JUST SOME JOSEPH LOOKING FOR A MANGER

He was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Montreal.

His father, who had an engineering degree but ran a clothing business, died when he was nine years old.

During degree studies that were solid rather than stellar, he did receive one endorsement indicating future directions: an award for creative writing.

A member of the mid-60s bohemian scene, he published two books of poetry by the time he was in his mid-twenties. Two novels also hit the bookshops.

Breaking away from his Canadian roots, he established a second home on the Aegean island of Hydra, a beautiful and very hilly Greek island where you can still find the occasional donkey carrying baggage up and down steep cobbled lanes.

When his debut album was released late in 1967, he was thirty-three years old.

What followed was a career of songwriting and performing that earned him flocks of adoring fans around the world. Nowhere was this seen more clearly than in the outpouring of grief following his death in November 2016.

He is, of course, Leonard Norman Cohen, and his debut album was entitled simply Songs of Leonard Cohen.

Leonard Cohen – January 1967 (Photographer unknown – will be added if discovered)

An almost indecent proportion of the ten songs on Songs of Leonard Cohen are so well-known they have become part of the fabric of popular music.

Sensual spiritualism swirls and sways through “Suzanne”.

Somehow you simultaneously smile and weep at the jaunty heartbreak of “Hey, that’s now way to say goodbye”.

The enigmatic “Sisters of Mercy” will sweeten your night and sooth your sunburned soul.

When you do finally say “So long, Marianne” you’ll be flushed with an emotional colour almost shocking in its post-coital vividness even as it sings of angels.

These four deserve their place in the Human Condition Songwriting Hall of Fame (Poetic Observations Section).

But the remainder of the album is far from ordinary. Cohen’s ability to paint both carnal desire and existential suffering were unmatched at the time.

With one hand on the hexagram and one hand on the girl 

I balance on a wishing well that all men call the world.

“Stories of the street”

It’s been said before, but really only Dylan and Paul Simon were seeking to connect with listeners deeply, passionately, alchemically through the often-derided medium of popular song. And no-one showed us the mythic power and sordid inertia of the philosopher-lover better than Leonard.

As a callow youth entirely devoid of experience in either Life or its sub-category Relationships, I found his music inaccessible and—to be honest—depressing.

In retrospect this is obviously because (a) the aforementioned naivety provided no access points to his adult observations, and (b) I was already depressed enough that Laughing Len’s subdued musings were more intimidating than cathartic.

Yes, one hand on my suicide, one hand on the rose.

“Stories of the street”

These days I enjoy the songs for the novella portraits and tone pictures they are. Often I can let the wordsmithery seduce me into a state of gallery-like engagement somewhere between active and passive (An example is “The stranger song” which teems with arcane—perhaps even lysergic—imagery).

Either the characters reach out, or they don’t. Usually the more human, more fallible Cohen’s protagonists are, the more I like them. When a nip of wry humour sneaks in too, that’s the best.

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.

“One of us cannot be wrong”**

Contrariwise, some lyrics (“Master song”, for example) have a whiff of pomposity around them that still repels. Which, given the writer’s propensity for appearing (as a friend once observed) haughty and self-opinionated, is kind of hypocritical. Maybe obtuse poetic imagery can still manage to be an unflatteringly accurate mirror, eh?

The Cohen voice became, over the long decades of his performing and recording career, so familiar that—like the songwriter-poet known to his teachers as Robert Zimmerman—it is no longer comparable to anyone other than himself. But it was not always thus.

Reviewing Songs of Leonard Cohen for Rolling Stone in March ’68, Arthur Schmidt wrote:

It is a strange voice — he hits every note, but between each note he recedes to an atonal place — his songs are thus given a sorely needed additional rhythm.

Herr Schmitt was clearly not aware he was listening to the first flowering of an icon-to-be. If he had been able to gaze into the future, perhaps his ratio of gold to dross for Songs might have been more generous:

The record as a whole is another matter — I don’t think I could ever tolerate all of it. There are three brilliant songs, one good one, three qualified bummers, and three are the flaming shits.*

Scarcely the breathless five star commendation the album now attracts.

NEWPORT, R.I. – Singer-songwriters Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell meet backstage before separately performing at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1967 in Newport, Rhode Island. (Photo by David Gahr/Getty Images)

Leonard Cohen’s romantic visions seduce old and young, gallant damsel and languid knight. Listening again to “Winter lady” I was transported back to the choking yearning of my lockdown youth while the music softened a middle-aged mouth into a gentle kiss on the cheek of my sleeping partner.

