Songs of Leonard Cohen: A generation of singer-songwriters followed in his wake

By  By Dave Thompson

The most important singer-songwriter of his entire generation, and the founding father of the entire genre, the lugubriously toned Leonard Cohen was born in 1934, and was  well into his 30s by the time he cut his first album, the landmark Songs of Leonard Cohen in 1968.

LeonardCohen19723p0.jpgAlready, however, his imagery haunted the fringes of the rock consciousness; the author of several novels and books of poetry, his work was familiar to many stars of the American folk movement of the late 1950s and 1960s (his first volume, “Met us Compare Mythologies,” was published in 1956). Further poetic collections were joined by the novels “The Favorite Game” (1963) and “Beautiful Losers (1966),” and Cohen was a best-selling author long before singer Judy Collins included two of his musical compositions, “Suzanne” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” on her album It’s My Life.

Isolated from anything even vaguely approaching the music scene at the time, Cohen took only the most cautious steps toward meeting the audience that now flocked towards him. But, with Collins egging him on, he finally made his concert debut in summer 1967, at the Newport Folk Festival — now a reasonably staid and withdrawn event following the Dylan-led fireworks of previous years.

He followed this with a couple of shows in New York City, both of which sold out on the strength of his literary reputation alone, but the televised special “Ladies And Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen,” propelled him further forward, while Noel Harrison’s cover of “Suzanne” finally pushed him into the chart.

Cohen had already commenced work on his debut album at that time; Columbia records legend John Hammond spotted him at Newport and was instantly entranced. With producer John Simon an almost spectral presence at the ensuing sessions, Cohen cut a 10-song album that remains one of the most startlingly influential records ever recorded — and certainly one of the most spellbinding debuts.

Nary a song on the record cannot be adjudged a classic, while its impact spread far beyond the folk circles to which Columbia aimed it. As late as the early 1980s, British gothic rock band Sisters of Mercy were naming itself for one of its key tracks, while the opening “Suzanne” has been covered by performers as disparate as Fairport Convention and Echo and the Bunnymen, as well as the expected crop of more earnestly introspective performers.

A staple in college dorms throughout the remainder of the decade, Songs Of Leonard Cohen went on to sell over 100,000 copies within its first year of release, an all-the-more-remarkable feat considering just how far from the rock norm it lay. Cohen’s almost monotonal voice, skeletal arrangements and melancholy themes were the polar opposite of the musical and cultural liberation that normally ruled an audience’s minds, while the performer himself appeared utterly unswayed by his popularity.

He did, however, break away from the isolation that had hitherto cloaked him to take an apartment in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, while the early sessions for his second album, Songs from A Room, paired him with David Crosby for his producer.

That project eventually fizzled out with just two songs completed (both are included on the album’s 2007 remaster), and Cohen turned instead to Bob Johnston for a record that sank even deeper into the dark corners that its predecessor had revealed — and was to prove just as beloved by a certain type of listener. Cohen himself has spent his career dismissing the notion that he deliberately sets out to depress his audience (“why would I want to do that?” he asked in a Seattle hotel room a decade ago. “If everybody who listened to my records then went out and killed themselves, who’d buy the next one?”).

But the fact is, for a man whose records were frequently filed into the Easy Listening section in the stores, Songs From A Room made for decidedly uneasy company.

He made an equally strange bedfellow for the likes of Jimi Hendrix and the Doors, yet was one of the stars of the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, and that despite his appearance being sandwiched between Miles Davis and the debut performance by Emerson, Lake & Palmer in the event’s running order; he can be seen in the inevitable festival movie, “Message To Love,” performing “Suzanne” with just a pair of female backing vocalists for company, and watched in isolation, it seems incredible that he hushed a crowd of some 600,000 people.

But, he did, by force of music and imagery alone — purposefully screening his private life, Cohen let so little of his personality seep out into the public consciousness that few fans would ever declare they were first drawn in by his presence. Yet much of Cohen’s mystique was indeed rooted in the fact that we knew so little about him, and thus his lyrics were accepted as documentary evidence. Like Dylan at a similar stage in his career, Cohen’s very obscurity became his greatest calling card, with every listener seeming to find a personal message, if not a mantra, within his writings.

Cohen’s finest album yet (and probably still his strongest) arrived in 1971. Songs of Love And Hate drew him closer to a traditional rock idiom than ever — he later admitted, “I wanted to see what the fuss was about, so I thought I’d better do it myself.” Yet few simple rock bands had ever sounded so bleak and venomous, and the album swiftly revealed itself to be quintessential Cohen, from the cod reggae of “Diamonds In The Mine” through the weary “Sing Another Song Boys” and the forebodingly precarious “Avalanche,” and onto “Famous Blue Raincoat,” a song of such excoriating beauty and sadness that, even in the hands of others, it remains painfully autobiographical. Long time ally Jennifer Warnes titled an entire album around the song in 1986; her version remains one of the most significant covers Cohen has ever received.

