I think I must have been five years old when the sweetest voice I ever heard whispered to my soul. It was Leonard Cohen performing Tower of Song. My parents were introducing me to music and finally decided it was time for me to hear the album that to them, was the greatest ever made. It was so strange. This guy couldn’t sing! But there was something so comforting about it. And these words that I didn’t fully understand the importance of somehow obsessed be. Not just the question of “Who’s Hank Williams??”, but: “I feel so close to everything that we lost” – why am I crying? I listened to the rest of the album and I was so at peace when I heard it, every now and again for years. Throughout the glam and punk obsessions that followed over the next few years.
And so around three years later a Leonard Cohen song was in the charts at Christmas because of, well, that tv talent contest. Suddenly my friends knew the name of this guy. They knew the song from Shrek – I knew it from the few times I’d heard Various Positions. I tried to talk about this album but no one was really interested in that weird old version they had heard once before switching back to the cover versions.
I was around 13 when my long-time comfort became a full-blown obsession. I suddenly understood why it made me feel the way I always had. I got the jokes. The sadness was more pointed in my mind but so was the wit. I went to the other albums and completely fell for them – even found a new favourite song (Closing Time on The Future) – but none exceeded this one – with its exquisite album cover.
I always liked First We Take Manhattan. It was so melodramatic and so funny. I loved the backing singers – they were so sexy! But they never outshone his voice. He laid out his plans. Leonard Cohen had true charisma – I hanged on his every last syllable. I listened to him like I was in a cult and he was my leader. The Shostakovich strings that accentuated the menace in the flawless lyrics. Unforgettable.
“I walked into this empty church, I had nowhere else to go”. My dad’s favourite Ain’t No Cure For Love is so romantic in such an unadulterated way. The saxophone that so many find corny I find utterly triumphant. I have so much childhood-investment in it. I’m a die-hard hopeless romantic: I lap it all up. People find his voice in this era flat, cold, and emotionless. I think it’s teeming with emotion and warmth and sensuality. And the lyrics are true. When all is dark in the world, and let’s not forget this song is between a song of terror and a call-to-arms of the armchair cynics, it cannot be cured – this love. We’re humans and we’ll always have love if nothing else.
Everybody Knows is an epigrammatic exercise, a laugh-a-minute ode to despair, and a helpless look at a world without justice. “Everybody knows that the scene is dead, but there’s going to be a meter on your bed that will disclose: what everybody knows.” One of the funniest lines in lyrical history. “Everybody knows that the deal is rotten; Old Black Joe’s still pickin’ cotton for your ribbons and bows: and everybody knows.” Utterly devastating.
I’m Your Man is the sleazy title track that conceals a desperate cry for love and attention – no-matter the circumstances. It’s sad and it’s hilarious. It’s the pathetic clutching-at-straws of a man beyond dignity. And it’s given that exquisite irony-laden reading of the ultimate Canadian gentleman. The synthetic nature of the music underlines the tacky nature of the character – but there’s nothing tacky about the song – or any part of the album. It’s sophisticated. It hides any of this passion nonsense. But that doesn’t mean it’s cold. This is one of the warmest albums ever recorded – most perfectly displayed by the first track of side two.
Take This Waltz is Lenny’s affectionately loose reworking of his idol Lorca’s poem Little Viennese Waltz. The accompanying music is the prettiest on the album – and one of the prettiest on any album. The strict definition of the waltz adhered to. The romance of it all is contained but still flawlessly fervid. It somehow reminds me of Jane Austen. When the divine Jennifer Warnes comes in close to the end: there is really nothing purer. Every line is a masterpiece of translation.
“Take this waltz, take this waltz
With its “I’ll never forget you, you know!””
I have swooned every time I’ve heard this song. It’s utter perfection.
And so from the sublime to… JAZZ POLICE! This song gets such a bad rap – but it is strangely excellent. It is ridiculous, there’s no getting round it. But it’s also quite creepy. It has this quality to it that’s really quite unsettling. It’s about fascism. Unsettlingly ridiculous fascism? Jazz Police is actually important in this day and age.
In I Can’t Forget, Cohen succeeds in his desire to ascend to the heights of Hank Williams. In it, he delivers the most gorgeous, haunting, and poetic country ballad ever written.
“Yeah I loved you all my life
And that’s how I want to end it
The summer’s almost gone
The winter’s tuning up
Yeah, the summer’s gone
But a lot goes on forever
And I can’t forget, I can’t forget
I can’t forget but I don’t remember what”
A singer/songwriter famed for his poetic eloquence gives a masterpiece of the plain-spoken loneliness of the cowboy. A paean of lonesomeness. I’m not sure I’ll ever hear this in the same way ever again. The loss of Leonard will never quite dissipate from my mind – even if I can’t quite remember the fact of the matter. I’m certain of it. But he’ll always be with us. He is right there in the heart of every poet, every loner, every single beautiful loser.
The man born with the gift of the golden voice. Lenny sends himself up to say goodbye, for now at least.
“Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play.”
Do Dum Dum Dum, De Do Dum Dum. He once joked that was the answer to the great question. It was a joke. Maybe there’s more to it than that.
I firmly believe this is the greatest album of all time. I have so much emotion tied up in it all I can’t be impartial about it. But who would ever want impartiality? Lenny, wherever you are, I love you, and thank you for what you’ve done for us all.
“Now I bid you farewell, I don’t know when I’ll be back
They’re moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track
But you’ll be hearing from me baby, long after I’m gone
I’ll be speaking to you sweetly
From a window in the Tower of Song.”