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.
Sacred Mechanics: One Word At A Time
Leonard Cohen’s songs are the consequence of deliberate and painstakingly careful choices based on years of experience, study, and training.
Prior to his career as a singer-songwriter, Leonard Cohen was a well-known, critically acclaimed poet (and novelist). And, he was not a rock-poet, a folk-poet, or any other variant of pop songwriters are today’s poets-poet. Nope, Leonard Cohen was and is the kind of poet who has expertise in the actual craft of writing poetry, who knows a dactyl from a trochee, who understands how the elegiac couplet differs from the heroic couplet. He published volumes of well-reviewed poetry that sold well before anyone thought of paying to hear him sing anything other than square dance tunes with the Buckskin Boys.
Writing Poems Vs Writing Songs
Cohen’s perception of the relationship between writing poems & writing songs might best be described by the classic Facebook descriptor, “It’s complicated.”
In some interviews, Cohen presents poems and songs as equivalents:
I never made a big distinction between that which we call a poem and that which we call a song. It was the sort of expression which used beauty, rhythm, authority and truth. All these ideas were implicit. Whether Fats Domino sings “I Found My Thrill On Blueberry Hill” or Yeats writes “Only God could love you for yourself alone and not your yellow hair,” I made no distinction between the popular expression and the literary expression. I knew that “The Great Pretender” was a very good poem; I made no hierarchies.
My songs are poems with a guitar behind them.
Music was always the thing closest to me, and I saw poetry as part of that. My early poetry was very much influenced by Scottish Border ballads, the Spanish flamenco songs, the Portuguese fado.
I don’t have any reservations about anything I do. I always played music. When I was 17, I was in a country music group called the Buckskin Boys. Writing came later, after music. I put my guitar away for a few years, but I always made up songs. I never wanted my work to get too far away from music. Ezra Pound said something very interesting, “When poetry strays too far from music, it atrophies. When music strays too far from the dance it atrophies.”,
On other occasions, he made a distinction between the two forms:
I never did set poetry to music. … I got stuck with that. It was a bum rap. I never set a poem to music. I’m not that hopeless. I know the difference between a poem and a song.
A poem has a certain — a different time. For instance, a poem is a very private experience, and it doesn’t have a driving tempo. In other words, you know, you can go back and forward; you can come back; you can linger. You know, it’s a completely different time reference. Whereas a song, you know, you’ve got a tempo. You know, you’ve got something that is moving swiftly. You can’t stop it, you know? And it’s designed to move swiftly from, you know, mouth to mouth, heart to heart, where a poem really speaks to something that has no time and that is — it’s a completely different perception.
[Interviewer:] Do you prefer to write songs or poems? [Leonard Cohen:] It depends on what part of the being is operative. Of course it’s wonderful to write a song, I mean there is nothing like a song, and you sing it to your woman, or to your friend, people come to your house, and then you sing it in front of an audience and you record it. I mean it has an amazing thrust. And a poem, it waits on the page, and it moves in a much more secret way through the world. And that also is… Well, they each have their own way of travel.
That’s the nature of the thing. It’s somehow built into the design of a song, the fact that it moves around. And if it doesn’t, then it isn’t really that thing that we call a song. It could be something else pretty excellent, it could be a poem designed to stand on a page or an esoteric document or a kind of a paradox that could exist on parchment, but you know, a song, its nature is that it moves.
Further complicating the issue are those instances in which Cohen directly transplants poetic forms into his music. Consider this response in a 1992 interview:
I got very involved in the life of music and the lyric and I went to some quite remote places–at a certain point I was only writing Spenserian stanzas to be set to music. I don’t think there’s anyone else in the western world writing Spenserian stanzas with that very intricate verse form. So I got very interested in the whole lyrical form.
It has been my experience that one rarely finds pop tunes by, say, Justin Bieber featuring Spenserian stanzas.
Those contradictory stances notwithstanding, I suggest the key aspect of Cohen’s integration of poetic technique into his songwriting is straightforward as implicitly set forth in his jocular response to the question, “Do you use the same technique then for writing songs and poetry?”