Cohen stepped back a little following Songs of Love and Hate. His next album was a stopgap (but nevertheless essential) live set, featuring performances dating back to the late 1960s, and though he continued touring, his attention drifted back to literary endeavors. He re-emerged in 1974 with New Skin for the Old Ceremony, the first of his records not to be instantly deemed essential listening (although it certainly had its moments), while a greatest-hits album in 1976 served only to remind fans that he had once again faded from view.

They may have wished he’d remained out of sight for longer. Teaming with producer Phil Spector, Cohen’s next album, 1977’s Death of a Ladies Man, remains one of the most contentious discs in either man’s catalog, and was universally panned, not only by the critics but also by fans who positively rebelled against the almost unbridled sexuality and brutal voyeurism that replaced Cohen’s traditionally lighter touch — as if the man who once rhymed “four poster bed” with “giving me head” was any stranger whatsoever to explicitness.

Cohen, too, was less than happy with the record. He accused Spector of having stripped “the guts out of the record,” but when he suggested the producer have another go, his entreaties were ignored. Finally agreeing to write the album off as “an experiment that failed,” and trust that his fans would be able to pick out its “real energizing capacities,” Cohen allowed it to be released as Spector left it, and effectively turned his back on the entire affair.

Working comparatively swiftly to undo the damage, his next album, Recent Songs (1979) was little more than a makeweight assemblage, still high on emotion, but growing increasingly slick as well. (Its contents are far better served by the Field Commander Cohen live album, recorded that same year but unreleased until 2001).
A few listeners, relieved only that he’d survived the Spector period, declared it a return to form, but their judgment, and that most commonly passed down by rock history, has not been borne out by time. Alongside Songs Of Love And Hate, Death Of A Ladies Man represents the peak of  Cohen’s first decade or so as a recording artist, both lyrically and stylistically stepping into wholly untapped musical directions — and certainly setting the stage for the larger scale productions that would mark out his music in the future. It might even be his masterpiece.

It would be 1984 before Cohen returned to full strength, with the near-simultaneous publication of The Book of Mercy, and the release of the album Various Positions. Now, he was determinedly toying with traditional pop concepts; the opening “Dance Me To The Edge Of Love,” with Jennifer Warnes the siren behind Cohen’s monolithic tones, was almost impossibly catchy, a jumping jack punch-drunk with grinning innuendo, and another reminder that behind each of Cohen’s traditional drolleries there was a sly nudge, a knowing wink, and the promise that even the coldest razor blade can be used for something other than suicide.

It was ironic, then, that the song that most people associate with the album was not even among its strongest; “Hallelujah” was scarcely noted by the reviewers. And then John Cale took hold of it for an early 1990s tribute, and the song has never looked back.

1988’s I’m Your Man was, in comparison with its predecessor, another weak album. But, the success of Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat and, in particular, her debuting of a new Cohen composition, “First We Take Manhattan,” opened the performer up to an entire new audience. I’m Your Man became Cohen’s best-selling album since his debut, inspired the title for the aforementioned tribute album (I’m Your Fan) and prompted Cohen — though he was now approaching his 60th birthday — to embark upon another protracted period of bright visibility.

1992’s The Future was as forward looking, and sounding, as any album that year; the sensibly titled Cohen Live captured the sound of his most recent burst of touring, and Cohen seemed poised on the brink of a major step forward. At which point he disappeared for the next five years, secluding himself away at a California Buddhist retreat, the Mount Baldy Zen Center, and becoming a monk.

He continued writing, however, and re-emerged in 1999 with Ten New Songs, and again, in 2004, with Dear Heather, a pair of albums that may reflect his advancing years in terms of performance and delivery, but which remain as deeply (or, at least, seemingly) personal as any album he has ever made. Four years on, as Cohen himself celebrates the 40th anniversary of his arrival, fully formed, on the music scene, his long-overdue induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame is itself a reminder of just how dislocated from the mainstream his career has been.

Without Cohen’s influence and example, it is unlikely that great swaths of the early ’70s singer-songwriter scene would ever have taken flight. But, while so many of his acolytes long ago got their feet beneath the Hall of Fame table (including Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Billy Joel and even Elton John), Cohen has stood both apart and aloof from the proceedings.

Discussing his own career, Cohen is adamant that no laws of intractable logic bind his work, that the words which spill from his pen would be received very differently had they been written by another. He does not profess to have tapped the soul of humanity, nor to speak from the heart of anybody else. But, he is aware that his kaleidoscopic blending of sex, politics and religion, of the twilight imagery of prophecy and hindsight, presuppose a quest to which all men are bound.

Five hundred years ago, Leonard Cohen would have followed one of his own musical heroines, Joan of Arc, to the stake, condemned as a witch. Today, at 74 years of age, he is to be hung instead in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Either way, this most enigmatic of men has changed the world.

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