Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Leonard Cohen



IF ever there was a hauntingly beautiful presence on the folk music scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s it was Leonard Cohen.

I’m rather unimpressed with those people who say that Cohen is an instant recipe for depression. Clearly they are only listening to his music at a superficial level.

For me, Leonard Cohen was one of the most powerful musical and poetic forces at a time when such virtues were present in great abundance. And the key to his success is that he was brave and bold enough to be different. Indeed, it is a hallmark of this era that there were so many strong individuals like Cohen who produced entirely innovative styles and stuck by them. If commercial success came, often it was a bonus.

One got the sense that Leonard Cohen was/is a man of great depth, a poet in the spirit and mould of the many great writers that have shaped English literature down the centuries.

What do I know about him? Before consulting the Wikipedia oracle, all I know is that he is Canadian – and even that is not obviously apparent. It is indeed something I was reminded of this week, as I write, after I made a brief foray into YouTube and, for the first time in my life, saw a couple of clips of him performing. In one he plays alongside Judy Collins in 1976, who tells the audience that she first met him in Toronto 10 years earlier.

Somehow, too, he does not have the demeanour of an American of the United States type. Without being too judgmental, all I mean is that there is something old worldish about him. This probably has to do with the fact that he seems to be fluent in French, given the introduction he does to one of his songs on the album, Live Songs. Here, to my mind, was a poet-singer steeped in the sort of culture which gave us the great European artists and writers. Here was a man for whom poetry was not just a means to an end, that is, earning a living, but was the very life force which justified his existence.

Who am I, who is anyone, then, to dismiss his work as depression-inducing? Indeed, in my experience, growing up listening to his records, I found his songs incredibly inspiring. Here we were privileged to have a man, as I have said, who bucked all the trends and delivered incredible lyrics in a virtual monotone, yet rich in a timbre and texture of voice that is totally unique. And he did it accompanied by some of the most interesting acoustic guitar-work I had yet heard. Cohen had a finger-picking style which seemed to roll off the guitar in a way not even the likes of Bert Jansch or Martin Carthy were achieving. Was it unique to him? I hope to find out as we look at his life.

Another facet of his music which so struck me on the four or five seminal early albums of his career was his use of what we called a Jewish harp – which was probably appropriate as my research is sure to confirm that he is indeed Jewish. His knowledge of the Old Testament – and indeed the New as well – comes across in several songs, not least of them The Story of Isaac, from Songs from a Room. He also used female backing voices to incredibly good effect on most of his songs, their lilt and lift providing the perfect foil for his deliberately melancholy-sounding singing voice. Indeed, melancholy was a word which our friend at the time, Paul Cockburn, used to describe Cohen’s music. Paul, who lived on the corner of Lotus Avenue and Princess Drive in Bonza Bay with his parents, was about five to 10 years older than us, and had clearly had a good education. I had no idea what he did, but there were occasions when we visited him and got talking music. His friend, Iain “Scotchie” MacDonald, would sometimes visit from Joburg and perform the songs of Bob Dylan, Donovan and Paul Simon, and probably Cohen as well, for the holiday crowd at the now tragically destroyed Bonza Bay Hotel, which stood about 150m from our home.

Songs from a Room is the album I recall Paul Cockburn playing for us when we visited on one occasion. And its cover had just the sort of understated sensuality about it that reinforced my perception of Cohen as a man for whom crass commercial concerns were anathema. This was a literary man, and the presence of a typewriter and a beautiful woman clad only in a towel captured the powerful, brooding passion which lay at the heart of his songs of both love and hate.

How far off the mark am I in my assessment of the man? As with most of the other artists covered here, I am only now, for the first time, investigating the life behind the music, so all I have is what I know of his albums. I know that he had probably two hits singles, though can’t imagine that Bird On The Wire and So Long Marianne were ever even released as singles. But, without any further ado, let’s delve into the past and, with the help of Wikipedia, find out a bit about the man behind those beautiful songs.

Leonard Norman Cohen

The first question is answered immediately. There is a French connection. Leonard Norman Cohen was born in Montreal, Quebec, on September 21, 1934. That’s only eight years after my mother was born, and at the time of writing she’s 83. So Leonard’s an old man now, in his late mid-70s.

I see he had his first book of poetry published in Montreal the year I was born, 1956, when he would have been 22. A novel followed in 1963.

My guess as to his “European-ness” was not far off the mark. I see he was born into a “middle-class Jewish family of Polish ancestry”. His father, Nathan, owned a big Montreal clothing store, but died when Leonard was just nine. In the 1940s, as a teenager, he formed a country-folk group, the Buckskin Boys. While a trust fund set up upon his father’s death gave him some economic freedom, he evidently had idolised his dad, and was thrown into a deep depression by his passing. He experimented with the then legal hallucinogenic LSD, and was further affected psychologically by the death of his mother, Masha, who had instilled a love of poetry and music in him, in 1978.

He studied at McGill University from 1951, and his literary abilities soon emerged. Let Us Compare Mythologies, his book of poetry, was published in 1956. Indeed, it seems as a young man it was as a writer he made his first impact. Having moved to Hydra, a Greek island, he next published a poetry collection, Flowers for Hitler (1964), then two novels, The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966). Both ring a bell, for me, though I have read neither. The first is described as “an autobiographical bildungsroman” – which my Oxford dictionary says is “a novel dealing with one person’s early life and development – “about a young man finding his identity in writing”. The second is said to be an “ ‘anti-bildungsroman’ since it – in an early post-modern fashion – deconstructs the identity of the main characters by combining the sacred and the profane, religion and sexuality in a rich, lyrical language”. That description on Wikipedia could, to my mind, be used to define the lyrics of many of his songs. Wikipedia goes on to note that the book also involves a Roman Catholic Iroquois mystic. The Iroquois are a native American confederacy. The book evidently shocked Canadian reviewers with its “explicit sexual content”. And therein probably lies the reason why we, as young, red-blooded males, had heard about it. It was no doubt banned in hypocritically puritanical South Africa, and was hence a highly sought-after work.

Ah, at last, the music. Wikipedia tells us that Cohen moved to the US in 1967 to pursue a career as a folk singer-songwriter. And ah, again. Because I learn that initially his song, Suzanne, became a hit for none other than Judy Collins. Cohen was spotted performing at a few folk festivals and was signed by John H Hammond of Columbia Records, who just happened to have also signed one Bob Dylan a few years earlier and would go on to sign one Bruce Springsteen a few years later. Not a bad haul.

Songs of Leonard Cohen

And here it is. His first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, was released in 1967. We certainly had this record, the painting on the back cover of what I now realise is a chained and naked Joan of Arc engulfed by flames, sticks in my memory, along with those wonderful songs. I was lucky to find a copy of the album at the historic hamlet of Bathurst, near Port Alfred, a few years ago in a little antique shop. Wikipedia says the album was “too dark to be a commercial success, but was widely acclaimed by folk music buffs”. Cohen evidently gained a cult following in the UK, where the album remained on the charts for over a year.

Indicative of how Cohen’s popularity grew slowly but steadily, this record, which features the famous songs, Susanne and So Long, Marianne, while reaching No 13 in the UK almost instantly, finally reached No 83 on the Billboard chart, achieving gold status only in 1989!

While I never thought of it at the time, Wikipedia notes that his “lonely and all-too-human songs were a marked contrast to the feel-good hippie music and culture dominating at the time”. Yet I think that is a rather superficial analysis, since many other artists were, by 1967, starting to dwell on deeper issues than simply flowers in the rain, colourful beads and getting spaced out.

Interestingly, given the tragedy which was the over-orchestrated Death of a Ladies’ Man album several years later, I learn that Cohen and John Simon, his producer and musical director, had a falling out over how to handle the song, Susanne, with Cohen eventually being left to do the final mix. In 2001, he told UK music magazine Moyo that Simon “wanted heavy piano syncopated and maybe drums and I didn’t want drums on any of my songs”. Touché, as my father used to say. So why did Cohen later allow Phil Spector to stuff up Ladies’ Man? Perhaps we’ll discover later on.

There was a wonderfully exotic feel to Suzanne, who “takes you down to her place near the river /And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China”. Then there is that verse about Jesus which, coming from a Jewish writer, seems somewhat strange. Wikipedia informs us that this verse has in fact been removed “in at least one cover of the song”. On one level it is evidently “a reference to a Jesus figure on top of a sailors’ church overlooking the river in Montreal”.

As a first album this can have few peers. It must be realised that Cohen was already 34, so this was the product of a man who has the benefit of far more life experience than those musicians still in their early 20s, which most were. These are songs of great depth, in fact poems put to music in a far more obvious way than Dylan was doing. As Cohen’s minimalist approach seems to stress, he wanted to present the lyric in the most accessible way possible, without the music detracting from the message. This, to me, was Cohen’s forte. I would sit for hours listening to this album, soaking up the beautiful stanzas in songs like Master Song, Winter Lady, The Stranger Song, Sisters Of Mercy, Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye, Stories Of The Street, Teachers and One of Us Cannot Be Wrong.

But let’s give that old vinyl album a spin – over 40 years on. It’s hard to believe this timeless, epochal music was made over 40 years ago. But first, a quick scan through Wikipedia’s detailed information on the album. Classified as “folk”, it was recorded in the month of August, 1967, at Columbia Studio E, New York, and had a limited release on December 27 that year, and a fuller release in February 1968. Released on the Columbia label, Wikipedia says Cohen’s debut album “foreshadowed the path of his career, with less success in the United States and far better in Europe”. Hence it only hit No 83 in the US in 1989, while reaching No 13 in the UK where it spend a year and a half in the album charts.

Wikipedia says it is difficult to ascertain the veracity of the view that his music was a reaction against the “psychedelic band-orientated styles” of the time, 1967, including the “baroque tapestries of Sgt Peppers or the San Francisco bands”. Interestingly, it adds that “instigated by the work of Bob Dylan”, singer-songwriters like Cohen “appeared to be folk singers on the surface, but were not allied to the folk movement’s politics or repertoire, instead performing original material in styles reminiscent of the folk singers of the late 1950s and early 1960s”. That, to my mind, is a brilliant summary of the phenomenal group of singer-songwriters who came out of this era, many of whom I have covered thus far, with heaps more to come. These were individuals of genius, brave souls determined to chart their own courses in a tricky, often volatile industry. Wikipedia singles out Cohen as “one of the first in this new sub-genre, along with the debut albums of Laura Nyro, Tim Buckley, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell”, who were “propelling the approach to an eventual position of dominance in the early 1970s”. And Judy Collins was “one of the first ‘traditional’ folk singers to champion new writers like Mitchell and Cohen.

With Simon both producer and musical director, he and Cohen, says Wikipedia, gave the album “a distinct sound while also relying on typical Sixties effects such as instruments panning from channel to channel”. But, as noted earlier, Cohen was given the final say on the mix, ensuring those drums never intruded. And whose angelic voice was that backing him? Nancy Priddy’s, it seems. Also included, notes Wikipedia, were the sounds of a band called Kaleidoscope and strings. Oh, and the album should have been produced by John Hammond, who had signed Cohen to Columbia, “but he was replaced by Simon because of health problems”.

And just a correction. While Cohen would later sing a song about Joan of Arc, the painting on the back cover of this album is of “Saint Bernadette of Lourdes in a fire looking towards heaven”, says Wikipedia. This is a South African pressing and the picture is in black and white, though I recall ours originally being in colour, and possibly on the front. Here the front cover features a sepia-toned photograph of a suitably serious-looking Cohen, bordered in black, with the song titles on either side of him. Having checked out the record itself, I see it is undated, but I’m fairly sure this would have been from 1968.

On trying to listen with “fresh ears” to this album, what struck me was just what an iconic voice Leonard Cohen had. Indeed, the whole album is one incredibly original creation, and the opening track, Susanne, really sets the standard for this album and probably the next three or four, before things start to change.

