Category Archives: Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen, Snakes And Ladders, Sisyphus, & Songwriting – Part 1

So we struggle and we stagger
down the snakes and up the ladder
to the tower where the blessed hours chime

– From “Closing Time” by Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen’s Lapidary Lyrics Obscured

Concise, elegant, overdetermined lines and images supersaturate Leonard Cohen’s lyrics. In a song like “Closing Time,” rife with cunningly memorable phrases — the Johnny Walker wisdom running high, all the women tear their blouses off and the men they dance on the polka-dots, and I swear it happened just like this: a sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss, the place is dead as Heaven on a Saturday night, busted in the blinding lights of closing time, and the Holy Spirit’s crying, “Where’s the beef?” – competing for the listener’s attention, even gems such as the object of our attention today, “So we struggle and we stagger /
down the snakes and up the ladder,” may be underappreciated or overlooked altogether.

This two-part post is an examination of a Cohen song fragment undertaken to enhance the understanding of the concept contained in those few words and to then use those lines to demonstrate Cohen’s genius as a songwriter.1

The second of these posts will deal with Leonard Cohen’s songwriting skills exhibited in these lines. Today’s entry is devoted to the cultural notions embedded in the snakes and ladder down and up which, respectively, we struggle and stagger.

Why Is Leonard Cohen Singing About Snakes And A Ladder?

It turns out that, notwithstanding Leonard Cohen’s mastery of American dialect and customs (“where’s the beef” is, after all, the phrase in his lyrics, not “where’s the poutine”), he sometimes lapses into Canadian.  Typically, that just means folks from the U.S. are subjected to the letter “u” showing up in words where it has no business (e.g., The Favourite Game), but in this case British empire-building and American marketing have combined with Cohen’s Canadianism to cause a potential knowledge gap, especially for those residing outside the British Commonwealth. And  who is to resolve this problem if not DrHGuy?

This musical excerpt from “Closing Time” begins just before Cohen sings the pertinent lines:

Leonard Cohen – Closing Time
Weybridge: July 11, 2009
Video by albertnoonan

What’s Leonard Cohen’s Game?

The short answer to the question of the origins of the lyrics, as anyone who spent his or her childhood years in a British-speaking (rather than American-speaking) region knows, is the children’s game that made its way from ancient India

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jnana bazi or Gyan bazi: Jain game that was brought to England as Snakes & Ladders. 19th century, India

to England where it came to be called called Snakes and Ladders.  The French version of the game marketed in Canada is called Serpents et Echelles [Snakes and Ladders].

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The confusion arises from those always troublesome American colonies now calling themselves the United States, where the game became known as Chutes and Ladders.

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chutes

Indeed, in the Milton Bradley game sold in the US, snakes

snake

… have been replaced by chutes, aka playground slides.

slide

At this point, a knowledgeable and skilled psychiatrist might well comment that changing a game’s phallic snakes to yonic chutes carries certain psychosexual implications.

Consider it so commented. One also notes that while organized religions have invoked extraterrestrial visitors, promoted machines that detect ones spiritual state, and accepted all manner of miracles, none have yet held a playground slide guilty of tempting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

But there is, inevitably, more.

The Morality Play

This may be another “everybody knows” thing that was a revelation to me only because my childhood pastimes included neither Chutes and Ladders or Snakes and Ladders.2 In any case, I was unaware of the game’s blatant moral didacticism, which raises the possibility that others might be similarly naive.

The V&A Museum Site (which is also the source of the image of the 1920s Snakes and Ladder game pictured earlier in this post) offers this description of the game:

Snakes and Ladders has been a favourite race game in Britain for over 100 years. When it was originally devised Snakes and Ladders was a moral game with virtues in the shape of the ladders, allowing the players to reach heaven quickly, while the vices, in the shape of snakes, forced the player back down. Snakes and Ladders is probably based upon a very old Indian game called Moksha-Patamu, which was used for religious instruction and had 12 vices but only 4 virtues. According to Hindu teaching, good and evil exist side by side in man: but only virtuous acts – represented by the ladders – will shorten the soul’s journey through a series of incarnations to the state of ultimate perfection. Human wrongdoing symbolised by the head of the snake leads to reincarnation in a lower, animal form.

