...Ah but a man never got a woman back
Not by begging on his knees
Or 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

          I'm Your Man

                                           I'm Your Man

The following review originally appeared in the Chicago Reader.
It has been revised for these pages and is reprinted with permission.
The review is of the Park West concert
in Chicago, Illinois (USA) on November 7, 1988.
The photograph of Leonard with Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen
was taken by Kate Grant
and appears in The Future 1993 World Tour Book.

Gifts of Light from
The Warrior of Love

By David Whiteis

Irony flows like a bittersweet river though the poetry and music of Leonard Cohen. The self-styled "patron saint of envy and grocer of despair", so often satirized as a gloomy merchant of suicidal visions and apocalyptic self-pity, reveals himself on closer inspection to be the harbinger of a strange but vibrant faith. At the heart of Cohen's vision is redemption and the conviction that it's truly attainable only for one who has experienced the void.

Cohen looks like one who has experienced the void. He stands onstage, gaunt and pale, enveloped in isolation and a darkness that seems to surround him even when the stage lights are on. His voice has lost some of the acidic bite it had during the late 60s and early 70s, but it's still the only instrument that does justice to his songs. Hollow and sepulchral, it seems to emanate from the depths of the haunted spiritual malaise that informs Cohen's unique poetic landscapes, landscapes peopled by doomed lovers, wounded heroines, madmen and saints.

Although his latest album, I'm Your Man, has been hailed as a departure from the bleakness of his earlier work, his recent appearance at Park West showed him to be in full command of his entire range, from darkly cynical commentaries on the state of the world ("Everybody Knows") through absurdist forays into slapstick comedy ("The Jazz Police") to surrealist mythology ("Take This Waltz"). For those who may have summarily dismissed Cohen after enduring too many misty-eyed versions of "Suzanne" in late-60s coffeehouses, the depth and breadth of his vision come as a welcome surprise.

Part of that surprise is due to the musical sophistication of his current show. Cohen's music has always had a subtlety that many of his critics have missed; his first recordings, with their country violins and mandolin accompaniments laid like lace over the drone of a distant accordion, harked back to Cohen's early days on the Montreal folk scene. Since then his music has become more cosmopolitan, gaining a weary sophistication that sometimes evokes the edge-of-apocalypse gaiety of Cabaret and at other times the ennui of Jacques Brel's cafe society as filtered through the smokey resignation of a male Marlene Dietrich.

Leonard with Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen by Kate GrantHis current band, comprised of solid session musicians with substantial track records in both pop and jazz, can do justice to all these facets of Cohen's musical personality. Even the inevitable pair of women singers (currently Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla), formerly relegated to ethereal moans and angelic "la-la-la" accompaniments, are given the opportunity to stretch out. They make the most of it, complementing Cohen's world-weary moan with a life-affirming, bluesy grit. Most impressive, though, is John Bilezikjian. He doubles on mandolin and oud with extraordinary facility; his solos, which both echo and elaborate upon Cohen's trademark single-chord arpeggios, provide some of the most musically satisfying moments to be found in any current pop context.

At the heart of the show, though, is the musical and spiritual force that has imbued Cohen's work since Songs of Leonard Cohen, his groundbreaking debut album in 1968. He approaches performance with a reverent dedication that might seem grandiose or just plain silly coming from anyone else, but which provides a clue to his appeal. In his poetry Cohen has described himself as a priest, and his performances are laced with sacramental overtones. He used to begin every show with "Bird On The Wire", he said, because it was a penitent song that returned him to his sense of duty to his audience, his muse, and himself. The sincerity with which he acknowledges his importance to his fans, and the dutiful humility with which he bestows his gifts, allow him to express ideas that might endanger the career of a lesser artist.

Consider, for instance, the role played by women in Cohen's world. When he's not idolizing them as havens of pleasure and sanctuary for wounded seekers and gallant soldiers ("Nancy", "Joan Of Arc", "Sisters Of Mercy") he's either leaving them ("The Stranger Song") or cravenly lusting after them ("Take This Longing", "I'm Your Man"). Yet his legendary sex appeal remains intact, even among women listeners whom one might otherwise expect to be offended by his carefully-crafted musical persona as a sexual adventurer.

