Take this longing from my tongue

With his songs of love and God and unspeakable yearning, Leonard Cohen occupies his own place in the musical cosmos.

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Judy Collins loves to tell the story of the first time Leonard Cohen took
the stage, in 1968. She had met the young Canadian poet in the mid-’60s,
when he came to New York from a lengthy sojourn on the Greek isle of Hydra;
the folk explosion was news to him. He still thought songwriters had to go
to Nashville, and as laughable as it may sound to some, he thought
songwriting was the way to make some money. He had played her a few songs
then and, though she was impressed, there was nothing that blew her away. With her
pure, bell-like voice and radiant beauty, Collins had already established
herself as the interpreter of budding songwriters of the moment, a
sort of pop Joan Baez. Call me when you’ve got something I can use, she told
him, and back he went to his family home in Montreal.

He phoned her a few months later with a new composition, and while she
listened, long-distance, Cohen picked out the opening notes of “Suzanne,”
the song of the strange, untouchable beauty “wearing rags and feathers from
Salvation Army counters,” and she knew, she claims, she had a hit. She
recorded the song, and it was an immediate sensation; with its haunting
images of children “leaning out for love … while Suzanne holds the mirror,”
and a whole verse about Jesus (what was He doing here?), “forsaken, almost
human,” it wasn’t quite like any song anyone had heard. She coaxed
Cohen down from Canada to join her in a concert at New York’s Town Hall, and
he arrived in a suit, nervous. “He came out and began singing the song and I
knew he was shaking like a leaf because I’d seen his hands on the guitar,”
she recalled in a 1988 BBC documentary. “He got about halfway through the
first verse and he stopped and dropped his hands to his sides and said, ‘I
can’t go on.’ Then he turned and walked off the stage. And everybody went
crazy; they loved it. It was very avant-garde.”



Stage fright or no, Cohen used his big debut to good effect. There’s nothing
quite like the sight of a man before a microphone, too overcome to speak. Sensitivity was a much sought-after commodity then. Singer-songwriters as
disparate and geographically distant as Neil Young and Nick Drake seemed to
be vying for some bleeding-heart medal, and breaking down on stage, even
with an unconscious nod to Beckett (“I must go on”), seemed a savvy stage
move. Such stuff was old hat in poetry, of course, with walking-wounded
poets like Anne Sexton all but contracted to lose it during readings, and
with several volumes under his belt, Cohen was already an established poet.
(“I am the most distressed person here,” he told a poetry audience of 500
people around the same time as the Town Hall concert.) Pop music had known
such emotional extremes as well, of course. The legendary Johnnie Ray (whose
hits in the ’50s included “Cry” and “The Little White Cloud That Cried”) used
to collapse in a pool of tears at the end of each concert, and Cohen wrote poetry while listening to Ray Charles, Edith Piaf and Nina Simone.

For more than 30 years, Leonard Cohen has been stereotyped and derided by
both camps: Many poets thought his recordings were a betrayal of his craft
(his fiction, too, had been well received, winning him comparisons to James Joyce and
Henry Miller) while rock critics thought his songs too “poetic”; the guy
just couldn’t win. And though he never expected to top the pops with his
sonorous, funereal voice (“I was born like this, I had no choice/I was born
with the gift of a golden voice,” he sang in the 1988 “Tower of Song”),
“good singing” was relative in the post-Dylan world of folk/rock. Besides,
he despised the artificial division between poetry and song; the Tower of
Song he sang of was one that began with Solomon and Homer and worked its way
down to Hank Williams, still “a hundred floors above me/in the Tower of
Song.”