The description of the Indian game at 5 Classic Board Games With Disturbing Origin Stories differs in some particulars but the theme remains clear.

Over there [India], the game was known as Vaikuntapaali or Paramapada Sopanam, which meant “the ladder to salvation.” Sure enough, all this “salvation” business has to do with Hinduism, and all those snakes scattered across the board are temptations. Except that, in this version, landing on a snake’s head didn’t just send you back a few squares. The idea is that for each temptation you land on you die and have to go through life all over again. Vaikuntapaali was meant to illustrate how even a successful life can be ruined at the zero-hour due to one small screw up. Some of its original squares of “evil” included disobedience, vanity, vulgarity, theft, lying, drunkenness, and debt. As you advance through the game, you have to contend with still greater challenges such as rage, greed, pride, murder, and, yes, lust. As though the game we know today isn’t frustrating enough, in the Indian original it is virtually impossible to advance to the end without landing on at least several temptations. It’s almost as if whoever came up with this fun party game viewed everyone as some kind of a Hell-worthy sinner, especially those with the unfortunate luck to land on temptation after temptation for eternity

Victorian England bought into the notion that virtues like thrift, penitence and virtue took the player to the top of the ladders while mischievousness and misbehavior cause the player to fall behind.

A more explicit and graphic explication of the British game, with several examples charting bad behavior and punishment can be found at Snakes and Ladders – Vintage Jane: 28 August 2013. An excerpt follows:

Thrift brings fulfillment …

good

but don’t brag about it because conceit results in friendlessness!

bad

Wikipedia’s description of the Chutes and Ladders version follows:

The most widely known edition of Snakes and Ladders in the United States is Chutes and Ladders from Milton Bradley (which was purchased by the game’s current distributor Hasbro). It is played on a 10×10 board, and players advance their pieces according to a spinner rather than a die. The theme of the board design is playground equipment–children climb ladders to go down chutes. The artwork on the board teaches a morality lesson, the squares on the bottom of the ladders show a child doing a good or sensible deed and at the top of the ladder there is an image of the child enjoying the reward. At the top of the chutes, there are pictures of children engaging in mischievous or foolish behavior and the images on the bottom show the child suffering the consequences.

I would suggest that the impact of the morality lesson is attenuated when misbehavior results in a symbolic slide down a favorite piece of playground equipment.

Part 2 Coming Up: Leonard Cohen Has His Way With Words

Note: This core idea of this two-part post comes from Down The Snakes And Up The Ladder With Leonard Cohen, which was published at this site on January 8, 2010.

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  1. For a similar exercise, see Cohensubstantiation – Leonard Cohen Transforms Mundane Tea Into Suzanne’s Exotic Elixir, []
  2. I should point out that the reason I didn’t have time to play such games was that I was too busy attending various church services where our morality lessons were served straight up – usually in the form of reminders that the “wages of sin are death” and sermons describing the invariable and direct cause and effect linkage of impure thoughts or misbehavior and an agonizing eternity spent in hell – rather than disguised as a leisure activity. Snakes and Ladders? We didn’t need no stinking Snakes and Ladders. []

Video: Leonard Cohen Talks About Buddhism, Critics, Going On Tour, Book Of Longing, & More With Philip Glass – London 2007

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Leonard Cohen and Philip Glass met for a conversation with John L Walters and to answer questions from the audience prior to the UK premiere of The Book of Longing, the Song Cycle based on the poetry and artwork of Leonard Cohen with music by Philip Glass. While much of the program dwelt on the Book Of Longing production, several other topics arose as well, including a recitation of A Thousand Kisses Deep by Cohen, Cohen’s retelling of the critic’s characterization of him as a “boring old drone,” Cohen’s report of his first interview with Roshi, and Leonard Cohen’s announcement that he would be going on tour in 2008. The entire discussion is studded with Cohen’s humor.

Note: The video is divided into five parts (total time: 34 minutes). Clicking “Play All” on the embedded video will cause the five videos to automatically play in sequence. There is some audio reverb that requires some effort to follow the dialogue.

