Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox: In interviews through the years, Leonard Cohen has mentioned a handful of specific songs he favors. Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox is a Heck Of A Guy feature playing those tunes for your edification and entertainment.
Hank Williams & Leonard Cohen In The Same Neighborhood
I suspect that most viewers drawn to read a post titled “Your Cheatin’ Heart” Is On Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox already know of Cohen’s respect for Hank Williams, that song’s author and Cohen’s cohabitant in “The Tower Of Song.”
I said to Hank Williams: how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me
In the Tower of Song
- From “Tower Of Song” by Leonard Cohen
The problem is that the Heck Of A Guy Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox feature is song-specific by nature. That Cohen has repeatedly spoken positively of Hank Williams is all well and good, but for the purposes of this post, it would have been far more helpful had Cohen commented, for example, “If I had a jukebox, it would certainly have ‘Jambalaya’ on it” or “I just heard ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,’ and I dig it the most.”
Happily, Cohen has indicated, albeit indirectly, his admiration for the Hank Williams masterpiece, “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” In the following excerpt from A Teacher of the Heart: Leonard Cohen Shares the Wealth, 1 Leonard Cohen begins by explaining an apparent incongruity noted by the interviewer, Pat McGuire, about in his (Cohen’s) evaluation of his own poetry, segues into the contrasting prose-writing habits of Thomas Wolfe (throwing in Wolfe’s word per night rate and his use of kitchen appliances for a writing desk) and Flaubert, and neatly concludes with his longing to be as speedy a song writer as Hank Williams.2
[Pat McGuire] Let Us Compare Mythologies is being reissued. How do you feel about your first book of poetry?
[Leonard Cohen] It’s been downhill ever since. There are some really good poems in that little book.
[Pat McGuire] But you’ve said, “Last thought, best thought.” Is that a contradiction?
[Leonard Cohen] Well, those poems were not “First thought, best thought.” Even at that stage of the game. I was just in a different school. Thomas Wolfe used to write 30,000 words a night. He was a very tall man; he’d work on top of the refrigerator. And then there’s Flaubert, who writes the first thing over and over again in Madame Bovary until he gets the tone right. I don’t see any of these things as virtues, I just see it as the expression of one’s nature. If I could do it that way, I’d rather be with Thomas Wolfe. Take Hank Williams. He wrote “Your Cheatin’ Heart” in 20 minutes as a test. The publisher didn’t think he could do it, and they locked him in a room and he came back and gave them “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” I’d like to do that. [emphasis mine]3
While not made explicit, Cohen’s appreciation of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” is, I contend, made clear from the tone, syntax, and content.
Hank Williams, Sr -Your Cheatin’ Heart
Bonus – The Ray Charles Cover
Cohen clearly ranks Ray Charles highly in his pantheon of pop singers. Consider this passage from Leonard Cohen: The Poet as Hero, Part 1, His Songs & His Followers by Jack Batten:4
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. [emphasis mine]
… and this excerpt from Cohen’s poem, “You’d Sing Too”
You’d sing too
if you found yourself
in a place like this
You wouldn’t worry about
whether you were as good
as Ray Charles or Edith Piaf
Unfortunately, I have not yet found a Cohen reference to a specific Ray Charles song. Rather than miss an opportunity to post information about the connection between Ray Charles and Leonard Cohen, I’ve seized upon the admittedly tenuous link offered by the fact that Ray Charles covered “Your Cheatin’ Heart” to wedge in this small acknowledgment of the man Sinatra called “The Genius of Soul.”
Ray Charles – Your Cheatin’ Heart (1981)
Other Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox Posts
All posts featured in the Heck Of A Guy Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox series can be found at the end of the Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox Page._____________________
- A Teacher of the Heart: Leonard Cohen Shares the Wealth is an outstanding article for those interested in Cohen’s and Anjani’s perspectives on methodologies of writing and performing songs as they discuss their collaboration on the Blue Alert Album. It also contains a comment from Cohen buried in the midst of the interview’s conversational flow that strikes me especially acute and poetic and a spectacular example of Cohen’s ability to set forth exactly the right phrase, even in a question and answer dialog that could hardly be considered inspirational. Describing Anjani’s development as a singer, Cohen explains, “At a certain moment, her voice dropped from her throat to her heart.” The capacity to create that kind of line is the difference between Leonard Cohen writing lyrics to songs that move souls of listeners and me writing snarky blog entries. [↩]
- In a parallel, better known anecdote, Cohen ruefully compares his years of effort on “Hallelujah” to Bob Dylan’s claim that he wrote a song Cohen admired in a few minutes. That story is a matter for another post. [↩]
- A Teacher of the Heart: Leonard Cohen Shares the Wealth by Pat McGuire. Filter Magazine. June 26, 2007 [↩]
- Leonard Cohen: The Poet as Hero, Part 1, His Songs & His Followers by Jack Batten. Saturday Night, June 1969 [↩]