On Susanne, he opens with his usual seemingly languidly picked acoustic guitar, but listen closely and you realize the chord changes are intricate and all geared to establish the unique atmosphere which only he was able to achieve. “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.” Phew! It is only now, as a poem, that I see what this is really all about. Isn’t it true that we are often attracted to someone against our better judgment? He knows she’s “half crazy” and intends telling her he has “no love to give her”, but then she summons up the very river to preempt him be saying that he’s “always been her lover”. Then that chorus: “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.” Isn’t that great writing? Suddenly he’s willing to “travel blind” with her, and she’ll trust him because, in probably the most erotic words of the song, he’s “touched her perfect body with (his) mind”. Because in the end all romance originates in the mind. Wikipedia says this is an “ode to a ‘half-crazy’ woman capable of personal connection”, adding that it has that “unconventional discussion of Jesus” which some found objectionable. The song was ranked 41 on Pitchfork Media’s Top 200 Songs of the 1960s. But what of that controversial verse? “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.” There is a depth of thought process here I shan’t even attempt to fathom, save to say that anyone who objects to the inclusion of this verse is a narrow-minded bigot. Why was Jesus a sailor? Well he did hang out with fishermen who sailed on boats, and it was then that he walked on the water. He did spend time on his “lonely wooden tower”, the cross, and as I see it Christianity if aimed at “drowning men”, those who are broken in some way, but what he means by “all men will be sailors then / until the sea shall free them”, I’m not sure. Accepting that he, too, was broken, Cohen has Jesus, who cried to God “why have you forsaken me”, finding himself “almost human” in his despair. But was this woman, Susanne, so wise that in the face of her, even Jesus would sink like a stone? Hyperbole is the prerogative of the poet, especially when writing of love. After that sublime chorus, we find them on the move. “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.” This is the final verse, and again it is rich in imagery which tells a complex story. Dressed only in “rags and feathers” from used-clothes stores, she takes him along the river as the sun “pours down like honey”. Who are the “heroes in the seaweed”? Perhaps here it is a reference to how seaweed clings on so tenaciously. And what are these children doing leaning out for love, as they’ll do forever, while she holds the mirror? A key to the mood of the song is the hummed female backing vocals on the verses, and the sung sections in the choruses, which complement so superbly Cohen’s richly timbered voice. And of course the strings just pull the whole thing together, making this another major contribution to the late 1960s music feast.

So Cohen made a hit single. Was he able to fill an album with songs of the same quality? He did more than that. He created nearly a dozen songs which established him as a somewhat alternative presence on the most innovative and inventive fringes of the pop-rock revolution. And the next track, Master Song, all 5:55 minutes of it, was just another masterpiece on that road.

Here the finger-picking on nylon-stringed guitar is fast, furious and beautiful, surging and receding as the mood takes it. Note how he allows the bass strings of the guitar to whirr and hum along, while what sounds like a muted trumpet adds an interesting new dimension. “I believe that you heard your master sing / when I was sick in bed. / I suppose that he told you everything / that I keep locked away in my head. / Your master took you travelling, / well at least that’s what you said. / And now do you come back to bring / your prisoner wine and bread?” This smacks of the battered musings of a cuckolded lover. “You met him at some temple, where / they take your clothes at the door. / He was just a numberless man in a chair / who’d just come back from the war. / And you wrap up his tired face in your hair / and he hands you the apple core. / Then he touches your lips now so suddenly bare / of all the kisses we put on some time before.” Ouch! The pain he feels is palpable. “And he gave you a German Shepherd to walk / with a collar of leather and nails, / and he never once made you explain or talk / about all of the little details, / such as who had a word and who had a rock, / and who had you through the mails. / Now your love is a secret all over the block, / and it never stops not even when your master fails.” Again, too beautifully poetic to dissect, except to point out the lovely concept of their love being “a secret all over the block”, which is the nature of rumours and gossip. Not only that muted trumpet, but also some lovely electric guitar chords, kick in around now. “And he took you up in his aeroplane, / which he flew without any hands, / and you cruised above the ribbons of rain / that drove the crowd from the stands. / Then he killed the lights in a lonely lane / and, an ape with angel glands, / erased the final wisps of pain / with the music of rubber bands.” Those lines, still not fully understood, have travelled with me for over 40 years. “And now I hear your master sing, / you kneel for him to come. / His body is a golden string / that your body is hanging from. / His body is a golden string, / my body has grown numb. / Oh now you hear your master sing, / your shirt is all undone.” As a testosterone-charged lad, one could not help finding such understated suggestiveness somewhat stirring. “And will you kneel beside this bed / that we polished so long ago, / before your master chose instead / to make my bed of snow? / Your eyes are wild and your knuckles are red / and you’re speaking far too low. / No I can’t make out what your master said / before he made you go.” The violin becomes increasingly prominent as this Dylan-like literary ramble continues. “Then I think you’re playing far too rough / for a lady who’s been to the moon; / I’ve lain by this window long enough / to get used to an empty room. / And your love is some dust in an old man’s cough / who is tapping his foot to a tune, / and your thighs are ruined, you want too much, / let’s say you came back some time too soon.” This sort of intimacy was, I suppose, a trifle disturbing for a 17-year-old, but hey, the poetry has lived on within me forever. “I loved your master perfectly / I taught him all that he knew. / He was starving in some deep mystery / like a man who is sure what is true. / And I sent you to him with my guarantee / I could teach him something new, / and I taught him how you would long for me / no matter what he said no matter what you’d do.” Does this suggest it was all a set-up? The song ends with that lovely opening verse repeated: “I believe that you heard your master sing / while I was sick in bed, / I’m sure that he told you everything / I must keep locked away in my head. / Your master took you travelling, / well at least that’s what you said, / And now do you come back to bring / your prisoner wine and bread?”

Quiet, low-key picking sets Winter Lady in train. “Trav’ling lady, stay awhile / until the night is over. / I’m just a station on your way, / I know I’m not your lover. / Well I lived with a child of snow / when I was a soldier, / and I fought every man for her / until the nights grew colder.” Remember, Cohen lived through the Second World War, so he was raised on tales of soldiers and their desperate needs. “She used to wear her hair like you / except when she was sleeping, / and then she’d weave it on a loom / of smoke and gold and breathing.” Superb writing, nothing less. “And why are you so quiet now / standing there in the doorway? / You chose your journey long before / you came upon this highway.” This short, beautiful, encounter ends with that evocative opening stanza repeated. “Trav’ling lady stay awhile / until the night is over. / I’m just a station on your way, / I know I’m not your lover.” Of course a feature of this song, apart from its poetic brilliance, is the subtle flute and acoustic lead overlays, while what sounds like a harpsichord adds a great touch.

So much under the belt already, with still another two song to go on Side 1. Rapidly picked acoustic guitar, the bass notes buzzing, launch The Stranger Song. He assumes a confidingly conspiratorial tone on the vocals, which come out at about half the pace of that acoustic guitar. Prepare for an inspired piece of writing. “It’s true that all the men you knew were dealers / who said they were through with dealing / Every time you gave them shelter / I know that kind of man / It’s hard to hold the hand of anyone / who is reaching for the sky just to surrender / who is reaching for the sky just to surrender.” Again, the wartime allusions add a sense of mystery. “And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind / you find he did not leave you very much not even laughter / Like any dealer he was watching for the card / that is so high and wild / he’ll never need to deal another / He was just some Joseph looking for a manger / He was just some Joseph looking for a manger.” Again, the biblical reference adds depth and interest. Here was a gambler hoping for that big break – but is that comparable to the father looking out for the manger where God’s child, immaculately conceived, will be born? “And then leaning on your window sill / he’ll say one day you caused his will / to weaken with your love and warmth and shelter / And then taking from his wallet / an old schedule of trains, he’ll say / I told you when I came I was a stranger / I told you when I came I was a stranger.” So he feels confined by her warmth, and seems set to resume his travels, to again become a stranger. “But now another stranger seems / to want you to ignore his dreams / as though they were the burden of some other / Oh you’ve seen that man before / his golden arm dispatching cards / but now it’s rusted from the elbows to the finger / And he wants to trade the game he plays for shelter / Yes he wants to trade the game he knows for shelter.” And so another old card dealer, rusty with age perhaps, seeks sanctuary. “Ah you hate to see another tired man / lay down his hand / like he was giving up the holy game of poker / And while he talks his dreams to sleep / you notice there’s a highway / that is curling up like smoke above his shoulder / It is curling just like smoke above his shoulder.” But she seems destined to lose this next guy too, the highway of his escape beckoning behind him. “You tell him to come in sit down / but something makes you turn around / The door is open you can’t close your shelter / You try the handle of the road / It opens do not be afraid / It’s you my love, you who are the stranger / It’s you my love, you who are the stranger.” And so finally she is told that maybe she it is who drives these people away. “Well, I’ve been waiting, I was sure / we’d meet between the trains we’re waiting for / I think it’s time to board another / Please understand, I never had a secret chart / to get me to the heart of this / or any other matter / When he talks like this / you don’t know what he’s after / When he speaks like this, / you don’t know what he’s after.” Just when you think Cohen can’t possibly come up with more, there is more. “Let’s meet tomorrow if you choose / upon the shore, beneath the bridge / that they are building on some endless river / Then he leaves the platform / for the sleeping car that’s warm / You realise, he’s only advertising one more shelter / And it comes to you, he never was a stranger / And you say OK the bridge or someplace later.” Earlier verses are repeated, but in the end you have a lovely tale rich in imagery and beautifully written. When words flow this easily, you know you are dealing with great writing. And all the time that acoustic guitar almost breathes as it moves along in support. Uncanny stuff.

Cohen launches into the vocals of the final song on Side 1, Sisters Of Mercy, as the picked guitar starts to rumble. Acoustic guitar lead, strings, percussion and possible a pennywhistle flesh out the sound. There is even a suggestion of drums later on. But what were these sisters of mercy all about? “Oh the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone. / They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can’t go on. / And they brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song. / Oh I hope you run into them, you who’ve been travelling so long.” Again, it seems to be a tale about finding solace on the road. “Yes you who must leave everything that you cannot control. / It begins with your family, but soon it comes around to your soul. / Well I’ve been where you’re hanging, I think I can see how you’re pinned / When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned.” What an interesting concept. “Well they lay down beside me, I made my confession to them. / They touched both my eyes and I touched the dew on their hem. / If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn / they will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem.” Every man’s dream, perhaps, to find all this attention lavished by attentive women. “When I left they were sleeping, I hope you run into them soon. / Don’t turn on the lights, you can read their address by the moon. / And you won’t make me jealous if I hear that they sweetened your night / We weren’t lovers like that and besides it would still be all right, / We weren’t lovers like that and besides it would still be all right.” More marvelous stuff from Cohen.

The girls of you prepubescent childhood remain as cherished memories of an age of innocence, when their pure femininity shone through. We had a family down the road comprising three girls, the eldest of whom was Mary-Anne. She and her sisters I recall in that light, as happy childhood memories. So Long, Marianne, as note earlier, become something of a cult hit for Cohen adherents, and that is hardly surprising, since it again comprises the sort of moody vibe that made him such a unique talent. Interestingly, an almost bluegrass fiddle is used on this track, which gives it a merry old lilt. This time it is the strummed acoustic guitar, supported by strings and electric guitar, which get the show on the road. “Come over to the window, my little darling, / I’d like to try to read your palm. / I used to think I was some kind of Gypsy boy / before I let you take me home.” Gypsy boy reading palms – that’s a fine pick-up ploy. Anyway, she’s taken him home and so, with fiddle flailing, the chorus flows. “Now so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began / to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.” I was always intrigued by that laugh-cry conundrum, but of course joy-sorrow are so closely intertwined. The mood quietens for the next verse. “Well you know that I love to live with you, / but you make me forget so very much. / I forget to pray for the angels / and then the angels forget to pray for us.” The chorus, which speaks openly of a departure, seems to belie the intimacy of this relationship, although it too is ambiguous, since it adds that it is time they began to laugh and cry etc. In other words, begin to experience life’s foibles together. It is about now that another masterstroke is played, with the introduction of a soft, fluttering mandolin alongside his vocals. “We met when we were almost young / deep in the green lilac park. / You held on to me like I was a crucifix, / as we went kneeling through the dark.” The sexual overtones are never far away. After the chorus, the story continues. “Your letters they all say that you’re beside me now. / Then why do I feel alone? / I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web / is fastening my ankle to a stone.” Again, imagery fraught with angst and desperation. “For now I need your hidden love. / I’m cold as a new razor blade. / You left when I told you I was curious, / I never said that I was brave.” Interspersed with that crazy chorus, he’s on a roll now. “Oh, you are really such a pretty one. / I see you’ve gone and changed your name again. / And just when I climbed this whole mountainside, / to wash my eyelids in the rain!” What a rich, engrossing experience from Cohen the master.

