old fella for him to be regularly chastised for goosing his ever present female backing singers...  

I always have two books in my travel: a Raymond Carver collection 'Where I'm Calling From' and an Everyman Pocket Poet Collection of Leonard Cohen's work.
The following quotation appears on the title page of all of Everyman's Library volumes. It's a quotation from the medieval play Everyman in which the character of Knowledge says:

I will go with thee
And be thy guide,
In thy most need 
To go by thy side.

The final words in the collection are Cohen's:

So let's drink to when it's over
And let's drink to when we meet
I'll be standing on this corner
Where there used to be a street

Yup, if you're looking for a challenging but reliable drinking partner, Len's your man. 
He is surely not Everyman, but he never disappoints, he's a trusty companion for life; he has always delivered, from that early promise to his more recent realizations. 
He's more relevant to me now than he was back in the early 70s, when I first heard this stark, haunting debut. I'm older now. I still don't understand everything he's telling me but I'm getting there...
He's a writer, a poet, a singer, a lover, a teacher and, in so many ways, he remains The Master.


  1. For anyone with even the most glancing interest in this remarkable wordsmith, Sylvie Simmons’ definitive biography “I’m Your Man” is an absolute must. Sylvie is coming to London next month for performance readings and signings around the release of the paperback version, scheduled to coincide with the great man’s one London performance, at the O2 on June 21st.

    Kevin Wyatt-Lown

  2. Excellent. Thanks Kevin, I'll keep eye out. Same eye thats' eying 'I'm Your Man' on Amazon...
    I believe that Sylvie reviewed a Miracle Mile album way back.
    I think that she's more taken with Len...

  3. Great album which is always a rewarding listen. Good choice Trevor. I has Lenny down to appear near the top of your list alright. You may even have preempted the choice. Three to go, I think I have them but will not be too surprised to be surprised.

    1. I was going to stick some Jake Thackery in there to rattle the cages but... for the uninitiated; he's close to French chanson; he real quirky guy. I saw him in concert in a tiny club in Ilkley way back; just him and a bass player; he was captivating, funny and incredibly grumpy.
      Try 'Jake in a Box'; his best stuff, stuffed on to 4 CDs. He's finn (Brother Gorilla/Sister Josephine) but does tender and regional folk beautifully too.

  4. I only had the greatest hits - the one with the yellow cover and a photo that makes him look like a dodgy clairvoyant. However thanks to a tip off , either here or Seamus 's blog I got the whole back catalogue from the evil empire for a ridiculously low price of about £25, and now favourite will change from day to day although the later ones with their strange uncomfortable easy listening backing are currently winning out

  5. Perfect description - "their strange uncomfortable easy listening backing"

  6. The early albums are addictive David. My favourite of that later, 'easy listening' beat box & babes bunch is 'Alexander Leaving' from Ten New Songs...