Category Archives: Leonard Cohen

Esther Cohen: A Life Of Enthusiasm

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A Video Commemorating The Life Of Esther Cohen

Esther Cohen, Leonard Cohen’s older sister, has passed away. She was unequivocally enthusiastic about life and beloved by everyone who met her.

Much of this video was first composed four years ago as a birthday tribute (one artifact of its original purpose still remains); there have been a few additions and deletions but the message is still the same – Esther was a delight.

Esther Cohen: A Life Of Enthusiasm
The soundtrack, chosen by Esther, is “Take This Waltz” by Leonard Cohen
Video by Allan Showalter

Credit Due Depaertment: Most of the images were supplied by Linda and Dick Straub, who also came up with the concept of the video. Some of the folks appearing in the video are Leonard Cohen, Emmylou Harris, Lian Lunson, Perla Batalla with husband Claud and daughter Eva, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Lily Lankin, Harry and Arlene Rasky, Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, Leon Wieseltier, Zack Oberzan, Nick Cave, and Santa Claus.

Leonard Cohen’s Apr 22, 1964 Letter To Redmond Wallis: “No State or Authority will ever define my shadow on a woman or hers on me.”

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. Other posts about the Cohen-Wallis correspondence are listed at the end of this entry and can also be found by clicking on Correspondence.

Notes:

As was true of the Feb 26, 1964 Cohen to Wallis letter, this epistle is typed on Orion Films (Montreal) letterhead.

Steve is Steve Sanfield, a close friend of Cohen since they met on Hydra more than 50 years ago. A brief biography of Sanfield can be found at Warrior Poets.

Charmian is Charmian Clift, Australian novelist and wife of George Johnston. While Leonard Cohen was a close friend of the Johnstons, they did have the occasional row. In this case, Charmian had demanded of Wallis that household goods she had loaned (according to her) or given to (according to Cohen) Cohen be returned to her. Part of this letter is Cohen’s response to that demand.

Chuck and Gordon are an openly gay couple who were at the center of the artists’ group on Hydra.

Click on images to enlarge.

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Other posts featuring the Cohen-Wallis correspondence:

Credit Due Department: This letter is archived at the National Library of New Zealand – Wellington

Esther Cohen, Leonard Cohen’s Sister, Has Passed Away

Esther Cohen, Leonard Cohen’s older sister, passed away last night. She was unequivocally enthusiastic about life and beloved by many. Esther married Victor Cohen. Following a Cuban honeymoon, they traveled extensively, were regulars at plays, concerts, movies, and parties, and lived happily together until Victor’s death 19 years ago, Esther did research for McGill and for Colliers in New York.

Four years ago, I was privileged to have been invited by Esther’s close friends, Dick and Linda Straub, to participate in commemorating her birthday. At that time and on a a handful of occasions afterward, I had the chance to talk to Esther by phone on; each time I was charmed anew.

While a video celebrating Esther’s birthday may seem incongruent with the announcement of her death, this video montage of film and photos, supplied by Linda and Dick Straub, features Esther at her best, in the midst of those who loved her. Some may be recognizable to viewers: Emmylou Harris, Lian Lunson, Perla Batalla with husband Claud and daughter Eva, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Lily Lankin, Harry and Arlene Rasky, Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, Leon Wieseltier, Zack Oberzan, and Nick Cave. The music is “Take This Waltz” by Leonard Cohen.

She will be greatly missed.

Esther Cohen Birthday Video – 2010
Video by Allan Showalter

Update: This video has been revised. See Esther Cohen: A Life Of Enthusiasm

Songs Of Leonard Cohen Review: Leonard Cohen’s New Venture (1968) By Juan Rodriguez Now Online

It is clear that Cohen is neither a singer nor a musician, yet that void is not the root cause of the badness of this record [Songs Of Leonard Cohen]

Leonard Cohen’s New Venture
By Juan Rodriguez
The Gazette (Montréal): Apr 27, 1968

click on image to enlarge

The-Montreal-Gazette---Apr-27,-1968

Leonard Cohen, Snakes And Ladders, Sisyphus, & Songwriting – Part 2

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Introduction

This is the final portion of a two-part essay on the use of Snakes & Ladders in Leonard Cohen’s “Closing Time:”

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

The initial post, Leonard Cohen, Snakes And Ladders, Sisyphus, & Songwriting – Part 1, was an explication of the Snakes & Ladders game metaphor itself.