Yeah – just one word at a time. . .
To the task of songwriting, Leonard Cohen applies the same care, knowledge, and effort required to create poetry of significance, attending to each word, line, and stanza.
When you’re banging your head against the dirty carpet of the Royalton Hotel trying to find the rhyme for “orange,” you don’t care about these things.
Consequently, it is unsurprising to find that Leonard Cohen describes …
Songwriting As A Craft
Cohen has, albeit often with reluctance, discussed songwriting with several interviewers. A predominant and recurrent theme is his perception of songwriting as a craft requiring hard work and diligence enhanced by “grace and illumination:”
I never had a strategy [for songwriting]. I always felt I was scraping the bottom of the barrel trying to get a song together. I never had the sense of standing in front of a buffet table with a multitude of choices. It’s more like what Yeats used to say, working ‘in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart’. You always feel like you’re at the end of the line. There’s no sense of abundance but I blacken a lot of pages. It is my work and I try to do it every day. Most of the time one is discouraged by the work, but now and again by some grace something stands out and invites you to work on it, to elaborate it or animate it in some way. It’s a mysterious process. This place is filled with writers, and we all know that the activity depends not just on perseverance and perspiration, but also a certain kind of grace and illumination. We depend on that.
I tend to feel more like a worker – a cabinet maker or something – with little things to do. And I find it takes tremendous amounts of concentration and energy just to get those little things done. You realize that whoever you are, Goethe or Edgar Guest, you’re just really a guy hauling his guitar around. There’s a certain shabbiness to the whole enterprise: seeking to be noticed enters into the work. On one side, you’re the acknowledged legislator of mankind. On another, you’re trying to cope – get through it all, make a living, keep the wheels turning. You can’t have a too exalted description.
Leonard Cohen is clear about his dedication to the craft of songwriting:
I think that much of the work that is done today in music and songwriting and verse suffers from this unwillingness to submit yourself to the anvil of rhythm and rhyme. It makes it too easy. When you are compelled to find rhymes and to satisfy rhythms, it makes you run through everything you know about the language. It makes you run through word after word after word and test every idea.
Q: How would you like to be seen? Leonard Cohen: I would like the word stylist. I’d like to think of myself that way. You want your work to have certain qualities. To be stylish in the way that any designer of an aircraft or automobile would want their machine to move well. Hallelujah For Leonard Cohen by Jon Wilde, Sabatoge Times. Posted 22 March 2011 (the quote itself is taken from a 1988 interview).
Songwriting As A Process
A similarly recurrent notion is the notion that songwriting is a process—one that begins at absolute zero:
One of the absolute qualifications for a writer is not knowing his arse from his elbow. I think that’s where it starts. With a lack of knowledge. The sense of not knowing what is happening and the need to organise experience on the page or in the song is one of the motivations of a writer.
And one that continues through the writing, revising, and finally performing or recording a song:
There’s the writing of the song, which can be laborious and difficult; there’s the recording of the song in the studio, which also takes a tremendous concentration . . .to materialize the songs. And then the third part of the process is singing the songs in front of other people.
[Interviewer:] Do you generally begin a song with a lyrical idea? [Leonard Cohen:] It begins with an appetite to discover my self-respect. To redeem the day. So the day does not go down in debt. It begins with that kind of appetite. … [Interviewer:] You do have whole notebooks of songs?[Leonard Cohen:] Whole notebooks. I’m very happy to be able to speak this way to fellow craftsmen. Some people may find it encouraging to see how slow and dismal and painstaking is the process. For instance, a song like “Closing Time” began as a song in 3/4 time with a really strong, nostalgic, melancholy country feel. Entirely different words. … And I recorded the song and I sang it. And I choked over it. Even though another singer could have done it perfectly well. It’s a perfectly reasonable song. And a good one, I might say. A respectable song. But I choked over it. There wasn’t anything that really addressed my attention. The finishing of it was agreeable because it’s always an agreeable feeling. But when I tried to sing it I realized it came from my boredom and not from my attention. It came from my desire to finish the song and not from the urgency to locate a construction that would engross me. So I went to work again. Then I filled another notebook from beginning to end with the lyric, or the attempts at the lyric, which eventually made it onto the album. So most of [my songs] have a dismal history, like the one I’ve just accounted.
