Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: #3. Artistic Design – Musical Influences

lc-studio-scaled1000Note: 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.

Musical Influences

Leonard Cohen’s musical influences are varied and sometimes surprising.

He includes, for example, among his early influences “Scottish Border ballads, the Spanish flamenco songs, the Portuguese fado.”1

The People’s Songbook

people_songbook

The People’s Songbook (1948 edition)

At age 15, Cohen was introduced to “The People’s Songbook,” and through it to such songs as “Passing Through,” “The Partisan,” and “Beloved Comrade.”

The song “Passing Through” is a song I learned when I was fifteen, from a very devoted socialist that I knew. That particular version of the song comes out of “The People’s Songbook” which was a song book developed out of the interest that the socialists had at one time in Folk Music, still have. It came out of the “Almanac Singers” who later became “The Weavers”, that’s the group that Pete Seeger was in – the book was edited by John Lomax. The book itself was very influential in interesting me in song and songwriting. I came across it when I was about fifteen.2

Country Music

Leonard Cohen has frequently and unabashedly attested to his enjoyment of country music and the strong influence that genre has had on his own work. It is significant that Leonard Cohen has himself pointed out that “When I was 17, I was in a country music group called the Buckskin Boys.3  Writing came later, after music.”4

I’ve always loved country music. I lived in Nashville for a couple of years. Even in the dark periods of the seventies and the early eighties, I listened to a lot of country music because I felt that that’s where the emotion was, that’s where the lyric was, and that’s where real problems were being addressed.  Country singers tend to be a little older. The audience tends to be a lot more loyal. So the singers and the writers can reveal themselves over a long period of time. You know that Johnny Cash is not going to be singing about anything frivolous, and you know that George Jones is not going to be presenting himself with any kind of bravado; you know that he is going to be telling the truth about himself in his song. When you have pop groups coming and going with tremendous rapidity, you can’t get the feel of the artist. 5

The musical values [of “urban folk music, country western”] are very sophisticated, not primitive as it’s usually taken to be. Very sophisticated and very, very minimal, but the emphasis is on the voice and the experience in the voice.6

[Country music] is the music I always reach for when I’m in the car. I like it because it’s a simple yet highly sophisticated music. It uses few chords, its simple structure lending it an attachment to austerity. Because of its simple structure, it has to be highly sophisticated if it is going to touch the heart without people saying yuk. Nobody gets away with anything in country lyrics. If you listen to them against pop lyrics, there’s no contest. Those guys know how to write a verse. It’s often complex stuff, about love and divorce and law and, eh, sometimes quite obscure feelings that make most pop music very, very kindergarten.7

[Europe has] this tradition of self revelation in popular music. We have it here – it’s called Country Western Music… I think that’s where the deeper and more complex subjects are treated.8

Sid Vicious Vs Frank Sinatra

Similarly indicative of Cohen’s thoughtful, counterintuitive musical pathway is his preference for the Sid Vicious cover of “My Way” over Frank Sinatra’s:

I never liked this song ["My Way"] except when Sid Vicious did it. Sung straight, it somehow deprives the appetite of a certain taste we’d like to have on our lips. When Sid Vicious did it, he provided that other side to the song; the certainty, the self-congratulation, the daily heroism of Sinatra’s version is completely exploded by this desperate, mad, humorous voice. I can’t go round in a raincoat and fedora looking over my life saying I did it my way — well, for 10 minutes in some American bar over a gin and tonic you might be able to get away with it. But Sid Vicious’s rendition takes in everybody; everybody is messed up like that, everybody is the mad hero of his own drama. It explodes the whole culture this self-presentation can take place in, so it completes the song for me.9

Pop Music On Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox

Tellingly, Cohen has identified the “biggest influence on [his] music” as

The jukebox. I lived beside jukeboxes all through the fifties. There was “The Great Pretender,” “Cross Over the Road.” I never knew who was singing. I never followed things that way. I still don’t. I wasn’t a student of music; I was a student of the restaurant I was in — and the waitresses. The music was a part of it. I knew what number the song was.10

Where The Good Songs Come From

One of the most popular Leonard Cohen quotes is “I don’t know where the good songs come from or else I’d go there more often.”11 Well, if Mr Cohen hasn’t found the home of good songs, it isn’t for lack of looking.  Consider his portfolio of referenced singers, songs, and lyric sources.

Leonard Cohen has specifically endorsed such disparate tracks as “I Fall To Pieces” by Patsy Cline, “Je ne regrette rien” by Joaquín Rodrigo, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” by The Beatles, “Etude Op. 10, No. 1″ by Chopin, “Black Lace” by Frankie Laine, “Y.M.C.A.” by Village People, and “Gums Bleed” by You’ve Got Foetus On Your Breath.12

The list of musicians Cohen enjoys is equally long and varied, including Waylon Jennings, Beethoven, Pete Seeger, The Beatles, Chopin, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Josh White, Van Morrison, George Jones, Billy Joel, and King David.

