I'm Your Man

AAhhh.. the early seventies. Bell bottomed cords and paisley. Going to the Victoria Coffee lounge where they served Nescafe in earthenware cups and lit the place with candles jammed into the necks of old wine bottles. Sitting around til dawn having D&Ms. And the soundtrack to it all was Leonard Cohen. His dark eyes glowered soulfully out from the cover of Songs Of Leonard Cohen propped against the side of the sofa as the needle cracked and popped its way across the LP:

Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river,
you can hear the boats go by you can spend the night beside her

I wish.

I haven't listened to him in years. He caught absolutely the angst and self absorption of early adulthood; he gave it all meaning and set it in a bigger context. The last album I bought was Death Of A Ladies' Man, and then I sort of lost track of him. I'd found another even bigger context.

But a couple of weeks ago I was given a DVD called I'm Your Man, a film centred on the tribute concert Came So Far For Beauty held in Sydney in 2005. The DVD weaves together historic footage of Leonard Cohen, interviews with him and footage from the concert. Cohen himself doesn't sing on the DVD until the end when he does the vocals as U2 performs Tower of Song. By his own admission he is not a great singer. His songs are poems set to tunes. Listening to these well known pieces after all these years, I was struck by two things: 1) He is a very good poet indeed. Perhaps even a great poet. 2) the tunes he has set his poems to are also very, very good. Leonard Cohen is one of those artists whose original versions of his own songs are often eclipsed by the covers of them by other artists. And so it was in the Came So Far For Beauty concert. Rufus Wainwright's version of Hallelujah is perhaps not as gut wrenchingly haunting as Jeff Buckley's but it still beautiful. Martha Wainwright's peculiar voice brings meaning and depth to The Traitor which Cohen himself had not managed to convey. A highlight of the DVD for me was found in the special features: Teddy Thompson rehearsing Tonight Will Be Fine and making of the song all that Leonard Cohen intended.

Interwoven were the interviews with this wise old man. I hadn't realised that since I departed the fold of his faithful he had spent time as a Zen monk. It shows. He has, in old age, a humility and a self awareness that is not common in people as famous as he is. His explanations of the songs were illuminating. Speaking of The Traitor, for example, he says the song is about
"The feeling we have of betraying some mission we were mandated to fulfill and being unable to fulfill it; then coming to understand that the real mandate was not to fulfill it; and the real courage is to stand guiltless in the predicament in which you find yourself."
It's one of the few concert CDs I have listened to twice in the same week. More in fact, for bits of it. I went to my shelf and found my copy of Leonard Cohen: Selected Poems, which I bought in 1971 and last opened in (I think) 1979, and over the past few days have read a few again. The old guy is good. Very good. There's no doubt about it

PS. Just as a matter of interest, seeing as I've given you links to two covers of Hallelujah, here is Leonard Cohen singing it from (I'd guess) about 1980.


Janice said…
Kelvin, I LOVE Leonard Cohen!! On Famous Blue Raincoat, he sings Joan of Arc with Jennifer Warnes, and I get goosebumps whenever I hear it. I think my very favorite has to be Cowboys Lament as sung by Jennifer Warnes, which I accidentally discovered on a CBC radio program. That version is not well known, as it's on an album of Rob Wassermans called Duets. I remember taping it 7 times on a cassette, and then playing it endlessly, until I had the words down pat. Cohen truly is a wonderful poet, and his grasp of our relationships with each other and with God is amazing. Joan of Arc's conversation with the smoke of the fire that is killing her is throat-closing/eye stinging phenomenal. My favorite cover of Halleluja is by Jeff Buckley; one of the students in my EFM class played it as the prayer one night, and it was wonderful.

I saw a special about Cohen the other night, and I was shocked to see how old he's gotten (we can get older, but our icons shouldn't!) I have that age thing in common with him, and the other thing is that my voice is very much like his, and for the same reason (50 million cigarettes is the reason he gives, although we have both quit smoking, I think!).

Thanks, Kelvin, for reminding me to listen to his music again; as always, you have given me food for thought, and I think you are pretty poetic yourself! Be well!
Kathryn said…
And he is coming to Perth!


next February.
VenDr said…
I'd never heard of this version, so I tracked it down on Youtube. You're right, it is very powerful. What is the Famous Blue Raincoat you refer to? I only know FBR as a track from the 1971 album Songs of Love and Hate - probably my favourite song of the album, but one which LC was never really satisfied with by all accounts.

And Kathryn - half tempted to nip over and see him. But as he's coming to New Zealand as well, it would be a bit of an extravagance.

He's been cheated out of nearly everything he owns by a former manager - not just money but intellectual property rights to many of his songs. The courts have found against her but poor old LC is unlikely to ever get the cash. He's almost broke. Hence the new album and the world tour at age 75. His equanimity and lack of rancour in the face of this tells a lot about the man.
Janice said…
Famous Blue Raincoat is the 6th album by Jennifer Warnes, and her first with the Private Music label. It peaked at No. 72 on the Billboard 200.

Released in 1987, Famous Blue Raincoat is a tribute to Leonard Cohen, with whom Warnes had toured as a backup singer in the 1970s. The album's songs span much of Cohen's career, from his 1969 album Songs from a Room to his 1984 album Various Positions (on which Warnes sang), and even two tracks from Cohen's then-unreleased album I'm Your Man.
Cut from Wikipedia. The version of Joan of Arc that Daniel posted a link to doesn't sound right at all; if that's Jennifer Warnes singing, I'll eat my shirt, and it doesn't sound much like Cohen either. In the version I know, Warnes sings the beginning, and Cohen sings the 'smoke' part, and it's much more haunting than the one on youtube. If I knew how to find and post a link to the right version, I would. And actually, the song I called the Cowboys Lament, from the Duets album, is actually called the Ballad of the Runaway Horse, and is sung by Jennifer Warnes. Check it out if you can, it is a real meditation.
VenDr said…
Here's another view of that
particular clip
you can see that it's Leonard Cohen all right -late 50's by the look of him, and too many cigarettes have done the old voice in a bit. Is the woman Jennifer Warnes? I have no idea what she looks like.
Janice said…
I'm not sure who the woman is, perhaps a young Emmylou Harris, but it doesn't sound like JW at all. I like the FBR version much better, seems that JW sings LC better than he does! Here's a link to the Ballad of the Runaway Horse, by EH.
http://ca.youtube.com/watch?v=GOVxQkOEALA I prefer the JW version, but couldn't find it.