click on images for best viewing
Credit Due Department: Thanks to Robert Kory for the heads up.
George Tunick, the fellow in glasses in the above shot, was a student at the University of Connecticut when he took these photos at the concert held at Trinity College in Hartford that opened Leonard Cohen’s 1970 Tour.1 The show took place April 8, 19702 before a crowd of a few hundred.
As far as I can determine, these are the only known photos (click on images to enlarge) from that 1970 Hartford show, which carries special significance as Leonard Cohen’s first concert of his first fully organized, independent tour with band and backup singers.3 That would make the final photo in the series (see below) the earliest known photo of Leonard Cohen performing in concert with his 1970 band, the group later to be known as The Army.
Update: Less than two weeks after posting these photos, I serendipitously discovered the following reference to this event in Life On The Ledge With Leonard Cohen by Jon Marlowe (The Miami News: Nov 9, 1977):
Interviewer: “You did a concert in Connecticut and you walked out in this long trench coat and jeans and said ”I left my suit home in honor of this occasion’”
Leonard Cohen: “That was my first concert ever. I remember it. It was Hartford, Connecticut. You’re right. The trench coat and everything.”
I asked George about any memories he had of the event. His response follows:
I’ll never forget..as he was walking by..(when I got the close shots..and for the one with me)..he was like chanting as he walked..like a cantor saying prayers to himself ..beautifully “ haunting”
George goes on:
1970..I was “obsessed” with the first album..especially..”One of us Cannot be Wrong ‘..( l lit a thin green candle..to make you jealous of me. But the room just filled up with mosquitoes……..and on)..saw the 1975 show in NY..later 1988 and 1993 Wiltern theater in LA (pretty sure-2)……bought every vinyl … .Favorite songs….I’m Your Man..Anthem..Tower of Song . The Stranger .. The Future ..Famous Blue Raincoat..Dance Me to the End of Love
The concert “blew me away”…it was overpowering to meet him…they sang everything at that time…and obviously memorable..as I remember so much…and have these Photo Memories to “keep the experience alive”
Credit Due Department: Thanks to Sylvie Simmons and Jugurtha Harchaoui, who provided data about and perspective on the pre-1970 Leonard Cohen concerts.
This is Part 2 of the Q&A With Harvey Kubernik, Author Of Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows. Part 1 includes an introduction to Harvey Kubernik as well as the initial portion of the Q&A. A review of the book can be found at Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows by Harvey Kubernik – A Delight For Cohen Fans.
Q: Of all the stories you’ve heard through the years about Leonard Cohen, which strikes you as the most moving? funniest?
A: To this day I still find it strange and funny, and still can’t comprehend on some level that in 1967 Leonard Cohen had a full length mirror in the Columbia recording studio so he could watch himself play and sing during his initial LP sessions. If he got lost in the creative process he could employ the mirror to keep him on track or remember lyrics or chords.
I also found the quotes from Nick Cave on Leonard very moving. In the mid-eighties I produced a Nick Cave spoken word reading at the Lhasa Club in Hollywood and we talked about Leonard Cohen around settlement. We were all in same frame game together. The impact an early Cohen LP had on him four decades ago was immense.
Q: You wrote that “this book is neither definitive nor encyclopedic.” How did you decide which content made it into Everybody Knows and which didn’t make the cut?
A: Many of the choices were influenced by the supportive working relationship that developed among myself, publisher Colin Webb, and UK editor James Hodgson. After I put together a formal proposal with areas of interest and interview subjects, we had many discussions. Both Colin and James were easy to work with. They were pleased to see names that had never been in a Cohen book and often emailed me about getting a photo to accompany a given quote or section of text. Sometime a photo would trigger a text to be written or a pull quote or a sidebar I would want inserted. Or they would ask if I was interviewing someone and I’d respond, ‘just ran tape on them.’
I also made the musicians a top priority way over the women or lovers in Leonard’s life, none of whom I even spoke to. It wasn’t that sort of biographical examination. If organically something is revealed, fine. But on this Cohen book I felt Leonard’s creative life needed to be re-defined partially by my own hand-picked west coast team of friends and musical associates as well as worldwide interview quotes I gathered to inform the text and enhance the visuals. “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.”