Leonard Cohen & Philip Glass
Barbican Hall, London: October 20, 2007
Video by videodharma

Bobby Darin’s If I Were A Carpenter Is On Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox

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Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox

Biggest Influence on My Music – The jukebox. I lived beside jukeboxes all through the fifties. … I never knew who was singing. I never followed things that way. I still don’t. I wasn’t a student of music; I was a student of the restaurant I was in — and the waitresses. The music was a part of it. I knew what number the song was.

- Leonard Cohen (Yakety Yak by Scott Cohen, 1994)

Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox: Over the years, Leonard Cohen has mentioned a number of specific songs he favors. Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox is a Heck Of A Guy feature that began collecting these tunes for the edification and entertainment of viewers on April 4, 2009. All posts in the Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox series can be found at the Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox Page.

ifiwere

Bobby Darin – If I Were A Carpenter

Take that ballad Bobby Darin sings, If I Were A Carpenter–that’s as good a ballad as any Scottish border ballad. It really is right up there.
- Leonard Cohen (1966)1

If I Were A Carpenter was written by Tim Hardin, a singer-songwriter Cohen admired.2 Hardin also recorded the song and performed it at Woodstock in 1969, but Bobby Darin’s rendition, released in 1966, proved more popular, rising in the charts to #8 in the US and #9 in the UK.

Video

Bobby Darin – If I Were A Carpenter
TV Special: March 1973

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  1. From A Session With Poet Cohen by Jon Whyte, Patricia Hughes, Terry Donnelly, and John Thompson. The Gateway: December 2, 1966 []
  2. See Tim Hardin’s “Bird On A Wire” Is On Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox and Tim Hardin’s Don’t Make Promises You Can’t Keep Is On Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox []

Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows by Harvey Kubernik – A Delight For Cohen Fans

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Full Disclosure: I wrote some material and assisted with some of the art for Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows. Nonetheless, I can in good faith assure readers that the enthusiasm expressed in this review is not simply a function of me sucking up to the author, the publisher, and, indirectly, Leonard Cohen – it’s also a matter of self-aggrandizement. Happily, that enthusiasm is absolutely justified.

Resplendent Art; Masterful Prose

Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows is a large format (275 x 215 mm) volume of 224 pages hosting more than 200 expertly reproduced photos, many of which fill a complete page or more and some of which have never been published before.

Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows is also a book filled with both Cohen’s own quotations and commentary about the Canadian singer-songwriter that are engaging, insightful, and informative.

Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows is either the most textually substantive coffee table book ever published or the most lavishly illustrated narrative about a Canadian poet-novelist-singer-songwriter-icon on the market.

Format

Each chapter opens with a timeline that alerts the reader to the era of Cohen’s life and career being covered and is informative as an independent segment.1

hbktimeline

Much of the text is integrated with graphics within strikingly designed layouts (see examples below).

Also included is an extensive discography compiled by Jim Devlin.

Content

Quotes by Leonard Cohen, harvested from several of his interviews, are featured throughout the book.

hbookpage

While Harvey Kubernik authors much of the original commentary himself, he has recruited a large number of individuals with varying perspectives on Cohen to contribute substantial portions of the text. Included in this group are writers (e.g., Sylvie Simmons, Ira Nadel, James Cushing, and Alan Light), musicians (e.g., Perla Batalla, Sharon Robinson, Jennifer Warnes, and Charlie Daniels), producers (e.g., Bob Johnston, John Lissauer, and John Simon), and Cohen aficionados (e.g., Jarkko Arjatsalo,2 Jim Devlin,3  and – yep – Allan Showalter).

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The Book

I confess I was initially skeptical about a book “tracing [Leonard Cohen's] rise to stardom through 200 photographs and the thoughts, memories and comments of those who have both worked with him and been inspired by him,”4 but the prose written by Harvey Kubernik and the contributors he selected meshes with the well chosen, dramatic photos to create an integrated, gratifying product that meets the Goldilocks Criterion: not too much, not too little, not too simplistic, not too esoteric; it is, in fact, just right.

For sheer enjoyment, Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows is matchless among books about the Canadian singer-songwriter. This volume is a delight for anyone interested in Cohen or, indeed, the evolution of pop music.

