The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia

Following on from last week’s entry on Dave Stewart, here is the entry on Leonard Cohen from Michael Gray’s forthcoming Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. I’ll try to post one of these every week between now and the book’s release. (As always, do get in touch if you’re in a position to help spread the word about this book.)


Cohen, Leonard [1934 – ]

Few people named Leonard Norman (or Cohen) are as cool as the poet, novelist and singer-songwriter born in Montreal, Quebec, on September 21, 1934. He learnt guitar as a teenager, co-founded a countryish folk group, attended McGill University, began his 50-year career by publishing his first poetry book in 1956 (Let Us Compare Mythologies), followed this in 1961 with The Spice-Box of Earth, moved to a Greek island, published his first novel The Favorite Game in 1963, the poetry volume Flowers for Hitler in 1964 and the novel Beautiful Losers in 1966. In 1967 he was signed to Columbia Records (Dylan’s label) by JOHN HAMMOND (the man who’d signed Dylan) and made a debut album whose influence seemed inversely proportionate to its commercial success.

Songs like ‘Suzanne’ and ‘Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye’ conquered at once the world of bedsit suicide music, reshaping it with a lugubrious sang-froid that was easy to parody but hard to shut out. He changed the rules of noir with his almost expressionless monotone, remorselessly plinkety serenading guitar and eerily cheerful female vocal chorus, and divided people into those who adored, and those reduced to suffocating rage by, this music’s handsome and intellectual creator. The Songs of Leonard Cohen (JUDY COLLINS had a hit with ‘Suzanne’ that managed to put it on the soundtrack of the summer of love) was followed by Songs from a Room (1969), which featured ‘Bird on a Wire’, and then Songs of Love and Hate (1971) and after Live Songs (1973) came New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974).

Always more popular in Europe and Canada than the US, Cohen’s career as a singer-songwriter was not helped by the 1977 album Death of a Ladies’ Man, produced by a deranged, gun-toting PHIL SPECTOR, on which Bob Dylan and ALLEN GINSBERG were back-up vocalists on ‘Don’t Go Home with Your Hard-On’, a song as uninteresting as its title is contrived. A volume of poetry the year after was titled Death of a Lady’s Man. (Precious, moi?)

The 1984–85 album Various Positions included the song ‘Hallelujah’, which has proved compelling to many other artists, most notably Jeff Buckley (and least notably BONO). Dylan performed it with mixed success in concert (its 1988 debut in Montreal was well wrought, its second and final outing of the year, in Hollywood, not so), and the two chatted about it in a cafe in Paris’ 14th Arondissement some time afterwards. (The song had two endings; Dylan preferred the less bleak one: ‘And even though it all went wrong / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!’ This was too cheerful for Jeff Buckley; the doomier ending is on his multi-million-selling album Grace.)

To ADRIAN DEEVOY Cohen reported the cafe conversation with Dylan as being ‘a real good writers’ shop talk. We really went into the stuff very technically. You couldn’t meet two people who work more differently. He said, ‘‘I like this song you wrote called ‘Hallelujah’.’’ He said, ‘‘How long did that take you to write?’’ And I said, ‘‘Oh, the best part of two years.’’ He said, ‘‘Two years?’’ Kinda shocked. And then we started talking about a song of his called ‘‘I and I’’ from Infidels. I said, ‘‘How long did you take to write that?’’ He said, ‘‘Oh, 15 minutes.’’ I almost fell off my chair. Bob just laughed.’

This is, apart from anything else, illustrative of how much more willing Cohen is than Dylan to discuss the processes of his work straightforwardly — to give good ‘shop talk’ — in public. He does so with a lovely lucidity for German television in 1997, saying, among much else: ‘I wish it didn’t take so long to finish a song and to make a record . . . it seems to be a long process . . . it’s trying to discover how I really feel about something. To move a song from a slogan to an authentic expression is really what the enterprise is about . . . discarding the lines that come too easy. . . waiting until something else bubbles up that is a little truer . . .’

He moves on, after elaborating on the writing stage, to the other stages: ‘There’s the writing of the song, which can be laborious and difficult; there’s the recording of the song in the studio, which also takes a tremendous concentration . . .to materialize the songs. And then the third part of the process is singing the songs in front of other people.’

The monotone of the singing voice deepened as the years went by. The 1988 album I’m Your Man captured Cohen’s ‘new sound’ perfectly: he still had the female chorus high in the mix, the same horribly catchy melody lines and the same showing off about their simplicity, but the voice now came as from the bottom of a well, the production values were higher, the synthesisers calmer, and as well as the title track and the near self-parody of ‘Everybody Knows’, there was the song Phil ‘Wall of Sound’ Spector could have wished he had produced, ‘First We Take Manhattan’. The darker album The Future followed in 1992 and won him a Juno award for Best Male Vocalist. (He began his acceptance speech by saying: ‘Only in Canada could somebody with a voice like mine win ‘‘Vocalist of the Year’’.’)

Leonard Cohen once told ROBERT SHELTON that it was Dylan who had inspired him to sing his own poems. ‘Dylan is not just a great poet, he’s a great man,’ Cohen added.

An early critical essay on similarities and differences between the two was Frank Davey’s ‘Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan: Poetry and the Popular Song’, published in 1969. Exactly 35 years later came the small book Dylan & Cohen: Poets of Rock and Roll, by an academic from Wales, David Boucher, whose Introduction manages to mistitle Cohen’s 1977 album as Death of a Lady’s Man; not a promising start. Cohen’s poetry and prose is examined more attractively in STEPHEN SCOBIE’s 1978 book Leonard Cohen.

Cohen said in 1997: ‘The beautiful losers are still around, and I’m still with them.’ In 2003 he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada, his country’s highest civilian honour.

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