Songs From A Room

Posted on November 28, 2006


By Darran Anderson

“I followed the course
From chaos to art
Desire the horse
Depression the cart.”

– Leonard Cohen, The Book of Longing

“Give me a Leonard Cohen afterlife
So I can sigh eternally.”

– Kurt Cobain, ‘Pennyroyal Tea’

The “patron saint of envy.” The “grocer of despair.” Lovelorn poet of all the sweet and cruel machinations of the heart, sitting “comfortably in the bonfire of desire,” slipping between the sheets and whispering sweet nothings into the ears of all your girlfriends while you’re at work. Steeped in literary antecedents from the Song of Solomon to the surrealist-tinged sorrows of Garcia Lorca, with an acute ear for devastating turns of phrase and the subtle nuances of poetry, his is a voice in the wilderness and a voice from a city on the plains, at once saintly and debauched, singing the hymns of the fallen. By any standards Leonard Cohen is the man.

While the West was frothing at the gob over the manoeuvrings of Elvis’ crotch, Cohen was heading eastwards and away from modernity, bound for the sublime islands of the Greek Aegean. Seeking inspiration he used an inheritance from his grandmother to buy a 200 year-old three-story house, shining white amidst the beautiful fishing island of Hydra. Far from electricity and automobiles and Pop Art, the oil light and the solitude, the wine and the music of the islands seeped into his bones. You can hear it in the lyrics he began to write there, too simple and lucid for the gimmicks and flurries of the modern world, delicate and European, belonging to another age like the photographs of Roman Vishniac, posters of El Quatre Gats, stories of golems.

Seven years he spent there, swimming, sailing, drinking and singing with the locals as they had for centuries. All the while writing. It was on Hydra he met his first muse the beautiful Marianne Kenson and her son Axel. Later he would write (in the poem ‘Days of Kindness’) of the times as a glorious lost age that he had to leave behind:

“What I loved in my old life
I haven’t forgotten
It lives in my spine
Marianne and the child
The days of kindness
It rises in my spine
And it manifests as tears
I pray that a loving memory
Exists for them too
The precious ones I overthrew
For an education in the world.”

The fruits of this idyllic exile were plentiful. He’d already written a poetry collection Let Us Compare Mythologies at the age of 22, soon to be joined by The Spice Box Of Earth and Flowers For Hitler. Upon his return to his native Canada he completed two critically acclaimed novels: The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers. “James Joyce is not dead,” the Boston Globe serenaded somewhat bizarrely, “He is living in Montreal under the name of Cohen.” Begging the question if that wasn’t Joyce they buried in Zurich what poor bastard was it?

Returning to North America disillusioned by the hand-to-mouth existence of the writer and enthused by his pilgrimage, Cohen set off from New York’s Chelsea Hotel into the world of songwriting and licentiousness. It was no great leap as some might imagine. His heroes Lorca, King David, Blake and the Romantics were poets whose songs were meant to be sung. Schooled in scripture by his Rabbi grandfather, he had grown up in a household where Yiddish and Russian folksongs, ancient forms of oral storytelling, were commonplace. For Cohen the complete divorce of poetry from music was an unnatural one.

His debut The Songs Of Leonard Cohen would be the classic template for which he would be known, full of wistful folk ballads, songs of melancholic yearning and coital lustings, with his graveyard rumble of a voice and bare acoustic accompaniment heightened by celestial backing vocals. The curious thing is, despite entering the public consciousness with ‘Suzanne’, ‘Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’ and ‘So Long Marianne’, he never made an album like it again. The relative innocence of those first moments would not last nor could they. Yet with the loss of virtue would come more interesting, shadowy tones. By the third album Songs Of Love And Hate the melancholy had slipped into near-malevolence and the darkness had rolled in. Thick with betrayal the songs are dispatches from the night-side of love from the lonesome magic realism of ‘Last Year’s Man’ to the most sinister, complex of love songs ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ culminating with ‘Joan Of Arc’ burning at the stake:

“‘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.”

The honeymoon was well and truly over.

Between the two extremes is arguably his finest work Songs From A Room, an elegiac existential album bound together by a strange timeless bohemian atmosphere, songs that sound like they could have been sung in the fin-de-siecle bars of Montmartre back when the world was black and white. Detached from what was going on to the west his work took on an appealing outsider quality. There are no clumsy protest songs or embarrassing flower people nonsense in Cohen’s Sixties works precisely because, to all intents and purposes, he was in another century when he began to write them. You can hear in the maturity and grace of his lines that he has lived and that he has forged a certain wisdom far enough from the whirlwind.

