Thursday, April 10, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 100):"EVERYBODY KNOWS" (1988) Leonard Cohen

It’s the 100th song. I knew I was saving a big gun for this one, but which song? Then yesterday I was sitting at a lecture by Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka of Nigeria, a lecture on the forms of slavery that still exist in our world, and the line popped into my head: “Everybody knows the deal is rotten / Old black Joe’s still picking cotton / For your ribbons and bows / And everybody knows.” So, yeah, this song.

And if that wasn’t enough, later that night I watched 12 Years a Slave, with those cotton-pickin’ songs (literally), and there you see some roots of the blues. Cohen’s blues, like Soyinka’s lecture, are rather global in their sweep, bringing along a kind of measured, pre-apocalyptic imagery that was suitable to 1988, when this song was released. Remember? That was the year of “read my lips, no new taxes” and “a kinder, gentler nation” in Bush the First’s nomination acceptance speech. It was the time of the managerial candidates—Bush and Dukakis—coming after the charisma machine of Reagan and before the charisma machine of Clinton. It was a whiter, duller nation in those days, that’s for sure.

Cohen has always been a provocative songwriter. He and I go back to the summer of 1977 and his first album, then a decade old, but I’ll go there another time. (Well, actually, I went there already, here.) Then it’s eleven years later, and I’ve heard everything the man has released, but this album I got on cassette for some reason. CDs were all the rage at the time and I didn’t have a player, and probably couldn’t find the vinyl. In any case, the album, I’m Your Man, is Cohen’s first foray into the processed sound, particularly the rhythm tracks, of the time. This song does better than some of the others on the album, which features two other stand-outs: “First We Take Manhattan” and “The Tower Song.” This song is as cynical and sharp as Cohen is at his best (and would be again on his album The Future (1992), to which this song is akin).

Everybody knows the war is over / Everybody knows the good guys lost / Everybody knows the fight was fixed / The poor stay poor / The rich get rich / That’s how it goes / Everybody knows.

Does it get more succinct than that? Sure, you might say, that just about kills all hope, and hope is a precious commodity. But, let me tell you, if you really think of things like virtues (hope) as commodities, well, there’s not much hope, is there? By 1988 anything like real discussion in the U.S. media had been occluded by the age’s worship of the “rich and famous,” and by our nation’s ever-slicker efforts to appear as rich as possible, to manifest—its great desiderata—managerial panache in all things. It wasn’t quite “the revenge of the nerds” yet—where computers and computer jobs, and being the wunderkinder of electronics and the digital revolution became the “new cool”—but we were well on our way to “the business model” as the gold standard of every kind of human interaction.

Cohen’s song though is more backward-looking than future-oriented. He’s writing an epitaph for the era he came up in, the era of a brief flurry of creativity and change that got stymied all too soon. Look at his even more cynical and clear-eyed LPs of 1971 (Songs of Love and Hate) and 1974 (New Skin for the Old Ceremony) to see where he’s coming from.

As is characteristic of Cohen, today’s song blends reflection on sexual mores with reflection on the surrounding “mood.” Cohen has always been a romantic and lyrical poet, in that regard, willing to see “the state of the union” in terms of the fraught terrain couples inhabit. Can it get any more direct, in that age of AIDS awareness—Rock Hudson had died in 1985, coming out of the closest with his death and opening a more general conversation on the disease, with celebrities (without celebrities nothing happens) weighing in—than: “Everybody knows the plague is coming / Everybody knows it’s moving fast / Everybody knows the naked man and woman / Are just a shining artifact of the past.”  So much for your sexual revolution, now “a meter on your bed . . .  will disclose / What everybody knows.”  You ain’t gettin’ any? I believe the reference is to the lack of sex in married couples, and, with “fear of AIDS” undermining more adventurous liaisons, there’s just nothing happening any more.  All that’s over. Time to log on.

Elsewhere though Cohen looks askance at all that “free love” promiscuity of the Baby Boomers’ youth with a bit of the aged rouĂ©’s fondness for invoking sexual appetite—once liberated—as inherently boundless: “Everybody knows you’ve been discreet / But there were so many people you just had to meet / Without your clothes / And everybody knows.”  This is so wry, in the spirit of many Cohen songs where he’s the cuckold or the languishing lover who knows all about what his lady love gets up to when his back is turned—see “Paper-Thin Hotel” (1977), “The Master Song” (1967), “The Smokey Life” (1979), for starters.

Recently, I sat through—endured is more like it—Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) which makes Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) look like a restrained tale of heroic egos, and was reminded of this wonderfully apropos line: “Everybody knows you live forever / When you’ve done a line or two.” In Wolf, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo di Caprio) actually insists, while snorting up a minor mountain of blow, that it makes him “invincible.” That was certainly a dominant idea from the Seventies to whatever we want to call our current era.  Cohen notes it down for us at the moment when entitlement became the game.

So where’s the pre-apocalyptic stuff? Check out that final verse:

And everybody knows that you’re in trouble
Everybody knows what you’ve been through
From the bloody cross on top of Calvary
To the beach at Malibu
Everybody knows it’s coming apart
Take one last look at this sacred heart
Before it blows
And everybody knows

For me, this is a little epitaph on the set of people Cohen might be said to be among—those songwriters who were once so inspired and so inspiring as they laid bare their hearts and laid into the powers that be for an entire generation of fellow-travelers. Where were they, and we, going? From the cross on Calvary—all those messianic impulses and ego-intense sacrifices—to Malibu (Dylan owns a house there, but let’s not insist he’s the target here, or not the only one), where “what you’ve been through” stands for an entire generation that aimed to be different than the previous one but simply found a different level of hedonism and self-congratulation. A last look at “this sacred heart” may not be said with utter cynicism, if, for instance, you keep in mind Cohen’s great paean to the power and mystery of song, 1985’s “Hallelujah,” but, still, he’s not giving much hope for it—that heart of actual love for all humanity—or us lasting much longer.

This song arrived when the bells one could hear tolling in the distance were for the “Soviet experiment” that was definitely “coming apart,” but I don’t think Cohen is thinking about that.  That would be taken into account on the next record. Here, there’s just a feeling that we’re living in what Fredric Jameson is fond of calling “late capitalism,” as though what comes next were somehow to be espied. We’re always taking “one last look” and then we get up and look in the mirror again.

Everybody’s got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died

 And here he is singing it, in 1988.

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