It’s not everyone’s cup of retsina, this poetry-in-song stuff. Even those who love Len probably don’t listen every day. But if you have a place in your soul-cupboard for the mystic memorabilia of the heart, there’s probably room for an album by Leonard Cohen, a louche philosopher who found beauty in anguish and redemption in the threadbare perseverance of the eternal pilgrim. Songs of Leonard Cohen would probably be the one.

* For the record, the RS reviewer loved “Suzanne”, “The Master Song” and “The Stranger Song”. The entire review can be found here.

** This was one of the lyrics the RS reviewer hated. It’s one of my favourites.

Leonard Cohen - Songs of Leonard Cohen

Label: CBS

Released: December, 1967

Duration: 38:57

41 comments

  1. There are still lots of donkeys because cars are still banned on the island

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good to hear! It’s twenty-five years since I visited Hydra.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. and I love that album BTW

        Liked by 1 person

  2. how beautifully written

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post, Bruce… a really beautiful album and the one I turned to that November evening after learning the news (hard to believe it was that long ago).

    “sinks into doggerel” and zero stars! That guy really didn’t like it, eh?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No he was not an instant convert, that’s for sure. RS did have a reputation for dissing albums on fairly short acquaintance (as indeed, many blogs do).
      Were you an instant fan, J, or did Leonard grow on you?

      Like

      1. I got into Leonard at the right time, I think… via Natural Born Killers. The soundtrack was a constant (wore the tape out) and Leonard instantly appealed. Few others I got into from that soundtrack, actually… it was great for that. But yeah, I went out and bought a couple of Leonard albums on cassette.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Although I don’t have ‘The Future’, I know Waiting for a Miracle from a live recording. Fine song.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. The Future is a great album and Waiting for the Miracle is indeed a fine song.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Leonard Cohen was never really young. I already thought this when his first album came out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Was it his relative ‘oldness’? The knowledge he’d published novels and poetry books prior to his first LP? The fact his lyrics are infused with a world-weariness a century in the making? Macht keinen Unterschied, du hast recht!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I enjoyed this great write-up far more than I’ve ever really enjoyed much Leonard Cohen, something about him repels (in the magnetic sense of the word) me a bit – occasionally I find a track I really like, but I can’t seem to move much beyond that.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I get that. I was ambivalent early on and can still uncover that feeling easily. I remember your review of ‘I’m your man’ – some missteps amongst the gems. And that’s LC, really.
      When I wrote this, I was coming from a place of nostalgia and perhaps even remembered regret that seems to align with his style. On another day, who knows. One thing for sure, there are few artists in his category.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. He projects an attractive, louche, poetic barfly in a trench coat male role model too – damned to both love too purely and drink too much. I get that too.

        You ever tried to look like him?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Apart from being fair, freckled and feckless, I really nailed being Len in my early 20s. Smoked mentholated cigarettes and all. You?

          Liked by 1 person

        2. No, I’m too wide and a bit too excitable.

          Like

  6. An incredible album, and in my top 10. Something you may not know – but if not, I am delighted to be the one to reveal it to you – is that Robert Altman used a fistful of the songs from ‘Songs’ as the musical spine for his beautiful and sad movie ‘McCabe and Mrs Miller’ (notably The Stranger Song, Sisters of Mercy and Travelling Lady, but a few others too). They’re not used as just fleeting grabs, but in most cases in their entirety. I believe Cohen also provided some stripped down non-vocal versions of the songs as well.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Came across that fascinating ‘Songs’ fact while writing this piece, but as I haven’t seen that particular Altman film, didn’t include a reference. Certainly rare and precious to have songs used, as you say, in their entirety. Brings the music and lyrics much further into the foreground.
      Thanks for sharing that story!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am very happy to lend you my copy if you’d like to watch it. It’s a lovely movie, and Altman is an extraordinary director.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. The Altman films I’ve seen, I’ve enjoyed greatly, so I’m grateful for that kind offer. I suspect it might well be available on iTunes or suchlike. If not, I’ll get back to you!

          Liked by 1 person

  7. Wonderfully written, Bruce (“not everyone’s cup of retsina”). I discovered Leonard Cohen like so many others — indirectly through Judy Collins. From there I devoured as many of his albums I could find, afford, or steal. I suppose he’s an acquired taste, which is another way of saying he’s many people’s best kept musical secret. Winter Lady is still my favorite song. – Marty

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I wrote the post without listening to the album again, confident that it was sufficiently in the long-term memory that I could conjure tunes, words and context sufficiently.
      After putting the piece to bed, I broke out the LP for the photoshoot and noticed how many songs I could sing along too. The highlight was (not surprisingly) the chorus of ‘So long Marianne’ but…’Winter lady’ is wonderful.
      Thanks for your thoughts and kind words Marty.

