Category Archives: Leonard Cohen

Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: #3. Artistic Design – The Mystery & Practicality Of Songs

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Note: This post is an entry in a series of essays considering the question, “What makes a song a Leonard Cohen song?” An introduction and links to all published posts in the series can be found at Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: Summary Page.

Magic & Mystery

While craftsmanship, training, and hard work1 are the keystones of Cohen’s songwriting, it would be disingenuous not to note his conviction that metaphysical, almost supernatural forces are also at work:

If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. [Songwriting] is much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery.2

It’s something that you can’t talk about outside the moment, how it comes and when, how it’s done exactly. … It’s nothing to lament or regret.” Songs are a gift and I have had my share — if there are no more than there are no more. If there are more then I will be grateful, but it’s nothing that you can speak about because these are curious events that you can’t command.3

Utility Of Songs Paramount

Leonard Cohen’s acknowledgement of the aesthetic mysteries of songwriting notwithstanding, the search for the touchstones of his songs inevitably leads to pragmatic matters. In keeping with his characterization of a songwriter as a craftsman, Leonard Cohen insists that a song ultimately be judged by its utility:

Songs have a very specific purpose. They must be measured by their utility. Any jaunty little tune that can get you from one point to another as you drive, or get you through the dishes, or that can illuminate or dignify your courting, I always appreciate. And to console yourself when you’re lonely, & to rejoice with another when you’re happy. That’s all we really do in human life.4

There are always meaningful songs for somebody. People are doing their courting, people are finding their wives, people are making babies, people are washing their dishes, people are getting through the day with songs that we may find insignificant. But their significance is affirmed by others. There’s always someone affirming the significance of a song by taking a woman into his arms or by getting through the night; that’s what dignifies the song. Songs don’t dignify human activity. Human activities dignify the song.5

Music is like bread. It is one of the fundamental nourishments that we have available, and there are many different varieties and degrees and grades. A song that is useful, that touches somebody, must be measured by that utility alone.6

There are people in mourning; there’s shock and grief. I really feel that an analysis of the situation from any point of view is premature. Regardless of what position we come from, we are all involved in some kind of way. And, as I say, in the Jewish tradition, one is cautioned against trying to comfort the comfortless in the midst of their bereavement. The most I can hope for is that the songs [from the Ten New Songs album] in some small way have some utility in providing solace, because they are gentle and on the side of healing in some sort of way.7

I’ve always held the song in high regard because songs have got me through so many sinks of dishes and so many humiliating courting events. 8

Cohen even couches the purpose of songs for the songwriter in terms of practicality:

Q: What are you trying to achieve in your songs; what is your ambition? Leonard Cohen: To create a vapor and a mist, to make oneself attractive, to master it, to keep busy and avoid the poolroom and try to get good at what you’re doing.9

Next in this series: Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: #3. Artistic Design – The Goal: Resonance, Not Slogans

Credit Due Department: Photo talen 27 October 2008 by Rama. Found at Wikipedia Commons.

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  1. See Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: #3. Artistic Design – Sacred Mechanics []
  2. Leonard Cohen by Paul Zollo. Boulevard Magazine: Jan 29, 2013. []
  3. The Strange, Sad and Beautiful World of Leonard Cohen by Andrew Furnival. Petticoat: December 30, 1972. Accessed 22 May 2014 at Speaking Cohen []
  4. At Lunch With Leonard Cohen; Philosophical Songwriter On A Wire by Jon Pareles. New York Times: October 11, 1985 []
  5. Leonard Cohen by Paul Zollo. Boulevard Magazine: Jan 29, 2013. []
  6. At Lunch With Leonard Cohen; Philosophical Songwriter On A Wire by Jon Pareles. New York Times: October 11, 1995 []
  7. Look Who’s Back at 67: Gentle Leonard Cohen by Frank DiGiacomo.  New York Observer: Oct 15, 2001 []
  8. Listening to Leonard Cohen by Pico Iyer. Shambhala Sun: November/December 1998 []
  9. Leonard Cohen: The Romantic in a Ragpicker’s Trade by Paul Williams (Crawdaddy, March 1975). Found at Speaking Cohen []

Book Review: “Leonard Cohen And Philosophy” Plus Q&A With Editor Jason Holt

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“Leonard Cohen And Philosophy”1 is the 84th entry in The Popular Culture and Philosophy Series, a collection of books which, according to its website, “present essays by academic philosophers exploring the meanings, concepts, and puzzles within television shows, movies, music and other icons of popular culture.”

