Ten Old Songs

15 Nov

See also – Sincerely, L. Cohen

Like so many others who owe a pleasure as unexpected as it was precious – that of seeing the then septuagenarian Leonard Cohen in concert – to the former manager and lover who stole all his money to force him back on the road to discover he still liked it there, I was at Manchester Opera House in November 2008 for a flawless three hour gig punctuated by calls for personal favourites. “Thank you”, said their creator, ever the gentleman, “for reminding me of songs I’d forgotten I wrote”.

Here are ten of the songs less remembered. They aren’t necessarily my favourites, from a canon that spans six decades, but all resonate with me. These are songs I know by heart, and have repeatedly turned to over the years for spiritual sustenance, but for the most part have fallen by the wayside for all but dyed in the wool Cohenista.

Ah you hate to watch another tired man lay down his hand like he was giving up the holy game of poker Stranger Song from Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1966, his first album, which also features the more famous Suzanne, So Long Marianne and Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.

To all of my architects, let me be traitor Old Revolution from his second album, Songs from a Room, 1969, best known now for Bird on the Wire though at the time many would have chosen Story of Isaac or The Partisan.

Everything will happen if he only gives the word. The lovers will rise up and the mountains touch the groundLast Year’s Man, from Songs of Love and Hate, 1971.  The darkness of this his third album made it a commercial flop to jeopardise his CBS contract and cement a reputation for songs to slit your wrists to. The likes of Dress Rehearsal Rag and Let’s Sing Another Song, Boys didn’t help but the album has the sublime Joan of Arc, worth a mention since the Jennifer Warnes version on a splendid album of Cohen covers – its title, Famous Blue Raincoat, taken from another Song of Love and Hate – did much to revive his career.

The night comes on and it’s very calm. As I lie in her arms she says ‘when I’m gone I’ll be yours: yours for a song’ Night Comes On, from Various Positions, 1985, whose better known songs – Dance Me to the End of Love, the unconditional surrender of If It Be Your Will and the monumental Hallelujah – marked a return to form he’d never lose again.

Oh I want you, I want you, I want you, in a chair with a dead magazine, in the cave at the tip of the lily, in some hallway where love’s never been Take this Waltz from I’m Your Man, 1988. The fifty-something Cohen now had a voice to match a gravitas that had always been present in his songs, a voice likened by one reviewer to a boulder rolling down a mountain. This album brought its most aired songs – First We Take Manhattan, I’m Your Man and Tower of Song (I was born like this, I had no choice: I was born with the gift of a golden voice) – to new audiences …

… and also features I Can’t Forget I’ll be there today with a big bouquet of cactus. I got this rig that runs on memories. And I promise, cross my heart, they’ll never catch us – but if they do you can tell them it was me.

This ain’t exactly prison but you’ll never be forgiven for whatever you’ve done with the keys Light as the Breeze from The Future, 1992, best remembered for the title song (give me back the Berlin Wall, give me Stalin and St Paul, give me Christ or give me Hiroshima), Democracy (it’s coming from the feel that this ain’t exactly real, or it’s real but it ain’t exactly there) and a Closing Time that had my young daughter ask me what Johnny Walker wisdom is.

And when the hunger for your touch rises from the hunger … Because of a few songs wherein he spoke of their mystery, women had been exceptionally kind to the man who penned this exquisite line from You Have Loved Enough on Ten New Songs, 2001, its pop rhythms and drum machine beat foil to greater depth yet – not that his worst enemy could ever have called him shallow – in his work. (I was tempted to choose Alexandra Leaving, one of the most finely crafted poems I ever heard set to music, from this same album but deemed it too well known.)

You’re reading them again, the ones you didn’t burn. You press them to your lips, my pages of concern The Letters from Dear Heather, 2004. This quiet gem slipped under the radar even for many Cohen fans. His voice a terminal smoker’s whisper, a songster always reliant on female vocalists now all but hands over the reins to them. On many of its songs, like Morning Glory and the haunting Undertow, his own contribution is a barely audible rasp: that, and the minimalist eloquence of words from the heart by a man who told the truth and didn’t come to fool us.

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name. Vilified, crucified, in the human frame. A million candles burning for the help that never came. You want it darker – hineni, hineni, I’m ready, my lord  – You Want it Darker, from the 2016 album of the same name. Final surrender of the man who, fifty years earlier in the first song listed above, had told of a card dealing no-good reaching to the sky to do precisely that. And hineni, hineni?  That’s Hebrew for his here I am (My Lord) – just months before slipping into the night at closing time.

4 thoughts on “Ten Old Songs

  1. I too, had the pleasure of seeing Leonard Cohen in Bratislava, Slovakia, which was the final concert of his European concert in 2011. Three and a half hours of some of the finest poetry ever put to music. Three and a half hours of bliss. The Slovaks rose to their feet singing along with Cohen during his rendition of ‘The Partisan’. Three and a half hours of probably the longest and best concert I’ve ever attended, and I have attended many. I first saw Cohen at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970. Why I waited just over 40 years to see him again I’ll never understand. I do know, however, that his songs go with me wherever I go and he’s with me on every plane, train or ship I travel on, albeit on my iPhone. THat night in Bratislava, he brought tears to my eyes. I’ll never forget it. Magic.

  2. Unlike your good self, I am not as familiar with a large amount of Leonard Cohen’s work I am told his stage presence was electrifying too. Mood music is how I would describe his poetry/song combination, soothing and sexy
    .
    Having said that, I know that many people find his works to be too dark and oppressive.

    Regarding the latter, no doubt L C’s fans would quote The Bard – they are “fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils.” The Bard would surely have loved his poetry.

    • Hello Ceejay. In my experience/opinion those who find his work dark and oppressive are either drawing on a very limited subset of his work – probably his seventies output – or are not listening closely.

      Intriguing thought: Shakeseare and Cohen meeting. Like you, I’d guess there’d be great respect on both sides.

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