The next track, Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye, has one of the more catchy melodies in Cohen’s quiver. It starts again with beautifully picked acoustic guitar, but as he gets into the vocals so impetus is added by some inspired bass, electric rhythm guitar and, of course, those female backing vocals. Later, a Jew’s harp adds further interesting sound texture. “I loved you in the morning, our kisses deep and warm, / your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm, / yes, many loved before us, I know that we are not new, / in city and in forest they smiled like me and you, / but now it’s come to distances and both of us must try, / your eyes are soft with sorrow, / Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye.” Love, it seems, is a fairly simple affair – except when a couple is parted. Ask me, I spent two years as a conscript, and numerous “camps” of one or three-months’ duration. These separations are not conducive to lasting relations. “I’m not looking for another as I wander in my time, / walk me to the corner, our steps will always rhyme / you know my love goes with you as your love stays with me, / it’s just the way it changes, like the shoreline and the sea, / but let’s not talk of love or chains and things we can’t untie, / your eyes are soft with sorrow, / Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye.” Love is indeed like a chain. Many have spoken of a sense of liberation when they’ve finally shaken off a prolonged phase of purely romantic love. With that Jew’s harp humming, there is a lovely, almost sensual, phase where the female vocalist injects the word, “bum” – that’s how it sounds – into the song, as the opening verse is repeated.

All these song titles are iconic, up there with the most famous Beatles songs, in terms of my rock upbringing. Stories Of The Street, the next track, is therefore yet another work of brilliance, which starts with strummed acoustic guitar. “The stories of the street are mine, the Spanish voices laugh. / The Cadillacs go creeping now through the night and the poison gas, / and I lean from my window sill in this old hotel I chose, / yes one hand on my suicide, one hand on the rose.” It seems to be a stage set for tragedy. His voice takes on a world-wariness. “I know you’ve heard it’s over now and war must surely come, / the cities they are broke in half and the middle men are gone. / But let me ask you one more time, O children of the dusk, / All these hunters who are shrieking now oh do they speak for us?” Some interesting fiddle-work lifts this, along with Strawbs-like organ, while the rounded acoustic guitar chords really flesh the thing out. “And where do all these highways go, now that we are free? / Why are the armies marching still that were coming home to me? / O lady with your legs so fine O stranger at your wheel, / You are locked into your suffering and your pleasures are the seal.” I love that sort of unfathomable, paradoxical word-play – how can you be locked in a suffering that is sealed by pleasures? But Dylan-like, Cohen keeps the lyric magic rolling. “The age of lust is giving birth, and both the parents ask / the nurse to tell them fairy tales on both sides of the glass. / And now the infant with his cord is hauled in like a kite, / and one eye filled with blueprints, one eye filled with night.” Maternity ward or just a metaphor for something deeper? “O come with me my little one, we will find that farm / and grow us grass and apples there and keep all the animals warm. / And if by chance I wake at night and I ask you who I am, / O take me to the slaughterhouse, I will wait there with the lamb.” The fragility of sanity in a post-apocalyptic world, perhaps? “With one hand on the hexagram and one hand on the girl / I balance on a wishing well that all men call the world. / We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky, / and lost among the subway crowds I try to catch your eye.” As I said earlier, this is poetry for poetry’s sake, which Cohen has cleverly woven into a sublime song. He was right up there with the world’s greatest.

I married a teacher. So let’s see what Cohen’s Teachers, the next song on the album, is all about. This is marked by incredible acoustic guitar lead alongside Cohen’s liquid, super-quick finger picking. “I met a woman long ago / her hair the black that black can go, / Are you a teacher of the heart? / Soft she answered no.” The scene is set. “I met a girl across the sea, / her hair the gold that gold can be, / Are you a teacher of the heart? / Yes, but not for thee.” So here he’s meeting these beautiful women, but none seemed destined for his heart. “I met a man who lost his mind / in some lost place I had to find, / follow me the wise man said, / but he walked behind.” We loved that as kids – the wise man calling on him to follow him, only to then walk behind. “I walked into a hospital / where none was sick and none was well, / when at night the nurses left / I could not walk at all.” One can read so much into that. “Morning came and then came noon, / dinner time a scalpel blade / lay beside my silver spoon.” And into that. “Some girls wander by mistake / into the mess that scalpels make. / Are you the teachers of my heart? / We teach old hearts to break.” This, surely, speaks of the horrors of abortion, which can so often follow a “mistake”. “One morning I woke up alone, / the hospital and the nurses gone. / Have I carved enough my Lord? / Child, you are a bone.” It becomes even more gory, does it not? “I ate and ate and ate, / no I did not miss a plate, well / How much do these suppers cost? / We’ll take it out in hate.” This really is like Dylan, with each verse triggering the next. “I spent my hatred everyplace, / on every work on every face, / someone gave me wishes / and I wished for an embrace.” Take the word “embrace” and work it into the next verse. “Several girls embraced me, then / I was embraced by men, / Is my passion perfect? / No, do it once again.” That, of course, had suggestions of homosexuality, a less than perfect passion? “I was handsome I was strong, / I knew the words of every song. / Did my singing please you? / No, the words you sang were wrong.” Sometimes a woman can never be satisfied with the song a man sings, however well he knows the words. “Who is it whom I address, / who takes down what I confess? / Are you the teachers of my heart? / We teach old hearts to rest.” This restless heart needs some comforting. “Oh teachers are my lessons done? / I cannot do another one. / They laughed and laughed and said, Well child, / are your lessons done? / are your lessons done? / are your lessons done?” Throughout that song, it is the acoustic lead guitar which thwangs its way around the verses, creating an insistent momentum which complements the roller-coaster nature of the lyrics.

One Of Us Can’t Be Wrong is the title of the final track on the album, and initially I couldn’t place it. But naturally it all came flooding back, the moment Cohen started picking out the melody on his guitar, his use of chord changes typically masterful. Add to that the inspired bass playing and the occasional female backing vocal and you have another Cohen classic. “I lit a thin green candle, to make you jealous of me. / But the room just filled up with mosquitos, / they heard that my body was free. / Then I took the dust of a long sleepless night / and I put it in your little shoe. / And then I confess that I tortured the dress / that you wore for the world to look through.” Ouch! These are intimate thoughts. As a young man, jealousy can be a major problem. A girlfriend exposing too much by dressing provocatively can cause serious problems for the afflicted partner. So this guy seeks help. “I showed my heart to the doctor / he said I’d just have to quit. / Then he wrote himself a prescription, / and your name was mentioned in it! / Then he locked himself in a library shelf / with the details of our honeymoon, / and I hear from the nurse that he’s gotten much worse / and his practice is all in a ruin.” It’s wonderfully written. The doctor, it seems, decided to prescribe for himself a bit of time with this girl, only to discover he too has taken on something he cannot control. “I heard of a saint who had loved you, / so I studied all night in his school. / He taught that the duty of lovers / is to tarnish the golden rule. / And just when I was sure that his teachings were pure / he drowned himself in the pool. / His body is gone but back here on the lawn / his spirit continues to drool.” Truly, Dylan would have been hard-pressed to match these lyrics. “An Eskimo showed me a movie / he’d recently taken of you: / the poor man could hardly stop shivering, / his lips and his fingers were blue. / I suppose that he froze when the wind took your clothes / and I guess he just never got warm. / But you stand there so nice, in your blizzard of ice, / oh please let me come into the storm.” It is in the nature of young men that they will all too often fall for ice-cold females full of seductive wiles who are just not good for them. Yet they have some sort of supernatural hold over sex-obsessed men which only the love of a truly sincere, loving woman, can expunge.

So there we have it, Cohen’s first album, jam-packed with incredible songs, and arguably one of the greatest debut albums around. Wikipedia tells us that on a 2007 reissue, two bonus tracks are included, Store Room and Blessed Is The Memory. Others taken by this album included, as noted, Judy Collins, who included Suzanne on the 1966 album In My Life, while she also did versions of Sisters Of Mercy and Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye on her 1967 album Wildflowers. Wikipedia adds that Sandy Denny and Ian Matthews, then still with Fairport Convention, sung a Suzanne duet for the BBC in August 1968, which would be great to hear. There are numerous other cases cited of groups and solo artists who covered his songs or, as in the case of Gothic rock band The Sisters of Mercy, borrowed from his song title for the name of the band itself.

Songs from a Room

Songs from a Room was released in 1989 and was, if anything, even better than the debut album, although comparisons are odious when dealing with a master. Here, again, the emphasis was on a low-key, understated aesthetic. The cover was all the more powerful for its simplicity: a small black square, in which Cohen’s face and one hand are picked out in white, on a white cover with grey lettering. And the room from which the songs emanate is on the back, with that naked lady, clad only in a white towel, sitting on a chair, typing. The white or her naked bum is just visible above a tanned pair of legs. This was sexually enticing stuff, man.

Bird On The Wire became the key “hit” from this album, which Wikipedia claims was “often described as something of a disappointment after his debut album”, though I can’t think why. It was a commercial success, reaching No 63 in the US and No 2 in the UK.

In order to continue with the “Spartan” sound he sought, he had chosen producer Bob Johnston for the album, which apart from a Jew’s harp, also features Johnston himself on keyboards. The album also includes electric guitar, bass and fiddle, apart from the underlying acoustic guitars.

If anything, for me this was THE Leonard Cohen album. I mean it featured the wonderful Story Of Isaac, with all its biblical allusions, A Bunch Of Lonesome Heroes, The Partisan, Seems So Long Ago, Nancy; The Old Revolution, The Butcher, You Know Who I Am, Lady Midnight and Tonight Will Be Fine. What a selection of songs!

But let’s see what else Wikipedia has to offer. Firstly, it was recorded in October, 1968, in Nashville and released in April, 1969. Wikipedia says Cohen chose Johnston as producer to “achieve the Spartan sound he considered appropriate for his songs”. This followed the disagreements he had with John Simon on Songs of Leonard Cohen. It notes that, while uncredited, backing musicians included Ron Cornelius on acoustic and electric guitars, Charlie Daniels on bass, fiddle and acoustic guitar, Elkin “Bubba” Fowler on banjo, bass and acoustic guitar, and Johnston, as noted, on keyboards. Johnston also toured with Cohen in 1970 and 1972, says Wikipedia, playing keyboards, harmonica and guitar. This led to the “termination of his collaboration with Bob Dylan”. Because, of course, this was the same Bob Johnston who had been Dylan’s producer.

And, it seems, there is a missing piece to the puzzle. Wikipedia says sheet music for the album includes a song titled Priests. While reportedly recorded, it has never appeared on any Cohen album. But Judy Collins did include a cover on her Wildflowers album, as did Richie Havens on his 1969 album, Richard P Havens.

So let’s give the thing a spin, and take another pleasurable journey back to a timeless era called 1969, a year which produced so much by way of great music. Just to note, first however, that Cohen wrote all the songs except The Partisan, which is such a seminal Cohen song, but was in fact written by Hy Zaret and Anny Marly.

It is incredibly difficult to be objective about songs that are such an integral part of one’s being. But there can be no denying that the opening song, Bird On The Wire, cemented Leonard Cohen as one of the gurus of the late 1960s. I remember there was an older hippie fellow living in East London, name of Slim someone, who had a run-down house somewhere in Vincent or the like. Somehow, he is associated in my mind with Cohen’s music, along with the smell of incense and, no doubt, the other smell it was meant to disguise. But what was this bird on the wire all about? The song opens directly with Cohen’s vocals, as he plucks that acoustic guitar. There is an immediate Jewish harp backing, along with acoustic bass and strings. Indeed, the orchestration is quite heavy, although the acoustic guitar continues to lead matters.

