JAZZ POLICE |
Fragmented Absurdity: An analysis
of Leonard Cohen's Jazz Police
by Jason Murray
" 'Jazz Police' surprised and disappointed, even annoyed, some of his
followers. It is very different from his normal musical style--even though
his first public performance--in Dunn's Jazz Parlour, in Montreal--was the
recitation of poem 'Gift' to jazz-backing so many years ago.
But Jazz became a cult entity, unpopular to many (but not to Leonard, who
always enjoyed it for a certain mood), and in this song we have the mature
blossoming of a plant that has been growing for 30 years." (Leonard Cohen: Prophet of the Heart, L. S. Dorman & C. L. Rawlins, 1990, p. 362)
The genesis of the song 'Jazz Police' has often been a topic of discussion
amongst Cohen fans. I was originally pushed towards doing an analysis of
the song lyrics from a lengthy discussion and argument that appeared on the
Cohen Newsgroup (alt. music.leonard-cohen) in about the winter of 1996
over the meaning of the song. People were taking snippets of the lyrics and
attempting to derive their meaning(s) without looking at their place within
the context of the song as a whole. I was determined to examine the song as
a unified piece, and not just as a unique collection of sardonic phrasings.
One of the frequently asked questions about the song considers its
beginning. How or where did Cohen get the idea for the song? In an
interview in Musician Cohen gives the story. It began during the making of
the record Recent Songs when he worked with the fusion group Passenger.
Often the band would sneak bits of jazz riffs into the songs, which Cohen
admitted he had to watch out for. Between Cohen and the band grew an
understanding that if he caught them playing jazz riffs (augmented fifths
or sevenths is the example he gives) he would call them on it. Initially he
was himself the jazz police! The intent was to then take the idea of a
'jazz police' and let it run on into some type of fruition, be it absurdity
or full expression. It took 9 years (1979-1988) for the song to develop and
be recorded; a testament to Cohen's well know practice of working and
reworking pieces of poetry and songs in time consuming detail.
As an interesting aside, in later interviews Cohen himself admits that he
is unsure which direction the song took (absurd or otherwise) and what
final message the lyrics ultimately bring. In the end he reflects that the
song mirrored his state of being at the time: " ...it caught the mood of
this whole period...this kind of fragmented absurdity.">P>
Like 'Take This Waltz', 'Jazz Police' is a song that lyrically is dominated
by seemingly ambiguous, illogical and unrelated imagery. This requires a
different type of analysis of the song lyrics in terms of their meaning(s).
One must look at both general and specific meanings for certain images and
then meticulously compare these multiple meanings to achieve an analysis
that is consistent throughout: We must consider all options and then, via
discussion and the process of debate, arrive at some type of consensus.
Inevitably when one is talking about Cohen's lyrics there is the urge to
pull from them autobiographical tidbits (such as can be found in 'First We
Take Manhattan' and 'The Story of Isaac'). This often can be insightful,
though the fact they are autobiographical is irrelevant because Cohen would
not use them unless they fit the purpose of the song. He would not place
autobiographical images in a song just to have them there; they serve the
purpose of somehow adding an extra bit of meaning and dimension to the
lyric or image at hand. For that reason I am not attempting to find such
elements within this song, though they may exist.
Can you tell me why the bells are ringing?
The first stanza reflects a passing of time that has gone unnoticed until
some act has caused the realisation of that passage (the ringing of the
bells). The bells are ringing to serve as a warning or an alert, perhaps
"The Jazz Police are Coming!!" In these lines Cohen is saying that nothing
new has happened "here" (probably meaning himself and his music.) but that
the ringing of the bells have alerted him of the passing of time (It's
Wednesday already?? I can't believe my ears!!). Cohen then goes on to
describe the cause of such a warning.
Nothing's happened in a million years
I've been sitting here since Wednesday morning
Wednesday morning can't believe my ears
Jazz police are looking through my folders
Cohen follows up with a description of the Jazz police and their activities
(above). The actual distinct individual victims of these activities (ie.,
the folders-- which perhaps are representing the archives of his creative
work, personal papers) are less important then the general impression these
lines give of the Jazz Police: They are searchers, investigators of the
secret and private issues, and therefore disrespectful. It is also
interesting to note that the last line of the stanza suggests that the Jazz
Police are not interested in preserving Jazz but instead eliminating it
(Drop your axe!! [musical instrument]). Reminds one of the firefighters in
Farenheight 451! These lines are used, then, to introduce the
reader/listener to the Jazz Police in terms of their general character or
Jazz police are talking to my niece
Jazz police have got their final orders
Jazzer, drop your axe, it's Jazz police!
Jesus taken serious by the many
The next four lines are used to parallel each other (The first two parallel
the latter) and require a bit more digging to get at the meaning. Though
separately they can be understood easily--some people take Jesus or
'religion' serious, some take it joyous; JPG pays the Jazz Police, his son
JPG II supports the Jazzers themselves--it is how they act in concert to
provide insight that is a bit more difficult.
Jesus taken joyous by a few
Jazz police are paid by J. Paul Getty
Jazzers paid by J. Paul Getty II
The key to the parallel are the lines involving JPG and JPG II. As a
history highlight, JPG was rich, though unloving and stingy to his son, and
his son JPG II in response was a hippie and uninterested in his father's
business. They were different generations at odds and in conflict.
