Leonard Cohen: The Poet as Hero
-- His Songs & His Followers --
By Jack Batten
There's a large and important and noisy crowd of Leonard Cohen admirers out there who don't care, or maybe even know, that he won a 1969 Governor-General's Award for his poetry. They revere and adore Cohen as a poet, but few of them are among the fifteen thousand Canadians and more thousands of Americans who have bought his Selected Poetry this year and elevated the book to best-seller status. And their concept of Cohen's poetry, in fact of all poetry, and of the milieu in which it should naturally flourish, hardly squares with the view conventionally entertained by Eng. Lit. majors and poets-in-residence at leafy eastern colleges.
This different Cohen crowd is made up mostly of kids, of hard-core rock 'n' roll fans, of folkies, hippies and groupies, of young people who wear long hair and clothes that are, in a current favourite adjective of theirs, freaky. They take their Cohen, not off the printed page, but from record albums, and for exegeses of his work, they look, not in literary quarterlies, but to a San Francisco pop-music magazine called Rolling Stone. To them, Leonard Cohen is not the distinguished Canadian poet, not the respected Canadian novelist -- he is something grander: Leonard Cohen, the stone-perfect (to quote more jargon) Canadian folk-rock singer and writer.
The kids have made Cohen a pop star and have made his songs pop classics. They first recognized his special genius during his first important public appearance as a musical performer, at the 1967 Newport Folk Festival, when Cohen stole the audience's cheers from Joan Baez and Pete Seeger and the other established stars. When he cut his first record album, Songs Of Leonard Cohen, on Columbia, shortly after the festival, the kids bought it, and in 1969 they are still buying it at the rate of three thousand copies per week in North America. Now they're sending his second album, Songs From A Room, released early this spring, toward a Gold Record, symbol in the recording biz of a million sales.
What is perhaps more significant is that this young Cohen crowd has taken passionately to his "poetry" -- for to them, of course, the lyrics of all rock and folk songs are as poetic as anything in an anthology on a freshman English course. They discuss, analyze and agonize over the images in Cohen's songs, most especially over one haunting line from "Suzanne": "For you've touched her perfect body with your mind." They care about the line, care about Cohen. And in their final judgment of priorities, they rank Cohen right up there with the other great poets of the day, with Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Jim Morrison of The Doors, and Peter Townshend of The Who.
The usual custodians of poetry -- university lecturers, literary critics, editors of quarterlies -- have lately begun to appreciate that the kids may be on to something, that perhaps rock lyrics are poetry. A Partisan Review writer recently compared the Beatles' songs to Shakespeare, and at the University of Toronto at least one English lecturer is teaching songs by John Lennon and Mick Jagger in his first-year modern-poetry class. At the New School for Social Research in New York, meanwhile, learned symposia on rock lyrics make up a crucial part of a course called Expanded Poetry.
It's hardly true, of course, that all rock lyrics are consistently poetic or even literate. Indeed, most Top-40 songs are pure shlock, as moronic as anything from the Rock Around the Clock era of fifteen years ago. And even the "serious" rock writers, Dylan not excluded, are capable on occasion of turning out pretentious and dreadfully literary stuff. Then too, all pop songs, good and bad, have the superb advantage simply of existing as songs. A lyric that might otherwise look flat and without logical meaning on a printed page can acquire at least an emotional meaning from the music and the rhythmic momentum that accompanies it.
Still, for all the qualifications, the best rock lyrics of the last half-dozen years constitute a powerful, immediate, lively and colourful poetic form. They deal with an astonishing range of topics -- the delights and risks of drug-taking, explicit sex, revolution (very fashionable at the moment), infidelity, poverty, politics -- and convey a broad and unprecedented, at least for pop music, sweep of moods and emotions: alienation, fear, emptiness.
Perhaps the most effective lyrics leave aside specific subjects in favor of attempting to reflect the very essence and feel of today's world, to tell us all "where it's at." John Lennon, in his efforts to project the fragmented, disjointed chaos of the 1960s, has worked his way through surrealism ("I Am a Walrus"), social commentary ("Eleanor Rigby"), floating fantasy ("Strawberry Fields Forever") and ornate, druggy escapism ("Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds"). Lennon's images are invariably wild and flashing, and though they may not always make narrative sense, they capture almost exactly the swift, confusing whirl of our world.
Dylan, the other master of rock poetry, as well as Jim Morrison, Paul Simon (of Simon and Garfunkel), Peter Townshend, Mick Jagger (of the Rolling Stones) and a few others share Lennon's preoccupations and methods, but Leonard Cohen covers a slightly different corner of the pop music scene. Cohen explores and chronicles a smaller world than the others, a place where people actually fall in love but are unable to sustain their love. Men and women, in Cohen's songs, are always separating, at least physically. But they aren't necessarily experiencing a breakdown in their loving relationship; rather they're suffering a failure of commitment. And that, in 1969, is a subject that intrigues all the kids.