The American edition of Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows by Harvey Kubernik carries a publication date of Sept 9, 2014 and is available for pre-order on several sites, including Amazon.

Coming Attractions: The Q&A with author Harvey Kubernik and information about other editions of Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows will be posted soon.
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  1. This use of timelines is such a successful strategy that one wonders why it is not employed more often in such books. []
  2. Jarkko Arjatsalo is the webmaster of LeonardCohenFiles and LeonardCohenForum []
  3. Jim Devlin is the author of In Every Style Of Passion, Leonard Cohen: In His Own Words, and Is This What You Wanted. []
  4. From the press release at Booktrade.info []

Leonard Cohen And The Duchess – Kissing & Telling

lc-ps
There is a certain awkwardness in introducing ones beloved to ones musical icon.

When Penny and I met, she was inexplicably unaware of the wonders of either college basketball or Leonard Cohen. As our affections grew, I intuitively recognized my moral responsibility to rectify these cultural lacunae.

Duke basketball games and Leonard Cohen’s music consequently became integral elements in my wooing of The Duchess. Together, in fact, they go a long way toward explaining why she chose me when she could have done so much better.

Near the end of 2010 when our courtship began, coach Krzyzewski’s charges were, as they did every basketball season, making frequent and predictably scheduled appearances. Leonard Cohen & the Unified Heart Touring Company, on the other hand, were then completing three years of concerts with no promise the tour would resume soon – or ever.

A bit of advice to those of you entering the dating pool – apparently, suggesting to a potential heartthrob that flying to Las Vegas to attend the final show of the Leonard Cohen Tour would be a dandy first date puts one at risk of being considered presumptuous or even pushy. And, it turns out, implying that a meeting with the Canadian singer-songwriter-icon backstage would not be totally outside the realm of possibility does not improve that assessment.

In any case, Penny turned down that offer. Happily, recordings of Cohen’s music and videos of his performances were sufficiently effective in advancing my romantic agenda.

In fact, by the time I was able to make good on my promise for a backstage meeting (at the 2012 Austin show), the Duchess had already taken on the title of Mrs DrHGuy.

Make no mistake – the Austin encounter was a big hit and resulted in the accrual of many marital benefits, a number of which are technically illegal in North Carolina, for yours truly.

It also, however, raised expectations. Most recently, Penny became invested in achieving Kissing Cohen status.

Consequently, the invitation to visit with Leonard Cohen and Kezban Özcan in Los Angeles was viewed as an opportunity to earn membership in this esteemed fellowship. And, indeed, during the mutual greeting when we first arrived at Leonard’s home, smooches were exchanged between sweetie and singer-songwriter.

Alas, there is no photographic record of the kissing and, since Kissing Cohen is, after all, a photo gallery, Duchess is still not part of the official collection. She is, of course, still on a contact high from spending time with Leonard Cohen, and I am hopeful that her disappointment about the failure to obtain the desired photo will be mollified by this posted attestation that said osculation took place and that, as demonstrated in the above photo, Leonard seems happy about it.

Official Lyrics To Leonard Cohen’s New Song “Almost Like The Blues” Posted

Official Lyrics: Almost Like The Blues
by Leonard Cohen

I saw some people starving
There was murder, there was rape
Their villages were burning
They were trying to escape
I couldn’t meet their glances
I was staring at my shoes
It was acid, it was tragic
It was almost like the blues

I have to die a little
Between each murderous thought
And when I’m finished thinking
I have to die a lot
There’s torture and there’s killing
And there’s all my bad reviews
The war, the children missing
Lord, it’s almost like the blues

So I let my heart get frozen
To keep away the rot
My father said I’m chosen
My mother said I’m not
I listened to their story
Of the Gypsies and the Jews
It was good, it wasn’t boring
It was almost like the blues

There is no G-d in Heaven
And there is no Hell below
So says the great professor
Of all there is to know
But I’ve had the invitation
That a sinner can’t refuse
And it’s almost like salvation
It’s almost like the blues

“Almost Like The Blues” is the first song made available from Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems album, due to be released Sept 23, 2014.

Credit Due Department: Lyrics found at LeonardCohenFiles