52 Movies: Week 44 - Stations of the Cross
52 Movies

Leonard Cohen, RIP

If I were to pick one artist among the singer-songwriters of the 1960s whom I would bet would still be listened to a hundred years from now, it would be Leonard Cohen. I think there will be others, but like I said, if I were to pick only one....

This song, from 1969's Songs From A Room, strikes me now as a profound commentary on sex and the sexual revolution. Well, it did at the time, actually.


As it happens, I have recently been getting re-acquainted with this album and this song, in connection with the book I'm writing. And in doing so I ran across this story about the real Nancy. It's as sad as the song suggests. Say a prayer for him, and for her.


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Tonight you were the bearer of bad tidings, Mac. This hits me rather hard. What a great songwriter he was.

Yes, it's painful, even though not unexpected at his age. It's fitting that he got that last album out.

Bad news to wake up to. I listened to his music growing up, and got interested in it in my late teens - my parents had his albums hanging around. I didn't really understand any of it for a long while, though I remember grilling my mother for a verse-by verse explanation of the song "Teachers" at one point. (She thought no-one else really understood Cohen's songs either, possibly including Cohen himself.)

His last album was excellent, if dark. I was actually curious when you'd get round to reviewing it, Craig.

I'm old enough to have been aware of his music from the time of his first album, though I heard other people (Judy Collins I guess) singing "Suzanne" before I heard him. And I sort of dismissed him at first, because I didn't think a whole lot of that song. I actually compared him to Rod McKeun, which is laughable. Then somebody heard me disparage him and said "You're wrong" and introduced me to Songs From A Room, and I saw how wrong I was.

I can't remember "Teachers" very clearly. But in general Cohen's lyrics are pretty coherent, certainly in comparison to, say, Dylan's. That's one reason I would pick his work as most likely to survive for a hundred years (or more).

I've heard very little of Cohen's music, but what I've heard I've liked. He's just one of those people that I missed along the way, although I know how well respected his music is. RIP.

That surprises me. You should do yourself a favor and remedy that. I can think of some people who are in his league in terms of lifetime achievement, the combination of quality and quantity over decades, but very few. Probably not more than half a dozen. Not that the quantity is enormous, but it's more than just a couple of albums.

That is very moving.


Here's an interesting rundown of all his work. I disagree radically with the reviewer's rankings, but it's a decent overview.

Mac: it depends what you mean by "coherent", but I know what you mean about Dylan, whose work often contained strange cryptic imagery and you have to guess whether there's a hidden meaning or he's just throwing words at the wall to see what sticks. I tend towards an over-literal, analytical approach towards things; part of the reason I like listening to Cohen is the way his music supplies something that resists precise analysis and says things in a way where I'm not quite sure how it works or why. (I grant that poetry in general works this way; why Cohen's stuff fascinated me so much, I cannot tell.) I first listened to it about 20 years ago but I still couldn't tell you what "The Master Song" is all about, for example.

(There's a story - I can't find the article I read about it right now, and the articles I can find don't have the relevant quotes - about how the Isle of Wight festival in the 70s was gatecrashed by angry violent hippies who went around throwing bottles at the musicians and setting fire to stuff, and everyone was panicking until Cohen went on stage, slightly drugged and indifferent to everything except whether someone could find him an organ or keyboard, and then proceeded to calm the angry hippies by saying weird Leonard Cohenish things to them until they turned peaceful. He also, apparently, toured mental hospitals for a while.)

What album/albums would you recommend as the best place to start?

Hmm. It's easier to say which ones to avoid. I have never heard Death of A Ladies Man, which is kind of famous as a catastrophe--produced by Phil Spector. Pretty much universally disparaged. Skip Dear Heather. I would not recommend his latest until or unless you decide you really like him, because it's basically him reciting lyrics over musical arrangements by his son Adam. It's good, and very powerful in its way, but not a true album of *songs*.

Other than that: I'm partial to Recent Songs, Various Positions, and I'm Your Man. One of those latter, maybe both, has some kind of dated-sounding 1980s arrangements. VP includes "Hallelujah", which you've surely heard. It's a great song but for me has sort of been run into the ground. (Everybody except me seems to love Jeff Buckley's version, but to me it's way overblown.) Future Songs. Ten Songs (great songs, somewhat cheesy arrangements). The first album, Songs Of, is more florid than most later ones. The second, Songs From A Room, is more austere and is a sentimental favorite of mine--it includes the "Nancy" song in the video above. I don't like Songs of Love and Hate as well as a lot of people seem to, though it has several of his better songs. It also has a suicide song, "Dress Rehearsal Rag," which some people find induces the same mood in them as in the song's speaker, but I always just found it kind of tiresome. And it seems rather un-LC-ish to me (that song, not the album as a whole).

Really, now that I run through them, most of the albums seem a bit uneven to me--each one has at least a couple of songs that I'm indifferent to. But the great stuff is so great.... I'll be interested in hearing your opinion.