Today’s entry discusses Cohen’s unique songwriting skills as demonstrated in his specific implementation of the Snakes & Ladder trope in this song.

Snakes & Ladders In Popular Music

Leonard Cohen is not the only artist to have recognized the potential value of including an allusion to Snakes & Ladders in a song. The Lyrics website lists 69 songs that refer either directly to the “snakes and ladders” or a recognizable variant.1  (The same site also offers  6 lyrics matching “chutes and ladders.”)  A representative sampling follows below. Rather than offer a necessarily tedious song by song analysis, I ask that the reader simply review these half-dozen selections as a basis for evaluating the pertinent lines by Cohen when considering my overview at the end of this post.

“Sin City” by AC/DC:

Ladders and snakes
Ladders give, snakes take
Rich man poor man
Beggar man, thief
Ain’t got a hope in hell
That’s my belief

“The Hope And Anchor” by The Mekons:

The snakes and the ladders
The sadder and sadder
Lies between the hope and the anchor

“A Wolf At The Door” by Radiohead:

Drag him out your window
Dragging out the dead
Singing I miss you
Snakes and ladders flip the lid
Out pops the cracker
Smacks you in the head

“Wreck of the Hesperus” by George Harrison:

Met some Oscars and Tonys
I slipped on a pavement oyster
Met a snake climbing ladders
Got out of the line of fire
(But it’s alright)

“This Year’s Model” by Elvis Costello:

Sparks are flying from electrical pylons
Snakes and ladders running up and down her nylons
Ready to experiment, you’re ready to be burned
If it wasn’t for some accidents then some would never ever learn

Joni Mitchell even has a song entitled “Snakes And Ladders”2 with Don Henley from the Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm album.

 Leonard Cohen Follows, Then Dances, & Finally Stumbles and Staggers

While comparing Cohen’s Snakes & Ladders lines to the Snakes & Ladders lines written by others is useful, it proves even more instructive to compare Cohen’s (final) Snakes & Ladders lines to Cohen’s (early) Snakes & Ladders lines.

The image below is a page from an early draft of “Closing Time” with the three sections containing “down the snakes and up the ladder” in red boxes3 (click on image to enlarge):

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For convenience, a printed version of the handwritten words of the three sections containing “down the snakes and up the ladder” follows:

and I follow my companion
down the snakes & up the ladder
to the tower where the rescued hours chime

and she (holds) calls me & I dance her
down the snakes & up the ladder
to the tower where the rescued hours chime

and I hold her & I dancer
down the snakes & up the ladder
to the tower when the lonely (rescued) hours chime

A few pages later in the same notebook, we find the first two lines in their final form (and the third line approximating the final form):

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Again, the pertinent lines are rendered as text:

And we stumble & we stagger
down the snakes & up the ladders

And we stumble and we stagger
down the snakes and up the ladders
to the tower where the acid hours chime

Based on this corpus, I now take it upon myself to point out that …

Leonard Cohen Struggles And Staggers Within A Mythic Perspective

In each of the examples listed in the Snakes & Ladders In Popular Music section, the Snakes & Ladders metaphor is effective enough, but the utilization of the game’s title never rises above a simple, tidy signal that the Snakes & Ladders symbolism is in play.

The lines, “Ladders and snakes/Ladders give, snakes take” from “Sin City” by AC/DC, for example, start and stop with naming the game and summarizing the concept. Likewise, Joni Mitchell’s use of the metaphor, while more elaborate and extended, is nonetheless limited to the same elements, naming the game (“Still playin’ snakes and ladders“) and summarizing the concept (Get to the top and slide back down/Get to the bottom climb back up). Even George Harrison’s clever invocation of a sneaky serpent in the line, “Met a snake climbing ladders,” stays within the parameters of the Snakes & Ladders game.

Similarly, Cohen’s original choice of words in the early draft of “Closing Time,”  “I follow my companion down the snakes & up the ladder” accomplishes no more than simply registering a reference to the game.

His next revision, “I dance her down the snakes & up the ladder” is more interesting, sparking the listener’s curiosity and imagination. It also recalls Cohen’s own comments to an interviewer about “The Future,” another song from the same The Future album.

Leonard Cohen: There will be phantoms, there’ll be fires on the road” — a return to suspicion, superstition, return to the tribal paranoia and the white man dancing. It evokes a scene of the end of things but with certain variations.