“I feel myself a very minor writer,” he told the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Hilburn in
1995. By then Cohen was 61 and living at the Zen Center on Mount Baldy, in Southern California, with
no plans to record or perform despite the reawakened interest in him and his
work. His last album, “The Future” (1992), had solidified his place
as a sort of Cassandra of contemporary culture, speaking the truth no one
wanted to hear while dancing away like Rumpelstiltskin when the world
reached out to embrace him (“You don’t know me from the wind/You never
will, you never did,” he sang on the title track, “I’m the little Jew/Who
wrote the Bible”).The man who just a year or so before had been engaged to actress
Rebecca De Mornay (one of a string of beautiful women he’s been paired
with) was now making soup for a dying Zen master. “I’ve taken a certain
territory, and I’ve occupied it, and I’ve tried to maintain it and
administrate it with the very best of my capacities. And I will continue to
administrate this tiny territory until I’m too weak to do it. But I
understand where this territory is.”

I was 14, living in a little town in Northern California, when I first heard Leonard Cohen. It was 1968 and the local PBS station (itself a recent
phenomenon) was broadcasting a Canadian documentary that featured scenes of
Cohen reading his poems and playing his songs over black-and-white montages
of leaves floating down streams. I immediately ran out and bought his debut
album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” and was transfixed, not so much by the
hypnotic singing or slightly cheesy soft-rock backing but by the words
and images themselves. It was like looking at my big brother’s Magritte
book, with its paintings of faceless men and trees with breasts; here were
handles on the road, drooling spirits, Cadillacs creeping through poison
gas. At a time when my own sexuality was just beginning to raise its head in
confusion, Cohen sang (on “Teachers”) that “Several women embraced me/and I
was embraced by men.” Golly. This was not the Monkees.
Fortunately, as a freshman in high school, I found other people who listened
to Leonard Cohen. They were all girls, however, long-haired girls in the
poetry and drama clubs, girls named Nancy and Mary who kept journals and
wore green stockings. They loved the
painting of Joan of Arc in flames that adorned the back of the album; the
saint was an obsession of Cohen’s. Though he grew up in a devoutly Jewish
family, French Catholic Montreal was suffused with the church’s icons, and
he wrote several songs about St. Joan. I was beginning to understand that the
fire I felt had its corollary in these young women, that if I was fire, as
the song said, they must be wood.

Cohen had confessed early in his career to writing poetry pretty much to
score chicks. By 1988 he was slightly more eloquent on the subject, telling
a BBC reporter, “Poetry seemed to be the natural language of women; if you
wanted to address women, you had to know this language.” By 1971 Cohen’s
second album, “Songs From a Room,” was out, and not only had his image
changed — he’d gone from looking like a funeral director on his first record to Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name on the cover of the second — but
he was sharing a bit of personal history as well. On the back jacket of
“Songs From a Room” was a photo of the beautiful, blond Marianne Jensen — the Norwegian woman of “So Long, Marianne”
fame, Cohen’s lover and muse of many years — sitting at a desk in a white room. Best of all, she was wearing
only a towel. The life of a poet didn’t look so bad.

“Songs From a Room” opened with two of Cohen’s masterpieces, “Bird on the
Wire” and “Story of Isaac,” songs that, taken together, defined his persona
as outsider and prophet, a man without a country and a citizen of the world.
On “Isaac” he took the point of view of Abraham’s nearly sacrificed son and
was merciless in his appraisal of the father. (Cohen’s own father died when
he was 9, and there is a tension in much of his work between his desire
to assume the role of the father and his need to refute it.) In the age of
Vietnam, when young people were being sacrificed for an idea, his
conclusions were unambiguous:

You who build these altars now
To sacrifice the children
You must not do it anymore
A scheme is not a vision
And you never have been tempted
By a demon or a god

Isaac’s story, like that of Job, has been spliced and diced since first it
was writ down, and Cohen was not the first to make a case for Abraham’s
evil. What was notable was the singer’s sense of certitude, the imperative
voice (“You must not do it anymore”). If the story of Abraham represented a cornerstone
of Judeo-Christian tradition, Cohen’s answer was unambiguous: Take this god
and shove it.

