By Lola Lariscy
If you're fortunate, you are well aware of who Leonard Cohen is and have been listening to his songs for years, if not decades. If you haven't heard of Leonard Cohen, then someone somewhere in your life failed to do something important for you. On behalf of humanity, I apologize for that. Even if you don't recognize the name, though, you've most likely heard at least a few of his songs, whether performed by himself or covered by one of the dozens of artists who've interpreted his music. Heard the lyric "Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk at a midnight choir?" You might imagine Willie Nelson's voice singing those lyrics, and that's okay—he did a well-known and well-done version. You've also most likely heard one of the many versions of Cohen's beautiful song "Hallelujah"--K.D. Lang's done it, John Cale, Bob Dylan and a list of others. My heart belongs to Jeff Buckley's cover, though. He rings emotion out of every heartbreaking line. If you like gothic music, you may have heard Concrete Blonde's version of "Everybody Knows" (what a great version).
Talking about Leonard Cohen in relation to other artists will never get you closer to knowing Leonard Cohen's music, though. That would be like trying to understand a writer through the blurbs on a book jacket. Great, you know that Stephen King thinks the book's a thrill-ride, but it doesn't get you closer to experiencing the ride.
You need to listen to the songs. They're classics in the way no one has recorded since (sorry, Nirvana--you're close, but no guitar). They're timeless—his music doesn't belong to any one decade—not the sixties, not the seventies, not even this time period. The songs will always speak to the part of us that doesn't change. The part that experienced heartbreak for the first time, or death, or the feeling of being truly alive.
I'm listening to Cohen's second album Songs From A Room, re-released April 24th, 2007 on Legacy Records, and I'm amazed at the beautiful simplicity of each song, the honesty, the minimalism of the music and the impact of his lyrics--intimate to the point of making one feel exposed, yet completely recognized.
As simple as the songs may seem, they can be interpreted on many levels—regardless of what the song seems to be about, he often sneaks in something that lets you know he's asking you to consider something beyond what you immediately hear. In “Bird On A Wire” he questions humanity's need for certainty; he presents two very different answers to a fundamental question, yet he seems to present both as being correct:
"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?'"
When so many people are too arrogant to admit they're unsure, or to even entertain the idea that they're not on the right course, he's radically suggesting that maybe there are multiple answers to any supposed dilemma, or maybe no answers at all. During the Vietnam War, which was fully raging at the time, I'm sure it would've benefited the U.S. and the world to find out. Today, with a four-year old war (six if you count Afghanistan), many more people are asking if there isn't a different answer we need to look for.
Cohen's talent goes beyond creating wonderful verses, goes beyond microcosm—verse and chorus form a painfully beautiful and cohesive whole. He's a storyteller before anything else. The words wouldn't resonate so well if they weren't encased in a memorable, meaningful story. In “Story of Isaac”, Cohen plays the part of the biblical Isaac, first learning of his father's conviction that he is meant to sacrifice Isaac to God. Despite the story being thousands of years old (and I am not well-versed in religious history—I'm going by what I've read and don't pretend to have my own opinion on the story), the details he paints are so immediate. He says that the father's “blue eyes there were shining and his voice was very cold”, giving an impression of detached zealotry (I use the word “zealotry” because I get the impression that's what Cohen means to convey--there are many interpretations of the story of Isaac and Abraham-- I'm not trying to pass judgment on something I know virtually nothing about). Indeed, the subject of uncertainty Vs. assuredness comes up again. The father says he is “strong and holy”, so he must do as he's told by God. It seems apparent in this version of the story that Isaac doesn't think the conclusion is so preordained. Isaac proclaims that “you who build these altars now to sacrifice these children, you must not do it anymore”. Of course, he has a vested interest in this viewpoint. He tells his father that the commandment is a scheme, not a vision, and since his father's never been tempted by a demon or a god, this is not a holy mission.
The imagery supports the integral dilemma between Isaac and Abraham. At one point in the story, Isaac thinks he sees an eagle, a positive and noble harbinger, but he questions himself—thinks it may be a vulture, as he's on his way to becoming food for a vulture of a different kind. Anthony DeCurtis, the author of the liner notes in this new, expanded edition of the album, proposes that the vulture he is referring to is the U.S., sacrificing their sons at the altar of a misguided war. Cohen's lyrics work on so many levels that it's very probable that he has an alternate parable besides the traditional “story of Isaac” in mind; after all there can be two answers to that question, also.
While “Story of Isaac”, at least on the surface, is about a conflict most of us may never experience—the choice between loyalty to God and loyalty to family-- Leonard Cohen also writes about conflicts raging inside of humanity. “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy” immortalizes the account of a woman who felt too much of the pressure of the world (she “fell in love for us”) and all of the isolation. Many “use[d] her body” and “comb[ed] her hair”, but no one followed her where she went in 1961, courtesy of the gun beside her head. No one knew this woman, and this is what Cohen is changing. He's introducing the world to a woman who left it 8 years prior.
Love, loneliness and the connect and disconnect between people is ultimately what gives Cohen's songs their blood and tears. He writes about the immediacy of love, the intimacy of love and sex, and what remains when intimacy has left, or never entered in the first place. He writes about this in such a way that he will break your heart. Whether you're in the most stable relationship, or haven't even considered being in a relationship, you will feel the pain (or in some cases the numbness) of this phenomenon. He says of his lover in “Tonight Will Be Fine": “You kept right on loving, I went on a fast, now I am too thin and your love is too vast”. Two people passing each other on the way to each other—wanting the same thing, but discovering it too late. Cohen often speaks of emotional frugality—his characters often can't open up—they allow themselves to get emotionally small. In the same song, his character says he “choose[s] the rooms...[he] live[s] in with care, the windows are small and the walls almost bare”. Emotionally, you would think there's not much there to work with, but Cohen rings out a vastness there. He allows you to explore this person's inhibitions, like they're an exhibit in a very stark museum. In “You Know Who I Am”, the character is the distance between lovers: the distance that will leave a broken man, the distance that will also teach how to make the man whole again.
Leonard Cohen exhibits so much for us: the person who has “torn everyone who reached out for [him]”, the person who stands up to tradition and refuses to be sacrificed at the altar of God and/or the government, the woman who couldn't stand up because she felt too alone and too invisible. He shows us the concept of space, the concept of despair, and of disrepair.
His voice adequately portrays this disparity. Of all the wonderful things Leonard Cohen is: author, songwriter, musician, independent thinker, few go to his music for his voice. His voice is filled with pot-holes, it seems off at times, and sometimes the songs seem too low for his range (or maybe that's just his craggy voice). He serves as the vessel for his songs, but don't listen to his music for the first time thinking his voice is one of the features; it's not. That might be the reason the covers of his songs get more airtime than his versions, I don't know.
I do know that the music is as beautiful as the lyrics, and the two intertwine as gorgeously as his characters do. Melancholy, tempered by reflection and distance, is apparent in the stark but tender melody of “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy”. The music seems to wander as desolately as Nancy's emotional state. “A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes” is not sparse; it fits the determination of the subject, filled with a furiously strummed guitar and a voice that rises with the determination of a hero who needs to put his burden down-- someone who wants to “tell [his/her] story”. His voice rises for the “crickets”, “the army”, an unnamed person's children and for the people who may not even need him. The confidence in his voice and the tension of the song convince me that he has the power to sing for all of these disparate entities; there's enough here for his other song's inhabitant's—the bird on the wire, the woman who couldn't live any more, the son fighting for his life, and the father fighting between his perceived duty and his flesh and blood. Then again, Leonard Cohen sings these songs for everyone, because we can all find ourselves in these songs.