Alice Freeman first met Leonard Cohen in a room at the Four Seasons Motel in Toronto one morning around eight o'clock. The meeting happened six years ago when Alice was eighteen and at university; she was just as pretty then and as fiercely intelligent as she is now, but she also had a dreamy, romantic streak that she prefers to deny today. Like a lot of other bright young girls, who make up the largest part of Cohen's pop audience, she got to him simply by phoning him, and when he said (as he invariably does) sure, come around and talk, she found herself knocking on his motel-room door and feeling very comfortable about it.
"I remember looking at his feet for a long time after he asked me into the room," Alice says of the first meeting. "He was wearing just socks and his feet were very attractive, and then I noticed that he wasn't as tall as I expected. He acts taller than he really is. I've heard other women say the same thing.
"I stayed for two hours and we talked about absolutely everything. It was a terrifically intense conversation and I went through two complete packs of cigarettes while we talked. He had a guitar beside him on the bed. I'd read The Favorite Game and The Spice Box of Earth, and I knew him as a novelist and poet but not as a musician or song writer. At one point, he picked up the guitar and sang a poem he'd set to music -- it was the one from Spice-Box that begins 'Hold me hard light, soft light hold me' -- and it was a totally beautiful moment.
"But mostly, that first time, it was the talk. You have to be very alert with Leonard because he jumps topics all the time. His mind slides back and forth in subjects and in time and even in the sort of language he's thinking in. He's so intense, and I remember after I went home from the motel, I got into bed and slept for the rest of the day."
Alice has met, phoned and written to Cohen many times since the first meeting. She once addressed a letter to him c/o General Post Office, Athens, Greece, and it found him. She saw him in a bar in New York near the Chelsea Hotel, and she has had coffee with him in half a dozen different places in Toronto. And one time she phoned a furnished apartment in Montreal where Cohen was staying. Marianne answered; she was the lovely blonde Norwegian girl Cohen lived with for many years and, Alice recalls, "she had a voice like an angel -- really, when she talked, you could hear little bells tinkling."
Then there was the concert at York University a couple of years ago, just before his first record came out.
"What he did, he mesmerized the five hundred people in the hall," Alice says. "He walked on to the stage and lit some incense and looked out in the audience and said very quietly, 'The person here in the most pain is me.' Then he went into a soft chant and got everybody in a nice trance. After that, he talked and read and sang for three hours and every single person worshipped him. It turned into a Leonard Cohen love-in night."
When the concert was over, Cohen did something characteristic that both disturbs and attracts Alice -- he got up and walked away, leaving behind everything, his books, his incense, his guitar. He vanished so successfully that the girl who promoted the concert couldn't find him to hand him his fee for the night.
"He's always doing that, disappearing and deserting his people and his possessions," Alice says. "He's always alone, and he does almost all of his living inside his own head. He never really lives anywhere physically and I always wonder where he changes his clothes and what he does with his underwear.
"He actually does see himself as a constant wanderer, as a kind of travelling body of pain. You can hear all of that in the words to his songs, and I think the image of Leonard in pain, in danger, attracts a lot of girls. I mean, it isn't a big sex thing with most of them. They want to mother Leonard and protect him.
"I worry about Leonard -- like, is he going to be alive next year?"
Cohen has always made it clear that he feels more comfortable in the bright, airy, emotional world of pop music than he does in the more intellectual world of poetry.
"I've always felt very different from other poets I've met," he said a couple of years ago. "I've always felt that somehow they've made a decision against life. I don't want to put any poets down, but most of them have closed a lot of doors. I always felt more at home with musicians. I like to write songs and sing and that kind of stuff."
He started playing his guitar in 1950 when he spent the summer at a socialist camp near Montreal, but he wasn't attracted to the instrument for purely musical reasons. In his early teenage years, he tended to be the fat little kid that nobody liked, and a guitar seemed an instant-popularity device. "I used it as a courting procedure," Cohen says. "Probably I got down on my knees to serenade a girl. I was shameless in those years."