“Bird on the Wire” is, on the surface, a simpler song; it has been covered
hundreds of times in dozens of languages. Its clear language and meaning
seem universal. But in the second bridge, Cohen limns his own dilemma, one
that defined much of his art and his life: “I saw a beggar leaning on
his wooden crutch/He said to me, ‘You must not ask for so much.’/Then a
pretty woman leaning in her darkened door/She cried to me, ‘Hey, why not
ask for more?’” Caught between the spirit and the flesh, the specter of mortality on
one side of the street and a reminder of life’s pleasures on the other, is
it any wonder he took the middle path?

Cohen had become acquainted with Zen Buddhism while he was a graduate student at
Columbia in the ’50s, but now he was practicing. “There was something
very intriguing about the Zen training,” Cohen told Hilburn. Though he was an
artistic success, the singer’s personal life was in a shambles. He had broken
up with Marianne, and abuse of drugs and alcohol had led him to what he
called a “breakdown.” The Zen he practiced was tough compared with all the
sensual free-falling. “It was very rigorous,” he said. “We were like the
Marines of the spiritual world, and I enjoyed that. But after a while I
thought, ‘This is crazy,’ and went over the wall.”

By the early ’70s, Cohen occupied his own little place in the rock ‘n’
roll cosmos (though you couldn’t say he ever rocked). Robert
Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” employed his songs to such effect it
looked like the ultimate music video, and Billboard labeled him “the new
patron saint of the non-hippie hipsters.” There was something very
unpsychedelic about his image: the suits, the gravitas, the voice, the
flamenco-style guitar. (“Now I don’t want to give you the impression that
I’m a great musicologist,” he said in a 1995 interview, “but I’m a lot
better than what I was described as for a long, long time. You know, people
said I only knew three chords when I knew five.”) The early-’60s poetry
scene he had come out of in Montreal was as productive — and self-important — as
any going down in San Francisco or New York. “We all thought we were
immortal,” he said of his clique. “We had this mythological sense of our own
lives.”

Indeed, his first poetry collection was called “Let Us Compare Mythologies,”
and his celebrated second novel, “Beautiful Losers” (1966), told the story of
three (or maybe four) lovers who seemed to exist in a world of their own
making. The narrator, an amateur anthropologist trying to reconstruct the
myth of his life long after the others are gone, is driven and vexed by the
memory of his best friend, F. — who, true to his initial, fucks everything
that moves: the narrator, the narrator’s wife, the last surviving female
members of a Native American tribe the narrator is studying. F. ends up
“in a padded cell, his brain rotted from too much dirty sex,” but before he
dies he leads the narrator to a revelation, “the sweet burden of my
argument”:

God is alive. Magic is afoot. God is alive. Magic is afoot. God is afoot.
Magic is alive. Alive is afoot. Magic never died. God never sickened. Many
poor men lied. Many sick men lied. Magic never weakened. Magic never hid.
Magic always ruled. God is afoot. God was ruler though his funeral
lengthened. Though his mourners thickened Magic never fled …

In this ecstatic passage (which Buffy St. Marie later recorded as a sort of
incantation), Cohen has it both ways — god and shaman, mystic and the
pagan — and he didn’t need Timothy Leary to guide him. (Hydra, where he
wrote “Beautiful Losers,” was full of pleasure-seeking expatriates then, with
visitors that included Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, and Cohen had made
the acquaintance of LSD back in New York.) He had his own myths. He didn’t
need anyone else’s.

Whatever name Cohen had made for himself he seemed to squander in the
’70s. The albums were fewer and farther between, with great songs
(“Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Who by Fire”) mixed in with filler. Songs had
never come easily to him (“I’ve had to scrape them out of my heart,” he
once said), and his life’s drama, while supplying him with material, was
taking its toll. He met and married another Suzanne (Elrod) with whom he
had two children, Lorca and Adam (now a budding singer-songwriter himself),
but he continued his peripatetic ways, never settled, always restless. On 1975′s “New Skin for the Old Ceremony,” he sang:

Take this longing from my tongue
All the useless things these hands have done
Let me see your beauty broken down
Like you would do for one you loved

It has all the elements of a perfect Cohen lyric, from the internal rhyme
scheme to the sense of futility and unspeakable yearning that permeates his
vocal. Here is a man begging for love, for an end to love’s mystery, as one
would for water. His thirst is real and he quenches it by throwing himself
on love’s pyre.