And, Cohen has derived lyrics from an especially extensive, eclectic group of sources, including the King James Bible, an Andrews Sisters song, a Yom Kippur prayer, poems by Federico García Lorca, and Whitman, a Scientology precept, and a Burger King commercial.

I’m beginning to think that Mr Cohen, his protestations notwithstanding, has indeed discovered where good songs come from – and returns there quite often.

Next in this series: Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: #3. Artistic Design – The Utility, Magic, & Mystery Of Songs

Credit Due Department: Photo atop this post is by Ian Cook/Time Life Pictures. Image of The People’s Songbook found at Leonard Cohen Prologues

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  1. Conversations from a Room by Tom Chaffin. Canadian Forum: August/September 1983. Accessed 27 April 2014 at Speaking Cohen. []
  2. The Song Of Leonard Cohen – Portrait Of A Poet, A Friendship And A Film by Harry Rasky (1979) []
  3. For more about the Buckskin Boys, see Leonard Cohen – Boy Wonder []
  4. Leonard Cohen: Cohen’s New Skin by Harvey Kubernik. Melody Maker:1 March 1975. []
  5. Aurora Online With Leonard Cohen by Marco Adria. Aurora: July, 1990 []
  6. Haute Dog by Mr. Bonzai (David Goggin). Music Smarts: July 10, 2010 (archived from 1988). Accessed 29 April 2014 at Speaking Cohen. []
  7. Tortoise-Shell Hero by Biba Kopf. New Musical Express, March 2, 1985. []
  8. Backstage Interview With Leonard Cohen with Ralph Benmergui. Toronto: Nov 9, 1988. The concert was broadcast  live on CBC radio and  rebroadcast on March 11, 1990 on The Entertainers. See Leonard Cohen On Bunk Beds, Country Music, Song Writing, Terrorism, Religion, and – Yes – Sex []
  9. Cohen’s Way by Mat Snow. The Guardian: February 1988. Accessed 20 May 2014 at Speaking Cohen. []
  10. Yakety Yak by Scott Cohen (1994) []
  11. This has been used in many interviews, including in a June 28, 2006 NPR interview []
  12. For information about these Leonard Cohen–endorsed songs and many others, see Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox. []

Photos That Should Have Been: Leonard Cohen Visits Set Of Fraggle Rock 1983

fragrck
Real Event – Fake Photo
click on image to enlarge

Excerpt from Leonard Cohen – I’m Your Man by Sylvie Simmons:

fragglerock

Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: #3. Artistic Design – Working With The Gift Of A Golden Voice & Other Instruments

LeonardCohenPA140311
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.

Working With The Golden Voice & Other Instruments

Being born with the gift of a golden voice has not only had an impact on the presentation of Leonard Cohen’s songs but has also affected the construction of those songs.

I think if I had one of those good voices, I would have done it completely differently. I probably would have sung the songs I really like rather than be a writer.1

The arrangements are built around my voice to give some sort of structure and tonal variation because my voice gets a bit monotonous. In fact the whole thing is designed to prevent a disaster.2

Sometimes I think my voice is very bad. I can almost make myself cry with it very early in the morning. I definitely don’t have much of a voice, but it’s suitable for the songs I do. I think that everybody has a voice. And the people we consider significant singers are the people who decided to go with their own voice and did not decide to sound like what they thought a singer should be. That notion is very current in popular music now. Leadbelly was one of the first. I think that people whom we call singers – people that we love – are singing right out of the center of their own voices, and we use that same term in literary criticism. Like, ‘He found his own voice.’ That’s what a singer is in some ways: He’s found his own voice.3

But I don’t think that [the quality of a voice] has anything to do with delivering a song. A song, a message, a laundry list, a salutation – there’s a way to deliver the thing so that it touches the person you’re speaking to. Now there are lots of good singers who couldn’t do my stuff – couldn’t penetrate it, would have no interest in it. I can do my songs better than most people. Very rarely someone like Jennifer Warnes comes along, who has all the emotional equipment and can bring musical qualities to the song that I can’t even approach. This superb sound that issues from her throat. Now maybe that can get in the way of a song too.4

I don’t consider myself a great singer. I just play the guitar and interpret my lyrics. I do what I do because I have a need to do it, to express what I know, and to show people what I do.5

My voice just happens to be monotonous, I’m somewhat whiney, so they are called sad songs. But you could sing them joyfully too. It’s a completely biological accident that my songs sound melancholy when I sing them.6

Cohen’s music has been influenced by other performance factors as well, including the use of accompanying  musicians:

