Listening #81 Page 2

The most powerful song on the album may be "Seems So Long Ago, Nancy," which returns to the subject of suicide, and to an acquaintance of Cohen's who was mentioned in certain earlier works, including the missing verse of "Suzanne." Here the artist's voice was recorded with a heavy layer of reverb, sounding as if he were half a house away from the microphone, and underpinning the song is an almost disturbingly simple, unornamented electric organ: not so much Farfisa as something one might hear at a low-budget funeral parlor.

And in the hollow of the night
When you are cold and numb
You'll hear her speaking freely then:
She's happy that you've come

That proved a sign of things to come: Leonard Cohen's third album, Songs of Love and Hate—also recorded in Nashville with producer Bob Johnston—is still more harrowing. Throughout that 1971 collection, Cohen's voice seems to emerge from a silence even blacker than before, lit by the occasional stabs and swells of Paul Buckmaster's ominous string and horn arrangements. "Last Year's Man" deserves special mention: On that seemingly autobiographical number, which sets the dissolution of a failed artist against a triptych of religiously charged parables, Cohen and Johnston go John Simon one better, and give some of the darkest lines to a children's chorus. The effect is stunning (footnote 2).

In fact, the whole of Songs of Love and Hate seems a deliberate attempt to make an even bleaker album than the ones before it. References to love are seldom more than self-taunts or distant memories, the protagonist being more occupied with murder, war, betrayal, abortion, and, again, suicide. On early pressings of the album, even the innersleeve was black paper—years before Neil Young did the same with Tonight's the Night. Cool.

One of us cannot be wrong?
Self-serious adolescent that I was when I discovered those three albums, I might not have noticed their shared flaw had I not eventually seen the man in concert. As a relatively easy-to-find bootleg of a 1968 BBC radio broadcast demonstrates, in concert Cohen was a likable, warm, and generous performer: charming, self-deprecating, and often very funny. He played "Sisters of Mercy" at least partly for laughs—including a wonderful account of its genesis—and made light of the potentially mawkish "One of Us Cannot Be Wrong," performing its final chorus by blowing into his cupped hands. The audience loved it.

And that's the problem: Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs from a Room, and Songs of Love and Hate, rich, literate, and intoxicatingly atmospheric though they are, give only a partial view of Cohen's performing talents. They are, to a one, as humorless as Adrienne Rich Week at the local womyn's poetry collective.

One might have guessed that Live Songs, the fourth Leonard Cohen album, would correct that oversight, but it's little more than a cipher in the Cohen catalog. Culled mostly from European concerts that took place in 1970 and 1972, Live Songs is strung together with uninteresting performances of familiar material and precious few new songs. (What's worse is that one of the latter, Dick Blakeslee's hootenanny favorite "Passing Through," is wrongly credited to Cohen.) A shambolic number called "Please Don't Pass Me By" is appropriately subtitled "A Disgrace," and "Improvisation" is nothing but a pointlessly stretched-out intro lifted from an alternate take of "You Know Who I Am." The only song that catches fire is a fine, bluegrassy reading of Songs from a Room's "Tonight Will Be Fine"—but Cohen completists who had bought Columbia's 1971 three-LP compilation of performances from the Isle of Wight and Atlanta Pop festivals already owned it!

One redeeming performance: the mildly disturbing but evocative "Queen Victoria," a song that began life as one of Cohen's finest early poems, set to music and performed solo for a tape recorder in a Nashville hotel room. Otherwise, and notwithstanding the album's intriguing back cover—a reproduction of one of apparently several letters written to Cohen by an aspiring English poet named Daphne Richardson, who killed herself in 1972—Live Songs has CONTRACTUAL OBLIGATION written all over it.

Just 14 months later—a mere blink of an eye in Cohen's creative timeline—he followed it up with a much better work: New Skin for the Old Ceremony was arguably the first Leonard Cohen record that succeeded in building on the strengths of his debut. The very-well-recorded New Skin introduces mandolins, banjos, trumpets, trombones, clarinets, and competent drummers to Cohen's sound world, and the songs' melodies and chord structures are often markedly more sophisticated than those of earlier efforts.

Most important, Cohen's lyrics finally betray his dry sense of humor—a quality long evident in his poetry. In the more colloquial, less self-consciously literary "Is This What You Wanted," Cohen takes a cynical look at both himself and the ex-lover who's on her way out the door: "You were KY Jelly, I was Vaseline / You were the whore and the beast of Babylon, I was Rin Tin Tin" (footnote 3). The sparse, broadly paced "I Tried to Leave You" comes at the relationship from a different, more reconciliatory direction, and also serves as a shout-out to his small but faithful audience: "Here's a man still working for your smile." (In a later concert—I believe it was the first time I saw him at Carnegie Hall, in the 1980s—Cohen dryly performed "I Tried to Leave You" as his first encore, delivering the double-entendres with expert comic timing.)

Yet the Cohen of old, full of sad regrets and resigned to his solitude with a hero's sense of sacrifice, remained in place. "Chelsea Hotel #2" tells of a bittersweet sexual escapade with the late Janis Joplin. (She isn't named in the song, but Cohen often did so in concert, for which he expressed regret in later years.) More remarkable still is "Take This Longing," in which Cohen uses some of his richest, most sophisticated imagery to portray a jilted lover who remains devoted to the woman who left him: a moving song, capping off a consistently brilliant album.

Footnote 2: Perversely, this is the only Leonard Cohen song of which I'm aware that actually mentions the Jew's harp—and it doesn't use one. How can you not love this guy?

Footnote 3: For younger readers: Rin Tin Tin, a German shepherd dog, was the lead character of the TV series The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin (1954–1959). Cohen's line may have been inspired by Lenny Bruce's joke about a fictitious porno film titled Rin Tin Tin Gets In.


elanmonro's picture

In the late 1960s, Leonard Cohen was one of those fabled individuals of whom most serious music lovers had heard but who had not actually been much heard except through the voices of better-known singers who tirelessly promoted his songs. Over the years, Cohen became better known and has since become a cult hero in the world of those who like their music decidedly deep and decidedly dark.

Elan, Editor of Anti Aging Project