The same website also describes “Leonard Cohen and Philosophy” and the book’s editor, Jason Holt:

Want to know what Cohen and Kierkegaard have in common? Or whether Cohen rivals the great philosophical pessimist Schopenhauer? Then this book is for you. It provides the first thorough analysis of Cohen from various (philosophical) positions. It is intended not only for Cohen fans but also undergraduates in philosophy and other areas. It explores important neglected aspects of Cohen’s work without attempting to reduce them to academic tropes, yet nonetheless it is also useful to academics — or anyone — beguiled by the enigma that is Leonard Cohen.

Jason Holt is a published poet and a philosopher who specializes in aesthetics and the philosophy of mind. He’s an associate professor at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. He is the editor of numerous books, including The Daily Show and Philosophy, and he is the author of Blindsight and the Nature of Consciousness.

“Leonard Cohen And Philosophy” is a collection of 20 essays, written by different authors and varying in style, theme, and, especially, accessibility. They deal with a wide range of issues, including the metaphysical world created in “Suzanne” (Can You Touch Someone’s Body With Your Mind by Rachel Haliburton), the poetics of relationships (Leonard Cohen On Romantic Love by Simon Riches), and the phenomenology of time (The End Of The World And Other Times In The Future by Gary Shapiro).

Of these entries, the most impressive, by my lights, are Babette Babich’s Hallelujah and Atonement and Is Leonard Cohen a Good Singer? by Jason Holt.

Hallelujah and Atonement uses philosophical instruments to discover and analyze rarely considered aspects of the ideas and concepts embedded in and evoked by Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”  Babich writes knowledgeably of the shadings of meaning introduced by Nina Simone’s cover of “Suzanne,” insightfully examines second person referents (“you”) in “Hallelujah” and “Suzanne,” and explains why Psy’s “Gangham Style” works for listeners regardless of gender in terms of a precept set forth by Simone de Beauvoir. This is intriguing, gratifying reading.

Is Leonard Cohen a Good Singer? is a delight, in part because it is straightforwardly  comprehensible and in part because it takes an epistemological approach to a question that has repeatedly appeared in critical and casual writings about the Canadian singer-songwriter and has been the central point in multiple confrontations between fans and non-fans of Cohen. Holt offers a unique contribution by employing formal philosophical methodology to redefine the argument. (Spoiler Warning: He arrives at the correct conclusion.)

Portions of “Leonard Cohen And Philosophy” are a bit of a slog for someone like me whose academic experience with philosophers and philosophical concepts consists of a single sophomore course taken to meet a humanities requirement (Art History was already full) at commuter college in the Ozarks; heck, there aren’t even any photos (in my review copy, at least). The effort is, however, rewarded; this volume presents perspectives not to be found elsewhere and offers readers a fuller resonance with Cohen’s work.

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Q&A With Jason Holt

1. The Popular Culture and Philosophy Series comprises an eclectic group of subjects, including, among others, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Simpsons, Bob Dylan, Mel Gibson, The Atkins Diet, Harley-Davidson, U2, and Bullshit. What were the reasons that led to the 84th book in the series being devoted to Leonard Cohen?

It was high time to do a book on Leonard Cohen, especially considering the wide range of topics already covered in the series. I guess many of us involved in the book thought, “How has this not been done already?” I mean, no one disputes the quality, depth, or significance of Cohen’s work. Perhaps it’s that the series focuses on popular culture and, in his way, Cohen challenges the very distinction between high and popular art (and culture) itself.

2. Who do you see as the primary audience for Leonard Cohen and Philosophy?

Cohen fans, certainly, especially those who find the philosophical connections intriguing. Many people appreciate the spiritual and religious aspects of Cohen’s work, but these are situated in an aesthetic and conceptual landscape that also includes philosophy. Of course you don’t need this approach to appreciate Cohen, and there’s always the risk of losing the art in the analysis, but—such disclaimers aside—enough people should find that the book enhances their appreciation of both Cohen and philosophy.

3. How knowledgeable were you about Cohen’s career before you started working on this book?

I’ve been a pretty diehard Cohen fan since my late teens, so I’ve known a good deal about his work and a decent amount about his life. Most of what I learned in putting this book together concerns different interesting ways of linking Cohen and philosophy, many of which I hadn’t anticipated. For instance, it hadn’t occurred to me before that “touching someone’s body with your mind” isn’t just a poetic and captivating phrase, it also implies certain commitments and raises key questions about the relationship between mind and body.

4. A variety of authors, writing from different perspectives, contributed chapters to Leonard Cohen and Philosophy. From your point of view as editor, what are the common threads or recurrent themes in the book as a whole?

The most common thread is the notion that part of what makes Cohen such an important artist is addressing, in his unique way, subjects of universal importance: love, sex, death, the meaning of life. Such universality connects him to humanity in general and philosophy in particular. In one sense, then, Cohen shows the links between—triangulates, really—ivory tower and mainstream matters of concern.

5. Cohen’s first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was published in 1956 and his most recent studio album, Old Ideas, was released more than 55 years later, in 2012. Have there been shifts in the content or expression of philosophical concepts manifested in Cohen’s work over his career?

Most people tend to become more philosophical, more reflective—less engaged in one sense but perhaps more engaged in another—as they age. It would be hard to imagine “Tower of Song” or “Going Home” on Songs of Leonard Cohen. Cohen hasn’t shied from such inevitability, and has made great use of it in his work. In a way the most recent work can’t help but appear rather more reflective, more summative. Still, though, I find such coherence, such unity in Cohen’s work as a whole, it’s unmistakably his. I think in many ways Cohen’s concerns and worldview are more or less the same as they’ve always been. Old Ideas is much farther down the road than Mythologies, but I think it’s the same road.

6. Similarly, Cohen initially wrote his songs (and poetry, of course) strictly on his own. Later, however, he began collaborating, most notably with Sharon Robinson. Do the philosophical conceits of these collaborative efforts differ from those of his solo efforts?

If you were to ask me what my favorite Cohen song is, I’d probably say “Everybody Knows,” which of course was co-written by Robinson. I think there’s something paradoxical about that, almost as though the right collaborative scenario distills Cohen’s individual artistic vision. It’s certainly a credit to him that he can produce artwork in both isolation and collaboration, where many artists tend exclusively toward one or the other. Many existentialists (like Sartre) believe that authenticity (being true to yourself) is something an individual must do on their own, while others (like Jaspers) believe authenticity depends on a special relationship with another. Cohen, in his creative flexibility, illustrates how neither path is exclusive and how each of the different modes of authenticity can work.

7. Douglas Fetherling wrote that Cohen’s work is “what Soren Kierkegaard would have written for laughs if he’d been that kind of fellow.” Is it possible Cohen and Kierkegaard both suffer from stereotyping as purely melancholic chaps because they present serious ideas with gravitas?

To a certain extent, probably. But it’s not as if the stereotypes are entirely groundless. In certain ways Cohen rivals Schopenhauer, the great philosophical pessimist (including the Buddhism but excluding the misogyny). I think the stereotypes of Cohen as purely melancholic are rooted in an understandable but often misleading and unfair need some people have to oversimplify things. It makes for easy judgment and avoids the effort of dealing with conflict and complexity. Life and people are often far more nuanced and complex than such mental laziness can find comfortable. Those facing such challenges honestly are particularly prone to such easy reduction and shallow dismissal by others and are often essentially punished for their virtues. Another important point is that irony is easy to miss, and so Cohen and Kierkegaard, both ironists in their different ways, are susceptible to misinterpretation.

8. According to the blurb for the book, “It explores important neglected aspects of Cohen’s work without attempting to reduce them to academic tropes….” What are a few of those important neglected aspects?

Under the umbrella of philosophy, there are various such neglected aspects of Cohen’s work. For example, there’s a provocative line associated with Theodor Adorno that “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz.” It’s hard not to read Flowers for Hitler as challenging that pronouncement on a very deep level. There are also some interesting parallels between Cohen and noted philosophers (such as Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, even Socrates), schools of thought (stoicism, epicureanism, existentialism, etc.), and subject matter (the meaning of life, the nature of beauty, the relationship between mind and body), and that’s not even counting the more discussed spiritual and religious elements. The basic idea is that philosophy provides a lens through which to view and appreciate more richly part of what makes Cohen’s work significant.