Part of Cohen's appeal may be found in his willingness to transform macho demands into expressions of need and vulnerability. The extent to which he'll prostrate himself in song to win a woman's favors sometimes crosses the line from cravenness to outright self-degradation. In "I'm Your Man", he sings:

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...

Nonetheless, Cohen's vision of love is, at its heart, one of liberation -- even transcendence. He performs these rituals of humility at the feet of his goddess-like women in a spirit of mortification, as self- immolation meant to induce salvation and vision. One thinks here of William Burroughs' literary forays into sexual humiliation and addiction, as well as the connection between parts of Cohen's novel The Favorite Game and Burroughs's writing.

Also essential to Cohen's symbology of love is the political defiance that often suffuses his erotic imagery. His greatest love songs, such as "Joan of Arc" (a highlight at Park West), are peopled with soldiers, warriors, and heroic women seeking solace from the loneliness of their calling; these are love songs filled with raging fires and a sense of looming oppression. In this dark and frightening landscape, lovers meet and try to create a sanctuary against the oppressors of the spirit to whom power, greed, and glory are brutal and petty games played out on battlefields or in offices of high authority.

To Cohen, however, the power, the greed, and the glory are contained within the mutual and sacred struggle fought by lovers, who must both peel away their own preconceived notions of eros (When we fell together, all our flesh was like a veil / I had to draw aside to see the serpent eat its tail) and find a haven in a world where the supreme role of love is denied, and where those who seek it above all are persecuted.

This idea, that lovers are warriors in a holy battle against an oppression that chains the spirit, lies at the heart of Cohen's vision; it's here that his key to redemption is found. Even "Suzanne", for all its misty romanticism, tells of finding perfection in a companion who's "half-crazy" -- a direct challenge to conventional notions of propriety and accepted bounds of romantic longing.

In "Chelsea Hotel #2", written in the 70s about Janis Joplin, Cohen again finds something subversive and heroic in lovers coming together bent on finding new beauty in bodies, attitudes, and situations denounced or shunned by conventional society. The song's most memorable scene, in which Janis shoots up after some playful sexual bantering, is Cohen at his most tender and revolutionary:

And clenching your fist for the ones like us
who are oppressed by the figures of beauty
You fixed yourself, you said, "well, never mind,
we are ugly, but we have the music...

(In light of this, one fervently hopes that the obscene "No Fat Chicks" sticker affixed to Cohen's tour bus was someone else's idea of a joke and had nothing to do with Cohen himself).

This is not to say that Cohen sees light at the end of every tunnel. When he ventures beyond the mystical spirit quest of sexual union, his vision can be relentlessly bleak. His sense of spiritual burden has lightened up a bit since the wracked "The Butcher" (I came upon a butcher who was slaughtering a lamb / I accused him there, with his tortured lamb / He said listen to me, son, I am what I am / and you are my only child...) on 1969's Songs From A Room, but his view of the world remains dark. Outside the realm of love, redemption can be a cruel mistress.

"Everybody Knows", one of the most memorable outings on I'm Your Man and another Park West highlight, is Cohen's commentary on the current state of the world -- it's a relentless litany of failed political promises, betrayal, and onrushing destruction, a doomed panorama in which the night is dark and there is no morning. The only redemption here is in the gut-wrenching laugh of the cynic who finds his sole amusement in ridiculing those poor innocents who believed in hope while living in a world past salvation, and who must now be punished. The subversiveness of despair has seldom been expressed so powerfully.

"Who By Fire" is a chilling role call at the gates of death, as sung by a grim chanter who categorizes the victims by their mode of demise. Cohen moans the lyrics in a macabre, dry-timbred nursery-rhyme lilt:

Who by fire, who by water...
Who in your merry merry month of May
Who by very slow decay
And who shall I say is calling?