Interpreted by a host of artists, the opening track ‘Bird On The Wire’ has become one of his most successful and recognisable songs, perhaps a misleadingly conventional entrance to an otherwise lo-fi album. With it’s extraordinary opening line “Like a bird on the wire / like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried in my way to be free,” the track was a Hydra song born from Cohen’s frustrations and joys there, “It was begun in Greece because there were no wires on the island where I was living to a certain moment. There were no telephone wires. There were no telephones. There was no electricity. So at a certain point they put in these telephone poles, and you wouldn’t notice them now, but when they first went up, it was about all I did – stare out the window at these telephone wires and think, how civilisation had caught up with me. I wasn’t going to be able to escape after all. I wasn’t going to be able to live this eleventh-century life that I had thought I had found for myself. So that was the beginning. Then, of course, I noticed that birds came to the wires and that was how that song began. “Like a drunk in a midnight choir,” that’s also set on the island. Where drinkers, me included, would come up the stairs. There was great tolerance among the people for that because it could be in the middle of the night. You’d see three guys with their arms around each other, stumbling up the stairs and singing these impeccable thirds. So that image came from the island: “Like a drunk in a midnight choir.”

Protest songs are notoriously difficult to pull off. You can start off with the best of intentions and end up nauseatingly earnest. Bono, Sting, Phil Collins, Chris Martin, all those millionaires against poverty, the gallery of the grotesque is endless. The only songs that are ultimately successful are those that subvert the clichés and, like say ‘The Crucible’, approach the subject from an unexpected angle. Nothing dates more than pontificating. With the eerie ‘Story Of Isaac’ Cohen created a prescient biblical allegory that applies just as much with the bloodbath in Iraq as it did originally with Vietnam. It’s by his admission not a plea for peace but a plea for sanity albeit one that pulled no punches, portraying the traditional emblem of the eagle as a symbol of America as being indistinguishable from a vulture. Much of the weight of his words come from their haiku-like simplicity, a supreme example of less is more, songs that speak softly but carry a big stick. Resurrecting the shattered myths of European Jewish culture he highlights how, like Abraham, the elders of America were, and still are, prepared to sacrifice the youth for some warped idea of what is sacred. “This is… about that curious place where the generations often meet,” he once said of the song, “an altar or a butcher’s block.”

“I sing this for the crickets” he announced in ‘A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes’ a curious tangent to the rest of the album with its overdubbed electric guitar and drums. It’s a cul-de-sac but a diverting one at that, rising to a stirring crescendo reminiscent of Dylan and The Band‘s “wild mercury sound.”

“So a long time ago, your grandfathers and my grandfathers were engaged in some kind of conflict. Nothing much remains of that conflict except some snow and some paperweights, and some old songs. This is one of the songs that seem to persist.” So he introduced a live performance of ‘The Partisan’ one night in Germany. It’s an enchanting song as spellbinding as it is dark, hailing, “from a happier time when we knew who the enemy was.”

He was more light-hearted when he described, in the sleeve notes for an early Best Of, how he discovered the track, “I learned this from a friend when I was 15. He was 17. His father was a union organizer. We were working at a camp in Ste Margeite, Quebec. We sang together every morning, going through the People’s Song Book from cover to cover. I developed the curious notion that the Nazis were overthrown by music.”

A genuine French Resistance hymn, based on the poem ‘La Complainte du Partisan’ by Emmanuel D’Astier, (saboteur, underground journalist and Commissioner to the Interior of the Free French), the song has an inevitable resonance when sung by Cohen. It’s impossible to listen to the otherwise beautiful song, in alternate English and French verse, without thinking of those lost in the struggle against the Nazis, souls like the poet Robert Desnos, Marc Bloch, Gabrielle Weidner, Jean Moulin. You get images of the last stand of the Maquisards in the ghost republic of Vercors, the slaughter of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, the deportation camp of Drancy and because of his Hebrew background you think of the lost Jews of Europe and how they left this world.

From the macrocosm to the microcosm, from millions of graves to one. ‘It Seems So Long Ago Nancy’ is a coronach, an obituary, a tomb of song: “This is a song for a girl named Nancy who was a real girl, who went into the bathroom of her father’s house, took her brother’s shotgun and blew her head off. Age of 21. Maybe this is an arrogant thing to say, but maybe she did it because there weren’t enough people saying what I’ve been saying.”