“Like a bird on the wire, / like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried in my way to be free.” Obscure similes, perhaps, but that was the beauty of Cohen’s lyrics. They got you thinking. “Like a worm on a hook, / like a knight from some old fashioned book / I have saved all my ribbons for thee.” I like the biblical “thee”, but I fail to find the link between a hooked worm, a knight and those ribbons. Anyway, the tempo changes for the chorus. “If I, if I have been unkind, / I hope that you can just let it go by. / If I, if I have been untrue / I hope you know it was never to you.” Then, what some would call his morbid fascination with mortality, resumes. “Like a baby, stillborn, / like a beast with his horn / I have torn everyone who reached out for me.” That is profound stuff. This is a guy who doesn’t do friendship very well. Yet he’s prepared to repent. “But I swear by this song / and by all that I have done wrong / I will make it all up to thee.” Cohen would often sing about the broken souls, his voice becoming quite trenchant. “I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch, / he said to me, ‘You must not ask for so much.’ / And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door, / she cried to me, ‘Hey, why not ask for more?’” Ah, each to his own perspective. With that Jew’s harp buzzing, he returns to his original brief. “Oh like a bird on the wire, / like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried in my way to be free.” Why did this song make such a big impact? Because, I believe, it was so original, so daring. It bucked all the trends. And the next song would go even further.

Story Of Isaac starts with fast-plucked acoustic guitar and attendant Jew’s harp. There is a haunting, desolate quality to Cohen’s vocals. “The door it opened slowly, / my father he came in, / I was nine years old. / And he stood so tall above me, / his blue eyes they were shining / and his voice was very cold.” We are confronted with the cold, cruel, inescapable trajectory of Old Testament lore. “He said, ‘I’ve had a vision / and you know I’m strong and holy, / I must do what I’ve been told.’ / So he started up the mountain, / I was running, he was walking, / and his axe was made of gold.” Do you think Abraham’s son was impressed by that golden axe? “Well, the trees they got much smaller, / the lake a lady’s mirror, / we stopped to drink some wine. / Then he threw the bottle over. / Broke a minute later / and he put his hand on mine.” We loved that metaphor for a lake shrunk by their altitude, as well as the delayed breaking of the bottle for the same reason. “Thought I saw an eagle / but it might have been a vulture, / I never could decide. / Then my father built an altar, / he looked once behind his shoulder, / he knew I would not hide.” As I recall, God stayed his hand at the last minute. But Cohen uses this tale to fashion a lesson. “You who build these altars now / to sacrifice these children, / you must not do it anymore. / A scheme is not a vision / and you never have been tempted / by a demon or a god.” I suspect the Vietnam and other wars are in his mind, as he continues even more stridently. “You who stand above them now, / your hatchets blunt and bloody, / you were not there before, / when I lay upon a mountain / and my father’s hand was trembling / with the beauty of the word.” Wars are really all about fathers sacrificing their sons. “And if you call me brother now, / forgive me if I inquire, / ‘Just according to whose plan?’ / When it all comes down to dust / I will kill you if I must, / I will help you if I can. / When it all comes down to dust / I will help you if I must, / I will kill you if I can. / And mercy on our uniform, / man of peace or man of war, / the peacock spreads his fan.” That switch, from killing “if I must” to “if I can”, seems to signify man’s irredeemable descent into immorality. I always heard “have mercy on our uniform”, but the key words here are this image of a peacock spreading its fan, as if, perhaps, such natural beauty can undo some of the damage caused by man.

On a Leonard Cohen album, don’t expect a song as pregnant with purpose such as that to be followed by something light and flippant. He’s not that sort of artist. Instead, the next track is another deep and mysterious tale about A Bunch Of Lonesome Heroes. Here it is fast-strummed acoustic guitar backed by Jew’s harp that provides the backing for an almost spoken opening gambit. And brace yourself for some acerbic electric guitar as the chorus unfolds. Indeed, musically, this is one of Cohen’s most interesting works. “A bunch of lonesome and very quarrelsome heroes / were smoking out along the open road; / the night was very dark and thick between them, / each man beneath his ordinary load. / ‘I’d like to tell my story,’ / said one of them so young and bold, / ‘I’d like to tell my story, / before I turn into gold.’” The buzzing of the lead guitar adds incredibly to the atmosphere. You are out there on this road with these guys. So what was their response? “But no one really could hear him, / the night so dark and thick and green; / well I guess that these heroes must always live there / where you and I have only been. / Put out your cigarette, my love, / you’ve been alone too long; / and some of us are very hungry now / to hear what it is you’ve done that was so wrong.” What a wonderful switch. Suddenly we are in a relationship with a woman, who is now being asked to tell us what she did wrong. But of course there will be no answer, because another tangent is embarked on. “I sing this for the crickets, / I sing this for the army, / I sing this for your children / and for all who do not need me.” The song ends with that quarrelsome hero again offering to tell his tale. “ ‘I’d like to tell my story,’ / said one of them so bold, / ‘Oh yes, I’d like to tell my story / ’cause you know I feel I’m turning into gold.’”

The album’s mood is firmly entrenched by now. We seem to be bound by the rigours of war and peace, revenge and retribution. All those interesting things which most songwriters avoid like the plague. So The Partisan fits the bill perfectly. Here the plucked acoustic guitar flows along quietly, pouring its sound into the air. The bass notes give lovely body, while slicing harmonica notes during the chorus add to the sense of desolation. This was France during the Second World War. The Resistance fighters had to be brave. “When they poured across the border / I was cautioned to surrender, / this I could not do; / I took my gun and vanished.” Imagine those as the opening lines in a war film. Your attention is rapt. “I have changed my name so often, / I’ve lost my wife and children / but I have many friends, / and some of them are with me.” So he is a desperado with not much else to lose, except his own life and the lives of his comrades. “An old woman gave us shelter, / kept us hidden in the garret, / then the soldiers came; / she died without a whisper.” It was a ruthless time. “There were three of us this morning / I’m the only one this evening / but I must go on; / the frontiers are my prison.” What a great line: the frontiers are my prison. Then, as a lament, with the harmonica scything along, this chorus: “Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing, / through the graves the wind is blowing, / freedom soon will come; / then we’ll come from the shadows.” And finally I read what he sang there. I always heard “men will come …”, but clearly it makes sense that “we’ll come” from the shadows once freedom is achieved. But what of the next verse, which is in French? “Les allemands Ãtaient chez moi, (The Germans were at my home) / ils me disent, ‘RÃsigne-toi’, (They said, ‘Give up’) / mais je n'ai pas peur; (But I am not afraid) / j’ai repris mon arme. (I have retaken my weapon.) / J’ai changà cent fois de nom, (I have changed names a hundred times) / j’ai perdu femme et enfants (I have lost wife and children) / mais j’ai tant d’amis; (But I have so many friends) / j’ai la France entière. (I have all of France) / Un vieil homme dans un grenier (An old man, in an attic) / pour la nuit nous a cachÃ, (Hid us for the night) / les allemands l’ont pris; (The Germans captured him) / il est mort sans surprise. (He died without surprise.)” Clearly, the French is more poetically written, and indeed it sounds incredible on the song, giving it a strong sense of authenticity. The song concludes with that optimistic lament: “Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing, / through the graves the wind is blowing, / freedom soon will come; / then we’ll come from the shadows.” Wikipedia tells us this song is based on a poem, La complainte du partisan, by “Bernard” (Emmanuel D’Astier), a “prominent figure in the French resistance during the Second World War”.

Finally, on the last track on Side 1, a break from matters of national import. Seems So Long Ago, Nancy, is a peaceful, pensive piece set to slowly plucked acoustic guitar, bass and understated organ. “It seems so long ago, / Nancy was alone, / looking at the Late Late show / through a semi-precious stone.” But don’t expect a simple, straight-forward love song. “In the House of Honesty / her father was on trial, / in the House of Mystery / there was no one at all, / there was no one at all.” Then, the pivotal lines: “It seems so long ago, / none of us were strong; / Nancy wore green stockings / and she slept with everyone. / She never said she’d wait for us / although she was alone, / I think she fell in love for us / in nineteen sixty one, / in nineteen sixty one.” I like the fact that this sets the song at a very specific time. The year 1961 seems so long ago, does it not? But then it was less than a decade back. “It seems so long ago, / Nancy was alone, / a forty five beside her head, / an open telephone.” And so, tragedy. The phone off the hook, the smoking gun. “We told her she was beautiful, / we told her she was free / but none of us would meet her in / the House of Mystery, / the House of Mystery.” Only Cohen knows what that house is. “And now you look around you, / see her everywhere, / many use her body, / many comb her hair. / In the hollow of the night / when you are cold and numb / you hear her talking freely then, / she’s happy that you’ve come, / she’s happy that you’ve come.” I love that phrase, “the hollow of the night”. Nights can be very empty and hollow, filled only with ghosts and harsh realities.

Wikipedia says this song tells the story of Nancy Challies, “a depressed young woman from Montreal who committed suicide having been forced by her family to put her son up for adoption”. Yet, it adds, that “perhaps disingenuously”, in 1979, Cohen told filmmaker Harry Rasky that “Nancy” was “only a waitress in an American juke joint with whom he had been slightly acquainted”.

Even the title of the opening song on Side 2, The Old Revolution, is loaded with potential. But which revolution was this, I wonder. It starts with fairly fast-strummed acoustic guitar and Jewish harp. Okay, so according to Wikipedia, it is actually more commonly known as a Jew’s harp, although this is “controversial”, because the instrument is apparently not directly linked to Judaism. It is, says Wikipedia, a very old instrument, with a figure in a third century BC drawing from China depicted playing one. No alternative names offered will suffice, so it is indeed a Jew’s harp that adds that distinctive layer of tonal texture. Oh and there is again some superb, unobtrusive organ, alongside those gallant chords which entirely suit the timbre and gravitas of Cohen’s voice. And what an opening line! “I finally broke into the prison, / I found my place in the chains. / Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows, / all the brave young men / they’re waiting now to see a signal / which some killer will be lighting for pay.” What does it mean? I’ve discovered, reading a book called Dylan on Dylan – a series of interviews with the master between 1962 and 2004 – that with some of these guys, nothing is quite what it seems. You have to accept that you’ll never quite fathom what they’re saying. But I just enjoy the concept of someone breaking into a prison and “finding his place” in the chains. In the film Shawshank Redemption, you see an old jailbird for whom prison has become his home, and when he’s released he doesn’t know how to live independently and commits suicide. But here we’re dealing, I guess, with some sort of political upheaval. Damnation, or hell, is mitigated, poisoned, by the presence of rainbows. Every silver lining harbours a dark cloud, without which it would not look so bright and alluring. But back to this song. Who are these brave young men waiting for a signal from a killer who’ll light some sort of medieval torch on a barren mountainside for pay? The chorus is equally enigmatic. “Into this furnace I ask you now to venture, /you whom I cannot betray.” Again we have a hell allusion, with the invitation to enter signifying, paradoxically, that he or she won’t be betrayed. And so to some narrative text. “I fought in the old revolution / on the side of the ghost and the King. / Of course I was very young / and I thought that we were winning; / I can’t pretend I still feel very much like singing / as they carry the bodies away.” In a nutshell, it was a cause the young embraced for the sake of ghost and king. But from a naïve belief that victory was assured, he faces the reality that the revolution is littered with corpses. That haunting chorus is repeated, before he continues to relate this tale. “Lately you’ve started to stutter / as though you had nothing to say. / To all of my architects let me be traitor. / Now let me say I myself gave the order / to sleep and to search and to destroy.” I think I heard, and logic seems to agree, that the word is to “seek”, not “sleep”. This song is far too deep for a child of the Sixties to fathom. “Yes, you who are broken by power, / you who are absent all day, / you who are kings for the sake of your children’s story, / the hand of your beggar is burdened down with money, / the hand of your lover is clay.” It is brilliant writing. A beggar’s hand burdened with money… I know Dylan admired Cohen. He refers to him in one of those interviews, but gets the quote – “I am the one who loves changing from nothing to one” – wrong. But this song here was a right gem, up there with the best that Dylan created.

And what to follow it with? Well why not The Butcher, which, from the title alone, has to be a thing of great import. Again, the old acoustic guitar is strummed very slowly and methodically, setting in train a slow, relentless rhythm. “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’.” Ouch! Was this his real father, or is this a biblical allusion? The drug scene is also encapsulated. “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?” Then: “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’.” Flowers rise from the lamb-blood-soaked soil. That I get. So must God be praised for this exchange. The Lord’s reply is typically mysterious. The song becomes more strident in the next verse. “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.” Here I detect the frailty of the aged father – where I’m headed – and the relinquishing of authority to the next generation. Again, massive food for thought.