      Like

    2. I should listen to that now

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Seconding snakesinthegrass, wonderfully written. And you picked the perfect title for a tribute to the truly great poet/singer/songwriter that Leonard Cohen was. His songs never leave you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ‘The Stranger Song’ has always been a favourite, and that line stood out.

      I was going to save this piece until near the end of the year (as it was released in December) but somehow it wanted to be shared. So I’m very pleased it has been enjoyed. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. A fine post Bruce – please do let me know when the Human Condition Songwriting Hall of Fame will be open for tours!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Shall do Geoff. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. CB is caught up. And is now in the present. I’ve enjoyed and will continue to enjoy your takes. We are on the same page with a lot of the music you pull out. The thing I like about your writing is it’s yours. You genuinely have heard the music and it has struck a nerve with you. It’s not easy (For CB anyway) to always get over what you want in words. You do a really good job. So enough smoke up the old butt. Keep doing what you do. It works for me. (I’ll reserve judgement on old Leonard. Some interesting comments). CB over and out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Congratulations on your stamina and persistence, CB! And thanks for the kind words too. Hope I can continue to entertain you in the present!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Do I get a VC button or ribbon? A throw away album? The KC Red box set? I’m in for more. You are one of a handful doing this that have pumped some juice into my love of this “music” thing we do. Get busy I’m waiting .

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ha. Thanks for the chuckle.

          Vinyl Connections 4th anniversary is looming. Maybe I should make buttons.

          Liked by 1 person

    2. Agreed

      Liked by 2 people

  11. Great write-up, as for the old Rolling Stone review I kinda miss the days when my fave bands would get slagged off on a regular basis. The reviewers could be opinionated and even imperious but they would make you think: I think his point about people like Cohen sometimes mistaking marijuana for inspiration is well taken.. Having said that, it’s kinda funny now to look back at icons like Leonard Cohen getting lukewarm reviews with the dross that dominates the music scene at present.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know, Rick, I do get what you mean. I bit of mouthing off, a blast of shooting from the hip…
      And it is funny. I did think of a post featuring pans of debut albums for band who later ‘made it big’. Uriah Heep is the archetype for this, of course, with the famous “If this band makes it I’ll have to commit suicide” review.

      Like

  12. Another wonderful post (I raise a glass of retsina to you!), and some on point comments as well. (Bravo to CB, for noting that “your writing is…yours. You genuinely have heard the music and it has struck a nerve with you.”) And I found my myself nodding vigorously at this line: “the aforementioned naivety provided no access points to his adult observations”; it really is true that accrued wisdom (or should I say ‘wisdom’) can have a profound influence on our perception and expression of art. As for Cohen, I discovered him via Jeff Buckley, whose album ‘Grace’ has a lovely version of “Hallelujah.” I’m sadly unfamiliar with the rest of his oeuvre, but have been sampling the cuts from ‘Songs’ on iTunes as I write this. I can certainly get a sense of how this work contrasted to so much of what was coming out in 1967 (that lysergic era!) Poignant to see that pic of Cohen with Joni Mitchell, two wildly talented Canadians…poignant because he’s gone now, and she’s had, I believe, many health problems of late.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Γεια μας JDB!

    If tempted to invest in some Leonard Cohen, one could do a lot worse than the 1975 compilation mentioned in this pre-Christmas VC post. It was updated (on CD) in 2009, adding five songs (including “Hallelujah”). The 2002 Columbia 2CD collection “The Essential Leonard Cohen” has over thirty tracks, which is rather a lot for the casual listener, but that series can be had for peanuts from Amazo or similar source.

    Re Jeff Buckley, I’m much more a fan of his dad, one of whose early albums is slated for inclusion in this ’67 series.

    Yes, a poignant photo. How young and healthy they both look. It would be churlish to point out that both smoked for many years, I guess. Oh damn. So did I.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s striking what those cancer sticks (um, cigarettes) have done to Ms. Mitchell’s vocals over the years. Listening to, say, ‘Blue’ or ‘Ladies of the Canyon’ followed by one of her more recent offerings is akin to tumbling several octaves down the musical scale…

      Liked by 2 people

      1. …and adding a good rub with coarse grade sandpaper.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, I’d say she’s just a few cartons shy of Tom Waits at this point.

          Liked by 2 people

  14. […] Leonard Cohen—Songs of Leonard Cohen […]

    Like

Comments and responses welcome for all posts: present or past. Go on, join in!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: