Category Archives: Leonard Cohen

Ken Tucker On Leonard Cohen: From “one long, wracked sob” to “a sneaky sense of humor” to “saving grace: his dry humor”

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Left to right: Leonard Cohen albums arranged in ascending order of humor as reviewed by Ken Tucker

Introduction: “He was a Byronic bullfrog” – 1985 Leonard Cohen Philadelphia Concert Review Now Online, yesterday’s post on the Philadelphia Inquirer’s gleefully negative review, written by Ken Tucker, of Leonard Cohen’s 1985 Philadelphia concert, the playlist of which predominantly featured songs from the Various Position album, ended with the information that the 1985 concert review was not the only critique of Leonard Cohen composed by Ken Tucker. Today’s entry showcases two more reviews (1988 and 2012) that reflect Tucker’s changing perspective (or, alternatively, Cohen’s changing performance).

Three years after beginning his review of Leonard Cohen’s 1985 Philadelphia concert with “Life for Leonard Cohen is one long, wracked sob,” Ken Tucker penned this review of Cohen’s I’m Your Man album:1

In the interests of critical honesty, it must be admitted that I was three- quarters sold on Leonard Cohen’s new album, I’m Your Man (Columbia * * * * ), on the basis of the cover alone: the perennially dour Cohen, his eyes masked by large sunglasses, pondering the fate of romance – while solemnly chomping on a banana. Inside, the music suggests a similarly sneaky sense of humor: cooing female backup singers reiterate Cohen’s froggy assertions and shaggy-dog non sequiturs, and occasionally the poet even gets off a good melody (“Ain’t No Cure for Love,” “I’m Your Man,” “Tower of Song”). If you want Cohen-as-music, buy Jennifer Warnes’ magnificent Famous Blue Raincoat; if you want Cohen-as-unique-experience, this is the purchase to be made.

And reviewing Cohen’s Old Ideas album for NPR in 2012, Tucker sounds downright enthusiastic2

At this point in his life, sings with a voice so deep and bottomless, he may as well be singing from underneath the earth. But that doesn’t mean it’s faint, or murky, or dead. Cohen’s cracked baritone enunciates meticulous lyrics that sound searching, restless and jaunty. This has long been Cohen’s saving grace: His dry humor juices up his more portentous pronouncements.

Things change.
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  1. Music With Humor From Leonard Cohen by Ken Tucker. The Philadelphia Inquirer: April 24, 1988 []
  2. Leonard Cohen’s ‘Old Ideas’ Inspire Confidence by Ken Tucker. Fresh Air, NPR: Jan 31, 2012.  An audio recording and transcript of the entire program can be accessed at the link. []

“He was a Byronic bullfrog” – 1985 Leonard Cohen Philadelphia Review Now Online

Life for Leonard Cohen is one long, wracked sob.

A master of the half-baked simile and unparalleled in the creation of unintentional howlers.

His croak has never sounded so lulling

His guitar playing, a deceptively artless combination of American folk and Spanish flamenco strumming, was subtle and soothing.

Pop/Rock: Leonard Cohen At Walnut Street Theater by Ken Tucker The Philadelphia Inquirer: May 1, 1985

This review of the April 30, 1985 Leonard Cohen concert in Philadelphia has achieved a certain notoriety.  It is, as the perceptive reader will deduce from the above quotes, a negative review. And, as I’ve noted elsewhere, “especially for those of us who came of age as Cohen fans during the accolade-saturated worship service that was the 2008-2010 World Tour, it’s useful to be reminded that the launch of Leonard Cohen’s singing career did not consist exclusively of being introduced to the world by Judy Collins and then arising at 2 AM at the Isle of Wight for his coronation as a musical icon.”1

It is, however, not just a negative review but a negative review so striking that Leonard Cohen himself considered it worthy of mention.2

At his May 4, 1985 concert at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston, Leonard Cohen prefaced his performance of A Singer Must Die with a comment about Ken Tucker’s article.

Audio: Leonard Cohen’s introduction to A Singer Must Die
Boston: May 4, 1985

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Thank you very much. It’s been a long time since I played in this country, and it is a real pleasure to be able to understand… understand the reviews that I get for the concerts. I read my first American review in ten years the other night after my very first concert in this country in Philadelphia. And then it’s genuine wit. I say this without any sense of irony. The first half of the column he reviewed my suit. I’m going to relate this news to my tailor. But I bear no grudge. He also called me a ‘Byronic bullfrog’. That man has his finger at the very heart of things.

Pop/Rock: Leonard Cohen At Walnut Street Theater by Ken Tucker The Philadelphia Inquirer: May 1, 1985
click on image to enlarge
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Update: Also see The Philadelphia Inquirer Wanted Someone To Tell Leonard Cohen To “Lighten Up” – And Leonard Cohen Did

More Ken Tucker Reviews Of Leonard Cohen

The 1985 concert review was not the only critique of Leonard Cohen proffered by Ken Tucker. See Ken Tucker On Leonard Cohen: From “one long, wracked sob” to “a sneaky sense of humor” to “saving grace: his dry humor”

Credit Due Department: The review was posted 31 July 2014 by kentucker13 via Instagram. The transcript of Leonard Cohen’s Boston comments is from Leonard Cohen – Berklee Performing Center Boston, MA 5/04/85 (1985)

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  1. The review that prompted that observation on my part was Nancy Erlich’s report on Leonard Cohen’s 1970 Forest Hills performance published in the August 8, 1970 issue of Billboard, in which she describes Cohen as a musical Svengali, ruthlessly using “his extraordinary command of language and other people’s emotions” to oppress, diminish, and emotionally deplete those who listen to his songs. See Leonard Cohen, Forest Hills 1970 – “Nervous, Uncomfortable, Oppressive, Lifeless” []
  2. Another, perhaps even more impressive example of a criticism that Cohen has repeated to interviewers and audiences is the “Leonard Cohen is a boring old drone …” quote from Melody Maker about his Isle Of Wight performance that he brought up as early as a 1976 taped interview, again in a 1992 print interview, and as  recently as the Dec 2, 2010 Vancouver concert. []

An Illumination Of Leonard Cohen’s Thin Green Candle

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I lit a thin green candle, to make you jealous of me.
But the room just filled up with mosquitos,
they heard that my body was free.

~ From “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong” by Leonard Cohen

That thin green candle has become an image often invoked in reference to Leonard Cohen.1 It is consequently unsurprising that questions on the order of “What does the thin green candle mean?” come up with some frequency. This post summarizes  explications offered in response to this query.

The “Expert in The Candle” Hypothesis

The most frequently proffered theory is based on the following anecdote, which Leonard Cohen has recounted several interviews:

Edie Sedgwick was living a few doors down [at the Chelsea Hotel in the mid 1960s]. Through her door came all the most attractive men and women of the period, I was not among them, but I longed to be among them. There was, on the corner of 7th Avenue and 24th Street, there was a Mexican magic store, with potions, candles and powders, which could be used to draw influences into your life — to secure love affairs, or to guarantee successes. My situation was such at the time that I believed in them, so I bought a couple of candles, and a book about candles — I just read that, and the I Ching, though I couldn’t follow anything from one paragraph to another. At a certain point, through some graceful accident, I was invited into Edie Sedgwick’s room. It was filled with very beautiful young people. It was dark, and illuminated by candles, 30 to 40 candles, burning everywhere, on plates, on the stove … I had no credentials at the time, there was nothing I could say. I walked into the room of her glittering crew, and I said, ‘this display of candles is extremely dangerous. So, I presented myself as … an Expert in The Candle. And this did not go over well. So I left at an appropriate time. The next day, her apartment burned down, and my prestige soared.”2

According to this notion, the thin green candle was literally or representatively one of these magic candles Cohen used to advance his wooing of Nico and thus became embedded in the song inspired by her.3

The Candle-Lit Studio Theory

At the request of Leonard Cohen and with the agreement of his then-producer, John Hammond, the decor of studio in which the Songs Of Leonard Cohen album was recorded included candles, as well as incense and a mirror.

Leonard Cohen: There was this church-like atmosphere in the studio, and there were also candles. Perhaps, there was even incense burning, I don’t remember. …

John Hammond: That was in Studio E. It was a small studio we had at 49 East 52nd Street. He was alone, in the studio, and it used to be lit with incense and candles; and we had no lights on in the studio, and it had a very exotic effect. He had a hypnotizing effect on everybody.4

The popularity of this fact notwithstanding, it is difficult to derive a direct link from candles appearing in a recording studio and a thin green candle appearing in the a song recorded in that studio other than, one supposes, the physical presence of a candle might serendipitously suggesting the imagery to the Canadian singer-songwriter (heck, there may have been mosquitoes in the studio as well, which would explain the second line of the song).

Resonance With Anne Hébert’s “La Chambre De Bois”

Writing in Notes Towards A Definition Of A Masterpiece:Ten New Songs
From Sharon Robinson And Leonard Cohen, Judith Fitzgerald observes:

Cohen leads off 1968′s “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong” (Songs Of Leonard Cohen) with an arresting and remarkably compressed ear-catcher made all the more resonant by virtue of its affinity with Quebecer Anne Hébert’s “La chambre de bois” (Le tombeau des rois, 1953): “J’aime un petit bougeoir vert,” wrote she in 1953. Cohen respectfully dibbed the concept and transformed “I love a small green candlestick” into a green-eyed monster of an altogether different stripe: “I lit a thin green candle to make you jealous of me,” confesses the representative he; but, three brief verses later, the boy with the badass blues reports the good old news: “The poor man could hardly stop shivering / his lips and fingers were blue / I suppose that he froze when the wind / took your clothes / and I guess he just never got warm / but you stand there so nice / in your blizzard of ice / oh please let me come into the storm… .”

Leonard Cohen’s Other Green Candle

8560In a letter to Marianne dated April 1, 1967, Leonard Cohen writes

… I keep a candle burning all the times in my room, a tall green candle in a glass, dedicated to St. Jude Thaddeus, Patron Saint of Impossible Causes …5

While this note is rarely mentioned in discussions of “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong,” it has an intuitive appeal as the most specific of Cohen’s references. It’s a short leap from a “tall green candle” to a “thin green candle.” One can also posit that the “tall green candle in a glass, dedicated to St. Jude Thaddeus” could well have been purchased at that “Mexican magic store” located “on the corner of 7th Avenue and 24th Street” in New York. Most significantly, it adds a deliciously ironic, self-effacing twist to ” I lit a thin green candle, to make you jealous of me” if the candle is “dedicated to St. Jude Thaddeus, Patron Saint of Impossible Causes.”

The Many Candles Of Leonard Cohen

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Candles, it turns out, are part of the standard tool kit issued songwriters. troubadours, and poets, especially those raised in a Jewish household within a Catholic cultural enclave such as Montreal.  Consequently, it is unsurprising that  Leonard Cohen has frequently dealt with candles in his prose, poems, and songs. A few examples, which may or may not have anything to do with the thin green candle, follow (all bolding mine):

From You Do Not Have To Love Me by Leonard Cohen
Selected Poems 1956 – 1968 (McClelland & Stewart, 1968)

I wrote all these songs for you
I burned red and black candles
shaped like a man and a woman
I married the smoke
of two pyramids of sandalwood
I prayed for you
I prayed that you would love me
and that you would not love me

From a description of Leonard Cohen’s purchase of his house on Hydra

A priest blessed the house, holding a burning candle above the front door and making a black cross in soot.6

From a narrative by Suzanne Verdal (the Suzanne of Leonard Cohen’s song, “Suzanne)”

By 1965 I had separated from Armand and was living with our little girl. Leonard would come over and I would serve him jasmine tea with mandarin oranges, and light a candle. It sounds like a seance, but obviously Leonard retained those images, too. ((Bet You Think This Song Is About You by Dave Simpson. The Guardian: 12 December 2008

From Takanawa Prince Hotel Bar by Leonard Cohen
Book of Longing (McClelland & Stewart, 2006)

but now finally surrendered to the Great
Resignation of Poetry
and not the kind of Wise Experience
or the false kisses of Competitive
Insight, but my own sweet dark
religion of Poetry my booby prize
my sandals and my shameful prayer
my invisible Mexican candle
my useless oils to clean the house
and remove my rival’s spell
on my girlfriend’s memory–

Credit Due Department: The photo atop this post is by amadeus, posted Jan 21, 2002 at PBase Challenge. The photo of Leonard Cohen & Anjani Thomas is from Leonard Cohen Nights – Meeting with Leonard Cohen and Anjani Thomas by  Kim Solez (November 2005).

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  1. See, for example,  Leonard Cohen – Candles In Barcelona []
  2. The Crack In Everything Lets The Light In: Leonard Cohen In New York by Rita Houston. NPR: January 25, 2012 []
  3. Cohen’s own description of Nico in his introduction to “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong” at his legendary 1970 Isle Of Wight Concert, is striking: “I was coming off amphetamines and pursuing a blonde lady that I met in a Nazi poster.” []
  4. The John Hammond Years – Interview with John Hammond and Leonard Cohen
    BBC, September 20, 1986. Retrieved 10 July 2014  from LeonardCohenFiles. []
  5. So Long, Marianne: A Love Story (English edition) by Kari Hesthamar. See review []
  6.  “Leonard Cohen’s hallelujah moment” by Sylvie Simmons, The Telegraph (UK), October 26, 2012. []

Help Buy Leonard Cohen A New Bench For His 80th Birthday

Fans of Leonard Cohen are banding together to fund a bench on Hydra, Greece to commemorate Leonard Cohen’s 80th birthday, which takes place Sept 21, 2014.

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An appropriate site has been selected and architectural plans drawn up. Now, the fundraising has begun.

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The means by which to make a contribution as well as a description of the project, photos and videos of the site, a rundown on the costs, and an explanation of the significance of Hydra to Leonard Cohen can be found at

Credit Due Department: The iconic photo atop this post was taken by Dominique Issermann.

Video: Robert Altman Tracks Down Leonard Cohen Songs For McCabe & Mrs. Miller

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It has become difficult to find a movie critic who doesn’t acknowledge the impact of Leonard Cohen’s songs on Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. A representative observation follows:

Watching Altman’s film, it becomes obvious that Cohen’s songs preternaturally fit each film they slide into, as if the words were meant for each scene (even if that same song is used over and over again in different worlds, scenarios, and films).1

For more information about Cohen’s music in this and other films, see Leonard Cohen At The Movies

Robert Altman and Leonard Cohen

In this video, Altman, who died in 2006,  is interviewed ahead of the release of Gosford Park  sometime in the late 1990s on Elvis Mitchell‘s Independent Focus program.

Along with comments about censorship, recruiting Cher to play in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, why he was fed up with Hollywood, and more, Altman tells how he came to realize, after filming was completed, that he wanted music from Songs Of Leonard Cohen on the soundtrack of  McCabe & Mrs. Miller, how he tracked down the Canadian singer-songwriter, and why Cohen’s enthusiastic response was key.

Note: The video should begin automatically at the pertinent portion of the program (about 12:14). The material about Leonard Cohen lasts 4-5 minutes. The entire Altman interview, however, is worth watching.

Independent Focus with Robert Altman

  1. Your Guide to the Cinematic Life of Musician Leonard Cohen  by Monika Bartyzel. Posted 27 June 2012 at  Movies.com []

A Session With Poet Cohen: Rollicking 1966 Interview With Leonard Cohen Now Online

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In researching a post about next year’s 50th anniversary commemoration of Leonard Cohen’s 1966 visit to the University of Alberta – Edmonton,1 I discovered that A Session With Poet Cohen,2 a lively and entertaining interview with Cohen by reporters from The Gateway, the University’s student newspaper, can be accessed online.

This 1966 conversation between four University of Alberta students and the 32 year old Montreal native they describe as “probably the best and certainly the most spectacular Canadian poet of his generation” covers such topics as life & death, religion & ritual, the relationship of art to reality, the significance of poetry, differences between and similarities of songs and poems, LSD, and more. Read Cohen’s answer to the question, “Has anyone ever approached you about doing a record?” Consider his claim that he “created [Bob] Dylan.” Savor Cohen’s quotes, including

  • Q: “Would you rather make love or make poems? Or is it the same thing?” Leonard Cohen: “That depends on the girl.”
  • “I think we’re probably entering a great Egyptian period, where there are going to be very well-defined castes–priests, warriors, scribes.”
  • “I think we’re probably in one of the greatest periods for lyrics since Elizabethan times. 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.”
  • “Every man is a prophet.”
  • “Anything that has a life and death sound to it is a song.”
  • “I don’t know if I’ll be anybody’s Moses—I might be their Leonard.”

All this and more can be found in A Session With Poet Cohen by Jon Whyte, Patricia Hughes, Terry Donnelly, and John Thompson. The Gateway, December 2, 1966.

Links to the two (newspaper) page article follow:

Credit Due Department: Retrieved 27 July 2014 from Peel’s Prairie Provinces – University of Alberta Libraries
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  1. See Early Look At 50th Anniversary Commemoration Of Leonard Cohen’s 1966 U of Alberta – Edmonton Visit []
  2. A Session With Poet Cohen by Jon Whyte, Patricia Hughes, Terry Donnelly, and John Thompson. The Gateway, December 2, 1966 []