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Music to my ears

Leonard Cohen is not the world’s greatest singer but his rich drone has a hypnotic quality and his lyrics are witty and thoughtful, if not profound.

india Updated: Sep 19, 2009 18:44 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Different people discover their favourite music in different ways. I first heard Leonard Cohen in the late Sixties when I was still at school in Ajmer. One of Mayo College’s conceits was that young English guys who were eager to discover India were given jobs as teachers. They were a mixed bunch: Some were excellent and some were useless. But because this was the Sixties, they all tried to do suitably trendy things.

One such school-leaver would play us what he thought were rock songs and urge us to look for deep meaning in the lyrics. On the whole, this was a doomed enterprise: how much can you deconstruct such lines as Excuse me while I kiss the sky or You squeezed my lemonand the juice ran down my leg?

But occasionally, in his bumbling trying-hard-to-be-hip sort of way, the school-leaver hit gold. That was the day he played us Leonard Cohen’s Songs From A Room.

Of course, he had no idea what he was doing. He said things like “these lyrics are very profound but because Cohen is a pop singer, his fans don’t realise the depth of his music.”

Even at that age I could tell that this was nonsense. Who in his right mind would listen to a man who could barely sing, droning monotonously over a largely acoustic, drumless musical accompaniment, unless he wanted to listen to the lyrics? Like most people of that generation who affected to like Dylan (“it doesn’t matter that he can’t sing! Listen to the words! Wow!”), I was hooked by Cohen’s songs. They were witty, thoughtful and if not profound, certainly deeper than most of the stuff we listened to then. (I mean, Born To Be Wild is a classic but Fire all of your guns, Ronson, is hardly on par with anything Dylan or even John Lennon ever wrote.)

Then, yet another school-leaver, this time one from Canada, began showing us Canadian documentaries (most of them very tedious), one of which was called Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr Leonard Cohen. Aha, I said to myself, a rock movie!

It was no such thing. It was a film about a young poet (Cohen was 30 when it was made) and his friends. There was no music in it; there was not even an acknowledgement that the Cohen of the title was a singer. The mysteries multiplied. In 1973, I went to school in London. My room-mate was reading a book called Beautiful Losers, also by a man called Leonard Cohen. I read it eagerly; it was rubbish.

Were all these – the singer, the poet, the novelist – the same man? I was beginning to get very confused.

It wasn’t till 1974, when, thanks to another room-mate, I gained access to all of Cohen’s albums that some of these mysteries began to resolve themselves. (Young people today are so lucky to have Google to explain everything to them.) Leonard Cohen was a Canadian poet. In 1964, when the documentary was made, he had no music career. He wrote poetry and very bad books (like Beautiful Losers). In 1966, recognising (a) that there was no money in poetry and bad fiction, (b) that in the post-Dylan era, the lines between music and poetry had blurred, and (c) that he had an ear for music, he decided to write songs.

He persuaded the folk singer Judy Collins (the Judy Blue Eyes of the Stephen Stills song) to record such songs as Suzanne (though Cohen was cheated of the publishing rights) and Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye. That same year (1966), he became part of the New York scene (more interesting than his native Montreal where Suzanne is set), hanging around at the Chelsea Hotel (immortalised in his song where the famous lines about Janis Joplin appear: Giving me head on an unmade bed). John Hammond, the legendary producer who discovered Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, heard Cohen sing and offered him a record deal. The first album (Songs Of Leonard Cohen) appeared in 1967 and others (including Songs From A Room) followed.

Cohen is not the world’s greatest singer (and I am being kind here) but his rich drone has a certain hypnotic quality and the early albums featured arrangements (sparse production, no drums, good backing vocals etc) that showed the voice to its best advantage.

Throughout the Seventies, such songs as Suzanne, Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye, So Long Marianne and most famously Bird On A Wire became college favourites. Educated young people thrilled to the music, some great covers were recorded by other artists (Roberta Flack’s version of Suzanne for instance), and Cohen came to represent a certain kind of genre: music for older teens and twenty-somethings who like to listen to the lyrics.

The problem with that kind of slot is that it can be as limiting as teen-idol status. When these young people grow up, the songs are no more than memories of college and of bed-sitter days.

Something like that happened to Cohen. People began to joke about his mournful dirges, scoffed that they were songs designed to get you into the right mood for suicide and Clive James wrote cuttingly of Cohen: “Somewhere in the distance wails that lonely guitar, still searching in vain for the third chord.” (Ouch!)

It did not help that Cohen’s own output failed to live up to the early songs. He even got legendary murderer Phil Spector (who committed bodily harm to the Beatles album Let It Be) to produce a crap album called Death Of A Ladies Man. The result was, in Cohen’s own words, “grotesque”.

