Feb 142011

In a world that’s already given us Bob Dylan and Dustin Hoffman, why is Leonard Cohen celebrated as a rock ‘n roll treasure?

I enjoy Leonard Cohen in small doses, especially songs from Songs of Leonard Cohen, his debut, which should have been entitled Suzanne and 9 Other Songs That Have Essentially the Same Melody as Suzanne. I like the way his music was used to haunting effect through Robert Altman‘s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. I know he’s a hipster and a lover and a poet and all that. He’s made love to many of rock’s most-beautiful, least-talented hipster women – in candlelight, no less! The jacket he wore during his 1970 Isle of Wight appearance is something I could study for hours. I even get his appeal as a cult artist, but is he actually something more than that? Do you experience a deeper level of appreciation that I’m missing? Should I feel the world would be a better place if the music of Leonard Cohen was running through more people’s heads?


  27 Responses to “Please Explain: Leonard Cohen”

  1. ladymisskirroyale

    Because Tucker Crowe is a fictional character.

  2. pudman13

    I won’t go into too many details, but separating him from his gloom and doom reputation, the guy is just plain a tremendous songwriter who not only can turn a phrase but who can paint fascinating and meaningful pictures. As with a number of other artists I admire, I separate him from his cult and look at the songs and the records, which I continually enjoy. All of his LPs through DEATH OF A LADIES MAN, and also the later I’M YOUR MAN, are as consistently good as any post-Dylan singer-songwriter records I own. Also, his melodies may be sly, but they’re solid, a reason why he looms so much larger than other similarly fascinating lyricists like, for example, Phil Ochs or Dory Previn (both of whom I also really like.)

    As with a lot of singer-songwriters who aren’t exactly dynamic singers, you might develop an appreciation for him by first listening to what other people have done with him. Judy Collins and Jennifer Warnes are good places to start.

  3. misterioso

    I’m with pudman13, except for the last part–I think appreciation of LC starts with LC, and I find Judy Collins unendurable.

    I was in Mod’s camp for many years: sorta kinda liked Cohen but didn’t really see what the big deal was. I started to warm up to the first couple records but what really turned me around was a live cd of him from the BBC in 1968–not overwhelmed by backing singers as on the first record, with his dry and sly humor on display, and all in all, really quite wonderful and beautiful, and I liked almost all of the performances more than the studio versions.

    I’m much more of a Dylan guy, at the end of the day: and it was necessary for me to stop thinking of Cohen in the same framework as Dylan. He’s his own man. Though it seems clear that others wanted him to be a Dylan-substitute, which explains the Isle of Wight thing, which otherwise makes no sense.

    I really like this clip of him on BBC-TV in 1968 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLq7Aqd_H7g and this much later one from the early 90s, I think http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_drEFOaPaK8&feature=related

    But if it is strictly albums you’re after, I think all of them up to Death of a Ladies’ Man reward repeated listening and gain in stature. I think the 80s & 90s records show continued very strong writing but I am not wild about the production in many cases.

  4. Judy Collins’ voice could make me hate my own children:) I’ve heard some of those Jennifer Warnes versions of his songs. I remember them being full of ’80s synths. I much more enjoy hearing Cohen sing his own songs, although I first heard his music through Joe Cocker’s excellent version of “Bird on a Wire.” I guess what I’m looking for here are clues to added depth that I don’t get from the two dozen songs that sound like “Suzanne.”

  5. Thanks to you, too, misterioso. I’ll start with where you and pudman13 have directed me. Looking forward to other avenues for getting by my feeling that he sings the same song over and over and that he’s most interested in bedding the next wide-eyed girl who’s moved by his Hoffman-cum-Dylan magnificence.

  6. BigSteve

    I was a latecomer to Cohen myself. More than any other songwriter I can think of, he’s about the poetry, and the songs are basically a vehicle for poetry. He’s made some good music, but his later albums’ production strip away most of the accompaniment. Music does have a way of driving lyrics into your heart though, and he’s a master at that. I don’t think the Dylan comparison is apt, because Dylan is at least as much about the music as the lyrics.

    I will say also that I saw Cohen play live last year, and he was just amazingly great.

  7. BigSteve

    Regarding Mod’s misgivings, I do think that his great subject is capital L Love, but he does write about other things, notably war, especially in the early 70s when the Vietnam War was on everybody’s mind, but later too. One of his best later songs First We Take Manhattan is about terrorism. And throughout his work there’s a lot about the relationship between Man and God, which is a subject that does not interest many potential listeners.

  8. Should I be troubled in any way by this passage from his Wikipedia page?

    In the 1990s, Cohen was romantically linked to actress Rebecca De Mornay.[79] De Mornay co-produced Cohen’s 1992 album The Future, which is also supposedly dedicated to her with an inscription which quotes Rebecca’s coming to the well from Book of Genesis, 24[80] and giving drink to Eliezer’s camels, after he prayed for the help; Eliezer (“God is my help” in Hebrew) is Cohen’s Hebrew name, as “Leonard” is anglicized version of “Eliezer” and Cohen sometimes referred to himself as “Eliezer Cohen” or even “Jikan Eliezer”[81]

  9. jeangray

    Ugh. Jennifer Warnes.

  10. pudman13

    I don’t see any resemblance of the songs on SONGS OF LOVE AND HATE or DEATH OF A LADIES MAN or I’M THE MAN to “Suzanne.” I guess it’s in the ear of the beholder.

  11. pudman13

    By the way, I’m not saying *I” like Collins or Warnes. I just know that some people come to certain songwriters through the back door.