Characteristically, though, he saves his most burning vitriol for failed lovers. "Avalanche", a twisted spew of bitterness filled with cripples, hunchbacks, money-grubbing liars, and trapped souls, culminates in one of Cohen's most vicious declarations of rage and anguish:

You who wish to conquer pain
You must learn what makes me kind
The crumbs of love that you offer me
are the crumbs I've left behind
Your pain is no credential here
It's just the shadow, the shadow of my wound...

Yet even here, the spirit of redemption makes itself felt. Before the song is over the singer has spent his venom and he relents, admitting his underlying vulnerability:

I have begun to long for you
I, who have no need
I have begun to beg for you
I, who have no greed
You say you've gone away from me
But I can feel you, feel you when you breathe...

But ultimately, Cohen's message of salvation transcends music. His vision is redeemed most purely and simply by the sincere nature of his giving. He still highlights "Bird On The Wire", with its message of penitence and duty; by all accounts, it was written during a particularly bleak period in Cohen's life, and he sings it with the subdued strength of the survivor, a man staring wide-eyed and trembling into the hell he has just escaped. Although the Park West appearance was in the middle of a grueling tour of over 60 concerts, many of them one-nighters, he eagerly returned for three encores, each consisting of several songs.

The seriousness with which Cohen takes his priestly role is mercifully tempered by an unwillingness to take himself too seriously, as exemplified by the gently self-deprecating monologue he uses as his onstage intro to "Chelsea Hotel", as well as by lyrics like "I was born with the gift of a golden voice", from "The Tower Of Song" on I'm Your Man. Yet an aura of devoted purposefulness extends to his offstage demeanor: he speaks in measured tones, weighing each word carefully, often giving even the most mundane conversation a poetic eloquence that recalls the meditation from his prose poem "Lines From My Grandfather's Journal": Prayer makes every speech a ceremony. To observe this ritual in the absence of altars, arks, a listening sky; this is a rich discipline.

That this ability to meld poetry with everyday speech is an essential component of Cohen's aesthetic, as well as his spiritual vision, is evidenced in another prose poem, "How To Speak Poetry". Originally an entry in his 1978 book Death Of A Lady's Man, it's printed in the souvenir program of the current tour. In it, Cohen outlines his conviction that the most profound and wrenching poetic sentiments are the ones that must be expressed most matter-of- factly, without demonstrativeness or histrionics -- otherwise, he suggests, one runs the risk of sullying the material with cheap emotionalism and bathos:

There is nothing you can show on your face that can
match the horror of this time. Do not even try. You
will only hold yourself up to the scorn of those who have
felt things deeply... Speak the words, convey the
data, step aside. Be by yourself. Be in your own room.
Do not put yourself on.

Both Cohen and his audience have matured; he's sure of himself onstage these days, as he shouts out instructions to his band in a crisp, authoritative voice and breaks into hearty laughter as he banters with the crowd. The fans --although the crowd at Park West still included a number of ethereal women in rainbow garb who looked as if they'd just left Suzanne at her place by the river--no longer gaze in misty-eyed adoration. The Park West gig was as much a happy and informal get-together among old friends as it was a religious experience.

Nonetheless, Cohen still bestows his songs and poems like a benediction. "If It Be Your Will", for instance, is almost Blakean in its childlike yet elegant lyric simplicity, its determination to seek salvation and solace amid the terrors of the modern world, and its visionary depiction of sinners and sufferers as inheritors of glory:

And draw us near
And bind us tight
All your children here
in their rags of light
In our rags of light
all dressed to kill
And end this night
if it be your will

Leonard Cohen and his listeners may stumble through a burnt and dying land, wounded and raging at the chaining of the human soul; but they brave the dark, fending off despair with the hope that the spirit of their own giving may provide enough light to make it possible--if only barely--to believe in the coming of the dawn.

Copyright © 1999 David G. Whiteis. All rights reserved.

Abundant "thank yous" to David Whiteis for his continued
support of this site and for his enriching friendship.

Mr. Whiteis would welcome your comments.
Email him at Whiteis@ipfw.edu


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