After my brother Kenneth, my regional editor, reviewed the initial large sections, he made some first look observations, namely that my manuscript had to be condensed from 100,000 words to 60,000. That was a stressful and exhausting process for me. You edit alone.
Authors, including Andrew Loog Oldham, gave me some important interior editing tips. Poets and writers Harry E. Northup and Jimm Cushing provided especially helpful feedback, reinforcing that the new data and photos were as potent as I hoped.
I wouldn’t have bled for this book if its pages didn’t contain extraordinary, important insights and observations.
Any major Leonard Cohen project demands certain essential voices and interview subjects. There are, as well, specific subjects and a biographical chronology the reader has to know. That being acknowledged, it was my responsibility to incorporate these obligatory elements with new material to create a portrait of the man from a unique perspective.
There is a bit of redundancy, such as citations and quotes from other publications, but as UCLA basketball coach John R. Wooden once explained to me, life, like hoops, is a game of repetition – as long as it moves the ball to the basket it’s OK.
Q: I found the timeline that begins each chapter of insightful as well as helpful in tracking the important events in Cohen’s life and career. The timelines also made me more aware of the 40+ year span from Cohen’s first album to the most recent tour and his forthcoming CD. From your perspective, which aspects of Cohen’s singing and songwriting have persisted and which have changed the most?
A: The Leonard Cohen I first met and interviewed in 1974 was exceptionally confident, sly, and assured, both on stage and in conversation.
I do think most of us who are longtime fans and record buyers cling to the narrative aspect of his vocal delivery and appreciate his singing voice that really kicked into gear after his vinyl debut.
Leonard has changed his vocal delivery many times over the decades. Most recently, his trademark sound has been grounded in a lower register growl or a slower, seductive whisper on some recordings. He has attributed changes in timbre to early cigarette smoking or to his cessation of smoking.
Leonard still sometimes employs narrative, as is obvious in his stage banter, which is not exclusively dictated by the traditional verse and chorus.
There seems to be a bit more political commentary in his lyrics the last few decades. This shift from the personal to the political is a welcome addition to his lyrical arsenal.
I think his vocals over the last 20 or 30 years on record are mixed upfront a tad more. Of course, that may result from listening to Leonard on CD instead of the cheap record player with tiny speakers that was central to my teenage and college years. Incidentally, putting on one of Leonard’s first few LP’s in my college dorm room dependably led to the immediate departure of my pals. At least some girls hung around for a while to salivate over his album jackets.
Q: What do you see in the near future for Leonard Cohen’s career – more albums, tours, another retirement …?
A: There will always be more product from Leonard. I just heard that his Sony catalog was re-mastered for iTunes or some other retailer. And a new album [Popular Problems] and a live DVD are scheduled for release. I just heard a new track and it seems to be in the “I’m Your Man” sound playbook. Is Patrick Leonard the producer? [Yep]
Leonard Cohen likes to perform in front of people. He enjoys the adulation. He is very grateful and respectful of his audience, who lay out some big bucks to experience his three hours soul-search laid out in front of them. I suspect he enjoys the increasingly lucrative fees from touring and music publishing as well as from disc and digital sales. His well-deserved tour pay checks of the last decade were certainly not in his game plan.
Going back on the road after age 70, whether by choice or economic necessity, is a challenge. While I’m sure there are or were insurance clauses and agent and promoter concerns around live performance bookings, the promoters believed that, even after his long hiatus from performing, ducats could be sold and were willing to take the financial risk. Leonard’s “people,” his already established, passionate fan base came through for him, creating more foot traffic and ticket sales than anyone could expect. And that’s great – I’ve always been rooting for him.
I like when Leonard reads at his shows. The audience is silent, absorbing every nuance. He might drop in a poem or two at his shows, but I relish the recital element of his repertoire and wish he’d make a spoken word or poetry album already. I’ve suggested it before. I’ve produced a couple of dozen of them, including live recording sessions with Allen Ginsberg, and I was Project Coordinator of The Jack Kerouac Box Set Collection. I’ve pitched this idea to just about every manager and/or lawyer Leonard has employed. I know he’s read on various album compilations and on screen, but it’s time for a complete album.