Interviewer: That’s kind of bleak, isn’t it, even for you?

Leonard Cohen: It would be bleak if it wasn’t set to a hot dance track.4

But “Closing Time” is skewed differently than its album-mate, “The Future.” Consider Cohen’s descriptions of “Closing Time” to interviewers:

 [Closing Time is] that wild, or beautiful, or terrible time when things reach their maximum point of expansion, and then begin to contract. It’s the time we’re in.5

[Interviewer:] “Closing Time” — there’s such a kinetic feel to the song, both musically and verbally. In fact, I just jotted down, in some ways, it reminds me of a Bosch painting where it is, perhaps, the final dance: Blouses are coming off; people are changing partners; it’s the old closing time in a country bar. It’s got that “drinking-doubles-seeing-single” kind of aspect to it; but, the song is just brimming with that kind of kinetic energy.

Leonard Cohen: There’s a lot of activity in that song. I think that’s the way we experience our freedom today. It looks like freedom but it feels like death, it must be something in-between, I guess, it’s closing time. I don’t know about you, but I live a life that is totally consumed with ambiguity and conflict. I can’t get anything straight. Anything I embrace, you know, immediately the polarity manifests and I can embrace it with the same kind of enthusiasm or shame or indifference or whatever the emotion was that caused me to embrace the former. But, it’s this sense of the personal life that I’ve tried to bring to my songs. I think, for instance, when we hear public utterance today, like, the language of the politician or the leader. Whenever I hear a guy speaking, it’s like, hasn’t he heard the bad news? You don’t feel that anybody’s heard the bad news, that they know how people are feeling. I think everybody’s experiencing their daily life now as it looks like freedom but it feels like death. Closing time. The landmarks are down. The lights are out. The catastrophe has taken place. Don’t wait around for it, you know. So, what is the proper behaviour? What is the appropriate behaviour in a catastrophe when you’re holding on to your orange crate and the other guy’s floating by and you’re holding on to this broken flag staff. What do you do? You say, I’m Conservative? I’m Liberal? I’m pro-abortion? I’m against it? It seems to be completely inappropriate to the gravity of the situation; and, I’ve tried to create songs, now, that are appropriate to the gravity of the situation… where there’s no public utterance without the understanding that it looks like freedom but it feels like death and it’s closing time. Something’s gone down. You ignore it at the peril of your self-respect or of your possible rescue.6

One might dance – even dance gratefully – while considering the intellectual notion of a dystopic future. No one fox trots through life in the actual final days.

The imagery evoked by the words Cohen selected for the published version of “Closing Time,” “And we stumble and we stagger down the snakes and up the ladders,” precisely correlates with Cohen’s concept of the song. It is a compact, powerful portrayal of individuals contending together, however transiently, in a desperate effort to claim a bit of happiness within the restraints of their self-imposed intellectual, moral, and characterological restrictions and the explicit and implicit restrictions of social mores. It injects humanity into the metaphor, allowing listeners to empathize with their counterparts in the lyrics and inhabit the scene.

Finally, the line that completes the independent clause, “to the tower where the blessed hours chime,”  loads into the mix the absolute limitations imposed by time.

The final result is Leonard Cohen’s elegant existential exposition:

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

 And that’s how Leonard Cohen has fashioned a few words alluding to a Canadian child’s game into a distinctively serviceable contemporary version of the Sisyphus myth.

Just another day in the iconic singer-songwriter biz.

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  1. E.g., these lines from “Melting In The Sun” by INXS:

    Everybody’s got advice
    Take a snake take a ladder
    And this is what they call the life []

  2. Lyrics: Snakes And Ladders by Joni Mitchell

    He
    In a shopping mall
    Finally met the perfect girl
    She is all that matters
    The only one in all the world
    Like a Barbie doll
    Oh love is snakes and ladders
    Snakes and ladders

    She
    Just to have and hold
    Is the perfect air-brushed angel
    Makes you hot just looking at her
    Stapled into all his braincells
    Like a centerfold
    Oh love is snakes and ladders
    Snakes and ladders

    Get to the top and slide back down
    Get to the bottom climb back up
    Buy the townhouse
    Call the preacher
    Get to the bottom climb back up
    Get to the top and slide back down
    Get to the bottom climb back up
    Set up credit for the lovely creature
    The lovely creature

