Tag Archives: Tower Of Song

Apolinary POlek – Tower Of Song Cover, New Album


Apolinary POlek Returns

Apolinary POlek is known by many  ongoing readers as a talented, generous, and energetic contributor to Heck Of A Guy. In March 2007, he alerted Heck Of A Guy viewers to the Warsaw Leonard Cohen Presents Anjani concert1 and later offered his recordings of the broadcast of that concert for presentation here.

He has also shared his expertise in and insights about the music of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. Most recently, Heck Of A Guy hosted the debut of his original song, Some Small Towns (performed in English).

The Music Of Apolinary POlek


Yesterday, we happily received this message from our favorite Polish singer-songwriter:

Last Friday was the day of my album’s premiere. Before playing songs from the album, we decided to pay honor to our masters. One of them is Leonard Cohen of course, so I can share with You this video

Apolinary POlek – Tower Of Song (Wieża Pieśni)

Apolinary POlek – ***


More information about the new album is available at Last.fm

  1. Anjani Interview and Concert Online Today was the first of six Heck Of A Guy posts that covered the Warsaw Concert and Interview, which took place 31 March 2007. That post also contains information about and links to the other pertinent blog entries. []

Leonard Cohen & His Gong – Questions Answered

Leonard Cohen preparing for 2008 Tour

Getting Back To The Cat In The Hat

Just over a year ago, 1 the above photo2  appeared in the Leonard Cohen Is The Cat In The Hat, prompting certain questions:

This shot of Leonard Cohen rehearsing for his upcoming World Tour in his Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes3 is intriguing and even a tad mysterious.

How, for example, does he look so good in that hat? Why does he look like an illustration for the dictionary definition of “dapper” wearing a double breasted jacket while 97% of the men that don them (including Dave Letterman, who wears one almost every night on his show) resemble nothing else as much as a corpse being fitted for a shroud? Why is he fingering a keyboard when he typically plays a guitar, if he plays any instrument, in his concerts? Why does he have only one hand on the keyboard? Is the one hand in the pocket stance essential as a component of the not quite insouciant slouch?

And what the heck is with that gong in the background?

Now, those queries can be answered.

The Fedora And Spiffy Attire

Long before “iconic” became the adjective of choice for Leonard Cohen,4  “dapper” was a reliable fallback for those writing about him. Being well dressed has long been his default mode.5

Nonetheless, the natty look produces, as is often noted in concert reviews, an  atypical stage presence for a card-carrying member of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and enhances in Cohen’s dignified stage persona.

Even more striking is the effect created when Cohen’s fashion is reflected in the dress of his onstage companions. I’ve previously noted that I am especially taken by Russell Baillie’s description of Cohen’s band and back-up singers in Review: Leonard Cohen at Vector Arena:6

Somehow, Cohen’s ensemble, a sort of gypsy-soul rock-noir cabaret outfit dressed, as was their fedora-ed double-breasted leader like particularly stylish members of the French Resistance, were able to shrink the vastness of the venue down to the intimate scale of the music.

I was, in fact, inspired to put together a  montage of  Leonard Cohen’s musicians that can be viewed at  Leonard Cohen’s Gypsy-Soul Rock-Noir Cabaret.

While certainly not a recent addition to the Cohen closet, the consistently worn fedora has become a handy and emblematic  prop for Cohen …


… and a symbol that, in the minds of fans,  is far more readily associated with the Leonard Cohen: World Tour 2008-2009 than is the official insignia.  Of course, that problem could be fixed …


The Keyboard

Similarly, the keyboard itself is nothing new, having first appeared on Planet Cohen during his work on “Hallelujah.”7  As producer John Lissauer explains,

He had just ­discovered the Casio keyboard. Somebody had given it to him as a toy, but he found it so easy to write to.8

And, as seen in this screenshot from a 1988 performance of “Tower of Song,” Cohen was playing with his toy in public over a decade ago.


Never before, however, has he used the keyboard so explicitly as a prop for jokes.

