Monkeys and plywood violins: The best of Leonard Cohen

U.S. singer Leonard Cohen during a concert in Ramat Gan September 24, 2009. Photo by Marko / Flash90

During what I have often referred to as the Poppy Bush Interzone, “Leonard Cohen” was a portent, a mood. On my college station as a low and dishonest decade sputtered, “Everybody Knows” wore a death’s head grin; in the spring and summer of 1992 I heard it often, as bracing as a Jägermeister shot in bleak winter. I wasn’t yet reading rockcrit beyond SPIN and Details, for which Leonard Cohen did a lot of press during the autumn release of The Future; but having checked Songs of Leonard Cohen out of the library on vinyl — as much a catalog staple as Henry Adams’ history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations — I noted that I preferred this quiet burr-voiced putative singer and economical songwriter over the kind of arrangement I was hearing at prom and weddings: exquisite melodies played on $40 Casio with functioning “European” presets like samba. The chintz buttressed a voice as drenched in irony as it was in Château Latour. A troubadour, a Shakespearean Fool, Cohen meant every word even when he was poking fun of his golden voice; he must really care, I thought, if he’s heaving and growling over a Ramada Inn bar band when he could be in bed with a hot water bottle.

An admirer of his corpus, a fan of John Cale’s “Hallelujah” among all versions, I’ve loved his late middle age records best, with Various Positions at the top of the list for its brevity, the way in which it squeezes a couple of sour drops from the electric pianos that signify “late ’70s sensitivity on The Mike Douglas Show,” and for “If It Be Your Will” — a ballad of courtly love if that’s how you want to hear it; a prayer to Yahweh too; also, Jennifer Warnes offering atonement for “Up Where We Belong.” In my canon below I included two songs from the fascinating and bawdy Death of a Ladies’ Man: what the Rolling Thunder Tour would’ve have sounded like if the after parties had taken place in Lower East Side studio apartments. A decade ago my friend Mike Powell and I would have long phone conversations about Gaucho and Death of a Ladies’ Man. The rancidness of the emotions therein — the equivalent of overflowing ashtrays and soiled parquet floors — struck as capital-r-Romantic. Mike:

There’s something sonically about those Spector records—the cavernous wall of sound—that left room for getting lost, just like you get lost in love; it’s not altogether different then Loveless in how it strikes me: if capital-R Romanticism is some smoke about introspection, the apex of romance is succumbing to something held apart from you; it’s getting lost in the cave of “I Love How You Love Me” or under the covers of Loveless.

The late Cohen albums don’t conceive of romance as a state to which we succumb from a distance, yet Cohen’s trick is to play the intercessor between listeners and their unspoken desires. Like the speaker in Wordsworth’s Lucy poems, in which a narrator, limning his ardor for a young woman, modulates a melancholy that often comes off as a relief, Cohen asks us to trust his leathery hands and wine-soaked burr. He’s been there. He’s letting you in on the joke. Everybody knows that the dice is loaded, he sings, his voice an elbow digging into your ribs. Knowing the game is rigged means we’re free to enjoy the craft. That’s how it goes.

I should also praise the late 2009 show — as much a marathon set as any by Springsteen. Bob Dylan didn’t dance as giddily as Cohen; Dylan may play better keyboards, but, man, you should have heard the crowd roar when Cohen played the non-solo in “Tower of Song.” Plus, when every Brooklynite was buying a $40 Casio the times had circled back to Cohen’s Ramada Inn suite. Regard the title of the upcoming You Want It Darker as one more parched joke.

1. If It Be Your Will
2. Take This Longing
3. Coming Back to You
4. Famous Blue Raincoat
5. Everybody Knows
6. In My Secret Life
7. Paper Thin Hotel
8. Tower of Song
9. Show Me the Place
10. Avalanche
11. So Long, Marianne
12. The Law
13. The Future
14. Samson in New Orleans
15. Democracy
16. Field Commander Cohen
17. Leaving Green Sleeves
18. Don’t Go Home with Your Hard-On
19. Waiting For a Miracle
20. A Thousand Kisses Deep
21. Going Home

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