Memories: The Song
Leonard Cohen’s “Memories” first appeared on Death of a Ladies’ Man, the Phil Spector-produced album released in 1977. A second version of “Memories” with many of Spector’s trademark Wall of Sound features eliminated, was included on the 2001 release of the “Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979″ album. This second iteration is also notable for its addition of a saxophone solo by Paul Ostermayer.
Memories Video From I Am A Hotel: Background
The first video, which I’m cleverly calling Memories from I Am A Hotel, was produced as part of the short movie, “I Am A Hotel.” Scripted, directed, and scored by Leonard Cohen (with a co-writer credit given to Mark Shekter) and choreographed by Ann Ditchburn, “I Am A Hotel” consists exclusively of five loosely associated videos, each based on a Cohen song:
- The Guests
- The Gypsy’s Wife
- Chelsea Hotel #2
Memories stands out not only as the least popular of the group but also as the only non-acoustic piece in the sequence.
The lyrics of the songs are the only dialog in the movie with the video vignettes linked to each other by the recurrent appearance of Cohen’s character, a resident in the titular hotel, in each segment. The strengths and flaws of “I Am A Hotel” may be characterized by the observation that it is the kind of film that wins first prize at the Festival International de Television de Montreux.1
Within “I Am A Hotel,” the Memories video depicts a high school prom held at the hotel’s ballroom. Cohen not only appears as a resident of the hotel but also as the singer-bandleader providing live music for the dance from an elevated stage.
Memories Video From ZDF-TV Rockpop Special: Background
The second video, Memories from ZDF-TV Rockpop Special, has a less complex history and requires little explanation. This version was taped as part of Leonard Cohen’s October 31, 1979 performance of a set at the ZDF-TV Studio in München, Deutschland for later broadcast.2
The Verdict On Memories
In the spirit of full disclosure, I feel obligated to confess that I like the video of Leonard Cohen performing Memories for the ZDF-TV Rockpop Special – a lot. Heck, I even sorta, kinda like the Memories video from “I Am A Hotel,” although not as much.
“Confession” is the appropriate term in this instance. Both the song, Memories, and the first album in which it appeared have been the targets of negative commentary, if not outright contempt, from most fans of Leonard Cohen, the public in general, and music critics, This comment from Thomas D. Ryan “American Hit Network” writing on the Amazon page for Death of a Ladies’ Man, is reasonably representative:
To add injury to the insulting production, the lurid topics of most of this album’s lyrics are as dated as coke spoon necklaces. Cohen carries on in the pre-Aids era of mid-seventies decadence without ever managing to transcend his insipid surroundings. He sounds like he’s lost on the dance floor, trying to seduce whomever ambles by. “Memories” is almost beyond ridiculous. The arrangement is as decadent as anything ever mustered by the Roman Empire, all to service Cohen’s obsession with seeing his partners’ naked body.
The second version of Memories doesn’t fare much better. Ryan Kearney, writing a generally favorable review of the “Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979″ album in Pitchfork, could have been writing the official critical judgment on the track when he opines
There are a few other missteps. For instance, the one cut from Death of a Ladies’ Man, “Memories,” is infinitely more grating than the studio version. Forgoing any sense of tact, Cohen gives the song a full doo-wop makeover, coating the song– a sexual fantasy set at a grade-school dance– with irony.
And, leading the chorus of discontent and disgust is one Mr. Leonard Cohen, who famously explained to the July 8, 1994 BBC Radio 1 audience,
My most bizarre experience with a producer was with Phil Spector, with whom I worked in 1977 or 78, and we produced that grotesque album called Death of a Ladies’ Man.3
To be fair, he did seem to mean “grotesque” in the best possible way, and, in an interview some years later, he has called the album “semi-virtuous.”4
Similarly, Cohen stops short of outright condemnation in his comments from Leonard Cohen Obscured… A Haunting by Spector by Stephen Holden in Rolling Stone, January 26, 1978:
When I heard the final mix, I thought he [Spector] had taken the guts out of the record, and I sent him a telegram to that effect,” Cohen recalls. “I asked him to go back in the studio. I could have delayed its release. But I couldn’t have forced Phil back in the studio, and it might have taken another year. I view it now as an experiment that failed. But even within the failure there are moments. I think the album has real energizing capacities.”