I recall a 1974 show in Los Angeles I attended at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion or UCLA. Leonard took a book out during that ’74 concert and started reading passages. We hung on every word.
That reading segment reminded me of a Doors concert I caught in 1968 at the Forum in Inglewood. Jim Morrison told the audience ‘I’m gonna read some poetry to you.’ When he finished the poem it went into ‘Celebration of the Lizard.’ It was scary and mesmerizing. I was a teenager. I think poetry and spoken word can work in the big halls and arenas. I’ve done local events of this sort around my book ‘Turn Up The Radio!
So I’m sending out a smoke signal. I can expose Leonard’s literary recordings to an audience that only know him through hearing renditions of his ‘Hallelujah’ (or Jeff Buckley’s cover version) on radio, TV, and the movies.
Leonard: I’m ready to nosh with you at Canter’s delicatessen to discuss this long overdue collaboration.
As for touring it’s not like Leonard is changing the show repertoire dramatically every performance. I suspect he’ll do very short tours or isolated venue stops in a few selected cities, probably in Europe in 2015. He’s considered an Alta cocker now, (Yiddish term for old guy) if age 80 is even your tipping point. But he always seems to answer the bell.
Q: How will he be remembered, if at all, fifty years from now?
A: He will be remembered - way more in Europe and the rest of the world than in America, especially Hollywood and Los Angeles, where he lives. Planet Los Angeles is celebrity obsessed and media-controlled, a place that forgets your artistic existence and contributions, especially after you’re over 40. My city has a history of disliking and ignoring many native artists and the traditional media, the local L.A. newspapers, have the same mindset in terms of reviewing local poets and native writers. But at the same time it’s a fertile place for creating work, witness Leonard’s output since the late seventies.
Think about 40 years ago when Columbia Records in the U.S. had objections to the front cover artwork to Leonard’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony and finally changed the cover for a time.1 And recall that the album that included ‘Hallelujah’ was rejected by Columbia/Sony, and had to first be issued on a smaller independent label, before the discovery, or re-discovering of ‘Hallelujah’ in Europe led to Various Positions being reissued by Sony Music.
Q: What will be Leonard Cohen’s legacy?
A: Let the retrospectives begin and continue. Cohen’s songs live on and his books are constantly being read and re-published. His legacy is also re-positioned by the number of his recordings in TV and music soundtracks. What Leonard has accomplished is terrific. I really think, going back to his own teenage years in Montreal that he always wanted to be a writer and poet. He did it. The recording platform further developed along with new media exposures, and Leonard, with his audience took his trip to places and spaces neither he nor we never imagined. Mazel Tov to him.
Credit Due Department: Photo atop this post taken at Leonard Cohen’s L.A. home by Henry Diltz in 1993. The graphic in the middle of the page is an excerpt from Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows.
Leonard Cohen – Almost Like the Blues (Lyric)
From Leonard Cohen’s new Popular Problems album
Video from LeonardCohenVEVO
Music means everything because it informs everything if you let it. ~ Harvey Kubernik
Harvey Kubernik is to music journalism what Shane Battier was to Duke basketball. Harvey is also one of the few individuals likely to read this post who will understand that analogy without an explanation: Harvey and Shane have achieved distinction in their respective fields because of their hard work, energy, enthusiasm, dedication, perseverance, and commitment. They are both hustlers.
Harvey Kubernik is the kind of guy who knows 97% of the individuals associated with popular music and knows folks who know everybody in that other 3%. During his 40+ years career, he has authored six books, including This Is Rebel Music (2002), Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon (2009), and, most recently, Turn Up the Radio! Rock, Pop and Roll in Los Angeles 1956-1972. He has written liner notes for Carole King and Allen Ginsberg, appeared on documentaries about Bobby Womack and Queen, collaborated with Brian Wilson on a limited edition volume, and published multiple articles in Melody Maker, The Los Angeles Free Press, Crawdaddy!, Musician, Record Collector, Goldmine, MIX, The Los Angeles Times, MOJO, Discoveries, UNCUT, Music Life, Classic Rock, HITS, and Record Collector News. In addition, he has worked as a broadcaster, producer, and musician.