The Tower Of Song Patter

Tower Of Song has repeatedly been one of the best received songs during the Tour and appears to be the one, judging from his facial expressions and his animation, that Leonard Cohen most enjoys performing. Because it is crammed with humorous moments and because it often follows directly after Leonard Cohen’s introductory comments to the crowd (which I wanted to capture), I have been unable to find a single video that captures all the important aspects of the presentation. The first Tower Of Song video (Geneva) starts just before the talk about the keyboard begins. For the purposes of this demonstration, you can stop the video once he begins singing, which is the point at which the next video begins.

1. Leonard Cohen – Now, I don’t want you to get alarmed, I’m going to start up this machine … . Lead-in To Tower Of Song (Geneva. October 27, 2008)

An Aside:

As a wannabe raconteur, I tend to recycle well-received anecdotes and figures of speech, sometimes adapting or embellishing them and sometimes reproducing the unaltered original version.9 While I’ve previously pointed out, as have others, that Leonard Cohen has closely followed the same script in concerts throughout this Tour, his reutilization of what we Ozark hillbillies call “good ‘uns” is hardly limited to intratour patter.

The most quoted line from Cohen’s monologue, for example, may well be “When I was last here in [name of city or theater], I was 60 years old, just a kid with a crazy dream.” Before the Tour began, Cohen, in discussing Philip Glass, who had presented his interpretation of Cohen’s music, remarked, “It’s his 70th birthday, and he’s just a kid with a crazy dream.”10

In this instance, a substantially longer interlude separates the current joke and its antecedent.  The bit,  used before the start of the Tower Of Song in most of the World Tour concerts,  that begins “Now, I don’t want you to get alarmed, I’m going to start up this machine … ” echoes, to my ears at least, the mock warning issued by Cohen about his instrumentation in his next number during a session recorded and broadcast by the BBC in 1968.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

2. Leonard Cohen – Continuation of Tower Of Song Monologue (Sofiero Sweden, July 3, 2008)

Cohen’s first words (competing with the applause) are “No hands.” Also lost in the crowd’s response to his keyboard solo at 1:30-2:00 is his acknowledgment “You’re very kind.”11

Bang The Gong Slowly


Q: And what the heck is with that gong in the background?

A: Watch and learn.

Leonard Cohen  – The Gypsy’s Wife (Oakland, 2009)

The Off-Keyboard Hand Placement

Why does he have only one hand on the keyboard? Is the one hand in the pocket stance essential as a component of the not quite insouciant slouch?

As explained earlier in this post, the one hand on the keyboard technique is part of the shtick.

But the reason Cohen’s other hand is stowed in his pocket is another matter. After considering (1) the primary motivation for this tour (his fiscal catastrophe caused by the misconduct of his previous business manager)  and (2) the timing of the photo (taken just before the tour began, i.e., before any revenues have been realized although expenses have begun to come due), I am convinced, although I lack documentary evidence, that Leonard Cohen had his hand in his pocket to assure that his last $18.64 didn’t somehow disappear the way his $5 million did.

Why am I so certain? Because, Baby I’ve been there before.