As for the Memories track itself, these excerpts from Cohen’s concert tour introductions of that song are self-explanatory:
- This is a song I wrote a couple of years ago with the great genius of darkest Hollywood:Phil Spector.And it’s a song based on my extremely boring and pathetic life at Westmont High School in Montreal. It’s called Memories.(München 31/10/79)
- It brings me from the exulted and sublime considerations of these musicians and technicians to an extremely banal experience which I have put into a song frozen like a fly in amber and somewhat less important. But this is a song into which I’ve placed my most banal adolescent recollections and I think this song will probably live forever. It’s called Memories. (London 06/12/79)
- In this song we placed all our most irrelevant and banal adolescent recollections. (San Francisco 1985)
- Unfortunately, for my last song, I must offend your deepest sensibilities with an entirely irrelevant and vulgar ditty that I wrote some time ago with another Jew in Hollywood, where there are many. This is a song in which I have placed my most irrelevant and banal adolescent recollections. (Tel Aviv 24/11/80)
- Long time ago, in my distant middle age, I sat down with Phil Spector on a mahogany piano bench and collaborated with him, one of the most dismal periods of my entire creative life. I wrote a song into which I have placed my most banal adolescent recollections. A song of profound and abiding irrelevance, which will probably last forever. Oh, how I long for the day when upon these shabby balustrades of the “Concertgebouw”, you will erase one of the lesser names of Wagner, of Stravinsky and in its place, in bright and shiny gold letters, inscribe the name…(laughs). Forgive me great gods of music. I am but a tiny worm groveling in the bright illumination of your memories. That reminds me the name of the tune, it’s called “Memories.” (Amsterdam 30/10/80)
- The next song is one of my least significant songs. In it I have placed as though it were data in a tiny time capsule which is fired at a distant star and actually dissolves in the colder reaches of Space, far before its ultimate destination……In this tiny song I have placed all the irrelevant material concerning my extremely dismal adolescence. It is a song called “Memories,” (Bonn 03/12/79)
Happily, my training and experience in the fields of English literature and psychiatry enable me to proceed, unburdened by the errant beliefs artists may maintain about what they think they think. If they want to know what they think, they can make an appointment with me like everybody else.
When Leonard Cohen derides Memories, he isn’t apologizing for the song; if that were the case, he wouldn’t have included Memories in the sets he played at his concerts in 1979, 1980, and 1985.5 If Leonard Cohen is apologizing for anything, it’s for his enjoyment of a performance that is a spoof.
I suspect a significant factor in my fondness for the ZDF-TV Rockpop Special version of Memories is that I harbor a special affection for instances of Leonard Cohen having fun.6
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
First, it’s showtime.
Viewing The Memories Video From I Am A Hotel
Videoclip de Memories, del disco Death of a Ladies’ Man7 (1983)
There is little I can add in the way of analysis that would be helpful although, if necessary, I can talk the talk or, more accurately but less pithily, write the writing for flicks of this genre. As evidence of this boast, I’ve strung together, following the next graphic, some phrases I believe will evoke those turgid paragraphs stashed in most fine arts magazines (and also descriptions of wine tastings).
Flashes of color against an otherwise washed out palette of grays and off-whites .. both accost and alert the viewer to … vigor and balletic grace of the bellhop and the maid juxtapose … awkward, constrained meanderings of the inexperienced youth on the dance floor … their explicit, celebratory mimicry of sexual congress contrasts …self-mocking superfluity of exploding fireworks … unrequited longings … motions of the young dancers acting out … the singer-songwriter has called his “most irrelevant and banal adolescent recollections” … Cohen’s spontaneous and unsettling appearances as the hotel guest … tacit, uneasy compromises … conflict with social mores … simultaneously evokes and ridicules our primal psychosexual drives … existential … yada yada yada.
You get the idea. Too artsy, too fartsy for my taste but hey, as the American Bandstand kids would point out, the song has a beat and – apparently – you can dance to it (at least after a few years of professional training), the brassy sax solo grabs me in an indecent way, and Leonard as the sunglasses-clad implacable singer coupled with Leonard as the leering hotel guest encouraging the bellhop and maid toward the (titter) climax is as creepy-nasty-exciting as ones first illicit sexual liaison with someone a lot more experienced and adventuresome in bed.
Now for some fun …
Viewing The Memories Video From ZDF-TV Rock Pop Special
Leonard Cohen -Memories (München, Deutschland, October 31, 1979)
OK, if you don’t know that this is a funny video after viewing it, I probably can’t persuade you. Nonetheless, I do recognize my humanitarian obligations and that I owe it to you as a fellow inhabitant of this planet to at least attempt to rescue you from your tragic misperception of this presentation. I cannot ignore your plight and still claim to aspire to Heck of a Guyness.