Harvey has a knack for turning up in the right place at the right time. He was, for example, in the studio during some of the sessions of the Leonard Cohen-Phil Spector collaboration that spawned Death Of A Ladies’ Man. That experience resulted in two classic Harvey Kubernik articles: What Happened When Phil Spector Met Leonard Cohen?1 and The Great Ones Never Leave. They Just Sit It Out Once In A While.2
Most significantly for our purposes, Harvey Kubernik is the author of Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows,3 which I described in my review of the book as “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”4 and the subject of today’s Q&A.
Q: How did you come to write this book about Leonard Cohen?
A: A couple of years ago I was contacted by Colin Webb of Palazzo Editions, an England-based book company and packager. He has read my three interviews I conducted with Leonard from the mid and late-seventies, and was mulling over a Leonard Cohen book. He was preparing a sample text which would include all my archive quotes along with photos for a presentation at a book fair he was visiting.
Colin asked me for permission to utilize my archive, and, if things went further, would I be receptive to writing a book on Leonard? A year later his name showed up on my computer screen and we put it in motion. I did stress the aspect of a multi-voice narrative for the book and he was receptive.
Q: How would you describe the readers you view as the primary audience for Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows?
A: That’s a good question but early in the game, like a basketball match, before the opening tip off, I decided it would be a book I wanted to do for myself. Yes, it would be geared a bit to readers who already know lots of things about Leonard’s work, books, recordings and his road work, as well as the uninitiated, or new potential readers who might have just Greatest Hits package or checked him out only after hearing ‘Hallelujah” in some capacity.
Always ticking just a little in the back of my mind are the hardcore collectors and “Cohen Heads,” including website principals, previous Cohen book authors and pop music history book buffs that I knew would relish the information and data I would present.
Why even bother with the gig if I don’t deliver some new “voices” and observations as well as photos with visuals never displayed before. For a well-documented artist like Leonard Cohen I know I tossed in plenty of three-point baskets.
Even without this Cohen book scheduled. I have written and conducted interviews for decades without formal assignments or the security of publication. I like the education, the fun, the struggle, and the results. The last ten years book publishers have come to me about potential titles and suggestions for books. They are also mining Los Angeles and Hollywood for literary subjects or regional studies and not exclusively possessed or obsessed with New York subject matter or New York authors.
Secretly a lot of publishers and literary agents love and worship the lore and lure of L.A. and Hollywood, but most won’t admit it, let alone fund it. But the literary game has now changed and I’m in the league as team Kubernik.
Q: This book clearly required a massive effort to produce. Would you describe the research you did?
A: Living and surviving in Los Angeles is enough research.
Leonard’s record label in New York sent me a handful of CD’s for starters. They arranged a few interviews as well. I had a dozen of Leonard’s records on LP and a few recent CD’s already. I had read a few books already published on Leonard, I was already quoted in all of them or my archive licensed for inclusion, so the vibe was pretty groovy. My publisher provided a timeline and chapter suggestions after I sent in a sample chapter and a list of interview subjects I would approach.
Along the way I was seeking — and finding — many new subjects never interviewed for previous Cohen studies. I was also not doing a bio or veering into any love or sex scenes. Not my bag. I truly wanted to create a Cohen book that contained new information in the voices of his recording engineers, previous producers, disc jockeys, music journalists, the devoted throng, chroniclers, and English and Literature teachers and select music journalists and writers.
Maybe there was a sense of destiny involved. Decades ago I met John Hammond, Sr. I interviewed Clive Davis. So I was carrying on their joint mission when they first brought Leonard to the Columbia Records label. I tracked down engineer Fred Catero who worked on Cohen’s debut LP. I was later at many of Leonard’s sessions for Death Of A Ladies’ Man. I recorded at Gold Star studios. I interviewed Phil Spector. I recorded at Kitchen Sync studios when Leonard was in the same studio with Henry Lewy. I’ve been to A&M studios.
I am fortunate to know people like Chris Darrow, a member of the Kaleidoscope who played on the debut Cohen LP and who has been my close friend for 40 years. In 1976 he first told me he played on Leonard’s debut for Columbia, but his name was not on the credits. I’ve been saying to him for four decades, “at least in my books and records I’ll have your name listed!”
