The first song on Leonard Cohen’s new album,Popular Problems, which is released on Tuesday, two days after his 80th birthday, is called Slow. It begins: “I’m slowing down the tune/ I never liked it fast…” It is a song about encroaching mortality, but it is also a reaffirmation of a lifetime’s dedication to creative reflection, to taking his time in order to find the right words and the right melody, while keeping intact the mystery at the heart of every great Leonard Cohen song.
A new book, Everybody Knows by Harvey Kubernik, is a rough sketch of Cohen’s creative life: photographs juxtaposed with information and reminiscences from friends and associates. It traces the outline of a myth – or several myths: Cohen the poet, the folk singer, the seeker, the recluse, the Talmudic songwriter, the ladies’ man, the monk, the late-returning hero. Old age may have mellowed his voice, but Cohen remains mischievous and elusive, even if his best-known song, Hallelujah, has become a – much misinterpreted – standard.
During an entertaining press conference at the Canadian High Commission last Tuesday, Cohen referred to the “beneficial energy”of Hallelujah – at least when he sings it. When asked if, because of its success, he now felt like an institution, he paused, then replied: “Sometimes, but more like a mental hospital.” The new songs, he said, share “a mood of despair and melancholy”. His faithful would not have it any other way.
Unsurprisingly, it is the early photographs in Everybody Knows that are the most evocative. Here is the young Cohen in 1952, grinning and clad in cowboy gear, as a guitarist with the Buckskin Boys. Here is Cohen a few years later among bohemian friends at Le Bistro in Montreal, where he wrote one of his first poems, Marita, Please Find Me, I’m Almost Thirty, on the cafe’s back wall. Federico Garciá Lorca and Bertolt Brecht were his touchstones back then, but also, as he later revealed, singers including Hank Williams and Ray Charles.
A published poet and a novelist before he picked up a guitar, Cohen built his tower of song slowly. He honed his early songs on the Greek island of Hydra in the early 60s, where he met his first muse, Marianne Ihlen. In 1966, he visited New York en route to Nashville where he planned to make an album in the mould of the great traditional country singers. This fateful stopover brought him into the orbit of folkies such as Joan Baez and Judy Collins. The latter recorded Suzanne and Dress Rehearsal Rag as straight folk ballads a year before he invested them with the required mystery on his debut solo album, the stark Songs of Leonard Cohen.
In New York, he also met Nico, singer with the Velvet Underground, with whom he became besotted – Take This Longing is a naked expression of his unrequited love. Living in the Chelsea hotel, he bedded the doomed Janis Joplin and later hymned her in the famous – and equivocal – song of the same name. His songs of love and loss were slow and haunting, even more so than the solo acoustic songs of his Canadian contemporaries Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, while his deep, almost deadpan voice, as every contemporary reviewer noted, was an acquired taste in an era of often baroque musical excess.
And yet, listening now to those early albums, you hear someone who, for all his inexperience in the recording studio, his angst at what they might do to his songs, sounds remarkably self-contained. Back then, he stood outside the traditional singer-songwriter genre, and, to a degree, he has remained an outsider since, while always sounding somehow older and wiser than any of his contemporaries. “He was a man,” John Simon, who produced Songs of Leonard Cohen, said years later, “while the other rock acts I worked with were boys.”
I saw some people starvingThere was murder, there was rapeTheir villages were burningThey were trying to escapeI couldn’t meet their glancesI was staring at my shoesIt was acid, it was tragicIt was almost like the blues I have to die a littleBetween each murderous thoughtAnd when I’m finished thinkingI have to die a lotThere’s torture and there’s killingThere’s all my bad reviewsThe war, the children missingLord, it’s almost like the blues I let my heart get frozenTo keep away the rotMy father said I’m chosenMy mother said I’m notI listened to their storyOf the Gypsies and the JewsIt was good, it wasn’t boringIt was almost like the blues There is no G-d in heavenAnd there is no Hell belowSo says the great professorOf all there is to knowBut I’ve had the invitationThat a sinner can’t refuseAnd it’s almost like salvationIt’s almost like the blues
Published on Aug 19, 2014
Music video by Leonard Cohen performing Almost Like the Blues. (C) 2014 Sony Music Entertainment. All text, images and photographs (C) 2014 Old Ideas, LLC.
This morning I woke up again I thank my Lord for that The world is such a pigpen That I have to wear a hat I love the Lord I praise the Lord I do the Lord forgive I hope I won't be sorry For allowing Him to live I know you like to get me drunk And laugh at what I say I'm very happy that you do I'm thirsty every day I'm angry with the angel Who pinched me on the thigh And made me fall in love With every woman passing by I know they are your sisters Your daughters mothers wives If I have left a woman out Then I apologize It's fun to run to heaven When you're off the beaten track The Lord is such a monkey when You've got Him on your back The Lord is such a monkey He's such a woman too Such a place of nothing Such a face of you May E crash into your temple And look out thru' your eyes And make you fall in love With everybody you despise
A magnificent selection of song lyrics and poems from across the storied career of one of the most daring and affecting poet-songwriters in the world. In the more than half century since his first book of poems was published, Leonard Cohen has evolved into an international cult figure who transcends genres and generations. This anthology contains a cross section of his five decades of influential work, including such legendary songs as “Suzanne,” “Sisters of Mercy,” “Bird on the Wire,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” and “I’m Your Man” and searingly memorable poems from his many acclaimed poetry collections, including Flowers for Hitler, Beautiful Losers, and Death of a Lady’s Man. Encompassing the erotic and the melancholy, the mystical and the sardonic, this volume showcases a writer of dazzling intelligence and live-wire emotional immediacy.