  1. 27 April 2008 []
  2. As listed in the original post, the photo is by Lorca Cohen and is used by permission of Leonard Cohen via Ed Sanders. []
  3. Or would these be Leonard Cohen’s “Sabbath-go-to-meeting Clothes?” Or his “Sabbath-go-to-synagogue Clothes?” Such are the perils of the culturally sensitive blogger. []
  4. See The Talented And Iconic Leonard Cohen – Sony/ATV Music Publishing CEO Makes It Official []
  5. Dressing well is not a casual matter for Cohen, whose father owned a clothing store in Montreal. When delivering his elegiac homage to Irving Layton, a poet he admired and a close friend, Cohen observed, “I taught him how to dress, he taught me how to live forever.” While this statement praises Layton’s gift as being disproportionately more important than Cohen’s own, it also establishes that Cohen believed it worthwhile to instruct his old colleague in the sartorial mysteries, which, given photographic evidence of Layton’s cavalier approach to selecting clothing ensembles and the repeated occurrence of words such as  irascible, irreverent, Rabelaisian, and demanding in reports of his temperament, was likely to have been no small task. []
  6. Review: Leonard Cohen at Vector Arena By Russell Baillie. New Zealand Herald. Jan 23, 2009 []
  7. Greatest Songs Ever: “Hallelujah” by David Peisner. Blender. December 9, 2008 []
  8. Ibid []
  9. I’ve found, in fact, that the degree of merriment apparent on the faces of individuals who hear, in public, my hilarious story about Uncle Foster for the 14th time to be a useful litmus test for identifying especially good friends and outrageously wonderful women. []
  10. See Leonard Cohen, Philip Glass, And The Iceberg, quotingJust Two Old Guys With ‘a Crazy Dream,’ Ben Kaplan, CanWest News Service, June 1, 2007 []
  11. Also of interest: doff of hat at “hair has turned gray,” audience singing along and wildly applauding “I was born like this, I had no choice/ I was born with the gift of a golden voice.” (starts about 2:10), Cohen points to head in concert with the line, “You see, I hear these funny voices” (about 3:27). []

IRONY ALERT: Cohen's "I Was Born With The Gift Of A Golden Voice" Is Self-Deprecating Humor

Leonard Cohen's “Born With The Gift Of A Golden Voice” At Risk For Misinterpretation As Narcissistic Boast

In many ways, it was another routine case of human error, the careless misinterpretation of Leonard Cohen’s mock boast in Tower Of Song, “I was born with the gift of a golden voice.”

This time, however, the assumption that this line was a sincerely meant narcissistic declaration on the part of Cohen ended in tragedy.  From the post, Did Cohen Plagiarize or Allude to Longfellow?, I have excerpted the pertinent lines:

I cannot tell whether Cohen alludes to or plagiarizes the ideas and even the precise words of Longfellow. Also, I realize that a lot of art plagiarizes or borrows from art the has come before it, but Cohen’s usage bothers me nonetheless. I wonder whether he figured that few members of a modern audience would recognize his pilfering.  Cohen’s egotism also bothers me:

I was born like this, I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice

His egotism would not bother me if his writing were more original and creative. To his credit, he does place Hank Williams one hundred floors above him in the Tower of Song out of respect. Bob Dylan has called Williams the greatest songwriter of all time.

The thesis of the post is that Cohen plagiarizes, alludes to, or pilfers (the terms preferred by the post’s author) from Longfellow’s Mezzo Cammin.1 That sonnet is typically interpreted as Longfellow’s lament that he has not “fulfilled / The aspiration of my youth, to build / Some tower of song with lofty parapet,” i.e., he has not yet created the monument in poetry he had hoped to write in his youth.2 Longfellow’s complete poem and the lyrics to Cohen’s Tower Of Song follow:

Mezzo Cammin by Longfellow

Half of my life is gone, and I have let
The years slip from me and have not fulfilled
The aspiration of my youth, to build
Some tower of song with lofty parapet.
Not indolence, nor pleasure, nor the fret
Of restless passions that would not be stilled,
But sorrow, and a care that almost killed,
Kept me from what I may accomplish yet;
Though, half way up the hill, I see the Past

Lying beneath me with its sounds and sights,–
A city in the twilight dim and vast,
With smoking roofs, soft bells, and gleaming lights.–
And hear above me on the autumnal blast
The cataract of Death far thundering from the heights.

