Friday, August 19, 2005

The Lord Byron of rock
The distinctive music of Leonard Cohen

In February 1999, Leonard Cohen was in Mumbai to meet an 81-year-old guru. Later, he reportedly strolled through Rhythm House – Mumbai’s best music store. He must have chuckled at finding his titles displayed in the “Easy Listening” section. He’d have remembered the American newspaper that had described his songs as “music to slit your wrists by” some years ago and chuckled some more.

Being perceived at two different extremes at the same time is nothing new for Cohen. As a bohemian who’s rather well-turned-out, as a famous lover of women who never married and lives alone now, as a Jew who practices Zen, as an introspective poet and novelist with a considerable following in popular music, as a singer-songwriter of ostensibly gloomy songs yet with a sparkling sense of humour in real life…the truth always lies somewhere in between, so it is not surprising that his greatest success too came in Europe (especially France) – which is geographically between America and India, where these two extreme points-of-view emanated from.

The fact is that Cohen has mined a very narrow territory in popular music – that of the incurable romantic, but he’s been a master at what he’s done. His brand of “European Blues” has been a direct contrast to the visceral American Blues – his world-weary delivery, highly romantic sensibility and an innate sense of irony giving life to songs that appear intrinsically gloomy. Sure, they aren’t party songs, but if we accept the bald fact that feelings of loneliness, despair and nostalgia visit us more often than fair-weather euphoria, then it is perhaps easier to understand the chord Cohen’s music has touched and continues to touch. Above all, Leonard Cohen is a poet, popular music’s only published poet, therefore economically perhaps the most successful poet of all time (there are guitars behind all my writing, he says, even my novels). His gentle, brooding, often hypnotic songs brim with compassion, wisdom and a strange kind of passion…filling, perhaps, holes in the soul, applying balm on psychic wounds. Some souls and wounds, certainly, of that there is no doubt.

Is it possible to identify moments from an artist’s life that shaped his sensibility? We can try to pick out a few perhaps. Could one be his father’s poor health and premature death when Leonard was just nine? It took him a long time to understand his feelings and this pain; 13 years later, he dedicated his first book of poems Let Us Compare Mythologies to his father. The poem “Rites” was not his only piece of writing that dealt with death even after so many years…an inherent gloominess that stayed. How significant were his forays into hypnotism as a high school student? With a yellow pencil waved back and forth, his first successful subject was the family maid (whom he immediately undressed to fulfill an adolescent fantasy). Later, he used it as a counselor to disturbed children. Basically, he wanted to use hypnotism for its transcendent powers – to observe without falling asleep himself, “to kiss with one eye open”, “to make debris beautiful”, “to be a magical priest”. Poetry and music would later become expressions of the same desire. How important was the year 1949? At the age of 15, he bought a guitar. He found a teacher in a 19-year-old Spanish immigrant in Montreal (the Canadian city Leonard was born and brought up in) who gave him three lessons in minor chords and flamenco but never showed up for the fourth. Apparently, he had committed suicide; Cohen never managed to find out why. But this teaching and its strange end perhaps fired his muse, perhaps set the wheels in motion. That same year, he discovered the brooding poetry of Fredrico Garcia Lorca, which taught him to “understand the dignity of sorrow” through flamenco music. A whole new sensibility had gripped Leonard Cohen and it never left him. By 1956, he’d written his first book of poetry and been included in CBC’s recording of “Six Montreal Poets” which put him in the company of his mentors.

Could leaving Montreal be a defining moment of some sort? He sought a “freer artistic world, one without boundaries or roots”, and went to New York, studied English Literature in Columbia University. He found it very uninspiring – “passion without flesh”, “love with no climax”. This was accentuated when he was allowed, to his amusement, to write his term paper on his own book of poems (which he castigated mercilessly). The general lack of rigour in the study of literature put him off and he quit to become an elevator operator for a while. He was dismissed soon for refusing to wear the uniform. The restlessness began to push him. He was soon in London, where he stayed with friends for a while and wrote three pages a day. Then onto Greece on a whim, as he wanted to experience springtime there. How vital to the Leonard Cohen story is the next trip – to Hydra, a Greek island five hours from Athens? Here, he would buy a house from a $ 1500 inheritance, settle down, leading a spartan life, a writer’s life, working on his poetry and his novel The Favourite Game. Meeting Marianne Ihlen – a Norwegian model, was momentous too for sure. She became his Muse and later moved in with her son. The domesticity spurred on the writer and soon Cohen would embark on his second, more acclaimed novel Beautiful Losers (that would later make the Boston Globe remark “James Joyce is not dead, he is living in Montreal under the name of Cohen”). Perhaps the most significant thing was the fact that, despite all the critical acclaim, Cohen just could not make enough money to survive as a writer. He was forced to consider an alternative career.

How important was Bob Dylan then, for Leonard Cohen? His music had impressed Cohen greatly and inspired him to start singing in 1966. Dylan’s vocal skills must have given him confidence too – both had, in a manner of speaking, a “non-voice”. Coming to New York later that year and feeling at home in the folk sensibility was the clincher, surely. The plot unfolded quickly, as Cohen stayed at Chelsea Hotel surrounded by drugs and dope-addicts, met Janis Joplin (whom he got involved with), met Lou Reed (who told him to ignore rude drunks because after all, he’d written Beautiful Losers), fell in love with Nico (who spurned his advances), got involved with Joni Mitchell and finally sang Judy Collins some of his songs, a few of which she covered in her next 2 albums. The songwriting got Cohen noticed and soon he had a deal with John Hammond (the man who discovered Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and later Bruce Springsteen). Without doubt, that first album - Songs Of Leonard Cohen (1968) was a watershed because it pretty much laid the template for all his future work in music. It was a masterpiece, with songs like the ethereal “Suzanne”, which would become one of the most famous songs of all time. Cohen insisted that he had done mere reportage in the song; apparently he’d put down his exact interaction with the lady of the same name. The genesis of the lovely “Sisters Of Mercy” was more poetic. During a blizzard in Edmonton, Canada, Cohen had taken refuge under a doorway where two young women hitch-hikers with backpacks were doing the same. Since they had no place to stay, Cohen invited them to share his hotel room. Being dead tired, they went off to sleep immediately. Cohen sat near the window, watched the storm subside, saw the moonlight reflect off the river ice and fill the darkened room. He worked out this song and had it ready before they woke up. The bittersweet “So Long Marianne” pretty autobiographically said goodbye to a close relationship. Though the album was a moderate chart success, it was feted in intellectual circles. Filmmaker Robert Altman used the tracks for his film McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