To this day, his guitar playing suggests a skill acquired around campfires and honed at solemn gatherings of folk-song devotees, and for all its aptness and, at times, funky spirituality, it remains rather rudimentary and functional. So, for that mater, does his singing. Cohen's voice is hardly a smooth, practiced, musicianly instrument; most often, in quality, it's strongly reminiscent of Bob Dylan's essentially unmusical voice. But then, an enormous number of today's pop singers sound like Dylan simply because he was the first to realize that you could take an ordinary voice and, by adding some honestly felt emotion, by working in a few phrasing tricks perfected by older country-and-western singers, by throwing in some inflections familiar to Negro city blues shouters, you could create an extraordinary vocal style. Cohen has followed something of the same process, adding for extra effect a handful of licks from Ray Charles, the black singer and pianist who evolved, out of the blues, gospel music and jazz, the style known today as soul. Cohen has said that for one long period he listened to old Ray Charles records until they warped. And the Charles influence is obvious, for instance, in Cohen's recording of his own song, "So Long Marianne," especially in the chorus with its dying, soulful melodic line and its use of a female vocal group who sound like a white version of Charles' back up singers, the Raelets.
Cohen probably surpasses Dylan in his ability to communicate a certain hushed, appealing, fragile emotion. "Cohen's voice has been called monotonous," Robert Christgau wrote, correctly, in Esquire last year; but, he went on, also correctly, "it is also the most miraculous vehicle for intimacy the new pop has produced."
Part of Cohen's impact of intimacy stems from the absolute clarity of his voice. His words ring like pebbles dropped in a brook -- neat, clean, trim, unmistakeable -- and his diction never falters, an essential skill for a singer to whom the lyrics are everything. Well, perhaps not quite everything: Richard Goldstein, in his recent book, The Poetry of Rock, noted that "Cohen's rock songs have the consistency of modern verse, but unlike linear poetry, they are wrapped tightly around a rhythmic spine."
Truly, Cohen's best songs are perfect little units of melody, metre and verse, but finally the message of the lyrics contains for most listeners Cohen's basic appeal. And the message is intense, personal and private, drawn out of Cohen's own soul: more than any other song writer, Cohen is at the dead centre of almost everything he sings and writes. Most of his songs are first-person narratives, and the more you listen to them and absorb them, the more you become convinced that they are an autobiography of Cohen's emotions.
Taken altogether, the songs set up a wounding ambivalence, which explains much of his attraction for kids today. On the one hand, Cohen sings, he loves his women deeply, sexually, romantically -- loves them in every conceivable way, in fact, except in some domestic, monogamous sense -- but, on the other hand, he eventually inevitably leaves them. He has no choice -- he must leave them, as he makes clear in "So Long Marianne":
Well, you know that I love to live with you,
But you make me forget so very much.
I forget to pray for the angels
And the the angels forget to pray for us.
Separation, Cohen says, isn't a disaster anyway. In fact, leaving someone you love may be a downright beneficial step, and he asks his women to understand that new fact of life. "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye" makes his point:
But let's not talk of love and chains
And things we can't untie,
Your eyes are soft with sorrow,
Hey, that's no way to say goodbye.
But maybe it's all a brave front; maybe the cool and the bravado about leaving love behind, moving on, is a cover for something real and painful inside Cohen's own head. Maybe he's the suffering one. He suggest this may be exactly true in "Bird On The Wire":
Like a baby stillborn
Like a beast with his horn
I have torn
Everyone who reached out for me.
After awhile it all begins to tumble into place -- the private, intense man, Alice Freeman's image of this travelling body of pain, the Ray Charles soul and the Bob Dylan sound, the urgency, the intimacy, the adoration of the ambivalent kids. It all adds up. Leonard Cohen is a poet.
Leonard Cohen: The Poet as Hero
-- Cohen Remembered --
By Don Owens
I first met Leonard Cohen in the late 1950s, when he used to come down to Toronto with Irving Layton for the poetry readings that were held in the old Greenwich Gallery on Bay Street. There was a considerable literary scene in Toronto at that time, and once a month the gallery would be filled with Harris tweed jackets, Viyella shirts, Karen Bulow ties, baggy grey flannel trousers and desert boots, mixing it up with peasant blouses and skirts with lots of crinolines under them. I didn't spend much time with Leonard on those evenings, though -- held back, I suppose, by a certain resentment that he was coming on so strong on my turf. I could get used to the idea that he was a better poet than I was, but he always seemed to leave the gallery with the most interesting woman there, the one I'd spent all evening trying to get up enough nerve to say hello to.
When I moved to Montreal a while later I started hanging out in the coffee houses on Stanley Street that Leonard also frequented when he was in town. He was still in his Golden Boy bag at that time. He was plump and handsome and had published his first novel, The Favorite Game, and all the pretty girls loved him. I'd see him come smiling along Sherbrooke Street with either Robert or Morton, his two old childhood friends. They'd be dressed impeccably in dark grey Brooks Bros. suits and button-down Oxford Cloth shirts, on their way to the Ritz for a drink and dinner. It was too easy to resent what looked so good and you couldn't be part of.
