There’s a jamming of birthdays coming up with a few notables sharing the same date of birth. So we’re getting to Leonard a little bit shy of his 80 birthday on the 21st.
I’ve just finished reading I'm Your Man, Sylvie Simmon’s biography of L. Cohen, so he’s on my mind more than a bit. The problem with the bio, which is very readable, isn’t that it’s very affectionate toward and perhaps even protective of Leonard—who is named by his first name throughout—but that it really has almost nothing to say about what the man writes. We get info on the writing of his books and the making of his albums—and a tale does lie therein on some of them—but the contents of each album is dispensed with in about a paragraph or two at most. Which is barely enough space to remind the reader which songs are on the record and to maybe drop a telling line from a song or three.
There’s no close reading at all, in short.
And Cohen, more than most of his contemporaries, writes lyrics that can hold up to close reading. He’s a poet, for heavens sake. To undertake being his biographer without much grasp of poetry seems a bit presumptuous, and that’s my main dissatisfaction with Simmons. She seems good at determining what material is germane and she doesn’t sensationalize. It’s sort of a “let’s all remain friends” biography. Even Kelly Lynch, the manager/assistant/financial overseer who embezzled Cohen’s funds, doesn’t get a rough treatment. One suspects that—between the lines—there are many more psychic meltdowns and deep dissatisfactions than ever surfaces in Simmons' breezy account. You need only consider the content of Cohen’s songs. But that she rarely stops to do. Even when candidly assessing how poorly some of his records sold, there’s not much attempt to tie that fact into any kind of critical context. Sure, Cohen got into making records to make a living (writing books of poetry and experimental novels wasn’t doing it for him), but he still approached that task as a poet would—with his albums’ content determined by what he wanted to say rather than what might best sell.
It’s almost as if Simmons assumes that anyone reading the book already knows why they listen to Leonard and so his rather unique take on things goes without saying. But, given that much of his recent huge popularity comes from the fact that his song “Hallelujah” has been covered on American Idol and used in films and sung by Jeff Buckley and tons of others and seems to strike a big collective chord, it might be easily supposed that many people picking up the bio have no clue what most of Cohen’s albums or songs are like.
Anyway, how about I’m Your Man, the album? I really didn’t like Cohen’s synth-casio arrangements much on that record, but, hey, it was a big seller whereas the album I liked better, 1986’s Various Positions (the one with “Hallelujah”) was rejected by Columbia. When you hear me inveighing against the Eighties, that’s the kind of thing I mean. I know the young of that time might be fine with synth pop (almost wrote "poop") out the wazoo but for elderly ears (I was pushing 30) it’s a lot of kiddie-tinny dreck.
But Cohen, God love him, was cool with it. And that’s how he wrote the album, on casio. On the cheap, which is the best way for him. And, to match “Hallelujah,” he came up with a song just as great for that album. Today’s song.
Well my friends are gone and my hair is gray / 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 everyday in the tower of song. Words to retire on, I’d say. Listen to how he draws that breath before the line about paying his rent everyday. It speaks volumes, as does his thorazine-drenched croak.
Here is the song of the attenuated poet, the attenuated rock star, the attenuated lover. Just getting by in that fusty old tower where Hank Williams—asked “how lonely does it get”—doesn’t answer, 100 floors above. Interesting to imagine all the songwriters of all times in a big tower, with their floor location determined by—what? Number of hits? Nah, then Len would be closer to the basement (he only had hit albums in UK and Europe, the States …. Well, you know)—so let’s say, determined by dues paid.
Cohen pays his dues, and he pays it out on this song. “They don’t let a woman kill you, not in the tower of song.” Amen, padre. And there’s gem after gem in this song—the channels the rich have got in the bedrooms of the poor, the mighty judgment coming (“but I may be wrong”), and that great bridge, which is even about a bridge, sorta:
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 / And I feel so close to everything that we lost / We’ll never, we’ll never have to lose it again. This is a man facing the rueful truth of the attenuated situation, but who keeps that life-torch lit. Which is what I like about Cohen even at his most despairing. He somehow believes that the fact that woman are beautiful makes a difference. Not just as “eye candy,” but at a deeply spiritual level. Let’s just say that his belief in a beneficent God—not just some demon who is jerking us around—starts right there. And listen to the soul-bearing gravitas with which he says “I loved you, baby, way back when.” It takes heart to admit that, and it takes guts to put it in the past tense.
And so, the kiss-off—and it’s one of the best anyone has ever delivered. A few years ago Tom Jones covered this song, and you can believe him when he sings it too. I don’t know how it is that any singer worth his salt wouldn’t want to sing this one. Let’s call it the fully secular flip side of “Hallelujah”:
Now I bid you farewell, I don’t know when I’ll be back / They’re 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.
I’d like to dedicate today’s post to someone I put this song on a tape for back in 1993. I don’t know if she still has that tape or ever listens to it, but I like to think that, if she did, she’d think of me, via Leonard Cohen, speaking to her sweetly from the tower of song. It’s a great ending because it puts us in the moment—Cohen is speaking to us sweetly as he sings that—but he’s projecting it into the future, that day when he’ll be long gone and we’ll still be able to hear him. What is lost is lost but we never have to lose it again, so long as we can preserve it in the memory, in the song, in the tower of song.
It seems to me that these posts are my own version of the tower of song, and maybe, in a sense, I’ll be speaking in them after I’m gone. At least I’m still speaking of times that are gone.
I was born like this / I had no choice / I was born with the gift / Of a golden voice