At 35, Leonard Cohen was a highly unlikely debut pop star. His obsession for women was now getting regularly reciprocated. He lived up to his image as the eccentric romantic. At a party once, he approached a beautiful woman, took a strand of her long hair, dipped it into his wine glass, slowly sucked it dry, let it fall and walked away without saying a word.

The next two albums – Songs From A Room (1969) and Songs Of Love And Hate (1971), though not as consistent as his first effort, still had some truly great songs. Like “Bird On A Wire” – Cohen himself considers it his finest song; Kris Kristofferson actually plans to put the first verse on his tombstone (which goes “Like a bird on a wire/like a drunk in a midnight choir/I’ve tried in my way to be free”). It’s a breathtaking song, using several images and moments from Cohen’s days at Hydra. “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” is specifically about Janis Joplin and more generally about those who find fulfillment in art, not life. His next album – New Skin For Old Ceremony (1974) was a stylistic departure as he opted for a more orchestrated sound. “Who By Fire” was its masterpiece – a simple song about retribution after death, based on a prayer recited on the Jewish Day Of Atonement. Perhaps the next album – his weakest, constituted a big learning? Death Of A Ladies Man (1977) had an unlikely producer-collaborator in Phil Spector. Cohen believed that Spector, who liked Cohen’s music, could perhaps help draw out the more popular element from his songs and help them reach a wider audience. It was a misjudgment because the legendary sixties “wall-of-sound” producer had been caught in a time-warp for quite a while and was way past his best. His mixes were bizarre; he used first take vocals and buried them under inaccessible orchestrations, all executed with armed guards outside the studio with instructions to let no-one, particularly Cohen, in. With his next album Recent Songs (1979), Cohen rectified the flaw with sparser, more delicate, arrangements. Various Positions (1984) showcased Cohen’s increasing interest in religion and his introspective explorations. The highlight was the song “Hallelujah” – a stunningly intimate song about the realization that the only way to be in peace is to, as Cohen put it, “accept your ignorance and say out loud - Hallelujah, I don’t know a fucking thing at all”.

Cohen’s greatest success came with I’m Your Man (1988) – a superb album where he transformed himself into a smooth crooner, albeit an introspective one. The songs were exquisitely orchestrated and sound their age, yet with an undeniable catchiness. Songs like “First We Take Manhattan” (its first verse became a catch phrase in Europe), “Tower Of Song” (a tour-de-force; brilliant doo-wop arrangement by longtime musical colleague and background vocalist Jennifer Warnes) and “Ain’t No Cure For Love” are classics now. “Take This Waltz” was a beauty – a translation of a Lorca poem, on which he reportedly worked for over 150 hours. The album went to no.1 in many European countries. The next album The Future (1992) was in the same vein and of the same standard. From a perfectionist like him, the lines – “Forget your perfect offering / there is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in” from the song “Anthem” were indeed curious, especially because he hasn’t recorded a studio album since. Cohen Live (1994) is fine concert selection and More Best Of (1997) is a superb compilation of his work in the eighties and the nineties. A perfect intro to his work along with The Best Of -later called Greatest Hits (1975), which has his earlier, more path-breaking, classic songs.

What is left to ask about an artist who has caused a staggering 550-odd cover versions of his songs officially, from places as unlikely as South Korea, Croatia, Siberia and Japan? Several tribute albums have been produced – I’m Your Fan and Tower Of Song being the most notable ones. Artists as diverse as R.E.M., Diana Ross, Bono, Don Henley, Peter Gabriel, Nick Cave, Aaron Neville, Billy Joel, Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond and Sting have covered his songs. Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” is a classic in its own right.

It can be asked now – what made Leonard Cohen give it all up in late-1993 and retreat to the mountaintop, the Mount Baldy Zen Center to be precise? Over six thousand feet above sea level, Cohen serves as a “cook, chauffer, drinking buddy” to a 94-year-old Japanese monk. In 1996, Cohen became an ordained Zen monk and took on the name of “Jikan” meaning “Silent One”. Cohen found in Zen what he found missing in Judaism – a focus in the methods of prayer and meditation. To oversimplify, he says, the attempt here is to dissolve the mind of questions rather than try to define the answers. When he calls religion “ a voluptuous and delicious entertainment”, you know his sense of humour is still very intact. You can be damn sure that his next album, whenever it comes, will prove that he hasn’t lost his amazing musicianship either.

October 2000

Greatest Hits (1975)
More Best Of (1997)
Songs Of Leonard Cohen (1968)
I’m Your Man (1988)


Blogger NYCGuy12 said...

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5:09 PM  
Blogger Aishwarya said...

Thank you...I have a huge smile on my face right now.:)

If you're still writing pieces on songwriters, Jeff Buckley actually might be a good subject. *begs*

9:03 PM  
Blogger Callie.O said...

I can't believe I have missed this......


12:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very well written.

11:35 PM  

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