    He
    On a corporate climb
    Set his sights on power for her
    On a silver platter
    He gave up happy hour for her
    Perrier and lime
    Oh love is snakes and ladders
    Snakes and ladders
    She
    In a handsome world
    Put her mind to social graces
    All the privileged chatter
    Setting pretty table places
    For the girls in pearls
    Oh love is snakes and ladders
    Snakes and ladders

    Get to the top and slide back down
    Get to the bottom climb back up
    Buy the carphone,
    Call the broker
    Get to the bottom climb back up
    Get to the top and slide back down
    Get to the bottom climb back up
    Buy the wife a diamond choker
    A diamond choker

    True love, true love, true love
    He’s so nervous
    New love, new love, new love
    When he’s with her
    Oh, he’s wasting away
    True love, true love, true love
    It’s so curious
    New love, new love, new love
    Just to kiss her
    To kiss her, to kiss her, to kiss her
    To kiss her, to kiss her, to kiss her
    To kiss her he has to shave

    She
    In the gilded mirrors
    In the swing of fancy places
    Where the black ties flatter
    Started seeing other faces
    Young-fogie-financiers
    Oh love is snakes and ladders
    Snakes and ladders

    See
    In the crimes of time
    How the seasons steal away
    How the rungs are shattered
    First you’re green then you’re grey
    Still the snakes unwind
    Still playin’ snakes and ladders
    Snakes and ladders

    Get to the top and slide back down
    Get to the bottom climb back up
    Sell the vineyard
    Call the lawyer
    Get to the bottom climb back up
    Get to the top and slide back down
    Get to the bottom climb back up
    Gather garbage to destroy her
    To destroy her

    Ladders, ladders, ladders
    The perfect girl
    Ladders, ladders, ladders
    The paper chase Love is snakes and ladders
    Ladders, ladders, ladders
    The social whirl
    Ladders, ladders
    The rat race
    Barbie doll []

  3. The red boxes were, of course, not part of the original notebook page []
  4. From One on One: The Imprint Interviews by Leanna Crouch (Somerville House Publishing, 1994). Interview date November 19, 1992. The video of this interviews can be viewed at Leonard Cohen On The Songwriter Submitting To The Anvil Of Rhythm And Rhyme. []
  5. Leonard Cohen, in response to the question, “When exactly IS ‘Closing Time?” – Sony Online Chat (Oct 16, 2001) []
  6. Leonard Cohen’s The Future Interview by Bob Mackowitz. Transcript from a radio special produced by Interviews Unlimited for Sony Music, 1992. The transcript was prepared by Judith Fitzgerald. Retrieved July 16, 2014 from Speaking Cohen. Emphasis mine. []

Now Online: “A Sitting With Leonard Cohen: Ladies’ Man Is Home, Not Dead” (1978) by Juan Rodriguez

A Sitting With Leonard Cohen: Ladies’ Man Is Home, Not Dead
By Juan Rodriguez
The Gazette (Montréal): Jan 7, 1978

This 1978 interview, which took place at Leonard Cohen’s home in Montreal when he was 43, focuses on his collaboration with Phil Spector on the Death Of A Ladies’ Man album.1 Cohen, who was in some interviews caustic about the album, here is generally positive, declaring “There’s no doubt that it’s a little classic.” He is less sanguine about working with Spector, the author noting that “the sessions with Spector seemed to have terrified him [Cohen].” Also included in the article are Cohen’s thoughts on the “inevitable” separation of Quebec from Canada, a bit of name-dropping (it turns out Robert Altman and Michelle Phillips have made social calls on the Canadian singer-songwriter), and his work on his book of poems (here labeled “Death Of A Ladies Man” but published under the title “Death Of A Lady’s Man”).

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  1. In this interview, Leonard Cohen explains why Death Of A Ladies’ Man was issued by Warner Brothers rather than his own label, Columbia, saying “Columbia thought I was some sensitive poet who can’t be exposed to a wide public, a rare flower that could not bloom in the American pop landscape.” Columbia may have thought that but readers should be aware that the reason for the change in record labels for this album appears to have had more to do with Cohen’s and Spector’s lawyer, Marty Machat, fulfilling an obligation he had to Warner Brothers. See “We Were Drunk And Stupid” – Leonard Cohen On Death of a Ladies’ Man []