Btw I realized, upon LC's death, that there is an album besides Ladies Man that I haven't heard: New Skin for the Old Ceremony, though I've heard several of the songs (via mixtapes from a friend). Have to get that one. There were also two late ones before this final one which I've never properly listened to, because I thought he was probably finished with Dear Heather, which preceded them. I need to remedy that.

I missed godescalc's comment above when it appeared. Yes, just throwing words at the wall has been my secret--well, not so secret--opinion of some of Dylan's work for a long time. Often it works. Often it doesn't. Cohen is often obscure but you or at least I don't feel that it's just let-it-flow surrealism.

Funny story about the Isle of Wight festival. That was the period when Abbie Hoffman-style radicals had decided that rock and roll was just one more facet of the establishment and needed to be "freed up". I remember a funny/grim story about a concert being shut down by people taking over the stage in the name of "the people" and trying to make their own lame music, to the outrage of the crowd. I think it was Abbie Hoffman who was smacked in the head with a guitar by Pete Townshend when he tried to commandeer the microphone for a rant. Possibly apocryphal story.

I agree with you about Jeff Buckley, Mac. If I need to hear someone else sing it I go with kd lang.

Though I have to say that Kate McKinnon did a very nice job (as Hillary Clinton) on the SNL following the election. :)

At this point I'd just as soon not hear it at all for a while. Never heard much kd lang though what little I've heard was really good.

I've managed to avoid the McKinnon-Clinton-SNL one and pray I can continue to do so. No matter how good a job the singer did, the basic idea strikes me as extremely weird in a not-fun way. I'm always saying liberalism has become a religion and that seems an instance.

"most of the albums seem a bit uneven to me--each one has at least a couple of songs that I'm indifferent to. But the great stuff is so great..."

Funny -- that's almost exactly the way I feel about Van Morrison's stuff. Even the really good albums tend to have at least one clunker, and the bad ones usually have a gem or two.

Thanks for the tips!

I'm another of those odd ones who's never really heard much of Cohen's work, so I've enjoyed reading what you've all been saying here. No one's said anything, though, about the Jewishness of his work. I read an article at The Atlantic on that -- Leonard Cohen, Judaism's Bard -- which says that he was "perhaps the most deeply Jewish artist of the last century" and "the message was universal — but the voice was always Jewish". Anyway, interesting piece. I like this line about his name: "Coming of age at a time when showbusiness demanded Jews not make their background too obvious, Cohen was happy to be named less like a folk icon than a senior partner in an accountancy firm."

There is a little paragraph under the song title on Wikipedia about kd lang singing it, Mac. I tried to cut and paste and send to you unsuccessfully, but it is interesting enough that you might seek out and read.

I'll check that out, Stu. My late friend Robert once sent me a tape that included a kd lang + Jane Siberry duet of which the lyrics were mostly the names of female saints. It's probably meant as a feminist-lesbian thing, but whatever, it's really beautiful.

I think Cohen's fans, at least the more enthusiastic ones, are very aware of his Jewishness, Marianne. He's discussed it in a lot of interviews. There's also a lot of Catholic influence in his songs, which I think he once attributed partly to having had a Catholic nurse or housekeeper or something when he was growing up.

Rob, with the majority of Cohen's albums I'd say the good-to-indifferent ratio is generally around 8-2 or 7-3. Morrison, I'm afraid, though his early work is some of my all-time favorite music, hasn't seemed all that interesting since sometime in the '70s. Not that I've heard it all by any means, but what I've sampled didn't encourage me to hear more. It wasn't bad but it didn't seem that good, either.

My two favorite Van Morrison albums are Poetic Champions Compose and Hymns to the Silence. Both from probably late 80s, early 90s.


Yeah, I sort of think we've had this discussion before. And I'm pretty sure I've heard at least one of those, and thought it was pretty good but...nowhere close to something like Moondance. I'm the same way about Neil Young. So many people think he's so great, and I do like (as usual) some of his stuff a lot. But I'm apparently the only person on earth who is indifferent to Harvest.

I'm not as big a fan of the early Van stuff, being first exposed to him around 1980. But I like most of the stuff he did between the late 70s and the early 90's. My favorites are Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, and Enlightenment. No Guru... is generally considered his best 80's record. Hymns to the Silence (1991) is the last record of his that I really like; to me everything since then has seemed fairly spotty.

I guess I like the spiritual/mystical Van better than the jazzy/bluesy Van.

There's a fair amount of spiritual/mystical in the earlier stuff. But in any case it's purely a musical preference for me. The post-1980-or-so albums just didn't really grab me musically. Maybe I should give them another chance.

Yeah, I think that if you listened to, say, No Guru... and Enlightenment, you'd probably have a good idea whether you wanted to pursue it further.

I'm fairly sure I've heard it, actually. But I'll give it another try sometime.

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