The thing is, before I can discard the verse, I have to write it. The bad verses take as long as the good verses to write. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines. You can’t see that in the raw…. I’m tempted to remove everything. “At any time I’ve got a kind of alcoholic courage. Most people are reluctant to remove things. My sin is on the other side. I’m ready to discard the whole song at any time and start over., ((See also Expanding Scope By Eliminating Content: Leonard Cohen’s Disciplined Revision Of A Singer Must Die))
And from his co-writer, Sharon Robinson,
There’s a lot of taking-away of things that might distract from the whole. I wrote a lot of parts that ended up being taken out. There were parts that I thought were beautiful. And I’d bring them over, and he [Leonard Cohen] would say, ‘That’s beautiful.’ Then a minute later he’d say: ‘It’s too beautiful. We’ve got to get rid of it.’
Every detail is important:
With his back to just over a hundred fans who filled Nashville’s Exit-In, Leonard paused for the third time to tune his guitar. A drunken voice blurted from the darkness, “Good enough for folk music!” A few patrons chuckled. Leonard made a final adjustment, then casually turned to respond, “Yeah, but not good enough for eternity.”
I wish it didn’t take so long to finish a song and to make a record . . . it seems to be a long process . . . it’s trying to discover how I really feel about something. To move a song from a slogan to an authentic expression is really what the enterprise is about . . . discarding the lines that come too easy. . . waiting until something else bubbles up that is a little truer . . .
Cohen’s relentless effort expended in rewriting and revising his songs, often over a period of years, is legendary. “Hallelujah,” for example, famously required more than four years, during which 80 potential verses were created. Cohen explains his methodology:
[Leonard Cohen:] It takes me months and months of full employment to break the code of the song. To find out if there can be a song there.
[Interviewer:] When you’re working to break that code, is it a process of actively thinking about what the song should say?
[Leonard Cohen:] Anything that I can bring to it. Thought, meditation, drinking, disillusion, insomnia, vacations… Because once the song enters the mill, it’s worked on by everything that I can summon. And I need everything. I try everything. I try to ignore it, try to repress it, try to get high, try to get intoxicated, try to get sober, all the versions of myself that I can summon are summoned to participate in this project, this work force. I try everything. I’ll do anything. By any means possible.
[Interviewer:] In your experience, do any of these things work better than others?
[Leonard Cohen:] Nothing works. Nothing works. After a while, if you stick with a song long enough it will yield. But long enough is way beyond any reasonable estimation of what you think long enough may be. In fact, long enough is way beyond. It’s abandoning, it’s abandoning that idea of what you think long enough may be. Because if you think it’s a week, that’s not long enough. If you think it’s a month, it’s not long enough. If you think it’s a year, it’s not long enough. If you think it’s a decade, it’s not long enough. Some songs take a decade to write. “Anthem” took a decade to write. And I’ve recorded it three times. More. I had a version prepared for my last album with strings and voices and overdubs. The whole thing completely finished. I listened to it, there was something wrong with the lyric, there was something wrong with the tune, there was something wrong with the tempo. there was a lie somewhere in there, there was a disclosure that I was refusing to make. There was a solemnity that I hadn’t achieved. There was something wrong with the damn thing. All I knew is that I couldn’t sing it. You could hear it in the vocal, that the guy was putting you on.
Or, put more succinctly,
So to find that song, that urgent song, takes a lot of versions and a lot of work and a lot of sweat. But why shouldn’t my work be hard? Almost everybody’s work is hard. One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff to come up with the payload.
Next in this series: Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: #3. Artistic Design – Working With The Gift Of A Golden Voice – & Other Instruments
Credit Due Department: Photo by Jorge Represa