I try to be loyal to my old favourites (I may well be the only man in the world who still buys every Barclay James Harvest album, for instance) so, aided and abetted by my school friend Ajit Vikram Singh, I kept the faith. And then, after years of being written off as yesterday’s man, Cohen suddenly made a comeback. Perhaps predictably, the comeback followed the same pattern as his initial success: the songs that brought him back were covers of his compositions by other people.

There were many tribute albums in which famous artists covered Cohen songs (the best of these is I’m Your Fan though Tower Of Song has the big names), starting with the influential Famous Blue Raincoat. And then, there were the definitive covers. I was delighted to see that singers ignored the early stuff (Suzanne etc.) and picked on the newer material. REM’s cover of First We Take Manhattan beats the hell out of Cohen’s own version and is one of my favourite REM tracks ever. Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah has been such an epochal recording that many of those who like it don’t realise that it is a cover of a Cohen song. (The Hallelujah bandwagon never stops. Last Christmas, Buckley’s version was number one in the UK charts and an inferior cover by an X-Factor contestant was number two.) Newer songs such as Tower Of Song and Everybody Knows are now standards. It is almost as though the Cohen of Suzanne with its sparse arrangements has been forgotten and a new, more muscularly arranged Cohen has taken over.

Recent developments in the Cohen story tend to be murky. We know that he gave up on the world and became a Zen master taking on the name Jikan, which does not mean – however it may sound –“I am a refugee from Star Trek”, but means “Silent One.” (He had stopped recording: geddit?)

Then, in 2004, he suddenly hit the newspapers again. He claimed that Kelly Lynch, his former manager, had robbed him of $5 million, leaving him broke. I have never fully understood this turn of events. Had Cohen, in 25 years of writing, recording and touring, only amassed a fortune of $5 million? And how could he be broke, anyway? Songwriters get a reasonable royalty when other people cover their songs and Cohen should have a tidy income coming in each year from the best-selling covers. (Hallelujah should have made him enough to retire on.)

For whatever reason, Cohen announced that he would resume touring – at the age of 74! I was delighted when I heard the news because I’d never had the chance to see him live when he was in his prime. I missed the London show (though there’s an excellent DVD called Live In London along with a double live album) last July and swore I would not make that mistake again. So when I heard he was performing in Dublin, I decided to fly there to see the show. (I did tell you, that like all old farts who venerate the music of their childhoods, I can be fanatically loyal.) Cohen was playing four sold-out nights at the O2 arena and the audience was full of fat, bald people like myself. But there was also a sprinkling of younger people, from the generation that discovered his music through the recent covers.

I wondered how Cohen at 74 would seem. I needn’t have worried. Unlike say, Mick Jagger, who tries to recreate his Seventies heyday on stage, Cohen enjoys playing the dapper older man. His band were hardly spring chickens (except for two amazing singers called the Webb Sisters who even managed a cartwheel while doing backing vocals), wore smart suits and hats and – like Paul Simon’s musicians these days – prided themselves on their musical proficiency.

The show began with Dance Me To The End Of Time and after that the concert (divided into two halves with an interval) never went downhill. He played all the hits (except Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye, which was a shame because it was a favourite break-up song of millions of couples I know), and though he could no longer reach all the high notes (on Bird On A Wire for instance), he put his heart and soul into the performance.

The audience lapped up every word of his patter. He referred to his attempts to immerse himself in many of the world’s great religions (“but cheerfulness kept breaking through”); overdid the praise of the audience (“It is an honour to play for you” etc); and then, when we thought it was all over, came back for a series of encores that went on for so long that it was almost the third part of the set.

He is still remarkably energetic and supple for his age (all that time calling himself Jikan in the monastery has clearly helped), and even at the end of his massive set, he showed no signs of tiredness.

The great thing about seeing the musicians you loved in your youth is that you can follow their musical evolution through their performances. Watch Springsteen, for instance, and you can see how the young New Jersey boy who wrote Sandy went through so many changes in style. Watch Paul Simon and you see the transition from folk singer to world musician. Sometimes, it doesn’t work so well. Paul McCartney’s musical development seems to have ended in the early 1980s. At Stones shows, the newer stuff is just a way of marking time till they resume playing the old hits. Elton John’s voice is now in such bad shape that all the songs sound the same.

But like truly great artistes (think Sting or David Bowie) Cohen manages to offer a career retrospective that takes in all the phases his music has gone through and somehow – in the manner of Paul Simon – manages to bind it all together so skillfully that unless you know the original recordings, you cannot tell which song was written in the 21st century and which one in 1968.

I’m always wary of recommending Cohen to younger people or to those who object to his vocal limitations. (He laughs about this. When he came to the ironic line in Tower Of Song – I was born like this, I had no choice/ I was born with the gift of a golden voice, he laughed knowingly and the Dublin audience laughed along with him.) But if you’ve heard Hallelujah or some of the new covers of Cohen’s great songs, check out the originals. Sometimes old can indeed be gold.