9. I was especially taken with the chapter you wrote, “Is Leonard Cohen a Good Singer?” What attracted you to this excellent philosophical question and how did you approach it?

For matters of taste, I’ve always thought there should be a middle ground between an “anything goes” view (no standards) and a “convergence view” (only one correct standard). As much as I am a Leonard Cohen fan and think he’s wonderful, I don’t presume that my preference should assert itself over others. Good standards limit judgment without compelling taste. Still, many in my experience who dismiss Cohen as a singer do so for unjust reasons. That unfairness always bothered me, and I wanted to explain that to myself and give some answer to them. Many have different forms of style prejudice, for instance. Since Cohen is for some an acquired taste, many people who dismiss the voice simply aren’t in a position to discern much less judge the qualities that others appreciate. You don’t have to like his voice, but you can’t unfairly dismiss it either.

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  1. Amazon lists “Leonard Cohen And Philosophy” as available for pre-order with a publication date as Oct 14, 2014. []

Leonard Cohen #1 On Telegraph’s 100 Best Glastonbury Performances Ever

Glastonbury Festival

Leonard Cohen’s 2008 performance garnered the #1 ranking in The 100 best Glastonbury performances ever by Thomas H Green (Telegraph: 20 Jun 2014):

The gravel-voiced 73-year-old songsmith’s greatest hits set, performed with wonderful graciousness under a balmy Sunday evening sun – and including ’Hallelujah’ with crowd-sung choruses – was sheer, unadulterated bliss.

For photos and videos of Leonard Cohen’s performance, see Leonard Cohen – The Glastonbury 2008 Portraits

Book Review: “Leonard Cohen – Almost Young”

Cohen_NEU

“Leonard Cohen – Almost Young” is labeled an “Illustrated Biography” on its title page.  The operative word here is “Illustrated.”

The official blurb from publisher Schirmer/Mosel, in fact, makes it clear that the book’s raison d’être is the collection of photographs of Leonard Cohen:

A tribute to Canadian-born poet and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen who will be 80 in September 2014: Pictures by famous and unfamous photographers portray Cohen’s career of 50 years, from his early years on the Greek island of Hydra to his 2008 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and his most recent concerts.

The 75 color and duotone plates that populate the 168 pages are expertly reproduced. Almost all are displayed in large formats on 21.5 x 24 cm (8.5 X9.5 inch) pages. A number of photos extend across two facing pages.

The photos from the front and back book jacket (the image atop this post and the image below this paragraph, respectively) are representative of the quality of the book’s graphics. sloganThey are also representative of the mix of photos offered in “Leonard Cohen – Almost Young.” While the front cover photo has been sporadically published online (usually as background for a Leonard Cohen quote – see photo on right), it is certainly not commonly found, and it is certainly a striking image. On the other hand, the back cover photo of Leonard Cohen kneeling beside Javier Mas will seem familiar to anyone who has even casually followed the press coverage of the 2008-2013 tours. Similar shots can be harvested in quantity by simply running a Google Image Search for “Leonard Cohen Javier Mas.”1 That is not to argue that the image itself isn’t captivating – it is undeniably dramatic and, well, eminently photogenic. Unfortunately, it is also a classic photo on the verge of becoming a cliche.

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Knowledgeable Cohen fans will find that “Leonard Cohen – Almost Young” comprises a group of high quality, striking images with a few delightful surprises interspersed among many well known photographs. Among this group of readers, “Leonard Cohen – Almost Young” may suffer because its publication follows the recent release of several books about Leonard Cohen,2 none of which is designated a photo collection but all of which contain several never- or rarely-seen Cohen photos.

Readers who are less jaded than, say, a blogger who surveys scores of pictures of Leonard Cohen photos daily, will find this a substantial and rewarding gallery of Leonard Cohen photos.3

The photos are accompanied by text by Jens Sparschuh, who begins the book with his fetching personal perspective on Leonard Cohen. Also included are perfunctory appendices: a biography, a discography, a list of Cohen’s tours, a bibliography of six books about the Canadian singer-songwriter, and a listing of Leonard Cohen Cohen’s own novels and poetry volumes.