Let me also add, just in case reviews point out that Chris Darrow has previously been quoted in Cohen books, I suggested to authors Sylvie Simmons and Anthony Reynolds that Darrow would be a great addition to their own wonderful books about Leonard Cohen and happily supplied his contact information.
Consequently, I felt I had license to ask Chris, and Chester Crill, who also recorded on the Songs Of Leonard Cohen, to once again discuss working with Leonard on that first studio album. Chris didn’t just repeat the same material but offered previously unreported facts and memories, much like you’d find on an audio track to a DVD.
I had to come up with a new slant and some technical anecdotes for him, and guitar or instrument-driven questions so it felt or read like new information. That’s my karma for helping others.
I also watched a couple of Cohen documentaries that led me to even harder to secure interview subjects from the west coast. It seemed most of the books and a lot of Cohen products used in the documentaries neglected the west coast voice and were instead centered on and driven by New York, Canadian, and British themes. So I did make it a point to weave in a few fascinating college professors and a DJ from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo that enhanced the narrative and collaborated with the other global observations.
The inclusion of the SLO folks, my brother Kenneth Kubernik, Kim Fowley and a few other west coast pundits changed the rhythm and provided some new energy and observations I know have never been published before about Cohen or any music or literary subjects.
As Dr. James Cushing said to me, “it’s not nostalgia but actually history if you are bringing new information forward.” And, I got a quote from Rock and roll Hall of Famer Andrew Loog Oldham for the text. You’ve never seen his name or a quip in any Cohen-related articles, books or documentaries.
Q: A number of books about Leonard Cohen have been published in the past few years and more than a half dozen are scheduled for publication in 2014. How does your book differ from other books about Leonard Cohen?
A: I know the photos displayed and the layout make it way different. I feel the multi-voice and prose combined make it special and absorbing. I also gave forum to some Cohen authors and devoted Cohen fans and bloggers. I was involved in a basic chronology but veered into some paths and tunnels no one explored before. I think people like yourself and viewers of your website will especially appreciate the research and knowledge provided.
Let’s acknowledge one thing: Leonard Cohen has been pretty much living or based in my hometown since 1978. I know the regional geography that underscores this specific book. I have produced records with musicians whom have worked with Leonard. I was west coast director of A&R at MCA Records. I met Bob Johnston in 1978! I interviewed him long before I went on this Cohen trek, and we did another interview. I saw John Lissauer in 1974 perform with Leonard and put his name in Melody Maker at the time. And I was able to ask some musician and recording-themed questions. I’ve been in and out of the Columbia Records (now Sony Entertainment) for decades. So I inherently came at this book gig with a more of a record and music slant. I’m a record geek.
If I had been granted a 2013 interview with Leonard, I would have asked him about writing songs, poetry, and his books. These topics are addressed and cited in Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows, but his tours and recording catalog were the primary focus.
Q: You first wrote about Leonard Cohen when you were a teenager, choosing him as the subject of a term paper in high school. Since then, you’ve interviewed him, published articles about him, sat at night club and concerts with him, talked about him with others … so you were very knowledgeable about and familiar with Leonard Cohen before you began working on this book. Were you surprised by any discoveries you made in putting this volume together?
A: Not tons of surprises but I made some discoveries and provided a batch of new facts. There are going to be fewer discoveries in constructing a book weaving music, recording and live performances along with narrative discussions from multiple interview subjects than in researching a biography or a story article that includes or integrates romantic encounters, ex-friends, gurus, lust, and forms of turmoil that are part of the life of Leonard Cohen and do add spice to the content.
Having former Columbia staff engineer Fred Catero discuss his stint with Cohen was fascinating and revealing. Years ago interviewing Clive Davis and describing his 1967 life at Columbia, when he and John Hammond, Sr. green-lighted Cohen to the label was priceless. I know I set the scene of Leonard’s arrival to the record label and the musical climate of 1967 America.
I’ve interviewed Phil Spector a handful of times. I’ve been in Phil’s mansion with Leonard in the late seventies. I made it a point to ask drummer Jim Keltner about recording with Leonard. We’ve been on Cohen sessions together. I asked both Dan and David Kessel to really remember details about recording with Leonard and Phil. I was often at those sessions. Running for food or hanging out, or on occasion, handclapping on tracks at Gold Star or Whitney studios.