[Interviewer:] Do you remember when you used to release albums without many accompanying musicians? [Leonard Cohen:]: In very early times, I tried that. But in the meantime, my music became much more complex. Furthermore, I would bore myself to death to be in the studio or on stage alone. Sharon Robinson, who has worked with me since 1979 as a backup singer and who produced the new album, has succeeded in cushioning the imperfections of my voice. When we sing together, my voice contains no loneliness.7

And, his choice of instruments used to design his songs has also been important. In the mid-1980s, a Casio keyboard replaced Cohen’s guitar as his preferred means of working out melodies and rhythms:

[Interviewer:] Does the instrument affect the song you are writing? [Leonard Cohen:] They have certainly affected my songs. I only have one chop. All guitar players have chops. Especially professional ones. But I have only one chop. It’s a chop that very few guitarists can emulate, hence I have a certain kind of backhanded respect from guitar players because they know that I have a chop that they can’t master. And that chop was the basis of a lot of my good songs. But on the keyboard, because you can set up patterns and rhythms, I can mock up songs in a way that I couldn’t do with my guitar. There were these rhythms that I heard but I couldn’t really duplicate with my own instrument. So it’s changed the writing quite a bit.8

Next in this series: Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: #3. Artistic Design – Musical Influences

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  1. Leonard Cohen’s Nervous Breakthrough by Mark Rowland. Musician: July 1988. Accessed 22 May 2014 at Speaking Cohen. []
  2. Have You Heard The One About Lenny In The Sandwich Bar? by Andrew Tyler. Disc: September 2, 1972. Accessed 22 May 2014 at Speaking Cohen []
  3. Conversations from a Room by Tom Chaffin. Canadian Forum: August/September 1983. Accessed 22 May 2014 at Speaking Cohen. []
  4. Leonard Cohen’s Nervous Breakthrough by Mark Rowland. Musician: July 1988. Accessed 22 May 2014 at Speaking Cohen. []
  5. 1974 Interview with Leonard Cohen by Jordi Sierra I Fabra. Published in Leonard Cohen by Alberto Manzano (1978). Accessed 24 May 2014 at Speaking Cohen. []
  6. Behind The Enigma By Tony Wilson. New Musical Express: March 25, 1972 []
  7. The Happy Message of the Aged, Interview by Sven F. Goergens. (Translated by Marie Mazur, using translation software, with the aid of Adi Heindl): Focus: September 15, 2001. Photo from same article. Accessed 22 May 2014 at Speaking Cohen. []
  8. Leonard Cohen - Los Angeles 1992 from Songwriters On Songwriting By Paul Zollo []

“Wallee Fallee Downee” – Letter From Redmond Wallis To Leonard Cohen: Nov 3, 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 is primarily a followup to matters about Cohen’s home in Hydra raised in the Oct 16, 1963 Letter From Redmond Wallis To Leonard Cohen. The terrace mentioned in the letter is where Cohen did much of his writing.

leonard-terrace

lc-looking-up-typewrit2er900

Katsika’s refers to Antony and Nick Katsikas’ grocery/tavern on Hydra.

Axel is Axel Jensen, the Norwegian novelist who was Marianne’s husband.

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

Click on images to enlarge.

wallis-nov-3-1963-1

wallis-nov-3-1963-2

Other posts featuring the Cohen-Wallis correspondence:

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

“Jezebel” by Frankie Laine Is On Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox

lcjukebox

Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox

Biggest Influence on My Music – The jukebox. I lived beside jukeboxes all through the fifties. … I never knew who was singing. I never followed things that way. I still don’t. I wasn’t a student of music; I was a student of the restaurant I was in — and the waitresses. The music was a part of it. I knew what number the song was.

- Leonard Cohen (Yakety Yak by Scott Cohen, 1994)

Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox: Over the years, Leonard Cohen has mentioned a number of specific songs he favors. Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox is a Heck Of A Guy feature that began collecting these tunes for the edification and entertainment of viewers on April 4, 2009. All posts in the Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox series can be found at the Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox Page.

“Frankie Lane, he was singing Jezebel”

Frankie Laine: Nov 1949

Frankie Laine: Nov 1949

“Frankie Lane, he was singing Jezebel” is, of course, the opening line of Leonard Cohen’s “Memories.”1 Cohen’s introduction of “Memories” during his June 8, 1985 concert at the Warfield in San Francisco elaborates:2

One footnote : there is a singer mentioned in the first line of the first verse, the singer Frankie Laine. He’s to be remembered for his stellar rendition of “Jezebel.”

jezebel

“Jezebel” was written in 1951 by Wayne Shanklin and recorded by Frankie Laine with the Norman Luboff Choir and Mitch Miller and his orchestra on April 4, 1951. The record reached #2 on the Billboard chart and was a million seller.3

Frankie Laine – Early Video of “Jezebel
Video from Mark Gallagher

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  1. For more about “Memories,” see Two Leonard Cohen “Memories” Videos. []
  2. Diamonds In The Lines []
  3. Wikipedia []

Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: #3. Artistic Design – Sacred Mechanics

represa
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:1 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 well2 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.3

My songs are poems with a guitar behind them.4

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.5

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.”6,7

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.8

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.9

[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.10

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.11

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.12

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. . .13

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.