Her name was Nancy Challies, the darkest and most lost of all Cohen’s muses. Suffering from depression, having given her child up for adoption, she committed suicide and was evoked in this chilling nocturne. There are ghosts in those echoes, in the mournful church organ, in the penitent lyrics,

We told her she was beautiful
We told her she was free
But none of us would meet her in
The House of Mystery.

A contender for the strongest song on the album, the meaning of ‘The Old Revolution’ is shrouded in mystery. “I fought in the old revolution / on the side of the Ghost and the King,” suggests the Spanish Civil War while “to all of my architects let me be traitor” and the chorus “into this furnace I ask you now to venture” implies perhaps the fate of the Old Bolsheviks in the time of Stalin. It could well be simply about love, the odd human desire for happiness in a form of servitude, “I finally broke into the prison / I found my place in the chain.” Whatever it’s subject the ambiguity makes it all the more absorbing.

The darkest moment, and an indicator of where he was heading with his next album, comes with ‘The Butcher’. A harrowing tale of addiction, as bleak as ‘Death Disco’ or anything on The Plastic Ono Band, there’s no lessons or morals here, “I found a silver needle / put it into my arm / did some good / did some harm / but the night was cold / and it almost kept me warm / how come the night is long?” This is addiction exposed in the cold light of day, all the layers of judgement or explanation stripped away, raw and desperate as a Giacometti sculpture or a Francis Bacon triptych. It’s a chill wind of a song.

Free of the self-righteousness that capsizes lesser singer-songwriters, when Cohen sings of love you suspect for all his enamoured wonder he’s got the devil in him. It’s evident in the epiphanies that lie like quiet snares in his songs. ‘You Know Who I Am’ is exemplary attic music, coiling around itself with its hints of the unattainable “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,” and it’s hints of the terrible, “I need you to carry my children in / and I need you to kill a child.” It’s the wolf in sheep’s clothing, Byron masquerading as Yeats.

Ultimately if there is one thing to be gauged from Cohen’s entire career it’s the fact that the spiritual and the erotic are not opposites but are intertwined and dependent on each other for existence and sustenance. He’s an iconoclast riddled with faith. ‘Lady Midnight’ is one such poetic example, at once godly and earthly,

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.’

The final song, ‘Tonight Will Be Fine’ is the sting in the tail, a deceptively jaunty tune that frames Cohen as a romantic with the soul of a cynic. No happy ever afters, all is doomed to fail eventually, “tonight will be fine…for a while.” Even in his more sanguine moments you always get the feeling the danse macabre is not far from the surface.

Beyond the monochrome album sleeve, as stark and unadorned as the music, lays one final mystery. Whether a last minute omission or a pressing mistake, an unreleased song ‘Priests’ is listed on the sheet music, it would appear in the following years covered by Judy Collins and Richie Havens, another enigmatic message smuggled from the dark side of romance,

And who will write love songs for you
when I am lord at last
and your body is some little highway shrine
that all my priests have passed,
that all my priests have passed

It would be the 1980’s before the tide would turn for Cohen. Until then he was ignored by critics in favour of the Peter Framptons of this cruel world or dismissed as music to slit your wrists to. After punk though a change occurred. A Pandora’s box of everything dark and angry and visceral had been unleashed, changing the landscape of music. People no longer admired the yachts and palm tree singer-songwriters of California or the baroque pomposities of the prog rockers, seeing them as distant, privileged, lacking passion, experience of the real world and anything worth hearing. The days of “no future” had eradicated the sunny false promises and people turned to the other prophets, the darker ones who history had forgot, the doomsayers. Some of these were living, or as in Ian Curtis‘ case alive for the time being, others were already dead. One of the most unlikely was reinventing himself as a cabaret singer from some unwritten Brecht play, still singing his night music in his beaten voice, one who never got old and boring, one who was always punk in his bravery, having no embellishments, no tricks, just a human voice, a guitar, a Jews Harp.

In the preceding years he’d stared into the abyss with Songs of Love and Hate and had rode out the turbulence touring the Holy Lands at the height of the Yom Kippur War. He returned with the eclectic, criminally underrated New Skin For An Old Ceremony with its broaden musical armoury and its highlights the psalm ‘Who By Fire’, the surreal autobiography ‘Field Commander Cohen’, the poignant ‘Take This Longing’ and the sombre, beautiful ‘Chelsea Hotel No 2’, his memoir of his times with Janis Joplin, “giving me head on the unmade bed, while the limousines wait in the street…told me again you preferred handsome men but for me you could make an exception.”