I ran into the visual artist Kathi Martin at a restaurant one night. I asked her about Leonard Cohen on the spot because she was always a fan. “Last night I just watched his most recent live concert DVD!” ‘OK. Send me two paragraphs in the morning.” I like to do impulsive things. It can benefit the process. It’s not all scripted. I have to remain excited. I have to allow for impulse and the deep diving navigation and improvisation during my own journey.
One discovery that is quite evident is that Leonard Cohen does connect all of us together. We all have history and mystery with him.
In 1974 I met the poet Michael C Ford in Hollywood at the Gene Autry owned Continental Hyatt House hotel. He was interviewing Leonard for The Los Angeles Free Press. Justin Pierce and I were next for Melody Maker. So Michael and I met again when we were in the hotel room with Leonard. I recall Cohen taking vitamin packs. At the immediate time, he had to be close to age 40, I thought, ‘man, if you go out on tour you gotta take care of yourself. Maybe I’ll go to a vitamin store and try some of this stuff.’ In the eighties I recorded Ford and did many readings and FM radio interviews with him. I called him up two years ago, we hadn’t talked in quite a while, and I said, “I remember your Cohen interview from 40 years ago. I haven’t ever seen it referenced in any books. Do you have a copy?’ “Yes.” “Meet me at a Xerox place in West L.A. on Westwood Boulevard.” It was 20 yards from a former site of the Senator Eugene McCarthy headquarters for his 1968 U.S. Presidential campaign. The same room I first encountered fellow teenager James Cushing, one of the other interview subjects in my Cohen book. We both liked McCarthy because he was a poet.
I first met Michael in 1959 when I was a child in the Crenshaw Village section of Los Angeles. I was buying baseball cards and bubble gum and he was way older, asking about jazz and beat literature. This was years before he knew the Doors and published one of Jim Morrison’s poems in his Sunset Palms magazine.
I’ve been on the poetry, spoken word, comedy, record and live and concert circuit for over a half a century. I didn’t just discover Leonard Cohen from hearing his name mentioned on some NPR or college radio program. I had my Bar Mitzvah right around the corner from a Jewish temple Leonard attends. Leonard moved into my ‘hood and my city.
I honestly think at times, or in some chapters, we have a geographical and telepathic collaboration in this book, illustrated by graphics and unseen photos. Or at the very least I contacted some Los Angeles-based photographers who had some images never widely published. I felt a territorial obligation to push for this subject specific visual documentation. I carry both the literary and musical heritage of Los Angeles in everything I do to the world.
Ten years or so ago I interviewed the screenwriter and movie director Curtis Hanson about his film “Wonder Boys.” There’s a Cohen record on the soundtrack. I would always ask filmmakers when I encountered them or did movie-related interviews that had Cohen tunes in their movies about him.
I think the FM DJ’s I spoke with really deliver some cool Cohen riffs we’ve never collectively read before. The Webb Sisters, Sharon Robinson, Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla really extended to me. A third of a century ago I interviewed Jennifer Warnes for “Melody Maker.”
I’ve been in the hunt a long time. A lot of these people I contacted grew up reading me in music magazines in the seventies and eighties. Some have read my liner notes on CD’s by Allen Ginsberg, Carole King, and the Ramones. Authors and music journalists like Paul Zollo gave me unedited magazine articles with their Cohen interviews in their word documents and let me use what I wanted. I like re-connecting with friends like Sylvie Simmons and particularly Ellen Sander, she was there in 1967 in New York and did a seminal piece on Leonard that was reproduced in the pages.
Other Cohen book authors and people like yourself were very generous with their time and archive to me. A handful of email addresses were given that got me in touch again with interview subjects for the book. They are all duly thanked and acknowledged in the credits.
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
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.
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
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
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].
The confusion arises from those always troublesome American colonies now calling themselves the United States, where the game became known as Chutes and Ladders.
Indeed, in the Milton Bradley game sold in the US, snakes
… have been replaced by chutes, aka playground slides.
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.
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 …
but don’t brag about it because conceit results in friendlessness!
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.