And next, You Know Who I Am, which Dylan was trying to recall in that interview from about 1979. The guitar is again plucked, at a quickish pace, with the Jew’s harp and bass fleshing the thing out. Cohen’s opening lines, like Dylan’s, are always vital; of paramount importance. “I cannot follow you, my love, / you cannot follow me. / I am the distance you put between / all of the moments that we will be.” Only someone with Dylan’s sort of mind could possibly fathom that. I just love it for its throwing together of ideas in a seemingly paradoxical way which seems to defy logic. Does the chorus make it clearer? “You know who I am, / you’ve stared at the sun, / well I am the one who loves

changing from nothing to one.” It’s the poets’ realm, not really meant to be fully understood I suspect, yet intuitively one gleans that this guy’s ego, his being, only emerges when he changes from one state, perhaps being unloved, to another, where he has a loving companion. Certainly the next verse suggests this may have some merit. “Sometimes I need you naked, / sometimes I need you wild, / I need you to carry my children in / and I need you to kill a child.” Trust Cohen to dash our adolescent meanderings with this harsh reality. From this wild naked woman we move to childbirth, and indeed some form of infanticide. Each verse is punctuated by the chorus. “If you should ever track me down / I will surrender there / and I will leave with you one broken man / whom I will teach you to repair.” He, surely, is that broken man whom only she can repair. The song ends with the opening verse repeated.

The penultimate song, Lady Midnight, is set to fast-strummed acoustic guitar, Jew’s harp and bass. The guitarwork is superb, propelling the simple, infectious melody along its path. “I came by myself to a very crowded place; / I was looking for someone who had lines in her face. / I found her there but she was past all concern; / I asked her to hold me, / I said, ‘Lady, unfold me’, / but she scorned me and she told me / I was dead and I could never return.” Again, more Dylan than Dylan. I shan’t try to unravel this riddle, except to say these lyrics tantalize the brain. “Well, I argued all night like so many have before, / saying, ‘Whatever you give me, I seem to need so much more.’ / Then she pointed at me where I kneeled on her floor, / she said, ‘Don’t try to use me or slyly refuse me, / just win me or lose me, / it is this that the darkness is for’.” Who knows what goes through the minds of men and ladies of the night. “I cried, ‘Oh, Lady Midnight, I fear that you grow old, / the stars eat your body and the wind makes you cold.’ / ‘If we cry now,’ she said, ‘it will just be ignored.’ / So I walked through the morning, sweet early morning, / I could hear my lady calling, / ‘You’ve won me, you’ve won me, my lord, / you’ve won me, you’ve won me, my lord, / yes, you’ve won me, you’ve won me, my lord, / ah, you’ve won me, you’ve won me, my lord, / ah, you’ve won me, you’ve won me, my lord’.”

Tonight Will Be Fine concludes this classic Cohen album. Strummed acoustic guitar, Jew’s harp and bass again provide the backing, along with some organ. But of course it is Cohen’s inimitable voice that holds the attention. Again, the lyrics and melody are inextricably linked, as if both were plucked from some muse simultaneously. “Sometimes I find I get to thinking of the past. / We swore to each other then our love would surely last. / You kept right on loving, I went on a fast, / now I am too thin and your love is too vast.” Incredible writing. What a concept! The chorus then kicks in. “But I know from your eyes / and I know from your smile / that tonight will be fine, / will be fine, will be fine, will be fine / for a while.” It is those last three words which bring the euphoria down to earth. “I choose the rooms that I live in with care, / the windows are small and the walls almost bare, / there’s only one bed and there’s only one prayer; / I listen all night for your step on the stair.” Wouldn’t we all? After the chorus, a verse that had our adolescent selves in rapt attention. “Oh sometimes I see her undressing for me, / she’s the soft naked lady love meant her to be / and she’s moving her body so brave and so free. / If I’ve got to remember that’s a fine memory.” Who would “have to” remember? This fine song concludes with the chorus repeated.

Leonard Cohen had arrived big time. But could he keep up the quality?

Songs of Love and Hate

But things got if not better then just as good in 1971, my second year in high school, when he released Songs of Love and Hate.

Only Cohen could have immortalised a “famous blue raincoat” which was “torn at the shoulder”. It is like a title for a Picasso painting, yet around this image he crafts a wonderful poem about city life.

The key to the album’s hauntingly sombre tone is Paul Buckmaster’s low-key string and horn arrangements.

This album, again with a black and white cover, I have not heard in about 30 years, yet some songs spring readily to mind when I read their titles.

But let’s see what the oracle has to say about it. Well Wikipedia does confirm that it was recorded initially in just five days, from September 22 to 26, 1970, at Columbia Studio A in Nashville. This was the “first mix”, to be followed by a “second mix” at London’s Trident Studios. Then, of course there was a track, Sing Another Song Boys, recorded on August 30, 1970, at the Isle of Wight Festival.

Classified as folk and again produced by Bob Johnston, the album was released on the Columbia label in March, 1971.

While no great shakes in the US where it reached No 145, Songs of Love and Hate reached No 4 on the UK album charts and No 8 in Oz, making it “his most commercially successful album in many other parts of the word”.

Wikipedia notes that the title outlines the main themes of the album, whose songs contain “emotive language and are frankly personal”. Rock musos often included snippets on their albums to increase their allure. In the case of this one, the back cover has the lines: “They locked up a man / Who wanted to rule the world / The fools / They locked up the wrong man.” The album was remastered and leased on CD in 1995, and again in 2007, including a bonus track, a 1968 recording of Dress Rehearsal Rag.

Happily, I have just acquired a copy of the album, so have been able to reacquaint myself with songs which became embedded in my psyche during my high school years. But before giving it a spin, just to get an idea of the sort of sound we’re dealing with, let’s see who played on the album. Cohen, naturally, is credited with acoustic guitar and vocals. Ron Cornelius is again on acoustic and electric guitars, Charlie Daniels again on acoustic guitar, bass and fiddle, Elkin “Bubba” Fowler on acoustic guitar, banjo and bass, while producer Johnson also contributed piano. Backing vocals are by Corlynn Hanney and Susan Mussmano, while children’s voices are by the Corona Academy in London. Apart from conductor Buckmaster’s string and horn arrangements, Michael Sahl provides strings on the third verse of Last Year’s Man.

As one can see, this was a powerhouse of talent, who did full justice to some of Cohen’s finest songs.

The album kicks off with Avalanche, which I could not recall offhand. Instantly, the Cohen sound is unmistakable, with his distinctive finger-picking style on the acoustic guitar, subtle strings and that full-bodied voice with its almost haunting quality. There seems to be a double bass giving the song a lovely rounded quality. The lyrics are typically cryptic Cohen pieces: “Well I stepped into an avalanche, / it covered up my soul; / when I am not this hunchback that you see, / I sleep beneath the golden hill. / You who wish to conquer pain, / you must learn, learn to serve me well.” Perhaps clarity will emerge in the next verse. “You strike my side by accident / as you go down for your gold. / The cripple here that you clothe and feed / is neither starved nor cold; / he does not ask for your company, / not at the centre, the centre of the world.” The academics will unpack this, but I recall, as a teenager, simply being mesmerized by the knowledge that this was great poetry. Cohen was throwing seemingly senseless sentences together and somehow they made sense. To me they registered, almost subliminally, in my disassociated, dislocated inner being. If you know what I mean. And, of course the use of English was wonderful. “When I am on a pedestal, / you did not raise me there. / Your laws do not compel me / to kneel grotesque and bare. / I myself am the pedestal / for this ugly hump at which you stare.” This, clearly, is a guy with a chip, or hump, on his shoulder; someone racked by self-doubt and an inferiority complex. “You who wish to conquer pain, / you must learn what makes me kind; / the crumbs of love that you offer me, / they’re the crumbs I’ve left behind. / Your pain is no credential here, / it’s just the shadow, shadow of my wound.” Ouch! This is one mean deity. Your offerings are nothing more than His/ Her discards. “I have begun to long for you, / I who have no greed; / I have begun to ask for you, / I who have no need. / You say you’ve gone away from me, / but I can feel you when you breathe.” This omnipotent, omnipresent being – surely a lover with whom he’s besotted – takes no shit. “Do not dress in those rags for me, / I know you are not poor; / don’t love me quite so fiercely now / when you know that you are not sure, / it is your turn, beloved, it is your flesh that I wear.” Phew! I’m pretty glad I did not fully glean what was going on here as a teen. But this song comes pretty close to explicating the almost fascist control which a woman can have on a guy who is besotted with her. Who hasn’t been there?

This 5:07 minute song is a classic, showing that the album is a fitting successor to those initial works.

Even longer is the next track, Last Year’s Man (6:02). But before getting there, I have just read on Wikipedia that this, Side 1, is the “hate” side of the album, and that Side 2 is the “love” side. Furthermore, it seems corresponding songs – like Avalanche on Side 1 and Love Calls You By Your Name on Side 2 – are stylistically similar. Last Year’s Man is said to have Joan Of Arc as a counterpart, and Diamonds In The Mine is balanced by Sing Another Song, Boys.

Anyway, we are dealing with the “hate” side here, and Last Year’s Man, from the title alone, is surely less about hate than about failure. It starts with single strummed chords, followed by those famous lines: “The rain falls down on last year’s man, / that’s a Jew’s harp on the table, / that’s a crayon in his hand.” Single chords punctuate the rest of the verse. “And the corners of the blueprint are / ruined since they rolled / far past the stems of thumbtacks / that still throw shadows on the wood.” Now the guitarwork is more sustained, but still slow and studied, while the female vocal backing adds an interesting dimension. “And the skylight is like skin for a drum I’ll never mend / and all the rain falls down amen / on the works of last year’s man.” This is the first time I’m seeing these lines in their entirety. It seems this last year’s man was designing something, a blueprint, but that his work has been undone, both by the elements – his skylight is cracked and the rain is pouring in – and by his own sense of failure. Noticeable is just how low and resonant Cohen’s voice is, especially when he enunciates the word “year’s” in that verse. As the big bass notes resound, the female backing vocals add a soothing element, and are especially fitting since this is all about women, after all. “I met a lady, she was playing with / her soldiers in the dark / oh one by one she had to tell them / that her name was Joan of Arc. / I was in that army, yes I stayed a little while; / I want to thank you, Joan of Arc,/ for treating me so well. / And though I wear a uniform / I was not born to fight; / all these wounded boys you lie beside, / goodnight, my friends, goodnight.” So here, as observed earlier, is the Joan of Arc allusion, and it seems clear that she is portrayed as a prostitute leader, who sends young men to fight, but also offers them some comfort. But, in true Cohen style, there is no pinning down a final meaning – which would ruin the work as a piece of poetry. “I came upon a wedding that old families had contrived; / Bethlehem the bridegroom, / Babylon the bride. /Great Babylon was naked, oh she / stood there trembling for me, / and Bethlehem inflamed us both / like the shy one at some orgy. / And when we fell together all our flesh was like a veil / that I had to draw aside to see / the serpent eat its tail.” A Jewish/Muslim betrothal? I’m pretty sure I heard the serpent “beat its tail”… I remember my youthful sensibilities become rather troubled by the subsequent lines. “Some women wait for Jesus, and some women wait for Cain / so I hang upon my altar / and I hoist my axe again. / And I take the one who finds me / back to where it all began / when Jesus was the honeymoon / and Cain was just the man. / And we read from pleasant Bibles that / are bound in blood and skin / that the wilderness is gathering / all its children back again.” Phew! Again. Jesus the loving. Cain the killer. This verse is dense with theological stuff, but what terrific writing! And, like those great Dylan songs, we have travelled widely before the next verse returns us to the present. “The rain falls down on last year’s man, / an hour has gone by / and he has not moved his hand. / But everything will happen if he only gives the word; / the lovers will rise up / and the mountains touch the ground. / But the skylight is like skin for a drum I’ll never mend / and all the rain falls down amen / on the works of last year’s man.” Those female backing vocalists bring the song to an end. Pure Cohen magic!

