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Dylan vs. Cohen
Luke Turner , July 10th, 2008 11:20

With Leonard Cohen's current unexpected tour astounding audiences across the world, Luke Turner asks if it is time to see him, rather than the "doggerel"-spouting Bob Dylan, as the finest poet of his generation?

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Leonard Cohen vs. Bob Dylan

Last Saturday morning, lying as usual in my pit listening to Radio 4, my somnambulant ears twitched to an unusual assailant, neither the thunder of the Heathrow flight path nor the thwacking of Battersea Heliport. Bob Dylan had broken into my transistor to interrupt my reverie; that perfidious harmonica, that wheedling voice, those hamfisted bashes at the acoustic guitar. I groaned into the pillow at the prospect of yet another Radio 4 show (these days the station resembles Uncut magazine on the airwaves, but without the visual panache) on Dylan, and tried to let a sore head block it out. But rather than the usual hagiography, this was supposedly a rebuttal explaining why the great sacred cowboy hat of the 20th century canon isn’t actually all that much cop.

The problem was that presenter Lenny Henry went running to the usual suspect: Paul Morley yet again leading ill-informed Times readers onto the rocks of sonic iniquity like a wrecker hijacking a musical shipping forecast. Unfortunately, Henry made the common mistake among Dylan dissenters, and only found fault with that anaemic, caterwauling voice, which Morley instantly picked up on. This is a red herring, friends. Given the constraints of space and time, I shall leave it to the eminent Germaine Greer to give the academic explanation of why it is the “doggerel” of his lyricism that is Dylan’s greatest flaw. Or, as Eric Hobswam more kindly said, Dylan is “a potential major poet too idle or self-absorbed to keep the muse’s attention for than two or three lines at a time”.

It’s always amazed me that Dylan’s streams of consciousness have so captured the imagination of the post-sixties generations. It’s been too easy, for a start: contemporary lauding in all the right places and a ‘controversial’ change of direction does for easily mythologizing make, discipleship and calls of "Judas" nicely fitting into the trope of rock & roll as the post war, secular messianic belief system expounded by the newly frocked media priesthood.

For to me, Dylan has always paled into insignificance compared to his contemporary Leonard Cohen. A poet before he became a reluctant musician, Cohen possessed an uncomfortable and humble voice that found itself over simple acoustic guitar. This simplicity is what liberated his brilliant words. Then, in 1988’s I’m Your Man and 1992’s The Future he painted a prescient of a search for redemption in a valueless, corrupt society via a change in style that, oddly, didn’t offend his fanbase. Cohen’s voice was deeper and even more caustic after thousands of cigarettes, sitting over an almost incongruous backing of sax, ponderous synths and fruity backing singers. Unlike Dylan (a musician for conservative bores easily upset by change), Cohen made the move from acoustic to electric – indeed, digital - seamlessly, his universal appeal extant through the honesty of the work, his understanding of love, life, spirituality, history, his self-deprecation and all-too overlooked dry wit.

This has been none more evident than on the few dates Cohen has played of his current tour which, let us not forget, has happened not through a deal with a coffee shop, but because the shrivelled old cove got stiffed by his manager while he was up learning with the Buddhists of Mount Baldy.

I asked my friend how Leonard Cohen had been at Glastonbury. “I cried all the way through,” she said. “There’s something about that voice” Over on DiS someone wrote that Cohen alone would have been worth the steep ticket price. Another friend said that work had precluded her from catching but one song of Cohen’s set, but that was enough to open her ears to his brilliance. I saw Dylan at Glastonbury a few years ago, a tedious set where he wilfully and tunelessly trudged through the more obscure recesses of his back catalogue, knowing he could get away with it because of the reverence of the crowd at seeing a trademarked icon. The freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, hark as the registers ring. Does Dylan get covered by anyone from Bon Jovi to Nick Cave to Jarvis Cocker to Artery to the Jesus And Mary Chain to John Cale and Coil? No, he’s merely the voice ‘channelled’ by a thousand randy open mic night losers on the prowl for hippy chicks.

