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?
Nothing's happened in a million years
I've been sitting here since Wednesday morning
Wednesday morning can't believe my ears
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.

Jazz police are looking through my folders
Jazz police are talking to my niece
Jazz police have got their final orders
Jazzer, drop your axe, it's Jazz police!

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 nature.

Jesus taken serious by the many
Jesus taken joyous by a few
Jazz police are paid by J. Paul Getty
Jazzers paid by J. Paul Getty II

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.

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
Jazz police I feel so blue
Jazz police I think I'm falling,
I'm falling for you

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...

Wild as any freedom loving racist
I applaud the actions of the chief
Tell me now oh beautiful and spacious
Am I in trouble with the Jazz police?

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.

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 racist".

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
They'll never understand the Jazz police
Jazz police are working for my mother
Blood is thicker margarine than grease

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.

Let me be somebody I admire
Let me be that muscle down the street
Stick another turtle on the fire
Guys like me are mad for turtle meat

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?

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.