My Record Collection 57

Leonard Cohen – Continued

Another long lay-off for Leonard, another possible crisis of confidence – who knows.  He released very quietly Various Positions in 1984.  A terrible cover photo did not help sales; the boss of CBS records apparently said to him “Leonard, we know you are great – but are you any good?”  The album sold poorly despite being sublime and containing what would grow to become his most famous song ‘Hallelujah’.  In fact the whole album is quite religious. Best songs ‘Dance me to the end of love’, ‘The Captain’ and of course ‘Hallelujah’.  But I really love the closer ‘If It Be Your Will’ – a beautiful resigning to God’s power, and even as a non-believer I can love this song.  Best line ‘if it be you will, that I speak no more, and my voice be still, as it was before, I will speak no more, I will abide until, I am spoken for, if it be your will.  Although the record sold very poorly at first, over time it has grown in popularity and Leonard was till singing two or three songs from it almost thirty years later.

After the failure of Various Positions to re-establish Leonard, one of his female singers Jennifer Warnes (see W) decided to release an album of Leonard’s songs including two newer ones. Famous Blue Raincoat was a minor hit and helped to persuade Leonard not to give up.  He started using synthesisers and drum machines to compose more upbeat songs and the resultant album four years later I’m Your Man was a triumphant success.  I saw him on the live tour of this album and he was superb.  The songs are all brilliant, although I have never really liked ‘Jazz Police’.  The title song helped establish Leonard’s reputation as a ladies man, ‘Ain’t No Cure For Love’ is another winner.  He put music to a poem by Lorca ‘Take This Waltz’ and it works superbly.  But the album’s very best song is the closer ‘Tower of Song’ – a wonderfully simple melody and a great lyric – “I was born like this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice”.  Simplicity itself, and like all great records it leaves you wanting more.

Four years later and Leonard almost repeated the trick with The Future.  Two brilliant, almost political (well, the closest Leonard would ever get to political) songs; the title track and ‘Democracy’, the rousing ‘Closing Time’, which many fans choose as their funeral song (I know, but you have to listen to the lyrics to understand why). The smooth ‘Light as the breeze’ and the best song in almost his whole repertoire ‘Anthem’ – “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering – there is a crack, a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in”  Two cover love songs, sung brilliantly I must admit – and an instrumental closer ‘Tacoma Trailer’.

And what did laughing Len do next?  Why, he simply vanished  – for nine years.  He had always been deeply religious; Jewish, but fascinated by Christianity (Joan of Arc and many other references), but in 1993 he decamped to a Zen Buddhist monastery on Mount Baldy near L A.  He later claimed he wasn’t looking for spiritual enlightenment but simply he wanted to change his life.  He became a servant and pupil of a Buddhist monk.  In reality he did come down from the mountain a few times, but on the whole – this was a retreat.  And as we heard nothing we may have assumed that was it.

His record company released a live album with the uninspiring title Cohen Live featuring concerts from ’85 and ’93.  It is okay but not very exciting.  Better is a bootleg I have ‘Above The Soul’ of a whole ’93 concert.  Same songs but much more atmosphere.   Also a 1988 radio broadcast from Toronto Back in the Motherland which is quite good too.  The thing about live albums, especially by Leonard is you aren’t really looking for anything different at all.  It is just an excuse to drench yourself once more in his voice, his words, his world.  I don’t play them that often – just running my fingers over the CD cases is sometimes enough.