In spite of myself I got to know and like his quiet wit and easy generosity. When one of the girls that hung out on Stanley Street became pregnant by a guy who quickly left town when he heard the news, Leonard went around and dug the money out of whoever he thought had some, giving the largest amount himself to help her out. His generosity also included being loyal to old friends who had become bores, and loving to those who had no reason to expect it.
If Leonard's easy to be with, it's not something he's always able to feel about others. If the going gets rough he might make a quick remark that nobody has to understand or laugh at, and depart abruptly for the corner drugstore to buy half a dozen strawberry ice cream cones. But though he insists on being free, he does make a point of returning for at least his share of the suffering. Leonard's very concerned with the idea of taking his share of the pain, the necessity of losing at least as much as you win. His songs are a kind of therapy he engages in to keep from going nuts while confronting his losses. This is the tragic view of life, that you are free to the extent that you are able to confront your own death.
I became one of a group of friends who met frequently in Robert Hershorn's apartment way up on Pine Avenue, a house on the hill with a white verandah, overlooking the city. Nearly everyone played an instrument -- bongo, harmonica, guitar -- and the music would go on till dawn. Leonard occasionally would sing one of his poems. Some of those moments are captured in spirit on the records, though the mood of 1961 was much gayer.
Then Leonard would decide that he had work to do. There would be a dinner party at the Athens restaurant on St. Lawrence Main with plenty of ouzos and retzina, and then he would be off in the morning to Greece. He would be gone for a few months or a year, and with each successive return would be thinner and more pained looking. Everything else about him would have increased.
If you listen to a Cohen song long enough it seems to lose its meaning. In the "Stranger Song" for instance, the stanzas almost cancel each other out. It's his way of insisting that nobody's to blame for the separation and loneliness.
Leonard's been writing and singing songs for a long time, since long before Bob Dylan came on the scene. But he kept going back to Greece to write his books, and few people got a chance to hear what he was doing. Had he gone to New York in the first place, Dylan might have felt no need to change his name from Zimmerman. In this context I'm reminded of that interview Beryl Fox did with Leonard a few years ago on Seven Days. It went something like this:
BERYL: Now that you're become a singer, are you thinking of changing your name?
LEONARD: Yes, I'm thinking of changing my name to September.
BERYL: (incredulous) Leonard September?
LEONARD: No, September Cohen.
Leonard decided to deliver his application for a Canada Council grant in person. He was broke, but he borrowed enough money to hire a huge black limousine with uniformed driver. With the glass partition firmly shut, he spent the trip in the back seat with a friend, getting stoned and having a hell of a good time singing and playing music. When they arrived in Ottawa they somehow managed to get their hands on a wheelchair, and took turns pushing each other in and around and about the Canada Council offices, serenading the secretaries and causing a big uproar. It was from this visit that he got money to go back to Hydra and write Beautiful Losers, in which there is a very funny scene concerning two men being driven to Ottawa in a large car.
I found Beautiful Losers difficult to read, it was so word-bound and awkward, and I didn't feel that the author understood the material that he was dealing with. But I was touched by the painful break between the erotic and the spiritual in the book. It isn't until much later, in the song "Suzanne," that Leonard's work reflects some resolution of this conflict.
It's very Eastern, this idea that the erotic is at the very core of the spiritual, and that if you give yourself wholly to another person's mind, the bodies will take care of themselves. It takes a great deal of courage to confront the sexual fear that separates us all. In part, it's this sexual courage that makes Leonard so popular with the kids, who make fewer distinctions in sexual matters than we do.
Only drowning men can see him. This line suggests Leonard's notion of the religious idea being a technique for remaining sane in the face of despair. I suppose this is connected with the fact that I now hear about Leonard being involved with Scientology. The thought of Leonard holding those two cans in his hands appalls me, but I suppose it's the result of his commitment to the idea of exploring everything. I expect he'll do what he's always done, go right through it and out the other side. If I have any reservations, it's for his increasing band of admirers, few of whom are as quick on their feet as he is.
In the last few days I've met two young girls who both claimed to be in love with Leonard. One of them told me that she left her home in Vancouver and came East with the express purpose of having an affair with him. I asked her if her name was Marita, because I remembered something that occurred a few years ago. We were sitting in a sidewalk café in Montreal, talking about growing old, when Leonard took out his felt pen and wrote on the concrete wall that ran beside our table:
It's possible that our generation (Leonard's and mine) is the first one ever to be so deeply influenced by the generations coming after it -- the Beatles, Dylan, hippies and flower children, the New, New Left. In many ways we are less their teachers than they are ours.
Please find me
I am almost thirty