First, the above set of screenshots featuring the singer and sax player from the Rockpop Special on top and those from the “I Am A Hotel” video below them is only a visual cue that the goal of the former, as is appropriate to a TV show called “Rockpop Special,” is no more and no less than entertainment, AKA fun, AKA let the good times roll. There are no deep insights to be gained, no universal truths to be revealed, and – thank goodness – no moral to be learned.
Also, I’m not the only one who finds the song funny. When Stylus Magazine compiled their Top Ten Funniest Leonard Cohen Songs, the #7 slot was occupied by – yep, you guessed it – “Memories” (the version from Death of a Ladies Man):
Death of a Ladies Man remains a criminally overlooked record, perhaps because merely listening to it actually feels like some sort of crime. Whether Phil Spector held a gun to Leonard’s head during the recording process or not is irrelevant; the music on display is clearly the result of two deranged drunks past their prime, lost in the wilderness and seeking salvation in… erm, booze and floozies. “Memories” is the ultimate old man’s leer—a swaying Weimar beerhall anthem of absurd horns and soaring chorus making epic poetry out of “won’t you let me see / Won’t you let me see / Your naked body.”
May it please the court, the above series of still shots from the Rockpop Special video is evidence I am presenting to indicate that Mr. Cohen, on or about the 31st day of October, 1979 did, at the ZDF-TV Studio in München, Deutschland, with intent and forethought, conspire to and commit personal enjoyment during the performance of the song known as Memories.
Part of the joke in Cohen’s performance of “Memories” is the absolute deadpan delivery which mocks the seriousness of the Frankie Avalon style of singing about teenaged love. Note that Mr. Cohen starts strong with his face firmly expressionless, but when he starts the first refrain of the key line, “Your naked body,” he can’t fight off the grin. In the video, he turns away at the point he gives up altogether the effort to restrain his smile.
And What About Frankie?
Frankie Lane, he was singing Jezebel
I pinned an Iron Cross to my lapel
[From lyrics of Leonard Cohen's Memories]
Of course, the singer referenced in the lyrics8 isn’t Frankie Avalon; it’s Frankie Laine, whom, conveniently for us, Leonard Cohen has described in his song introduction during his 1985 San Francisco concert:
One footnote: there is a singer mentioned in the first line of the first verse, the singer Frankie Laine. He’s to be remembered for his stellar rendition of “Jezebel”. Also for his sense of interpretation of “Swamp Girl”. That song has the memorable refrain, “That’s where my swamp girl lies”. Many’s the time these words come rushing to my mind. There’s another song of his :”Black Lace” : “Lady beware, every time that you wear lace, black lace”. Very good song. There is a better known : “Mule Train”, with the authentic cracking of bull hide whips. Mule train. So the Frankie Laine referred to in the very first two words of this song is the very Frankie Laine, the very Frankie Laine whose liver I have to describe.9
C’mon, doesn’t that intro strike you as a tad humorous, a bit amusing, perhaps just a step past the border into comedy territory?
Regardless, I have a bonus to offer.
Frankie Laine – Jezebel
Moreover, Leonard Cohen, Stylus Magazine, and I aren’t the only ones having fun. Check out the female vocalists, Jennifer Warnes (viewer’s left) and Sharon Robinson (viewer’s right), or, as I prefer to think of them in this specific performance, heirs to the grand tradition of the Vandellas, Pips, Miracles, Supremes, … and all the other backup singers who executed choreographed dance moves while singing every “shooby doop.” “shooby do ahh,” “shang-a-lang,” and “doo wop” in exactly the right place.
Keep in mind that this is the Jennifer Warnes who did her own “Famous Blue Raincoat” album of Cohen songs and the Sharon Robinson who has co-written a batch of songs with Cohen, including all the tracks on the “Ten New Songs” album. Singing “shoo-wa” and dancing in unison is not their usual m.o. Nope, that’s just “having fun.”
Finally, did you listen to Cohen’s words at the very end of the song, after the last “naked body” on the lyrics sheet – “her divine, her immaculate, … .” That, my friend, is what you call your hyperbole in the service of humor.
Is Memories Being Remembered?