Image result for pictures of leonard cohen


My Record Collection 56

Leonard Cohen  – 2.  There are certain artists who can re-invent themselves; Bowie, Dylan and of course Leonard.   He suffered throughout his life with both depression and writer’s block; he worked repeatedly and meticulously on his writing – poems and songs, constantly revising, re-reading, searching for that elusive yet perfect turn of phrase.  To his record company’s frustration he often took years before new material arrived, and many times he simply decided that enough was enough; the well had run dry.  It was three years since ‘Songs of Love and Hate’; his weird ‘Live Songs’ had been mauled by the critics and sold poorly.  And yet in 1974 he produced another sublime and yet different collection of songs.  The anger, the self-loathing seemed to have slipped away.  A calmer Leonard emerged, like a butterfly from a chrysalis.  New Skin For The Old Ceremony was the record that re-introduced Leonard to the world.   The title an allusion to sex and the cover a medieval woodcut of a religious and sexual experience.  The new producer John Lissauer used sparse orchestration rather than Leonard’s guitar creating a different texture to the album.  The songs are varied, a couple slightly upbeat ‘There is a War’ and ‘Field Commander Cohen’, several quite gentle like ‘Chelsea Hotel#2’ which was about a sexual encounter with Janis Joplin, and ‘Lover Lover Lover’, there is also ‘Who By Fire’ about ways of dying and a re-imagined mediaeval folk-song ‘Leaving Greensleeves’ where Leonard leaves us almost screaming.  There is the perennial concert closer ‘I Tried To Leave You’ and ‘A Singer Must Die’ – a sad farewell to another lover.  Altogether one of his better records.  Best line ‘Your vison was right, my vision was wrong – I’m sorry for smudging the air with my song.’

Leonard toured this album, mostly in Europe and I have a live album; a Paris radio broadcast, again only released recently.  No real surprises here, except a song ‘Store Room’ which was never officially released (no wonder – it is pretty dire), but nice renditions all the same.

But resurrection was soon followed by almost crucifixion.  In a moment of madness Leonard agreed for Phil Spector to produce his next record; 1977’s Death Of A Ladies Man.  One can barely imagine a less appropriate pairing, and the result was interesting to say the least.  Both Leonard and Phil were high on drugs; there were guns and bullets in the studio and a collection of session players.  Phil apparently took the tapes home every night and no-one heard them until the album was released.  It is almost impossible to assess the quality of Leonard’s writing at this point, but I do discern moments of genius amidst the madness of the production.   Despite Phil’s preposterous production Leonard’s words still shine, though some of his songs are poor, one or two shine through. ‘Paper Thin Hotel’ is very good, the title track also.  Leonard practically disowned the record and failed to tour it, but in a strange way I like it.  Best line – “The walls of this Hotel are paper thein, last night I heard you making love to him.  A heavy burden lifted from my soul, I learnt that Love was out of my control.”

Two years later and Leonard was resurrected.  1979 saw the release of one of his best records ‘Recent Songs’ – a deceptively simple title for a work of genius.  This is still one of my very favourite of his records.  It is almost perfection; not a bad track – and a new, more open, gentler voice; the songs are less vicious – if no less real and meaningful.  Lots of plaintive violin and deep bass, almost a waltzy feel to many of the songs too.  The album opens with ‘The Guests’ – one by one the guests arrive – as if welcoming one into the warmth of the record.  ‘Humbled In Love’ follows –‘ and you say you’ve been humbled in love, forced to kneel in the mud next to me’.  ‘The Window’ and ‘Came So far For Beauty’  areelegiac.  Then we have the sprightly tune to the sad French song ‘Un Canadien Errant’

Side two opens with two more sad songs ‘The Traitor’ and ‘Our Lady Of Solitude’ followed by a concert favourite ‘My Gypsy Wife’ Leonard saves the best for last; a sensuous duet with Jennifer Warnes ‘The Smokey Life’ and the final song ‘The Ballad Of The Absent Mare’.  I simply adore this record – it is really all of one piece – and maybe more than any other record established the idea of Leonard being ‘Depressing’ in the general population.  But I have always felt much much happier after listening to this one.  My reaction si almost always to want to play it again.

A live album of the 1979 tour came out in the late nineties – Field Commander Cohen; the band are in fine form and a great selection of songs, many from Recent Songs .  Best line ‘Take a lesson from these Autumn Leaves, they waste no time waiting for the snow – keep it light, light enough to let it go.’

Just recently, sucker that I am, I bought a live radio concert from the same year – Upon a Smokey Evening.  It’s pkay -sound quality a bit poor and no surprises.

Recent Songs