by David Sheppard
The Complete Guide To The Music Of Leonard Cohen
Country & Year
Published by Unanimous Ltd, UK.
Distributed in USA by Thunder's Mouth Press
ISBN 1-903318-02-5. Paperback.
Printed in Italy.
David Sheppard's brief book on Leonard Cohen, simply entitled "Leonard Cohen," was published in England as part of a series called "Kill Your Idols." The subjects of this series (who also include The Clash, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, and Neil Young) are described as artists who "hold nothing sacred and inspire the same skepticism of idol-making in their listeners."|
This context might lead one to suppose that Sheppard's book is going to be an exercise in debunking the Cohen mythology, a bold or idiosyncratic expression of unconventional views. Nothing of the sort, as it turns out. Despite a few acerbic comments on the limitations of Cohen's vocal range, Sheppard is in fact disappointingly bland. His view of Cohen, if not totally reverential, is always respectful, and his opinions are for the most part entirely conventional and unoriginal. Far from killing any idols, all that he really provides is a convenient summary of received wisdom.
The book is divided into three sections. The first, about 60 pages, is a straight run through Cohen's biography. It is competent enough, but very little in it will come as any surprise to anyone who has read Ira Nadel. The abrupt ending, with Cohen still ensconced on Mount Baldy, suggests that the text was written at least two years ago.
The second section goes through all the albums, including the tribute collections, and gives 4-5 line capsule reactions to each and every song. The brevity of the form means that none of these opinions is developed or argued for, so they all seem rather arbitrary and arrogant -- which is fine when you agree with them, and extremely irritating when you don't. "The Butcher," for instance, is brusquely summed up as "A drug song" -- an interpretation which surely requires rather extended justification! And how many Cohen fans will agree that "Story of Isaac" may be adequately summarised in the sentence "Over-earnest lyrics detract attention from a decent enough tune"?
The third section, "The Legacy," is a rambling and pointless essay, which starts from the familiar cliché about "music to slit your wrists by," and works through to a general discussion of Cohen's influence on younger singers. There is nothing here of any great originality or interest. Sheppard's focus is exclusively on the music; he has nothing to say about the poetry, and from his few comments I rather suspect that he has not even read "Beautiful Losers."
This is not a scholarly book. There are frequent quotations from Cohen interviews, but none of them is acknowledged or footnoted; readers looking for the original sources will get no help here. Nor, incidentally, is there any indication that copyright permission was sought or granted for quotations from the songs themselves.
Sheppard writes in a breezy, journalistic style, with a few linguistic peculiarities, such as his invention of the adjective "acuitous," and his curious reversal of "tragi-comic" into "comi-tragic." Occasionally he bogs down into sentences like: "From the delirious meta-doo-wop of 'Ain't No Cure For Love' through the Brechtian eurodisco of 'First We Take Manhattan" ... Cohen commands this plangent tableau with a laconic hipster's aplomb."
Cohen completists will certainly want to have this book on their shelves, but that is most likely where it will stay.
- Review written by Professor Stephen Scobie.
This is an entertainingly written and handsomely produced short study of
Cohen - his life, his music, and his influence. Divided into those three
sections - 60 pages - THE STORY, 40 pages - THE MUSIC, 35 pages - THE
LEGACY, the book also includes 8 pages of interesting black and white photos
and a much-appreciated index. The biography section reads like a novel. It
offers an intimate look at Cohen's loves, travels, depressions, spiritual
searches, drug use, and work - his poetry and novel efforts, his recordings
and his tours. The album by album/ track-by-track section provides a useful,
if opinionated, summary of most recordings - Cohen's releases and the
English language tribute albums. The legacy section unfortunately supports
the critical tendency to dwell on a morose view of Cohen's lyrics and sound,
but concludes that he has influenced many and that he is "a uniquely
enigmatic artistic totem of the second half of the twentieth century." As
noted on the cover, "He (Cohen) emerges (from the book) as a man of immense
charm and wit, continually moving towards his ultimate goal: the lyrical
crystallization of the human condition."
John Etherington has reported some minor errors, which the author acknowledges
may be fixed in future printings. One error is serious -1972's "Energy of
Slaves" is omitted from the listing of poetry books. (Fortunately, however,
that book is described in the textual chronology). Nadel's "Various
Positions" and Dorman/Rawlins's "Prophet of the Heart" are the only source
materials acknowledged. Overall, this study provides a solid introduction to
Cohen's life and work, and makes a good read for both new and seasoned fans
of Our Man.
- Review written by Dick Straub.