by David G. Whiteis
Leonard Cohen is one of the few survivors from the great singer-songwriter scare of the 1960s who can still be counted on to create work that sounds fresh and provocative. On purely musical terms he's remained relevant in ways that many of his folkie fans would probably have never anticipated: the melancholy acoustic guitar patterns and angelic female choruses of his early work have given way to strident, aggressively danceable synth productions of considerable texture and complexity. Meanwhile his voice has receded into a hoarse whisper that sounds both ravaged and visionary.
Cohen is virtually the only songwriter whom mainstream critics of the 60s felt comfortable in calling a poet without adding a qualifying prefix like "folk" or "rock". He published his first volume of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, in 1956 when he was barely out of his teens. He had three more books of poetry and two novels to his credit when he recorded his debut LP, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967. He makes little distinction between his literary and musical works: some of his most trenchant songs --"Suzanne," "Teachers," "The Master Song," and "Avalanche," among others --have also been published as poems.
One of Cohen's greatest strengths has been that, despite his legendary self-absorption, he's mostly managed to avoid the deadly artistic solipsism that plagued much of the singer- songwriter movement of the 60s and 70s (and is still evident in the work of such latter-day aspirants as the Indigo Girls). From the beginning his lyrics have suggested that the tribulations and decay that wrack what he calls "the inner country" of the psyche are analogous to --and, on some unnamed but vital level, intertwined with-- a greater spiritual malady that threatens the social order.
"Stories of the Street," an overlooked gem from Cohen's first album, found the poet leaning out of his hotel window with "one hand on my suicide, one hand on the rose". He contemplated a human condition as fractured and frightened as his own soul: "The age of lust is giving birth/ and both the parents ask the nurse/ to tell them fairy tales/ on both sides of the glass/ And now the infant with his cord/ is hauled in like a kite/ One eye filled with blueprints/ One eye filled with night".
Since then Cohen's social vision has become even bleaker and more intensely drawn. He fills his commentary with vivid snapshots of war and upheaval, often with strong pacifist and even revolutionary implications. In "The Old Revolution" on his second LP, Songs From A Room, "even damnation is poisoned with rainbows" as "all the brave young men/ they are waiting to see a signal/ which some killer will be lighting for pay". An entry in The Energy of Slaves, a 1972 volume of poetry, warns the powers that be: "Any system you contrive/ without us/ will be brought down".
But it's difficult to tell where Cohen's worldview ends and where his sense of irony begins when he starts making pronouncements like that. Although the 60s-era counterculture embraced him as a kind of radical existential warrior he's made it clear that he views the social disruption that's characterized the last several decades as a collective psychic catastrophe, one which commands the poet to envision new ways of knowing and understanding in order to survive.
In the face of this catastrophe, Cohen has sometimes invoked an obsessive and unsettling fascination with totalitarian control. One of his books of poetry is entitled Flowers for Hitler; in The Favorite Game, his first novel, Cohen's youthful Jewish protagonists play Nazi torture games where they take turns stripping naked and whipping one another with red string, and they fantasize about delivering Fuhrer-like speeches and inciting crowds to violence through mass hypnotism.
In interviews Cohen has waxed nostalgic about his childhood love for the military. His father, a decorated World War I veteran, wanted to send him to a military academy; had his father lived, Cohen has suggested, he himself might have gone on to become a career man in the Canadian army. He immerses himself in the drill-like discipline it takes to oversee a musical tour, and he once named his touring band "The Army."
Probably the most enigmatic element of Cohen's work has been his relationship with women. On the one hand, his vision of sexuality often seems sacramental. A poem in The Energy of Slaves proclaims that "one man free to love his minute/ in the realms of flesh and sun/ breaks down more pain than ages/ of humane law or lawyers can". So powerful is this healing force that the poet will "let politics go hang" and "speak for love alone".
Cohen' persona --a sad-eyed traveler seeking sanctuary and salvation in various beds along the way-- made him a hero among free love advocates in the 60s. In retrospect, though, it's somewhat surprising that it didn't earn him more enmity from feminists. Even some of his most beautifully crafted works romanticize a love-'em-and-leave-'em ethic which women in the 60s were already challenging as sexist and exploitative.
Cohen has gotten away with it, partly because of his status as a legitimate poet but also because even when he's loving 'em and leaving 'em he does so in such tender and eloquent terms that it's almost impossible not to be seduced: "Sweeping up the jokers that he left behind/ you find he did not leave you very much, not even laughter/ Like any dealer he was watching for the card/ that is so high and wild he'll never need to deal another/ He was just some Joseph looking for a manger" ("The Stranger Song").
Just as seductive, perhaps, but even more problematic when viewed from a longer perspective has been Cohen's penchant for elevating women onto pedestals. In songs like "Our Lady of Solitude" on 1979's Recent Songs ("She is the vessel of the whole wide world/ Mistress, O mistress of us all") and "Light As The Breeze" on his current CD, The Future, ("She stands before you naked/ you can see it, you can taste it... it don't matter how you worship/ as long as you're down on your knees"), he grovels and begs before them in supplication.