The follow-up, Death of a Ladies’ Man was the sound of a man at the edge, an album raked by misgivings and anxieties, a nervous breakdown accompanied by a string quartet. The presence of the hermitic Phil Spector at the production helm did little to help matters. “I was flipped out at the time and he certainly was flipped out,” Cohen recalled. “For me, the expression was withdrawal and melancholy, and for him, megalomania and insanity and a devotion to armaments that was really intolerable. In the state that he found himself, which was post-Wagnerian, I would say Hitlerian, the atmosphere was one of guns – the music was a subsidiary enterprise … At a certain point Phil approached me with a bottle of kosher red wine in one hand and a .45 in the other, put his arm around my shoulder and shoved the revolver into my neck and said, ‘Leonard, I love you.’ I said, ‘I hope you do, Phil.'”

Thankfully the only thing Spector murdered that day was the music, overdosing the songs with layers of strings, echo, sleigh bells. It’s Liberace strung out on crack yet somewhere in the syrup you can sense there’s a great album struggling to get out. A prime example is ‘Paper-Thin Hotel’. It’s a spit in the face of beauty, the final proof that the days of love are numbered. Gone is the young gypsy romantic, in his place a bitter broken libertine with his ear pressed against the hotel wall, listening to his former lover fucking someone else, <em."I felt so good I couldn't feel a thing… In fact a burden lifted from my soul / I heard that love was out of my control."

By the time you got to ‘Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On’, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was the end, that Cohen had settled for burning out or disintegrating rather than growing old. But there was life in the old dog yet. With Recent Songs, Various Positions and I’m Your Man he made the transition from young waif to decadent prophet. The poetry remained, perhaps it was never better than the latter album’s ‘Hallelujah’, but it was now joined with synths and drum machines rather than flamenco arpeggios. The Future was a full-blown modern classic, the soaring elegance of ‘Anthem’ (“There is a crack / a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in”) weighed against the apocalyptic forecasts of the title track,

Give me back the Berlin wall
Give me Stalin and St Paul
I’ve seen the future, brother:
It is murder.

At which point the future discovered him. A new generation exploring the dusty album collections of their forebears unearthed him and canonisation followed. There were covers by R.E.M., The Pixies, Jeff Buckley, John Cale, Will Oldham and Johnny Cash, citations from Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails and a whole generation of alt-country and folk musicians. That’s his music blowing through Natural Born Killers, Basquiat, Breaking The Waves. One film alone, Lian Lunson‘s remarkable I’m Your Man, features tribute performances from the likes of Nick Cave, The Handsome Family, Jarvis Cocker, Rufus and Martha Wainwright and Beth Orton.

You often hear it said that his songs are depressing. Admittedly they’re not ‘Mamma Mia’. And in some lights they can get pretty fucking miserable. Yet it has its humour, self-deprecation, sly winks that many miss. It may not a barrel of laughs but neither are David Lynch films. Or The Seventh Seal. Or The Godfather. Or The Bible. And consider the hellish world of gleeful tunes; a world where Corinne Bailey Rae and Jamiroquai are held in high regard and music without an edge, fucking music latte, rules the earth. There’s a deep paradox in humans that equates cheerfulness in song form with smugness and the downbeat with transcendence. It seems you need that element of sorrow to make something truly beautiful. Even the most uplifting Motown or Bacharach tunes have tales of betrayal and loss at their core and are more to do with the regrets and the near misses than the happy ever afters. It’s the preference for ‘Everybody Hurts’ rather than ‘Shiny Happy People’. In Cohen songs of love are x-rayed, illuminating the bare bones with all their tales of fracture and imperfection.

Fuck obituaries, fuck lifetime achievement awards, fuck honorary inductions into Halls of Fame. You can leave those for the vultures. Cohen’s in his 70s now but still crucial, like Milton or Goya continuing to produce vital work in his twilight years and long may he do so. His recent years have been some of his most eventful. He forsook the modern world, went up a mountain to become a Buddhist monk. Jikan “the silent one” they called him. Who knows if he found enlightenment or not but years later he came back to Sin City. With the news that his accountant had siphoned off and spent his life’s earnings (his albums have never been particularly commercially successful) he returned to the mysteries of the heart and soul. “O love, aren’t you tired yet?” he sang in his last album, still reassuringly tormented by the old desires.

Time is fickle, things disappear, but you get the feeling these songs have a life of their own, they’ve seeped in deep and they’ll outlive even the youngest of us. If Keats or Blake have survived you feel Cohen will too. All these songs, these late additions to the Book of the Law, will, like fine wines, get better with age, waiting to be discovered again.


Darran Anderson is an Irish writer. His hobbies include whiskey, rum, vodka and regret.

Posted in: Listening