Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Leonard COHEN??

While we're in lazy mode and reposting old posts, I thought I'd compile a similar two-fer from even longer ago, that also considers what one of the great singer-songwriters has done for ME lately. This pair address that other contender for the throne, Leonard Cohen.

Dylan himself rates Cohen very highly, placing him at Number One, in fact. Though at the same time placing himself at Number Zero, which probably tells you everything you need to know about Bob Dylan, that big tease.

I suppose some cut'n'pasted vintage thoughts on the true Number One / Number Zero singer-songwriter should follow in due course. She can paint, too, unlike some Nobel laureates I could mention. And I don't mean Günter Grass, who is a brilliant artist (those memorable book cover illustrations? All his).

Anyway, here we go: two more blasts from the past:

Hallelu-You, or, Look What They Done To My Song, Ma (15 December 2008)

Once, there was this great song by Leonard Cohen. Like a lot of Leonard Cohen songs, it was slightly bitter, slightly angry, but with a huge reserve of irony and resignation in its tank. A quasi-religious song composed by a Jewish Zen monk ladies' man, with an eye for the rip in a famous blue raincoat. My kind of guy.

I first started listening to Leonard Cohen around 1969 on a reel-to-reel tape copy of Songs From A Room and Songs of Leonard Cohen that a friend made for me, and it became a secret vice. It was OK to listen to Joni Mitchell (boys had no idea about Mitchell, and girls were simply delighted that you did) but everyone knew Leonard Cohen was strictly for depressive freaks. Friends would pull his albums out of your box with a whoop of surprise ("Leonard COHEN??"). It's only since other singers have started covering his songs that people have retrospectively added Cohen to the ever-growing list of music they "always" used to listen to (usually the same liars who despised Motown or Atlantic Soul or Reggae at the time, but now claim always to have loved it).

But back to this song. You know the one I mean. It has the clever but tongue-in-cheek rhymes, more than a hint of sexual humiliation, and a magnificent sense of the redemptive value of staying true to your song, even while worshipping something or someone who shows no reciprocity, and whose chief pleasure and aim is to steal your strength and render you powerless. It's quite an adult song, to say the least.

I believe there are over 170 cover versions of Hallelujah. My personal favourite is the one by K.D. Lang, though I can't say I've heard them all. You just know she knows what the song is about. But now... Good grief, now it's going to be a Christmas Number One, as sung by an X Factor contestant. Soon everyone will know this song. Holy shit: will it join that relentless Christmas medley played in supermarkets? Will the ladlefuls of syrup drown the song's bile? Or will the lyrics insinuate themselves and subvert the show-stopper treatment? I fear not: the chorus makes it sound like a hymn, and the biblical references reinforce that impression. It may only be a matter of time before the song's content becomes its own fate.  Tied to a kitchen chair while some warbling choirboy over-enunciates those words originally groaned by Leonard Cohen's world-weary baritone.

Or maybe not: the clever rhymes may yet save it. You can't sing "do you" or "to you" and expect them to rhyme with "hallelujah" – it can't be done, it's got to be "do ya" and "to ya," and that will always have an undermining cutting edge, will resist the attempt to sentimentalise the song or make it polite and proper. There is hope. Hallelujah!

I'm Your Fan (20 June 2009)

Longer-serving readers of this blog may recall the post I wrote back in December 2008 about Leonard Cohen's song "Hallelujah" (Hallelu-You, or, Look What They Done To My Song, Ma). In it, I proposed that the song inoculated itself against appropriation because of the way the rhyme with "hallelujah" insisted on "do ya," "to ya," "outdrew ya," rather than "do you," "to you," etc. I thought it was a subtle but telling argument, and I admit I was rather pleased with myself.

Well, wouldn't you know? Last night the BBC4 TV channel had a bit of a Leonard Cohen night, and showed several bits of Cohen-iana, including Leonard Cohen Live in London – a 17 July 2008 gig at the O2 Arena (sorry, it'll always be the Millennium Dome to me) from his recent, pension-plan restoration world tour. It was really very good, even though I was continually struck by how much the elderly Cohen has started to resemble not so much a ladies' man as a raffish cousin of William Burroughs (the hat may have had something to do with it). "Suzanne" and "Bird On The Wire" were predictably moving, and I was impressed all over again by the prescience of "First We Take Manhattan." Is it really 21 years old?

But the thing was, when it came to "Hallelujah," he crouched forward and, grinning at the front rows, sang "But you don't really care for music, do you?" Not "do ya" but "do you." I was amazed. No doubt every other fan was stunned, too. All the way through, too. Every verse. No accident; absolutely intentional. Well!

It's almost as if he knew what I was going to write just four months later, and decided to have a little fun. Well, thanks a lot, Leonard.


Willie said...

Greetings from Australia.
Love the re-posts Mike.

I've had the great pleasure of seeing Mr Cohen on his last three visits downunder, including the same basic tour that you mentioned.

To say the shows were sublime is actually to understate.

On the last tour I did notice the enunciation n 'Hallelujah' and it threw me a little. I can't honestly say I noticed it on the previous two tours.

The man is a master. I agree with the description of him - he has grown into the raffish cousin look quite well.

Thanks for the re-post. It brings back some wonderful memories.


Mike C. said...


I envy you that. There won't be any more touring, and it was clearly a very special experience all round. There's a nice article by David Remnick in the current New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/17/leonard-cohen-makes-it-darker) that is essential reading for Cohen fans, if you haven't already seen it. I liked the bit about tuning the guitar down for those concerts so he wouldn't have to learn new chords to match his ever-deepening voice...


Zouk Delors said...

That's not lazy. Why waste sweat copying and pasting when you can just post the links? (Or has there been some -- undoubtedly sinister -- redaction of history?). In fact, isn't it time you did a best-of link compilation? I don't think you've done one before, have you? Or have I missed/forgotten something? I would add that the feast of the turning of the seasons approaches... Also, If you ever do finally hang up the mouse, as recently threatened, I think you should definitely summarise all your existing posts in one 1500-word roundup before you do.

Like Dylan's, the author's deep and authentic connection with his own lyrics makes Cohen's own rendering of his songs special, but also like Dylan, sometimes it's good to hear excellent singers and musicians treating his work: I like Jennifer Warnes' cover of First We Take Manhattan. Great guitar and great singing, even if she doesn't look the taking-over type in the Youtube.

Mike C. said...


A Best Of selected from 1290 posts? Blimey, think I'll leave that job to someone else...

The trouble is, the sort of mechanically-chosen statistical "Top 20" you see on some blogs is very far from anything I'd choose myself -- in the main, they're either freak outliers caused by link-fodder robots, or items of interest to various specialised communities (rifle shooters, motorbike enthusiasts, corporal punishment fans, etc.). TBH, I can't even remember a fraction of what I've written over eight years... I'm sure some of it's pretty good, and some of it's not! But which?

For a while I *was* making Blurb books of each year's posts ("The Idiotic Hat Annual"), because there was a simple "blog slurper" facility that automatically formatted and populated a book with a selected range of posts -- neat! Sadly, Blurb dropped this facility a couple of years ago. Also, each book -- even with some editing, even without proper illustrations, even in the cheapest format -- cost over £50! I was happy to make one copy for myself, but pretty sure no one else would buy a copy...

Posterity will just have to make up its own mind (or pull the plug...).Anyone else is free to read through from October 2008, and make their own selection!