  12. In fairness, all I know well by Cohen is that one album I own and his Isle of Wight performance, performing a lot of those early songs that sound like “Suzanne.” That Phil Spector-produced stuff you wrote about recently was interesting. The stuff that got him back into the critical pantheon in the ’80s (I’m the Man and the tribute album, no?) sounded TERRIBLE to my ears, although not much like “Suzanne,” which I’m fairly happy to hear in many variations on his first album, throughout McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and in that concert performance.

  13. misterioso

    Not troubled. Enjoy the thought of her “co-producing” a record. More about the BBC recordings can be found here. http://bigozine2.com/roio/?p=229

  14. meanstom

    Don’t discount her work in that Roger remake of ‘And God Created Woman’.

  15. Circa 1992 — she was still extremely hot. so I think that is in his favor . . . . older poet able to attract young muse . . . if he influenced her role in the short-lived HBO series John From Cincinnati (that was supposed make up for the end of The Sopranos) I vote “troubled.”

  16. A lot of other fine thinkers in the Halls of Rock seem to be avoiding this issue. I can assure you, expertise in Leonard Cohen is not required. Also, to allow for candid discussion we have blocked access to RTH for a 24-hour period to all incoming IPs for members of the Cool Patrol. They won’t be able to report you. We’ll wipe the record clean of your thoughts once their IPs are reestablished. Thanks.

  17. misterioso

    BigSteve, is that what “First We Take Manhattan Is About”? Not saying you’re wrong, by the way, just wondering. I have never really known what it was about. I quite like the song and his recording of it, despite the very dodgy production. Enjoy & brush up on your German! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnCR8kSSmqw

  18. ladymisskirroyale

    I came to Leonard Cohen through the 1991 album, “I’m Your Fan,” which featured covers of many of his most well known songs. That his songs can be covered by so many people of differing styles is a testament to his craft in song writing. For example, on IYF, there are 2 versions of “Tower of Song,” one by Nick Cave/Bad Seeds, and one by Robert Forster, two artists who are both Australian but not necessarily very similar in style. A quick on YouTube shows covers of the same song also by Martha Wainwright and Jesus and Mary Chain. I would say “Hallelujah” is one of my favorite LC songs, especially the John Cale version.

  19. ladymisskirroyale

    I would also agree that the original production on some of those LC songs is pretty yuck/dated and detracts from the listening.

    But honestly, Mod, how can you say that all of the songs sound like a version of “Suzanne?” There are different themes to the lyrics, different time signatures, different tempos, and different song structures. Is it really his voice that you don’t like? If so, I can get that, but he also influenced the stylings of other musicians like Nick Cave, the Tindersticks, Lee Hazelwood, Lloyd Cole to name a few.

  20. 2000 Man

    I think I’m on Team Mod on this one. I really struggle with the guy. He always seemed like somebody’s dad to me, and hey, I’m a dad and I’ve got nothing against dad’s, but I dunno about the guy. Maybe I think of him the way Seinfeld thought of going to see Mel Torme, you know. When he said, “Nah, I don’t wanna go. I can’t go watch a guy sing.”

  21. I have no beef with his voice and, again, the album I know best (and own and like enough) is Songs of Leonard Cohen. When I used to try to get into it I’d be about 3 songs in and then think to myself, “Didn’t I just hear this song two times already?” I’ve seen that Isle of Wight performance in 10-minute bits over the last couple of months, and when I do I still feel like I’m hearing “Suzanne.” Again, that synth shit with mumbly lounge vocals – “I’ll Take Manhatten” comes to mind – held so little appeal for me that I’m unfairly refusing to consider that “artistic growth.”

    A comparison, in the limitations I find in digging Cohen, is my history with Patti Smith. When I first heard her do “Gloria” I was knocked out. I bought that first album and dug a couple other songs on that. I liked some songs from the next two albums. I bought Wave when that came out. Then I started to feel like she was singing the same song over and over. I bought another album 10-15 years later and still felt that way. It wasn’t until I saw her live in December 2009 (?) that I realized she was more than her lone way of phrasing lyrics over the chords to “Gloria” or some other garage-rock chestnut. Since seeing Patti Smith live I finally understand why people love her so, not just digging the half dozen songs I’ve always dug by her and being slighty annoyed that even those half dozen songs sounded the same to me. I’m wondering if there’s an “in” like that for Cohen – short of having to listen to “I’ll Take Manhatten” again.

  22. Sorry, I got the title of that Manhatten song wrong – you know what I was talking about:)

  23. BigSteve

    Is that the south Jersey spelling of Manhattan?

  24. BigSteve

    That’s what I always thought it was about, specifically the Red Army faction. I don’t remember if that’s based on internal evidence or on what I’ve read about outside of the song.

  25. I’m pretty lukewarm about Cohen. He has some good songs, and I have fond memories of an album like Songs of Love and Hate. But his voice mostly does nothing for me. However, a possible gateway for Mod and other Townspeople might be the documentary and/or soundtrack I’m Your Man from about five years ago. It has footage from a tribute concert with a very AAA-friendly group of contributors. But there are some really great renditions, like Rufus Wainwright’s “Chelsea Hotel” and Beth Orton’s “Sisters of Mercy,” with vocals I consider much more palatable.

    On the other hand, you have to contend with folks like Antony. That guy is too melodramatic for me.

  26. I love that live Isle of Wight record: the mood is so hypnotic. While much of his material has that sort of dreamy, poetic feel (like “Suzanne”), I think there’s much more to him: he’s a great storyteller who uses some rather stark imagery.

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