After all,

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.14

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.15

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.16

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.17

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.18

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.19

[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.20

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.21((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.’22

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.”23

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 . . .24

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.25 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.26

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.27

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

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  1. “We’ve got to be very careful, exploring these sacred mechanics. Someone will throw a monkey wrench into the thing, and we’ll never write another line…” Leonard Cohen quoted in The Wisdom Of Leonard Cohen by Kevin Perry. GQ: Jan 19, 2012. []
  2. OK, that sold as well as well-reviewed poetry sells. []
  3. Comme Un Guerrier by Christian Fevret (Throat Culture magazine, 1992). Found at Speaking Cohen. []
  4. Leonard Cohen by Ray Connolly. Evening Standard, July 1968 []
  5. Conversations from a Room by Tom Chaffin. Canadian Forum: August/September 1983. Found at Speaking Cohen. []
  6. The Ezra Pound quotation is from the Preface of his book, ABC of Reading (1934), and reads, in context, “The author’s conviction on this day of the New Year is that music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance; that poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music.” []
  7. Leonard Cohen: Cohen’s New Skin by Harvey Kubernik. Melody Maker: March 1, 1975. []
  8. Porridge?  Lozenge?  Syringe? by Adrian Deevoy, Q Magazine, 1991. Accessed 22 May 2014 at LeonardCohenFiles []
  9. Songwriter Leonard Cohen Discusses Fame, Poetry and Getting Older by Jeffrey Brown. PBS: Broadcast June 28, 2006 []
  10. Leonard Cohen: The Romantic in a Ragpicker’s Trade by Paul Williams (Crawdaddy, March 1975). Found at Speaking Cohen. []
  11. Cohen Down The Road By Karl Dallas, Melody Maker, May 22, 1976. Found at Reality Now! []
  12. Leonard Cohen by Barbara Gowdy (November 19, 1992 interview published in One on One: The Imprint Interviews, ed. Leanna Crouch, Somerville House Publishing 1994). Accessed 20 May 2014 at Speaking Cohen. []
  13. Suffering For Fan And Profit – The Return Of Leonard Cohen by Mick Brown. Sounds: July 3 1976, Accessed 26 April 2014 at LeonardCohenFiles []
  14. Leonard Cohen’s Nervous Breakthrough  by Mark Rowland, Musician, July 1988. Accessed 08 June 2014 at Speaking Cohen. []
  15. The Wisdom Of Leonard Cohen by Kevin Perry. GQ: Jan 19, 2012. []
  16. Conversations from a Room by Tom Chaffin. Canadian Forum: August/September 1983. Found at Speaking Cohen. []
  17. Leonard Cohen by Barbara Gowdy (November 19, 1992 interview published in One on One: The Imprint Interviews, ed. Leanna Crouch, Somerville House Publishing 1994). Accessed 20 May 2014 at Speaking Cohen. []
  18. Hallelujah For Leonard Cohen by Jon Wilde, Sabatoge Times. Posted 22 March 2011 (the quote itself is taken from a 1988 interview). []
  19. Leonard Cohen, speaking “for German television in 1997,” quoted in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia by Michael Gray (2006) []
  20. Leonard Cohen - Los Angeles 1992 from Songwriters On Songwriting By Paul Zollo []
  21. Leonard Cohen by Paul Zollo. Boulevard Magazine: Jan 29, 2013. []
  22. The California Girl and the Ladies’ Man by Doug Saunders. Toronto’s Globe & Mail: October 11, 2001. Accessed 19 May 2014 at Ten New Songs []
  23. Leonard Lately – A Leonard Cohen interview-article by Bill Conrad.  Posted May 7, 2012 at No Depression. Note: Although not published until 2012, the article is based on an interview that took place in autumn 1976. []
  24. Leonard Cohen, speaking “for German television in 1997,” quoted in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia by Michael Gray (2006) []
  25. The Wisdom Of Leonard Cohen by Kevin Perry. GQ: Jan 19, 2012. []
  26. Leonard Cohen - Los Angeles 1992 from Songwriters On Songwriting By Paul Zollo []
  27. Leonard Cohen - Los Angeles 1992 from Songwriters On Songwriting By Paul Zollo []