The text contains at least two significant errors:  (1) A man in a James Burke photo taken on Hydra identified as Axel Jensen (Marianne’s husband) is actually Norwegian artist/painter Berentz Pedersen.4 (2) A 1972 photo taken in Amsterdam is said to depict Leonard Cohen wearing the “Famous Blue Raincoat” after which the song is named. I confess to having no insider knowledge about the titular Famous Blue Raincoat, but the coat shown in the photo is tan rather than blue.5 Moreover, according to Various Positions, Nadel’s biography of Cohen, the original raincoat was stolen in New York in 1968. The liner notes to The Best of Leonard Cohen album has the coat’s theft taking place in the “early seventies” but also states he “wasn’t wearing it very much toward the end.” In any case, Marianne Ihlen confirms that “The photo in … “Almost Young” is another raincoat.”6

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  1. Allowed free rein to shoot only during a concert’s first song, press photographers nearly always grab a photo of that scene. []
  2. E.g., “I’m Your Man” by Sylvie Simmons, “Leonard Cohen: A Remarkable Life” by Anthony Reynolds, “Leonard Cohen On Leonard Cohen” by Jeff Burger, “So Long, Marianne: A Love Story” by Kari Hesthamar [English edition] []
  3. As for hard core Cohen fans – well, we’re not going to risk missing out on anything Cohen-related so we’re likely to buy the book regardless. []
  4. Ongoing readers may recall that Marianne Ihlen recently wrote this site to correct the misidentification, which originated in the original Time/Life caption for the photo. See Marianne Ihlen Corrects Misidentified 1960 Photos Of Leonard Cohen & Her In Hydra. []
  5. See a color photo from same shoot at Photos: Leonard Cohen 1972 Amsterdam Gallery Expands []
  6. Marianne Ihlen, personal communication: 19 June 2014 []

What’s Happening In Hydra: Letter From Redmond Wallis To Leonard Cohen & Marianne: Dec 7, 1963

This is another letter from the correspondence between Leonard Cohen to Redmond Wallis, a writer from New Zealand, who was Cohen’s friend as well as his fellow resident on Hydra. At the time this letter was written, Leonard Cohen was living in Montreal, and Wallis was at his home on Hydra.

This epistle offers intriguing gossip from the Hydra community, including content in the penultimate typewritten paragraph that illuminates aspects of Leonard Cohen’s Dec 11, 1963 Letter To Redmond Wallis

Identifications:

  • Sophia: Kyria Sophia was the housekeeper for Leonard & Marianne at their home in Hydra
  • Steve: Steve Sanfield, became a close friend of Cohen when they met on Hydra. A brief biography of Sanfield can be found at Warrior Poets. Sanfield was the first American student of Zen teacher Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi, who is the “guru in Calif.” In 1969, Cohen served as best man for Sanfield at a wedding officiated by Joshu Sasaki Rosi. Sanfield is also featured in Other Writers, a poem by Leonard Cohen from Book Of Longing:
    Steve Sanfield is a great haiku master.
    He lives in the country with Sarah,
    his beautiful wife,
    and he writes about the small things
    which stand for all things.
  • Demetri: Demetri Gassoumis was Cohen’s friend, translator, and adviser.
  • George and Charmian:  George Johnston and his wife Charmian Clift, both well known writers, were early members of the artists’ colony on Hydra. George has been characterized as “presiding spirit of the island’s shifting cast of foreign artists and writers.”1 They also boarded Cohen in a spare room until he purchased his own home.

click on image to enlarge

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Other posts featuring the Cohen-Wallis correspondence:

Credit Due Department: The letter is archived at the National Library of New Zealand – Wellington.
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  1. George Johnston & Leonard Cohen by  Shane Maloney. The Monthly: Nov 2005 []

Back To Bercy: Celebrating The Anniversary Of The June 18, 2013 Leonard Cohen Paris Concert

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In commemoration of the June 18, 2013 Leonard Cohen concert, today, DrHGuy.com is featuring photos & videos from that momentous show.

Credit Due Department: Posted by Sig. R. via Twitpic