Cohen has sometimes used this cravenness in the presence of feminine beauty to excuse himself, or at least plead a case for himself, after committing romantic indiscretions. In the title song on I'm Your Man, from 1988, he admits "I've been running through these promises to you that I made and I could not keep". Then he declares "I'd crawl to you baby and I'd fall at your feet/ and I'd howl at your beauty like a dog in heat/ And I'd claw at your heart. And I'd tear at your sheet/ I'd say please, please, I'm your man".
Such expressions of adoration leave women little room to be anything but infatuation objects, and can easily cross the line into resentment or misogyny. "She cannot be tamed by conversation," Cohen writes in The Energy of Slaves. "Absence is the only weapon/ against the supreme arsenal of her body/ She reserves a special contempt/ for the slaves of beauty..."
Cohen often portrays betrayal, even cruelty, as the inevitable consequence of love: "Love is a fire/ It burns everyone/ It disfigures everyone/ It is the world's excuse/ for being ugly". Although it's usually the men in his tales who do the betraying (another poem begins, "There are no traitors among women"), he seldom chides them for infidelity or caddishness. In fact it's a major accomplishment --as well as a defeat of sorts-- when a man remains faithful for any length of time: "The years have gone by / I've lost my pride... and I have not gone outside," he asserts in "I Tried To Leave You," from 1973's New Skin For The Old Ceremony.
Usually, Cohen's protagonists resume their sexual adventuring with either a flip remark ("It was half my fault and half the atmosphere") or yet another tormented confession ("Like a baby stillborn/ Like a beast with his horn/ I have torn everyone who reached out for me.") Such wailing may bring atonement, but one senses that it probably doesn't signal any real change in attitude or behavior.
"When you give love, you take a wound," Cohen said in a 1988 interview. "If you give full love, of course, you die. To love, something in the ego has to die, has to surrender anyway, and with that surrender a wound is taken." And by implication, a wound is often given as well.
Yet Cohen continues to insist that the desire that drives men and women obsessively into each other's arms is "the divine scheme," as he put it in a filmed interview in the early 1980s. Here's where his twin obsessions --the heroic mythos of the soldier and the erotic mythos of salvation through sexual grace-- come together. Cohen's questing lovers are partisans on a holy mission, surrendering to desire and its torments as a soldier surrenders himself to his duty.
In "The Traitor" on Recent Songs, Cohen weaves erotic and military images so densely that the distinction between them virtually disappears: "I lingered on her thighs a fatal moment/ I kissed her lips as though I thirsted still/ My falsity it stung me like a hornet/ The poison sank and it paralyzed my will/ I could not move to warn all the younger soldiers/ That they had been deserted from above/ So on battlefields from here to Barcelona/ I'm listed with the enemies of love".
The Future, Cohen's first new recorded collection in nearly five years, finds him again immersing himself in this persona as a seeker --wounded, vengeful, visionary, sometimes cruel, obsessed with beauty and salvation-- adrift in a world rife with seductive pleasures and rent with upheaval. Although the sacred and morally ambiguous mission of erotic pursuit still preoccupies him, he concentrates more than ever on global themes: of the three tunes on The Future that could be classified as love songs Cohen wrote only one, "Light As The Breeze."
Cohen has long fancied himself an interpreter, and results have ranged from the exquisite ("The Partisan" on Songs From A Room") to the excruciating ("The Lost Canadian [Un Canadien Errant"] on Recent Songs.) His efforts on The Future fall somewhere in between. "Be For Real," by soul singer/ composer Frederick Knight, is a tender R&B ballad. Its pop-soul arrangement doesn't particularly lend itself to Cohen's atonal voice and wooden phrasing, and Cohen's larynx sounds shredded through most of the song. Nevertheless he manages to croon it, and his breathy intonations of "Baby" are surprisingly sexy.
"Always," the Irving Berlin chestnut, is another matter: Cohen delivers it in a lugubrious lounge-lizard moan, complete with a spoken intro that sounds like Barry White revved down to 16 RPMs. It's difficult to tell whether Cohen's tongue is in his cheek on this one, but either way it's one of his most surreal tracks ever.
Cohen is at his strongest on this disk when he's tackling larger issues. The title song is the starkest nightmare of societal breakdown he's ever committed to record. Over a propulsive minor-key synth track, Cohen brings forth his predictions of doom and destruction in a ragged whisper that occasionally erupts into a hoarse croak -- he sounds like an Old Testament prophet writhing in the throes of a manic episode:
"There'll be the breaking of the ancient western code/ Your private life will suddenly explode/ There'll be phantoms/ there'll be fires on the road... Things are going to slide in all directions/ Won't be nothing/ Nothing you can measure anymore/ The blizzard of the world/ has crossed the threshold/ and it's overturned the order of the soul... Get ready for the future/ It is murder".