Tower Of Song by Leonard Cohen

Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on
I’m just paying my rent every day
Oh in the Tower of Song
I said to Hank Williams: how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me
In the Tower of Song

I was born like this, I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice
And twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond
They tied me to this table right here
In the Tower of Song

So you can stick your little pins in that voodoo doll
I’m very sorry, baby, doesn’t look like me at all
I’m standing by the window where the light is strong
Ah they don’t let a woman kill you
Not in the Tower of Song

Now you can say that I’ve grown bitter but of this you may be
The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor
And there’s a mighty judgement coming, but I may be wrong
You see, you hear these funny voices
In the Tower of Song

I see you standing on the other side
I don’t know how the river got so wide
I loved you baby, way back when
And all the bridges are burning that we might have crossed
But I feel so close to everything that we lost
We’ll never have to lose it again

Now I bid you farewell, I don’t know when I’ll be back
There moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track
But you’ll be hearing from me baby, long after I’m gone
I’ll be speaking to you sweetly
From a window in the Tower of Song

Yeah my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on
I’m just paying my rent every day
Oh in the Tower of Song

The shame of this  is that the possible influence of Longfellow’s poem on Leonard Cohen’s Tower Of Song is a potentially interesting idea. That the author’s misunderstanding of Cohen’s self-denigrating line led instead to accusations of literary theft based entirely on the phrase, “tower of song,” that appears in both works and the “shared theme of the speaker growing old and lamenting the joys of youth that he has lost,” a motif that is extraordinarily common and generic in poetry and one that obviously predates Longfellow, seems unfortunate.3

By way of comparison, a discussion held on a forum at Rutopia.info three years ago noted the similarity between the same works, Longfellow’s Mezzo Cammin and Cohen’s Tower of Song, yet no sensationalist claims of plagiarism were launched.

I do not know whether Leonard Cohen’s Tower of Song owes anything to Longfellow’s Mezzo Cammin. I do know that charges of literary theft require support by far more substantial evidence than is presented in the referenced post.

Preventing Future Catastrophes

In the past, a correspondent who had the same misunderstanding of the line, “I was born with the gift of a golden voice,” complained that he could not be expected to know the inside jokes about every entertainer, politician, author, etc. At that time, I worked out two possible remedies.

The first tactic, which I use frequently, is maintaining a high degree of suspicion that I may have misunderstood something and running a Google search on any important, unfamiliar issue before publishing a post. While certainly not foolproof, a Google search of the terms, “Leonard Cohen” and “born with the gift of a golden voice,” in this case, reveals that almost all critics, reviewers, and feature writers and certainly Cohen’s concert audiences regard “I was born with the gift of a golden voice” as a self-depreciating joke.4 To make the search even easier and more fun, one can add “joke” or “irony” to the first two search terms.

The second possibility is  the Heck Of A Guy Ironic Security Advisory System.

  1. That the argument is preceded by “I cannot tell whether Cohen alludes to or plagiarizes … ” is a bit like saying, “I cannot tell whether Smith has threatened or beats his wife, but his treatment of her bothers me nonetheless.” Going on to “wonder whether he [Cohen] figured that few members of a modern audience would recognize his pilfering” effectively belies any professions of doubt re Cohen’s nefarious ways. In any case, given that Cohen was a successfully published poet and received a university education in literature, it seems reasonable to assume that he would recognize that someone somewhere (say, a graduate student desperately trying to find a topic for his dissertation) might recognize material lifted from a well known and much taught poet like Longfellow and inserted in a contemporary song published with hopes of wide distribution. []
  2. That Longfellow hasn’t been able to construct his monumental tower of song while Cohen is imprisoned in a tower of song controlled by someone else does not seem like a parallel use of the image to me, but that type of analysis is beyond the scope of this post and, in any case, appears to have little to do with the accusastions of literary pilfering brought against Cohen. []
  3. I suspect I could make an equally valid (or, more accurately, equally invalid) case to support the hypothesis that Leonard Cohen plagiarized his song, Hallelujah, from the Hallelujah Chorus of Handel’s Messiah. []
  4. The pertinent stanza follows:

    I was born like this, I had no choice
    I was born with the gift of a golden voice
    And twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond,
    They tied me to this table right here in the Tower of Song

    In addition to my doubt that Cohen was or thinks he was born with a golden voice, I also don’t believe, personnel costs being what they are, that Cohen was attended by 27 angels, even if they were outsourced “from the Great Beyond.”  On the other hand, I remain uncertain whether he’s into activities like being “tied to a table.” []