At 6:12 minutes, the next song, Dress Rehearsal Rag, is another wonderful lyrical ramble through the Cohen mind. I remember it ending with a line taken from the title – a sort of comedown after what preceded it. But what was that? Surging strummed acoustic guitar sets this one in train. “Four o’clock in the afternoon / and I didn’t feel like very much. / I said to myself, ‘Where are you golden boy, / where is your famous golden touch?’” The strumming becomes more strident. “I thought you knew where / all of the elephants lie down, / I thought you were the crown prince / of all the wheels in Ivory Town. / Just take a look at your body now, / there’s nothing much to save / and a bitter voice in the mirror cries, / ‘Hey, Prince, you need a shave.’ / Now if you can manage to get / your trembling fingers to behave, / why don’t you try unwrapping / a stainless steel razor blade? / That’s right, it’s come to this, / yes it’s come to this, / and wasn’t it a long way down, / wasn’t it a strange way down?” Softening strings and female backing vocals play the same role each verse by providing a gentle landing as his life plummets. Put yourself in my shoes. In my mid-teens, with major existential issues going on in my developing personality, how was I supposed to deal with this wonderfully written tale of a bitter and broken man? And the guy’s plight doesn’t improve … or does it? “There’s no hot water / and the cold is running thin. / Well, what do you expect from / the kind of places you’ve been living in? / Don’t drink from that cup, / it’s all caked and cracked along the rim. / That’s not the electric light, my friend, / that is your vision growing dim. / Cover up your face with soap, there, / now you’re Santa Claus. / And you’ve got a gift for anyone / who will give you his applause. / I thought you were a racing man, / ah, but you couldn’t take the pace. / That’s a funeral in the mirror / and it’s stopping at your face. / That’s right, it’s come to this, / yes it’s come to this, / and wasn’t it a long way down, / ah wasn’t it a strange way down?” Incredibly, the line about resembling Santa Claus when his face is covered with shaving crème comes back to me regularly when shaving. Such was the powerful influence of these lines on a young psyche. But you have to love the rancid, scathing tone. “Once there was a path / and a girl with chestnut hair, / and you passed the summers / picking all of the berries that grew there; / there were times she was a woman, / oh, there were times she was just a child, / and you held her in the shadows / where the raspberries grow wild. / And you climbed the twilight mountains / and you sang about the view, / and everywhere that you wandered / love seemed to go along with you. / That’s a hard one to remember, / yes it makes you clench your fist. / And then the veins stand out like highways, / all along your wrist. / And yes it’s come to this, / it’s come to this, / and wasn’t it a long way down, / wasn’t it a strange way down?” That’s beautifully written. Suddenly, it seems, there is hope for this sad guy. But this lovely tale of love is all in the past – a “hard one to remember”. And another phrase from here stuck in me thoughts down the decades: the description of veins on his wrist standing out like highways. “You can still find a job, / go out and talk to a friend. / On the back of every magazine / there are those coupons you can send. / Why don’t you join the Rosicrucians, / they can give you back your hope, / you can find your love with diagrams on a plain brown envelope. / But you’ve used up all your coupons / except the one that seems / to be written on your wrist / along with several thousand dreams. / Now Santa Claus comes forward, / that’s a razor in his mit; / and he puts on his dark glasses / and he shows you where to hit; / and then the cameras pan, / the stand-in stunt man, / dress rehearsal rag, / it’s just the dress rehearsal rag, / you know this dress rehearsal rag, / it’s just a dress rehearsal rag.”

It’s like waking from a nightmare as you’re about to have your throat slit by some cretin dressed as Father Christmas. But again, the relentless evisceration of this poor soul has driven him to the point of no return – only, it seems, for the cameras to focus out and reveal that this whole episode is some sort of cinematic incident. At least that’s how I read it. Cohen was at his expressive best on the acoustic guitar here, cranking up the drama before allowing things to subside, only for the tension to regroup.

The fourth and final track on Side 1, the “hate” side, is Diamonds In The Mine, relatively short at 3:52 minutes. Here some jaunty strummed acoustic guitar, backed by bass, starts matters. And there is also some nicely clipped electric guitar, while the song gets quite frenetic at times. Again, there was a built-in sneer factor here, as the singer excoriates his creation. “The woman in blue, she’s asking for revenge, / the man in white – that’s you – says he has no friends. / The river is swollen up with rusty cans / and the trees are burning in your promised land. / And there are no letters in the mailbox, / and there are no grapes upon the vine, / and there are no chocolates in the boxes anymore, / and there are no diamonds in the mine.” The madness of Leonard Cohen, some would argue. Certainly, these images he paints are bleak and depressing. But it takes a great writer to so convincingly create such worlds. “Well, you tell me that your lover has a broken limb, / you say you’re kind of restless now and it’s on account of him. / Well, I saw the man in question, it was just the other night, / he was eating up a lady where the lions and Christians fight. / And there are no letters in the mailbox / and there are no grapes upon the vine, / and there are no chocolates in the boxes anymore, / and there are no diamonds in the mine. / (You tell them now).” Biblical insights seem to carry more weight than most others. We who were raised with some knowledge of the history of Christianity will instantly relate to a scenario of lions devouring Christians. Which Roman emperor saw to that? But here we have her lover, injured as he is, “eating up a lady” at such an affair. Given my sex-addled mind, I can’t help thinking his “hunger” was more carnal than carnivorous. “Ah, there is no comfort in the covens of the witch, / some very clever doctor went and sterilized the bitch, / and the only man of energy, yes the revolution’s pride, / he trained a hundred women just to kill an unborn child. / And there are no letters in the mailbox, / oh no, there are no, no grapes upon your vine, / and there are, there are no chocolates in your boxes anymore, / and there are no diamonds in your mine.” This chorus is repeated to terminate – in abortion terminology – this incredibly powerful, if murderously maudlin, piece of Cohen genius.

Let’s see if the “love” side, Side 2, provides some much-needed redemption and respite. Knowing Cohen, though, I’m not banking on any soppy sentimentalism suitable for inclusion on Valentine’s Day cards.

So Side 2 opens with Love Calls You By Your Name, another lengthy piece at 5:44 minutes. After the almost manic quality of the last track on Side 1, we are back to Cohen’s sublime best here. Quietly picked acoustic guitar provides a mellow mood. But this is brilliant playing, with the bass notes thumped to add substance. “You thought that it could never happen / to all the people that you became, / your body lost in legend, the beast so very tame. / But here, right here, / between the birthmark and the stain, / between the ocean and your open vein, / between the snowman and the rain, / once again, once again, / love calls you by your name.” Similarly constructed to Diamonds In The Mine, that verse has a lovely shape to it, with the strings again fleshing out the sound as the verse unwinds. And again the lyric is typically mysterious, somehow suggesting that despite all, love will make its demands on you, whoever you are. “The women in your scrapbook / whom you still praise and blame, / you say they chained you to your fingernails / and you climb the halls of fame. / Oh but here, right here, / between the peanuts and the cage, / between the darkness and the stage, / between the hour and the age, / once again, once again, / love calls you by your name.” Dylan would surely have admired this writing. But where is the love in being “chained to your fingernails”? Well I suppose sadomasochism is spurred on by some form of physical and mental attraction. “Shouldering your loneliness / like a gun that you will not learn to aim, / you stumble into this movie house, / then you climb, you climb into the frame. / Yes, and here, right here / between the moonlight and the lane, / between the tunnel and the train, / between the victim and his stain, / once again, once again, / love calls you by your name.” I love that image of him going into a cinema and “climbing into the frame” of the film that is showing. It’s something I’m sure many would wish to do – especially when some famous actress is looking suitably seductive and desirous of company. “I leave the lady meditating / on the very love which I, I do not wish to claim, / I journey down the hundred steps, / but the street is still the very same. / And here, right here, / between the dancer and his cane, / between the sailboat and the drain, / between the newsreel and your tiny pain, / once again, once again, / love calls you by your name.” I suspect the next verse has a reference to Judy Collins, with whom Cohen was once romantically linked. “Where are you, Judy, where are you, Anne? / Where are the paths your heroes came? / Wondering out loud as the bandage pulls away, / was I, was I only limping, was I really lame? / Oh here, come over here, / between the windmill and the grain, / between the sundial and the chain, / between the traitor and her pain, / once again, once again, / love calls you by your name.” Great orchestration ensures this is a well-rounded classic. They just don’t write songs like this today – or do they? Maybe out there a genius is producing great stuff and I’m just too old and out of touch to know about it…

Next up, that delightful tale about a raincoat, or rather the people who wore it. Famous Blue Raincoat runs to 5:15 minutes. It has a languid, languorous, lugubrious quality which drags you inextricably into its sharply drawn world. Slow, quietly strummed acoustic guitar provides the initial backing to his vocal tour de fource. And almost instantly he is joined by those female backing vocalists with some of Cohen’s trademark “da-da daa da, da daa-das”. The lyrics are pure poetry. “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.” So it’s a letter to a friend. “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.” A record of nothing? It’s Cohen logic, and of course it makes complete sense. Then the chorus: “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?” Again, a sense of mystery and intrigue is injected. Go clear from what? “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.” Another loser in a quest for unattainable love? Then, to conclude the verse, the scathing couplet: “And you treated my woman to a flake of your life / And when she came back she was nobody’s wife.” Then follows: “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.” Then: “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.” This relationship is indeed complex, as this couplet emphasises. “If you ever come by here, for Jane or for me / Your enemy is sleeping, and his woman is free.” But the letter writer is not finished with his man. “Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes / I thought it was there for good so I never tried.” Bob Dylan would again no doubt be as full of admiration for those lines as I am. They are brilliant. The song ends with the enduringly enigmatic trio of lines: “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.” The strings again ensure the song’s musical integrity. Surely one of the great pieces of songwriting of all time.

Then we are transported to the famous Isle of Wight Festival. It’s August 30, 1970, and Leonard Cohen’s up with Sing Another Song, Boys. I’d love to see this song live. Amidst the sound of the audience, Cohen proclaims: “Let’s sing another song, boys, this one has grown old and bitter.” The acoustic guitar is then strummed almost languidly, backed by bass. Interestingly, a piano also soon joins the fray. As the music surges – how that massive crowd must have loved it – he intones: “Ah his fingernails, I see they’re broken, / his ships they’re all on fire. / The moneylender’s lovely little daughter / ah, she’s eaten, she’s eaten with desire. / She spies him through the glasses / from the pawnshops of her wicked father. / She hails him with a microphone / that some poor singer, just like me, had to leave her. / She tempts him with a clarinet, / she waves a Nazi dagger. / She finds him lying in a heap; / she wants to be his woman. / He says, ‘Yes, I might go to sleep / but kindly leave, leave the future, / leave it open.” I remember how we loved the line about her “tempting him with a clarinet”, not for the life of us knowing what it meant. But I wonder what it’s like to be the subject of a woman’s burning desire? Certainly I know such emotions are two a penny among guys, but are women equally afflicted? “He stands where it is steep, / oh I guess he thinks that he’s the very first one, / his hand upon his leather belt now / like it was the wheel of some big ocean liner. / And she will learn to touch herself so well / as all the sails burn down like paper. / And he has lit the chain / of his famous cigarillo. / Ah, they’ll never, they’ll never ever reach the moon, / at least not the one that we’re after; / it’s floating broken on the open sea, look out there, my friends, / and it carries no survivors. / But let’s leave these lovers wondering / why they cannot have each other, / and let’s sing another song, boys, / this one has grown old and bitter.” Coming so soon after 1969’s first lunar landing, this is indeed fine songwriting. What a brilliant image – this moon he’s talking about will not be reached because it is in fact a fractured reflection, wallowing like a stricken ship on a turbulent sea, it’s crew all lost. Admit it, yet another miracle Cohen creation. And of course having those female backing vocalists again provides a fresh dimension, with those la-la laa-laa’s used to telling effect, raising and lowering the levels of emotion. Indeed, with Cohen joining in, the song ends rather harshly.