The most heartening news for those, such as me, who get off on Memories10 is that there is a sign or two of it being rehabbed. I found Came So Far For Beauty, a report on the Cohen Tribute Concert in Sydney Australia, by accident:
After 190 minutes on stage and 34 songs, closing out the night – and the whole tour – came the third song for the evening from the ‘grotesque’ Phil Spector produced album. Maybe Phil is finally forgiven? Again the stage was filled with the whole cast and the band launched into Memories. There was some great interplay between Jarvis Cocker and Beth Orton, who had lots of fun reprising their interplay from earlier in the night, Jarvis rounding out the first verse with the plaintive “won’t you let me see your naked body,” Beth unequivocally answering in the negative in the next verse and Nick Cave, always a good choice to sing about naked women, doing the last verse dueting with Antony, who was rather drowned out in the melange. Lots of “woah, woah, woes” emanated from the backing gang before they marched off stage left.
Hope – for Memories and for seeing the naked body of ones partner – springs eternal.
- To clarify, not only is “I Am A Hotel” the kind of film to win first prize at the Festival International de Television de Montreux, it did win first prize at the Festival International de Television de Montreux. Diamonds In The Mine, provides more details about “I Am a Hotel,” quoting Jim Devlin, who wries in Every Style of Passion,
Getting the project off the ground and onto the screen ran into severe problems when the original backers, C Channel Pay-TV, went bust six days before shooting began. CBC came to the rescue and the rest is graphic imagery. The stars were Toller Cranston, the skater, in his first acting role and Anne Ditchburn who was also responsible for the choreography. It was set in the luxurious Victorian splendour of the King Edward Hotel in Toronto. Guests there over the years have included Candice Bergen, Rudolph Valentino, The Beatles, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling and Liciano Pavarotti. Filming lasted two weeks in May 1983 under the direction of Allan Nicholls, an associate of Robert Altman, with additional scenes directed by Don Allan. The producers were Leonard’s long-time friends Barrie Wexler and Moses Znaimer, and it was the first production by their new Blue Memorial Video company, so-called in honour of Leonard’s late musician friend David Blue (born Cohen, no relation), who had died the previous year and to whose memory the film is dedicated.
- According to the YouTube notes, the band at that taping included “Leonard Cohen – vocals, acoustic guitar, blues harp, Sharon Robinson – vocals, Jennifer Warnes – vocals, Mitch Watkins – guitars, Roscoe Beck – bass, Raffi Hakopian – violin, John Bilezikjian – oud, mandolin, Paul Ostermeyer – wind, Bill Ginn – keyboards, Steve Meador – drums.” Leonard Cohen Live lists the the complete set taped that day as follows: “1. Bird On The Wire, 2. The Guests, 3. So Long, Marianne, 4. The Window, 5. Famous Blue Raincoat, 6. Passin’ Through, 7. Memories, 8. The Guests (2), 9. Suzanne, -. The Partisan.” That same source notes that “tracks #1-2 were broadcasted on ZDF-TV ‘Rock-Pop,’ November 10, 1979″ and “tracks #3-9 were broadcasted on ZDF-TV ‘Rock-Pop Special,’ December 2, 1979.” [↩]
- My favorite Leonard Cohen quote about his experience with Spector is from Leonard Cohen Obscured… A Haunting by Spector by Stephen Holden in Rolling Stone, January 26, 1978, “Phil couldn’t resist annihilating me. I don’t think he can tolerate any other shadows in his own darkness.” [↩]
- Beautiful loser, beautiful comeback. by Fitzgerald in The National Post, 24 March 2001. [↩]
- Wikipedia [↩]
- See my post on another of Cohen’s songs, the performance of which I accuse him of enjoying: Elvis’s Rolls Royce. [↩]
- This is the title used in the YouTube posting, which also gives the year as 1977. The album was recorded in 1977. The film was shot in 1983. [↩]
- The lyrics in this video are those from the version of Memories in “Death Of A Ladies’ Man,” but the tempo, the lack of choir volume singing from the backup vocalists, and the overall sound resembles, to my ear at least, the “Field Commander Cohen” version. [↩]
- Frankie Laine went on to perform the title songs for seven motion pictures, including the 1974 Mel Brooks Western farce, “Blazing Saddles.” He also sang the theme to “Rawhide,” which became one of the most popular and frequently recognized theme songs of all time. [↩]
- I also enjoy almost every version of Baby, It’s Cold Outside, including the one done by Homer And Jethro With June Carter, because it has same “thrust by the boy, parry by the girl” structure that I like in Memories [↩]