Leonard Cohen’s music first came to me in my early teens. I fell deeply in love, and thought, this will pass, this is an adolescent thing, a phase, an infatuation; time or luck will have me grow out of this.
His words came to me—as many great things come to me, in pathetic or even hideous masks, to test whether or not I am easily fooled by the disguises woven to hide their wondrous nature—in Oliver Stone’s 1994 movie Natural Born Killers. It is a rather dismissible movie, though the soundtrack is amazing (thank you, Trent Reznor et al.), and it did its job of delivering the unexpected, unforeseeable goods.
But by then I already, albeit unwittingly, knew these two introductory songs, “The Future” and “Waiting for the Miracle,” from one of my friend Vanessa’s mixed tapes. I just didn’t know who was behind the suave voice. A few years and several album acquisitions later, an acquaintance in Rome asked me what I was listening to at the moment, and it was Cohen’s 1973 album Live Songs. The response so impressed me that I bring it to you verbatim: “Leonard Cohen? Nobody listens to him anymore. We were all listening to him in the late seventies, when we were young and radical and left.” Yeah, I left. I’m fine being told that my tastes are quite yesterday, and I knew this guy probably didn’t get it because he was, well, who he was. He was also definitely one of the numerous Europeans who helped make Cohen more popular over there than in North America by not understanding his lyrics.
Well, to echo the rampant name-calling that follows him everywhere, the Ladies’ Man, the Grocer of Despair, grandson of the Prince of Grammarians, has just published a new old book, titled Book of Longing, and was on the radio three weeks ago chatting with Terry Gross. She did a fairly good job, considering that the usual sort of questions, many of which she tried, really didn’t fit here, and Cohen seems to be no comforter.
Firstly, he lied his way through the entire hour. Okay, perhaps they weren’t all lies, and the ones that were lies were committed with some definite * intentions (*I’m at a loss for the appropriate adjective: honest? Low? Lofty? Sick? Sweet? Romantic? All of the above?). The truth is that he can’t help how charming he is, and frankly it’s a miracle he’s done what he has to melt deeply frozen hearts. He had tea on April 21 with his Zen master in celebration of the latter’s ninety-ninth birthday, but immediately backtracks to point out that it wasn’t tea—it was liquor. In his poem “Titles” he reads that “I hated everyone / but I acted generously / and no one found me out.” He valiantly assures the listener that this is true, and equally valiantly contradicts it in song and in print. Plus, I can’t help but suspect that many people have found him out. Is it possible to feign this man’s passion? Probably, but I just don’t want to think so.
Alright, that’s not so many lies. But a lot of interesting things came up. When discussing the idea of composing a poem versus composing a song, Gross asks him about the early sixties song “Famous Blue Raincoat” and which of those two it originally was, to which he replies, “It’s all the same to me.” [Aside: forgive me for sticking to the script here and bringing up the blockbuster songs, when I’d rather fawn over the lesser-known songs like “Teachers,” “Passing Through,” “Who by Fire,” “If It be Your Will,” “Here It Is,” etc.]
A lot of what one might call romantic creation is touted here. Ignoring the famous traits of “despair, romantic longing, and cynicism” alongside the idea that “at the same time, there’s a spiritual quality to many of his songs” mentioned as an introductory nothingness on the radio show, when asked where “Famous Blue Raincoat” came from, he replies, “I don’t know, I don’t remember how it arose—I don’t remember how any of them get written.” When asked why he left the Zen center after five or six years of work there, he replies, “I don’t know… I’m never sure why I do anything, to tell you the truth.” About the creation of “Everybody Knows,” “I don’t really remember…. You see, if I really remembered the conditions which produce good songs, I’d try to establish them,” going on to mention the use of napkins, notebooks, etc.
Then there’s the sheer hard labor of it:
You get it but you get it after sweating…. I can’t discard anything unless I finish it, so I have to finish the verses that I discard. So it takes a long time; I have to finish it to know whether it deserves to survive in the song, so in that sense all the songs take a long time. And although the good lines come unbidden, they’re anticipated, and the anticipation involves a patient application to the enterprise.
Of the early-nineties song “Always,” Gross points out that he’s taken a song by Irving Berlin and added a few lines, making it “suddenly very dark and sour.” His quick reply: “Well, you can depend on me for that…”. His is “a kind of drunken version of it.” He’d like to do a song in the vein of those great American songbook lyricists he doesn’t feel equal to:
I have a very limited kind of expression, but I’ve done the best that I can with it, and I’ve worked it as diligently as I can, but I don’t really—except for songs like “Hallelujah,” or “If It be Your Will,” I think those are two of my best songs—I don’t live up to… those great songwriters….
There’s a lot of things I’d like to do, but when you’re actually in the trenches, and, you know, you’re in front of the page or… the guitar or the keyboard under your hands, you know you have to deal with where the energy is, what arises, what presents itself with a certain kind of urgency. So, in those final moments, you really don’t choose, you just go where the smoke is, and the flames and the glow or the fire, you just go there.
The Ponies Run the Girls are Young
But enough about composition. My favorite bits are where Cohen plays the role of the [not exactly dirty] old man. Page 56 of his new book carries a poem for a certain Sandy, and what girl doesn’t occasionally want to be the Sandy sung to here? “I know you had to lie to me / I know you had to cheat / To pose all hot and high behind / The veils of sheer deceit / Our perfect porn aristocrat / So elegant and cheap / I’m old but I’m still into that / A thousand kisses deep.” Age is very present here, and while he’s sung of so many other mortal weaknesses over the past forty-plus years, it seems he had to wait for this particular one to sink into the bones before it began to permeate his work. In four short lines on page 171 you learn the sorrows of the elderly. Go to page 14 to read my favorite tidbit written to a young nun, speaking of staggered births, time disposing of two people whose generations separate them, and whose turn it is to die for love, whose to resurrect. This one is too beautiful to steal from page to pixel.
Betrayal also comes up. In the end the letter writer who sings about that famous blue raincoat has his woman stolen by the letter recipient. In speaking about such games, his age now seems to save him:
Fortunately I’ve been expelled from that particular dangerous garden, you know, by my age… so I’m not participating in these maneuvers with the frequency that I once did. But I think that when one is in that world, even if the situation does not result in any catastrophic splits as it does in “Famous Blue Raincoat,” one is always, you know, edging, one is always protecting one’s lover, one is always on the edge of a jealous disposition.
Later he specifies that one does not become exempt from that garden, but is just not as welcome. So what are the trade-offs for no longer being welcome? If nothing else, there’s a special voice, which in Cohen’s case is undeniably alluring. He apparently acquired it through, “well, about 500 tons of whiskey and a million cigarettes—fifty, sixty years of smoking…”. I didn’t know tar could be turned to gold.
Then comes the most terrifying subject of all, beauty—physical beauty, superficial beauty. We are either enslaved by it, embody it, or attach ourselves to someone who does. He is still oppressed by the figures of beauty, just as he was thirty-two years ago. And here he’s at his most graceful:
I still stagger and fall…. Of course it just happens to me all the time, you just have to get very careful about it, because it’s inappropriate for an elderly chap to register authentically his feelings, you know, because they really could be interpreted, so you really have to get quite covert as you get older… or you have to find some avuncular way of responding, but still, you just, really are just, you’re wounded, you stagger, and you fall.
One feels deeply in love, and thinks this will pass, this is a phase, an infatuation; time or luck will have me grow out of this.