Fittingly, the next song provides the perfect counterpoint to its predecessor. We heard his reference to Joan of Arc on Side 1, so what was the final track on the album, titled Joan Of Arc and running to 6:29 minutes all about? The acoustic guitar is picked, quiet, slow and intimate. Cohen speaks the opening lines, while behind a sung version of the words is just discernable. “Now the flames they followed Joan of Arc / as she came riding through the dark; / no moon to keep her armour bright, / no man to get her through this very smoky night.” About here, the talking stops and Cohen sings: “She said, ‘I’m tired of the war, / I want the kind of work I had before, / a wedding dress or something white / to wear upon my swollen appetite.’” Apart from the broader meaning, consider the lovely description, “no moon to keep her armour bright”. This was fine writing. “Well, I’m glad to hear you talk this way, / you know I’ve watched you riding every day / and something in me yearns to win / such a cold and lonesome heroine.” So here is a suitor, bold enough to make his feelings known to her. “ ‘And who are you?’ she sternly spoke / to the one beneath the smoke. / ‘Why, I’m fire,’ he replied, / ‘And I love your solitude, I love your pride.’” The trademark la-la-laa-la’s kick in here, with even a suggestion of horns, possibly a trombone, evident. It becomes clear this is no straight-forward romantic tale. Fire and Joan are synonymous, so what does Joan say to its personification? “ ‘Then fire, make your body cold, / I’m going to give you mine to hold,’ / saying this she climbed inside / to be his one, to be his only bride.” It’s great allegory, a sort of medieval tale. “And deep into his fiery heart / he took the dust of Joan of Arc, / and high above the wedding guests / he hung the ashes of her wedding dress.” The story continues. “It was deep into his fiery heart / he took the dust of Joan of Arc, / and then she clearly understood / if he was fire, oh then she must be wood.” But naturally, the reality was far removed from this hallucination, as Joan was burnt to a crisp. Cohen is back in speaking mode, his voice again hauntingly mellow: “I saw her wince, I saw her cry, / I saw the glory in her eye. / Myself I long for love and light, / but must it come so cruel, and oh so bright?” To the backing of horns, the song la-la-laa’s to its conclusion.

This was an epochal album, one of the great events in the history of modern music. The poetry alone makes it immortal. The music adds just that much more to the package. Leonard Cohen, at this time in the early 1970s, was one of the most powerful forces in rock music. Let that not be forgotten, all of you who would dismiss him as dull and depressing.

Live Songs

In 1973, when I was in my penultimate year at school, Live Songs was released. It was an intriguing insight into Cohen as a live performer, something we in TV-less South Africa had not seen. The cover was typically low-key, with Cohen, his hair cropped convict short, puffing on a cheroot, his right hand on his belt, his sleeves rolled up to just below the elbows, revealing hairy forearms. He is thin, almost gaunt, and seems to be standing in a tiled cloakroom. The song titles and other information are printed alongside him. On the back is a manila envelope out of which emerges a sheet of paper with the words of a poem, Transfiguration. It is a searing bit of writing about sexuality from Daphne Richardson (1939-72).

A compilation of live recordings from concerts, mainly in Europe, in 1970 and 1972, the album comprises reworkings of some of his best-known songs thus far, along with a few new ones, both weird and the wonderful.

But let’s see what Wikipedia can add. As can be gleaned from the cover, the songs were recorded live in 1970 and 1972 in London, Brussels, Paris, Berlin, the Isle of Wight and in a room in Tennessee. Bob Johnston was again the producer – and he plays guitar and harmonica on the 1970 tracks and organ on the 1972 songs.

Cohen’s fourth album, Live Songs sees him backed by “a medium-sized, country-influenced group, with includes guitarist/fiddler Charlie Daniels and vocalist ‘Jennifer Warren’, who would soon become famous as Jennifer Warnes …”

Ah yes and Wikipedia is right to note that the songs are “reinterpretations (often with additional or significantly altered lyrics)” of songs from Songs From A Room. And there is also a cover version, which I guess was rare for Cohen. It seems Dick Blakeslee’s Passing Through was an “undergraduate folk standard” at the time.

Having just given the album a spin, I was struck by the definite buzz at these Cohen concerts, and by the more spontaneous, often improvised nature of some of the songs. With such great musicians backing him, Cohen must have revelled in working with them. Yet, for all that, the songs are tight, compact entities. You never get a sense that there are wasted minutes, even seconds, on this album. Accompanying Cohen’s acoustic guitar during 1972 was Ron Cornelius’s acoustic and electric guitars, Peter Marshal’s stand-up and electric bass, David O’Connor also on acoustic guitar and Bob Johnston on organ. Joining Jennifer Warren on backing vocals was Donna Washburn.

Side 1 comprises six tracks all recorded in Europe in 1972, and starts with Minute Prologue, which actually lasts 1:12 minutes, and was recorded in London. Imagine watching the maestro, his guitar slow and mournful, as he launches that voice into the mike and transfixes his audience. “I’ve been listening. / To all the dissention. / I’ve been listening / To all the pain. / And I feel that no matter / What I do for you, / It’s going to come back again. / But I think that I can heal it, / But I think that I can heal it, / I’m a fool, but I think I can heal it / With this song.” This is just how I’d like a Cohen concert to start – even if this wasn’t the start of that concert. A previously unheard bit of magic.

Then that cover of Passing Through, also recorded in London. Cohen’s acoustic guitar powers ahead at some speed, with the female backing vocals and bass filling things in from the first chorus. I’m actually sorry to hear this is not a Cohen original, but then I guess he did not normally deal in such overtly political themes. “I saw Jesus on the cross on a hill called Calvary / ‘Do you hate mankind for what they’ve done to you?’ / He said, ‘Talk of love not hate, things to do – it’s getting late. / I’ve so little time and I’m only passing through.” The chorus: “Passing through, passing through. / Sometimes happy, sometimes blue, / glad that I ran into you. / Tell the people that you saw me passing through.” Then that charismatic little aside to his fellow musicians: “Come a little closer, friends.” With an acoustic lead guitar adding depth, the strumming gets more assertive as the song progresses, with handclapping even accompanying the chorus. “I saw Adam leave the Garden with an apple in his hand, / I said ‘Now you’re out, what are you gonna do?’ / ‘Plant some crops and pray for rain, maybe raise a little Cain. / I’m an orphan now, and I’m only passing through.’” After the chorus, a bit of American history: “I was with Washington at Valley Forge, shivering in the snow. / I said, ‘How come the men here suffer like they do?’ / ‘Men will suffer, men will fight, even die for what is right / even though they know they’re only passing through’.” Fast-forward to the Second World War. “I was at Franklin Roosevelt’s side on the night before he died. / He said, ‘One world must come out of World War Two’ (ah, the fool) / ‘Yankee, Russian, white or tan,’ he said, ‘A man is still a man. / We’re all on one road, and we’re only passing through’.” The song ends with that chorus repeated amidst enthusiastic audience support.

I find it interesting that European audiences, for whom English was not their first language, would be such big fans of English-speaking rock stars. Yet clearly they have been avid followers of the likes of Cohen. The slow acoustic guitar opening to You Know Who I Am is warmly applauded by the Brussels crowd. A second acoustic guitar and string bass, playing in the upper registers, registers pleasingly, while the thin, haunting strains of Johnston’s organ adds to the mix. Finally, THAT voice flows across the audience. “I cannot follow you, my love, / you cannot follow me. / I am the distance you put between / all of the moments that we will be. / You know who I am, / you’ve stared at the sun, / well I am the one who loves / changing from nothing to one.” While I believe the lyrics are the same as the original, the next verse does assume a deeper significance when expressed live in concert. “Sometimes I need you naked, / sometimes I need you wild, / I need you to carry my children in / and I need you to kill a child.”

Cohen opens the fourth track, recorded in Paris, with his distinctive picked acoustic guitar sound, before speaking the opening line of Bird On The Wire in French. A second acoustic lead guitar, warm rounded bass and those female backing vocals kick in soon after he starts singing. Lead electric guitar and organ later flesh out the picture, with the end of the song being met with rapturous applause.

The fifth track, Nancy, was another London recording, with Wikipedia noting that it is a version of Seems So Long Ago, Nancy. Again, the combination of instruments and voices make this another tour de force, before the side is concluded with a 3:17 minute instrumental, Improvisation, recorded in Paris. This, says Wikipedia, is “an extended instrumental guitar trio version of the vamp from You Know Who I Am”. Rich in textures, it is a sublime bit of music, with Johnston’s organ soaring nicely near the end.

Having lived in a global “hot-spot” – South Africa under apartheid – I have always felt an affinity for the people of Berlin, their city divided by a wall that separated the forces of freedom and tyranny. How the West Berliners must have lapped up that 1972 concert at which the first track on Side 2, Story Of Isaac, was recorded.

Cohen prefaces the song by saying something to the effect that the song is about “those who would sacrifice one generation on behalf of another”. The words must have resonated strongly with that beleaguered community. That soft organ sound again gives this song a fresh dimension, and the crowd applaud wildly at its conclusion.

Then, recorded in London in 1970, comes a song which Cohen clearly later felt a trifle ashamed of. Please Don’t Pass Me By (A Disgrace), was actually a masterful piece of entertainment, as the normally tightly controlled Cohen lets his hair down. And at 13 minutes it is also something of a massive jam session, with the lead guitarist, Ron Cornelius, certainly enjoying himself. Happily I have found the lyrics, including the long spoken sections, which had us transfixed as teenagers. “I was walking in New York City and I brushed up against the man in front of me. I felt a cardboard placard on his back. And when we passed a streetlight, I could read it, it said ‘Please don’t pass me by - I am blind, but you can see – I’ve been blinded totally - Please don’t pass me by.’ I was walking along 7th Avenue, when I came to 14th Street I saw on the corner curious mutilations of the human form; it was a school for handicapped people. And there were cripples, and people in wheelchairs and crutches and it was snowing, and I got this sense that the whole city was singing this:” At this point he starts to strum that guitar. “Oh please don’t pass me by, / oh please don’t pass me by, / for I am blind, but you can see, / yes, I’ve been blinded totally, / oh please don’t pass me by.” The full band has got in on the act by now, as Cohen resumes his intriguing monologue. “And you know as I was walking I thought it was them who were singing it, I thought it was they who were singing it, I thought it was the other who was singing it, I thought it was someone else. But as I moved along I knew it was me, and that I was singing it to myself. It went … Please don’t pass me by …” And so the chorus is repeated. Then he addresses the audience itself. “Now I know that you’re sitting there deep in your velvet seats and you’re thinking ‘Uh, he’s up there saying something that he thinks about, but I’ll never have to sing that song.’ But I promise you friends, that you’re going to be singing this song: it may not be tonight, it may not be tomorrow, but one day you’ll be on your knees and I want you to know the words when the time comes. Because you’re going to have to sing it to yourself, or to another, or to your brother. You’re going to have to learn to sing this song, it goes …” Increasingly frenzied, the chorus is repeated. Then things get even more controversial. “Well I sing this for the Jews and the Gypsies and the smoke that they made. And I sing this for the children of England, their faces so grave. And I sing this for a saviour with no one to save. Hey, won’t you be naked for me? Hey, won’t you be naked for me? It goes … please …” After the chorus is again rendered, he continues: “Now there’s nothing that I tell you that will help you connect the blood-tortured night with the day that comes next. But I want it to hurt you, I want it to end. Oh, won’t you be naked for me? Oh now, please don’t pass me by …” After the chorus, the following: “Well I sing this song for you Blonde Beasts, I sing this song for you Venuses upon your shells on the foam of the sea. And I sing this for the freaks and the cripples, and the hunchback, and the burned, and the burning, and the maimed, and the broken, and the torn, and all of those that you talk about at the coffee tables, at the meetings, and the demonstrations, on the streets, in your music, in my songs. I mean the real ones that are burning, I mean the real ones that are burning.” The chorus is then followed with: “I know that you still think that it’s me. I know that you think that there’s somebody else. I know that these words aren’t yours. But I tell you friends that one day / You’re going to get down on your knees, / you’re going to get down on your knees,…” This is repeated another seven times, before the chorus is again sung. But there’s more. “Well you know I have my songs and I have my poems. I have my books and I have the army, and sometimes I have your applause. I make some money, but you know what my friends, I’m still out there on the corner. I’m with the freaks, I’m with the hunted, I’m with the maimed, yes I’m with the torn, I’m with the down, I’m with the poor. Come on now ...” With that lead guitar and organ churning up the turbulence, the chorus is again sung before this: “Now I want to take away my dignity, yes take my dignity. My friends, take my dignity, take my form, take my style, take my honour, take my courage, take my time, take my time ... time … ’Cause you know I’m with you singing this song. And I wish you would, I wish you would, I wish you would go home with someone else. Wish you’d go home with someone else. I wish you’d go home with someone else. Don’t be the person that you came with. Oh, don’t be the person that you came with, Oh don’t be the person that you came with. Ah, I’m not going to be. I can’t stand him. I can’t stand who I am. That’s why I’ve got to get down on my knees. Because I can’t make it by myself. I’m not by myself anymore because the man I was before he was a tyrant, he was a slave, he was in chains, he was broken and then he sang: Oh, please don’t pass me by, / oh, please don’t pass me by, / for I am blind, yes I am blind, Oh but you can see, / yes, I’ve been blinded totally, / oh, please don’t pass me by.” Then the conclusion. “Well I hope I see you out there on the corner. Yeah I hope as I go by that I hear you whisper with the breeze. Because I’m going to leave you now, I’m going to find me someone new. Find someone new. / And please don’t pass me by.” It was an extraordinary performance. I wonder if he did literally get down on his knees, acting out the sentiments he was expressing.