There’s a famous conversation piece where Cohen and Dylan discuss how long it takes them to write their lyrics; Cohen says it takes him month, Dylan, “about ten minutes”. As any poet, Cohen crafts his words, where Dylan throws them out, a Bob-a-job lackey to the rock'n'roll machine. Never mind that cowboy pastiche and “doggerel” via harmonica dentures, for it is Cohen, with a doff of his grey fedora and a thank you delivered in gravelly humility, who’s your man.

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Michael Gray
Jul 10, 2008 1:55pm

"perfidious harmonica", crikey.

Agree totally, mind.

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jimmy james
Jul 11, 2008 8:39am

absolute rubbish. both fucking brilliant but bobby is the king in my eyes!

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dave dave
Jul 11, 2008 9:39am

Bollocks, beginning to end. The premise is arguable but you don't even have a crack - deferring to the 'eminent' Greer, whose own very short critique was weak and unsubstantiated, is a laughable cop-out. If you're trying to propose that Cohen is the superior poet to Dylan, why not at least try a few comparisons? Try and persuade us that one is better than another, instead of resorting to such baffling assertions as '[Dylan's]'s merely the voice channeled by a thousand randy open mic losers on the prowl for hippy chicks' or '[he is] a musician for conservative bores easily upset by change'. This is the kind of trite hyperbole that makes Morley sound like Ricks. How does this help you at all?

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David Vaughan
Jul 11, 2008 10:28am

I certainly prefer Cohen to Dylan but I don't know whether that's because Cohen's a better writer than Dylan or just because I can't stand Dylan's voice and delivery. Probably the latter. I do think 'Like A Rolling Stone' is just about the most overrated pile of rubbish in rock though.

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Lu
Jul 11, 2008 11:46am

Haha. I think Bob Dylan was probably lying about 10 minutes. If you watch Don't Look Back, you'll see he was one of the greatest piss-takers of all time, while Leonard Cohen was a ponderous, pretentious poet. I quite like Cohen, but I really don't think he is in the same league. Sure, Dylan is shit live these days, but that's neither here nor there. In his prime, he was the best songwriter of his generation. Even Hendrix worshipped the man - and I would trust Jimi on his music taste more than Germaine Greer, to be honest.

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Mat Snow
Jul 11, 2008 2:20pm

Dylan or Cohen: finest poet of his generation? Probably neither. I'd vote for Ted Hughes as the finest poet of the '60s-'90s. They're principally songwriters, a different though related breed. And also performers, their comparative recent talents in this respect seeming to form the basis of this blog's attempt at an argument.

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Jim Paterson
Jul 11, 2008 6:55pm

Maybe part of the problem is that both of them are being looked at as poets, rather than songwriters. I'm sure many poets who were contemporaries of them both (like Hughes) would feel slightly aggrieved they weren't being considered. Cohen edges it for me as a poet because he WAS one, before he started writing songs and reading him is much more rewarding and complete experience than reading Dylan lyrics. The article goes too far in ignoring Dylan's musical achievements though, ignoring both how far he came in the first five years of his recording career and his willingness to play with his own compositions live over the last few years, constantly reworking and exploring anew. Musically, Cohen has served his voice, whereas Dylan's effect is achieved of a piece - both making his musical impact so much the greater and explaining how his lyrics don't have the same impact on their own.

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fwwank wewiz
Jul 14, 2008 12:20am

there's no accounting for taste

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Olly Parker
Jul 14, 2008 10:48pm

Is your beef not more with the press and the Dylan acolytes than with the man himself? I think it's been pretty established that Dylan never really wanted to be seen as the "voice of his generation" or any of the other bollocks that's been projected on to him.

I agree that he's no poet. Got some great tunes though.

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Hugh Jardon
Jul 15, 2008 9:49pm

Bob Dylan is no Leonard Cohen.

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Tom Williams
Aug 2, 2008 11:27pm

what load of old bollocks.

i bloody love this website, i got told about it through being on DiS, really love it, loved the article too! just don't agree!

dylan's lyrics are great, but (not as importantly but still worth mentioning) the music is also, it' underated, not helped by his relentless humilty on the subject ('it's all blues sequences, or folk standards') always knocks me for six, for me 'there's something about the voice' could not be more relevant with dylan. all of them too! i'm talking shit but more importantly i love dylan more x

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Paul Wilson
Mar 4, 2009 3:24am

The intention clearly is to incite Dylan fans. This article can claim no real pretensions to mounting a serious argument.
Why does it have to be one or the other - why do you have to tear Bob down in order to praise Leonard.
Interesting too that Leonard himself speaks very highly of Dylan's work.