Juxtapose this with the last two lines and the meaning becomes clearer: the
lines about Jesus are meant to reflect the two men's different views and
approaches to the world: serious (JPG) versus joyous (JPG II). Considering
who the two men support one can see the final statement that Cohen is
making: the Jazz Police take Jazz serious, the Jazzers themselves
(musicians) take it joyous. Another interesting element to add is that
Cohen here is perhaps suggesting that (too??) many take the serious
approach and (not enough??) few take the joyous one. He is, I think,
pointing towards which is the better approach.
Jazz police I hear you calling
The chorus is Cohen speaking directly to the Jazz Police: he can hear their
call, he can feel the pull towards their call... 'I think I'm falling for
you'... and that makes him 'blue'. The chorus is best offset by the last
stanza which I will get to shortly...
Jazz police I feel so blue
Jazz police I think I'm falling,
I'm falling for you
Wild as any freedom loving racist
This stanza is a bit of Cohen magic. In particular, the first two lines are
one of those illogical yet meaningful lines that Cohen so often writes.They
are good examples of how Cohen pairs seemingly opposite images in a kind of
balance that illuminates both opposites and creates a new understanding of
how they relate. As always, there are several possibilities.
I applaud the actions of the chief
Tell me now oh beautiful and spacious
Am I in trouble with the Jazz police?
The first two lines suggest a hypocrisy: how can one say they love freedom
yet act as a racist? Cohen uses that line to set up the next, suggesting to
us that his 'wild applause' for the Jazz police chief is an act of
hypocrisy and perhaps, cynicism as well. After all, how could one cheer
wildly for someone who is against you? Here I think Cohen suggests that he
knows that he at times appears to support the Jazz police, but that in
reality this is no more probable than there being a "freedom loving
Another likelihood is that Cohen is willing to admit the possibility of a
freedom lovin' racist in some kind of queer irony. Perhaps applause out of
ignorance? Out of a passion-blinded obedience ('wild' would suggest that)?
Certainly there is room here both possibilities.
The next two lines are directed right at the muse; a question and request
in reverse order.
They will never understand our culture
Here Cohen again repeats the type of parallel that he created in the third
stanza. Cohen reiterates that the Jazz Police will never understand the
Jazzers or their culture (Hint: If line 23 fools you, try reading it aloud
with a comma between understand and police...). Cohen again suggests that
the generational thing is at play (His Mother is paying the Jazz Police,
thus making him JPG II !!), keeping the theme of the parallel intact.
They'll never understand the Jazz police
Jazz police are working for my mother
Blood is thicker margarine than grease
Let me be somebody I admire
These lines present a strong, unique image: the turtle as endowment of
strength . Again, Cohen uses a method in presenting two images within the
stanza that at first glance appear unrelated but that in fact act in
concert with each other to present one combined image. In the first two
lines Cohen wants to be like someone he'd admire: a muscle down the street;
he means "I want to be strong". The last two lines suggest the method to
such strength: Turtle meat. Why the turtle?
Let me be that muscle down the street
Stick another turtle on the fire
Guys like me are mad for turtle meat
There are a lot of possible meanings for this: the turtle is an exotic
animal, it can be large and strong itself (I saw a documentary once which
said that pacific islanders thought that turtle meat made you strong), and
is well known for it's shell. I think that the two most possible meanings
are as follows: A) the turtle is a defensive animal in terms of it's shell,
B) the aforementioned mystery and strength associated with turtles (at
least sea turtles anyway).
Cohen indicates then that he is mad for turtle meat because he wants to be
strong and, therefore, better capable of defending himself from the pull
and influence of the Jazz police. This last stanza is his stance and reply
to the chorus. In order to resist becoming a policeman of the muse (so
'beautiful and spacious', so free!) he needs to become stronger and more
capable of resisting and defending his position as a musician.
In addition, the use of the generational references also indicates Cohen
thinks that the process of going from Jazzer to Jazz police may come about
due to aging and not being able to communicate with and understand the
younger generations ("There is good wine in every generation.", L. Cohen
quoting the Talmud in an interview on MuchMusic when asked about what he
thought about today's musicians...circa 1988)
I think that the general meaning of Jazz Police itself as an image is that
of 'music wardens". The song certainly suggests that the nature of the
police is to watch, moreover investigate the music. This can be viewed
opposite the Jazzers, the musicians themselves. I think this song in
purpose and direction is somewhat like 'First We Take Manhattan' in terms
of it being somewhat of an indictment on the music industry and the people
at the top (the Jazz police) who watch over the creators of the music, the
Jazzers like Cohen. It also acts as in interesting balance between the
opening song of the album 'First we Take Manhattan' and 'Tower of Song',
Cohen's final statement on his role in the muse. Interesting yet how it
appears in the middle of the album!
My last comment is directed at the way Cohen wrote the lyrics. I find it
interesting how he uses parallels and juxtapositioning in both the
formation of the stanzas as well as the creation of the imagery to push the
message of the song across.
Copyright of the essay © 1997 by Jason Murray, Canada.
Copyright of the lyrics © 1987 by Stranger Music Inc, Los Angeles.