Note: This post is a sampler of Leonard Cohen’s literary uses of hair (e.g., using hair in a metonymic expression in a poem) and serves as a companion piece to The Leonard Cohen Hairstyle Gallery, which provides a collection of the hair cuts sported by the the Canadian singer-songwriter over the years.
The Hair Club For Singer-Songwriter-Poet-Novelist-Icons
“I comb my hair for possibilities” is a line from Leonard Cohen’s poem, “The Suit.” Two years ago, I observed in Does This Fashion Suit Leonard Cohen?, a post about a fashionable line of suits purportedly inspired by those verses, that, despite its somewhat misleading title, the poem is less about couture than coiffure:
More to the point, if that poem is to inspire a product, shouldn’t it be a hair product or haircuts or toupees or something hirsute-related? After all, there are two lines about a suit and 23 referring to hair and feelings the narrator experiences about his hair.
Indeed, “The Suit,” published in Flowers For Hitler by Leonard Cohen is a celebration of hair:
I am locked in a very expensive suit
old elegant and enduring
Only my hair has been able to get free
but someone has been leaving
their dandruff in it
Now I will tell you
all there is to know about optimism
Each day in hub cap mirror
in soup reflection
in other people’s spectacles
I check my hair
for an army of alpinists
for Indian rope trick masters
for tangled aviators
for dove and albatross
for insect suicides
for abominable snowmen
I check my hair
for aerialists of every kind
Dedicated as an automatic elevator
I comb my hair for possibilities
I stick my neck out
I lean illegally from locomotive windows
and only for the barber
do I wear a hat
The Human Body As A Convenient Source Of Literary Devices
It is hardly surprising that Cohen employs hair in the service of his literature. Few writers have not experienced the sort of desperation that drives scribblers of prose and poetry to consider body parts as literary devices first and a machine for living second. Whitman thematically focused on the entire human body in work like “I Sing the Body Electric.” Raymond Chandler wrote about a character in The Long Goodbye who”was eager to help but his legs were rubber . . . ” A complete book (Inscrutable Houses by Anne Colwell) is devoted to, as described by its subtitle, “metaphors of the body in the poems of Elizabeth Bishop.” Tongues, toes, teeth, and thyroids have all been used – with varying levels of effectiveness – as figurative language in prose and poetry.
Hair is no exception. Hair, in fact, is a sufficiently popular focus in pop music that lists of songs about hair have been generated, including the Top 10 Greatest Songs About Hair!, Black Music Month 2011: Top 10 Songs About Hair,  Songs About Hair, Celebrating Your Crown: 8 Songs That Make You Proud to be Natural, and many more. Poems, novels, and short stories in which hair plays a significant role are easy to find. Two of my favorite poems, each of which features hair as a primary element, should suffice as examples:
For Anne Gregory by W.B. Yeats
‘Never shall a young man,
Thrown into despair
By those great honey-coloured
Ramparts at your ear,
Love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.’
‘But I can get a hair-dye
And set such colour there,
Brown, or black, or carrot,
That young men in despair
May love me for myself alone
And not my yellow hair.’
‘I heard an old religious man
But yesternight declare
That he had found a text to prove
That only God, my dear,
Could love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.’
My Dream by Ogden Nash
This is my dream,
It is my own dream,
I dreamt it.
I dreamt that my hair was kempt.
Then I dreamt that my true love unkempt it.))
Leonard Cohen Does Hair
Female hair is rampant across Cohen’s work:
- Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye: Your hair upon the pillow / Like a sleepy golden storm
- Ain’t No Cure For Love” … on the bus. I see you lying down with me and I see you waking up. I see your hand, I see your hair, your bracelets and your brush.
- Dress Rehearsal Rag: …and a girl with chestnut hair, / and you passed the summers / picking all of the berries that grew there
- True Love Leaves No Traces: …So my hand upon your hair / And many nights endure
- Seems So Long Ago, Nancy: …And now you look around you. See her everywhere. Many use her body. Many comb her hair.
- Winter Lady: …She used to wear her hair like you / Except when she was sleeping / And then she’d weave it on a loom / Of smoke and gold and breathing
Less frequently but often more poignantly, the hair belongs to a male, as is the case in Famous Blue Raincoat: Yes, and Jane came by with a lock of your hair. She said that you gave it to her the night that you planned to go clear. Did you ever go clear?
Taking advantage of a literary convention, Leonard Cohen invoked Delilah’s emasculating haircut of Samson in “Hallelujah:”
She tied you To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
And, of course, Leonard Cohen was not always serious about hair; in the documentary film, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen,” a young Leonard Cohen lectures an audience on unwanted hair:
I think there should be a place for unwanted hair in our society. A hair museum… I think there should be hair asylums… college beards abandoned for careers… a man should be able to go into one of these hair asylums and, you know, review his whole life.
And in the opening lines of Tower Of Song, Cohen uses the graying of hair as a sign of aging.1
At least 40 of Cohen’s poems mention hair, and there are 46 references to hair in Beautiful Losers alone.
Since this is only an assortment of examples of Cohen’s use of hair in his songs and other literary work, there are no conclusions to be drawn beyond the conviction that Leonard Cohen is acutely aware of the appearance and significance of hair. Now, check out this artist’s own choices of hairstyles._____________________
- It is worth noting that Cohen wrote that line, “Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey,” when he was 54 years old. Springsteen has pointed out I was 24 when “I wrote ‘We ain’t that young anymore’ [in the song Thunder Road].” [↩]