Cohen’s career reached a nadir with the release of 1977′s “Death of a Ladies
Man,” produced by Phil Spector. In the 1970s, getting Spector to produce your
album was a sort of Hail Mary pass for artists out of ideas; everyone from
the Beatles to the Ramones went down that road and lived to tell about
it. “That happened at a very curious time in my life,” Cohen told the BBC in
1995. “I was at a very low point, my family was breaking up; I was living in
Los Angeles, which was a foreign city to me, and I’d lost control, as I say,
of my family, of my work, and my life. It was a very, very dark period. And
when [Spector] got into the studio it was clear that he was an eccentric,
but I didn’t know that he was mad.”

Surrounded by bodyguards and entourage, armed to the teeth and wacked on a
variety of substances, the inventor of the Wall of Sound finally locked
Cohen out of the studio where he tortured and overdubbed each poor number
to death. The result sounded embalmed, just as punk’s battle cry was calling
for blood and an end to such Wagnerian excesses. It wasn’t so much that
Cohen couldn’t get arrested as that some people thought he should be.

The final indignity came in 1984, when his eighth album, “Various Positions,”
was not released in the United States. A pity; the record stands as one of his best,
with songs that emphasized his deepening religious convictions (“If It Be
Your Will”) as well as his sense of irony (“Hallelujah”). This was mature
music; the sense of connection in “Night Comes On” signaled the true death
of a ladies’ man — and the birth of a mensch:

We were locked in this kitchen
I took to religion
And I wondered how long she would stay

I needed so much

To have nothing to touch

I’ve always been greedy that way

But my son and my daughter

Climbed out of the water

Crying, Papa, you promised to play

And they lead me away

To the great surprise

It’s Papa, don’t peek, Papa, cover your eyes

And they hide, they hide in the World

“Various Positions” went gold in Germany, however; Cohen’s fans are legion in
continental Europe. In 1986, after being laughed out of many record
companies’ offices, Cohen’s former backup singer, Jennifer Warnes, released a
collection of his songs, “Famous Blue Raincoat,” which marked the beginning of
a critical reevaluation of the artist and his work. By the release of “I’m
Your Man” (1988), Cohen was hip again — and a whole lot tougher-sounding. From
the opening lines of the first song, “First We’ll Take Manhattan” (“They
sentenced me to 20 years of boredom/For trying to change the system from
within”), it was apparent that this was not your father’s Leonard Cohen.
There was an edge here, a more sophisticated wariness than that found in
earlier albums — and a richer sound too, more road-tested, with more nods to
Kurt Weill than Jacques Brel. Experience had added a little treachery to
Cohen’s hand, and the humility learned from his religion allowed him to
laugh at himself.

I saw Cohen performing on campus at UC-Berkeley then. I didn’t really know
what to expect; I thought he might appear onstage with a guitar and a stool
and rasp his way through the oldies. Instead he took the stage dressed in a
gray suit, backed by a full-blown band (guitars, mandolins, synthesizers)
and two comely female singers whom he spent the evening eyeing like a
Marseilles pimp admiring his wares. The crowd was the usual eclectic
Berkeley mix, professorial types stroking beards, young sandal-clad women
swaying like it was a Grateful Dead show — and how they squealed when, on “I’m Your
Man,” Cohen improvised the line, “If you want a Jewish doctor/I’ll examine
every inch of you.” Suddenly it seems he has fulfilled his own, unique
poetry/pop destiny; he’s like a Barry White for poetry chicks, all served up
with jokes on himself and little dashes of Lorca. Stage fright is a thing of
the past; observing yourself is so much more harrowing than being watched by
a thousand strangers. He writhes now when he sings, as if just pulling the
words out pained him. “I ache in the places I used to play,” he sings, and
the audience, as one, is aching with him, or he for them. But when he leaves
the stage he is smiling.

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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