Charlie Daniels’s fiddle comes much to the fore on the penultimate track, Tonight Will Be Fine, which was recorded at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, which was where Hendrix had his swansong. Imagine this huge crowd and there is Cohen picking away on his mega-amplified acoustic guitar. “Sometimes I find I get to thinking of the past …” Then, as the song progresses, both banjo and fiddle kick in alongside the bass, creating one of the great Cohen classics, including as it does some new verses not found on the original. And of course those new verses were like magical gifts to us – additions to a masterpiece by the master himself. And naturally they were pure poetic wizardry. “I’ve looked into the mirrors in numberless places, / they all smile back at me with their troublesome faces. / And the cards that they dealt me, there weren’t any aces, / and the horses never listen to me at the races.” Still, he finds redemption in his lady. “But I know from your eyes / and I know from your pretty little smile / that tonight, tonight will be fine, / will be fine, will be fine, will be fine / for a while.” Then another new verse. “There’s still one or two of us walking the street, / no arrows of direction painted under our feet, / no angels to warn us away from the heat, / and no honey to keep us where it is sweet.” Despite this foreboding reality, those eyes and that smile hold the promise of some respite, even if just for a while.

The last track, Queen Victoria, was recorded in that hotel room in Tennessee, and features Cohen alone backed by his acoustic guitar. It is also one of the great poetic pieces of his oeuvre. With the bass notes struck solidly, the song is a slow, mournful piece in which Cohen somewhat speaks, somewhat sings his tribute to the 19th century British monarch who defined an era. “Queen Victoria, my father and all his tobacco loved you / I love you too in all your forms / The slim and lovely virgin floating among German beer / The mean governess of the huge pink maps / The solitary mourner of a prince.” Was she a young German virgin at one time? Certainly she did at her peak control an empire that straddled the globe. “Queen Victoria, I am cold and rainy / I am dirty as a glass roof in a train station / I feel like an empty cast iron exhibition / I want ornaments on everything / Because my love, she gone with other boys.” So here she is a queen to whom one brings one’s woes. “Queen Victoria, do you have a punishment under the white lace / Will you be short with her? / Will you make her read those little Bibles / Will you spank her with a mechanical corset? / I want her pure as power, I want her skin slightly musty with petticoats / Will you wash the easy bidet out of her head?” Whatever that’s about, it certainly is odd and slightly kinky. “Queen Victoria, I’m not much nourished by modern love / Will you come into my life, with your sorrow and your black carriages / And your perfect memories?” Here he seems to extend her reign beyond its natural term. “Queen Victoria, the twentieth century belongs to you and me / Let us be two severe giants not less lonely for our partnership / Who discolour test tubes in the halls of science / Who turn up unwelcome at every world’s fair / Heavy with proverbs and corrections / Confusing the star-dazed tourists / With our incomparable sense of loss.” Again, it takes a one-off genius like Cohen to even think of doing something like this. And full praise to his producer and the record company for running with it.

New Skin for the Old Ceremony

My interest in Leonard Cohen’s new work waned from about this time, although we kept listening to those first four albums avidly for the next few years. Thus it was that in my matric year, 1974, New Skin for the Old Ceremony passed me by, apart, that is, for a snigger at the circumcisional reference.

Of course now I would dearly love to hear it, since it clearly contains more classic Cohen cuts, like Chelsea Hotel #2, which evidently relates the story of a sexual encounter with Janis Joplin, which he later denied. There is another Joplin connection. She sings a duet with Cohen on Who By Fire, which explores Cohen’s Jewish Roots. Joplin was Jewish too, her birth name being Janis Eddy Fink. I almost said she was christened …, which would have been nearly as bad as Oom Paul Kruger, the president of the old Transvaal Republic, who is said to have opened a synagogue in Johannesburg with the words, “I now, in the name of Jesus Christ, declare this synagogue open”. This album is said to include violas, mandolins, banjos, guitars, percussion and other instruments, giving it a more orchestrated, yet still simple, sound. It’s cover evidently raised temperatures, as it featured a rather sexual image of two winged beings, presumably angels.

Death of a Ladies’ Man

I picked up a copy of the 1977 disaster, Death of a Ladies’ Man, sometime in the 1980s. The cover looked auspicious. Cohen, fag in hand, is seated at a table between two beautiful brunettes. Surely this was going to be the definitive Cohen on matters sexual. Not a bit of it. Produced by Phil Spector, inventor of the “wall of sound” technique in which songs are backed with thick layers of instrumentation, to my mind the album is more about the death of the Cohen sound. I am not surprised to learn that Cohen was unhappy with the mix. Wikipedia says things got so fraught Spector even once threatened him at gunpoint. Cohen is quoted as describing the end result as “grotesque”, but also, paradoxically, “semi-virtuous”, whatever that means.

What also irks me is that Spector shares the songwriting credits with Cohen. How bizarre. What self-respecting poet would allow that to happen? But I can see how, in the context of an over-bearing producer, you can be brow-beaten into accepting changes to your original songs such that in the end you relinquish total ownership of them. Wikipedia says 15 songs were written by the two over three weeks, with Spector seeing it as “some great fuckin’ music”. The album includes jazz, rock and funk-based arrangements totally at odds with Cohen’s work up till that point.

As if to mitigate the disaster, we are told that Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg sang backing vocals on the chorus of Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On, the sort of punny title that, to my mind, is way beneath Cohen.

While I have this album, I’d prefer not to go back to it. Suffice it to say this was not something Cohen fans would relish.

Recent Songs

Fast forward a few years and in 1979, while I am starting two years’ national service, Cohen brings out Recent Songs, of which I was pretty well oblivious until I bought it on a sale, on CD, in the 1990s.

Thankfully, Cohen was right back on track, having dispensed with the Spector spectre. Although an acoustic folk album, it does have interesting jazz and even oriental flavours. Most interesting is the inclusion of gypsy violin player Raffi Hakopian and an Armenian oud player, John Bilezikjian. There is even a Mexican Mariachi band. Garth Hudson of The Band also appears on the album.

But, enjoyable as this album is, for me it belongs to the present, not that glorious past, when we first got into the first works of Leonard Cohen and he, willy nilly, shaped our lives, for better or for much better.

Leonard Cohen, unlike all the other great folk singers of the era, was first a writer and a poet. And, thankfully, in his transition to becoming a performer he did not prostitute his literary idealism, because it is that beautiful command of the English language which set him apart and made him, for me, one of the most powerful figures of the period.

Later years

However, it would be unfair for us just to leave him here, having caused such a stir in the global rock air. There was, of course, much more life to be lived.

Wikipedia observes that in 1984, Cohen’s next album, Various Positions, was not released by Columbia in the US as his “popularity had declined in previous years”. But a Jennifer Warnes tribute album, Famous Blue Raincoat, “helped restore Cohen’s career in the US, and in the following year he released I’m Your Man, which marked a drastic change in his music”. Wikipedia says the album is marked by the use of synthesizers, social commentary and dark humour. It became his “most acclaimed and popular” since Songs of Leonard Cohen, and is clearly worth a listen. I’ve not heard the single, First We Take Manhattan, or the title song, which became “his most popular songs”, although Wikipedia adds that “citation (is) needed” for this claim.

Remember, this guy was born back in 1934, so in the 1990s he is already in his late 50s. But he was still hard at it, releasing the album, The Future, in 1992. This album, says Wikipedia, “urges (often in terms of biblical prophecy) perseverance, reformation and hope in the face of grim prospects”. Interestingly, three tracks off the album feature in the movie Natural Born Killers, which I now must see. The lyrics of the title track prophesy “impending political and social collapse” and were said to be his response to unrest in Los Angeles in 1992. And he’s evidently scathing of Americans’ isolationist tendency, saying in Democracy: “I’m neither left nor right / I’m just staying home tonight / getting lost in that hopeless little screen.”

In 1994, the year he turned 60, says Wikipedia, Cohen retreated to the Mt Baldy Zen Centre in LA for what became five years of seclusion. In 1996 he was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk, taking the Dharma name, Jikan, which means silence. He left the centre in 1999. Shades, I suppose, of Cat Stevens.

Well into his 60s as the new millennium unfolded, in 2001 he released Ten New Songs, which was “heavily influenced” by producer and co-composer Sharon Robinson, says Wikipedia. The album clearly reflects his age as it seeks “acceptance of varieties of personal loss: the approach of death and the departure of love, romantic and even divine”. The album, adds Wikipedia, “may rank as his most melancholic”.

In 2004 he turned 70, and in October of that year he released Dear Heather. This, says Wikipedia, is “largely a musical collaboration with jazz chanteuse (and current romantic partner Anjani Thomas”. However, Robinson does collaborate on three tracks, including a duet. His depression having “lifted in recent years” – attributed to the aid of Zen Buddhism – the album is lighter than its predecessor. Nonetheless, it was seen as experimental and playful, a “kind of notebook or scrapbook of themes”, as he reportedly explained later.

In 2006, he released, with co-writer Anjani, Blue Alert, “to positive reviews”, says Wikipedia. Anjani does the singing and “sounds like Cohen reincarnated as woman”, according to a reviewer quoted by Wikipedia.

And just to remind us that he was first and foremost a poet, a book of poetry and drawings, Book of Longing, was published in May 2006. It “quickly topped bestseller lists in Canada”.

Incredibly, in January 2008, he launched his first concert tour in 15 years, at the age of 73. Widely acclaimed, it took him through Canada and Europe and lasted well into 2009. A CD/DVD called Live in London has been released. Wikipedia says when he played at the Glastonbury Festival on June 29, his performance “was hailed by many as the highlight of the festival”, which only goes to show that there is no keeping a global rock legend down. They just seem to get better with age, and today’s youth is forced to acknowledge that, even as they see these aged characters with their grey, balding heads and stooped bodies.

His tour also took him to Australia and New Zealand, where again he was a huge hit, according to Wikipedia.

In March, 2008, he was also inducted into the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in recognition of his status among the “highest and most influential echelon of songwriters”. While it passed me by, Wikipedia says in December 2008 his song, Hallelujah, was at No 1 and 2 in the UK Christmas singles charts, albeit versions by X Factor winner Alexandra Burke and Jeff Buckley respectively. Cohen’s version reached No 36.

In February 2009 he played his first US concert in 15 years in New York, while also playing at other successful festivals. After the killer bush fires in Victoria, Australia, he donated $200 000 to support those hardest hit.

Palestinian activists halted a concert in Ramallah because he had also scheduled a show in Tel Aviv, his first in Israel since 1975. A total of 47 000 tickets for this show sold in 24 hours. The proceeds were earmarked for peace groups aiding those affected on both sides of the conflict. Amnesty International later withdrew its involvement. It is not clear whether the concert eventually went ahead.

As far as I know, Cohen is still going strong. While totally inadequate, I hope this tribute to his influence and impact on a generation or three will inspire young and old to explore the wonderful work he has produced in a long and prolific lifetime.


2 comments:

p said...

very interesting blog!

saffron_et420 said...

I agree, Leonard Cohen is misunderstood. I love his melancholy songs and his dry sense of humor that seems to take some people by surprise.

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