Cohen's ambiguity about authoritarianism reasserts itself on The Future with new ferocity: "Give me back my broken night/ My mirrored room, my secret life/ It's lonely here, there's no one left to torture/ Give me absolute control/ over every living soul/ lie beside me baby/ that's an order... Give me back the Berlin Wall/ Give me Stalin and St. Paul..."
Most striking, perhaps, is his apparent indictment of abortion as a symptom of social decay: "Destroy another fetus now/ We don't like children anyhow/ I've seen the future, baby:/ It is murder." Cohen has hinted at such sentiments before. In "Diamonds in the Mine," on Songs of Love and Hate, he bitterly derided "the only man of energy, the revolution's pride" who "trained a hundred women just to kill an unborn child". Even his earlier "Story of Isaac" ("You who build these altars now/ to sacrifice these children/ must not do it anymore"), usually considered an antiwar song, could be interpreted as anti- abortion. In live performance Cohen used to dedicate it to those who'd "sacrifice one generation on behalf of another." Once again his insistence on remaining ideologically ambiguous marks him as a courageous poet and, I'm sure some listeners will conclude, a dangerous loose cannon.
The imagery takes on a more surreal tinge in The Future's "Closing Time." As fiddles saw away behind him with a rollicking, claustrophobic dissonance, Cohen serves up a hallucinatory slice of life from some purgatorial roadhouse where a Carnival for lost souls is in full swing: "All the women tear their blouses off/ the men they dance on the polka-dots/ and it's partner found and partner lost/ and it's hell to pay when the fiddler stops... I raise my glass to the Awful Truth/ which you can't reveal to the Ears of Youth/ except to say it isn't worth a dime/ And the whole damn place goes crazy twice/ and it's once for the Devil and once for Christ..." In the background, a female chorus chants "Closing time" like a band of taunting angels.
Then, in the midst of all this decadence and darkness, Cohen ignites a light of hope with "Democracy." Set to a martial beat and tinged with his characteristic deadpan irony --"It's coming from the silence/ on the dock of the bay/ from the brave, the bold, the battered heart of Chevrolet"-- the song is a prophetic testament to the coming of a political millennium the likes of which Cohen has seldom dared to envision: "It's coming to America first,/ the cradle of the best and of the worst/ It's here they got the range/ and the machinery for change/ and it's here they got the spiritual thirst."
Cohen seems to have reconsidered his earlier doubts about the healing potential of social change, as well as reconsidering his longstanding faith in the transforming power of visionary contemplation (in "The Traitor" he declared that "The dreamers ride against the men of action/ Oh see the men of action falling back"). This time around he's adamant that dreaming and believing aren't enough. "Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.," he assures us, but first "the heart has got to open/ in a fundamental way... It's coming from the women and the men".
This unexpected optimism in the face of shattered dreams and ruined miracles arises from Cohen's almost mystical belief in the connection between the collapse of an old order --political, psychic, or spiritual-- and the rising of a new one. "Anthem," the centerpiece of the disk, traces this cycle of decay and regeneration: "Don't dwell on what/ has passed away/ or what has yet to be./ The wars they will/ be fought again/ The holy dove/ be caught again/ bought and sold/ and bought again/ the dove is never free."
This is a new, mature Cohen, up off his knees, taking responsibility both for the implications implied by doubt and the obligations inherent in faith. He may still go weak at the sight of "a woman/ beneath this/ resplendent chemise," but he can also summon the courage to stand tall in the face of immolation and see hope and democracy arising "from the fires of the homeless/ from the ashes of the gay".
Cohen hasn't given up on the redemptive power of love, either; he's simply learned that it requires time and discipline to attain. "Every heart/ to love will come/ but as a refugee" --no more rogue's salvation, no more easy benedictions from sainted Sisters of Mercy or an exalted Lady of Solitude.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: The essay is a slightly revised version of an article that originally appeared in the Chicago Reader in late 1992. The astute observer will notice that some of the lyrics, as they appear here, are not necessarily word-for- word the same as they appear on original albums, or in the anthology Stranger Music. I used the most recent sources I could find at the time --recollections from concerts I'd attended; the early-80s video, The Song Of Leonard Cohen-- and, since Leonard has a history of continually changing and adjusting his verses and lyrics, these sources may not jibe entirely with the reader's. In most cases --with the possible & arguable exception of my quote from "I Tried To Leave You," which was taken from the video instead of either the original LP or any later anthology-- the words' original (or subsequent) meaning has not been changed or modified in any way.
Copyright of the essay © 1997 by David G. Whiteis, USA. All rights reserved.
Copyright of the lyrics © by Stranger Music Inc, Los Angeles.