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Den C
Nov 12, 2009 10:14pm

In reply to Paul Wilson:

I ditto Paul Wilson below. I don't like the stigma of one versus the other. I love them both for the obvious reasons of what they deliver. saw Cohen's concert at the beginning of this year and he is brilliant. Never seen Dylan, but after seeing his movie, made by Scorcese, it's rekindled my love for his music and the man is a genius. Well both of them are, truly!!

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Simon Helps
Jun 4, 2010 12:46am

I'm Currently writing a dissertation on Leonard Cohen and have been doing a fair bit of reading about Cohan and Dylan. Whilst I personally feel that Cohen is the better lyricist it is clear that both had an awful lot of respect for each other, in-fact I'd almost argue they both wanted to BE each other, Dylan the populist songwriter desperately seeking to be respected as a poet, Cohen the respected poet seeking the poularity and life style of Dylan.

Also your argument about artists who have covered Cohen is Bullshit, Dylan has been covered by: The Ramones, Nick Drake, Nick Cave, George Harrison, Lou Reed, Nina Simone, Pearl Jam, Beck, Johnny Cash And Jimi Hendrix to name but a few, Dylan wins hands down on celebrity covers.

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rami ram
Jul 13, 2010 7:57am

cohen and dylan are both jews, einstein is also a jew so now lets think who makes batter music...maybe froid? i like cohen very much, he has a way to do what he does. another question is cohen or nick cave...aha, here is the dilema. its like saying what is batter a cake of chocolate or a cake of oranges or whatever...the question is very limiting, cohen, dylan, cave are all jeniouses like einstein...now what you do with the information is up to you. atleast you cant build a A-bomb with poetry but the power is there, cheeeeerrrioooooo...

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Nate
Oct 8, 2010 2:01pm

HA!
Tom Waits is better than either of them

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Dale G.
Mar 8, 2011 9:55pm

Well. I love Cohen. But I also love Bob Dylan. And if you think Bob's singing is shit, you are lost forever and forever to him and his magic. I first heard him in 1967. What hooked me then and what hooks me now is what, to my ears, is one of America's great, great voices. To fathom that voice is, to folks like the writer of this short, bitter, silly little essay, unfathomable. Bob does a searingly grand version of Cohen's Hallelujah, but even that will sound like shit if you don't connect to the soul of Bob's strange style, his odd deliver, his refusal to sound like you want him to sound. Ironically he just doesn't give a shit what you think what you think about his voice or his words.

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Skillz Flux
Aug 2, 2011 8:18pm

Ironically, Cohen once was meeting with the monuments of the Canadian literary circles. One after another, they were telling the group who their favourite poets were. When Cohen's turn came he named: Bob Dylan. Surprised that none or few of them knew him, he collected money from them and ran across the street to buy one of his records. Somewhere in the middle of the record, Canadian author Al Purdy apparently scratched the needle off the record saying it was garbage.

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thehal
Feb 21, 2012 6:33pm

What a dolt; Dylan's songs have been covered by just about everyone, from Garth Brooks to van Morrison to Miley Cyrus. Quit being such a to55er.

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Jim C.
Jul 14, 2012 6:42am

In reply to David Vaughan:

Like a Rolling Stone is a pile of rubbish? Ridiculous comment.

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Joel
Feb 4, 2013 4:04pm

"No, he’s merely the voice ‘channelled’ by a thousand randy open mic night losers on the prowl for hippy chicks."
burnsauce.gif

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Phil
Feb 28, 2013 8:13pm

Cohen's own summary of Dylan will do me:
"Dylan is the Picasso of song - that exuberance, range and assimilation of the whole history of music. He is a figure that comes along every three or four hundred years who represents all the best aspects of the human heart. He is unparalled in the world of music and will remain a torch for all performers for many generations to come".
Unless you think Leonard doesn't know what he's talking about, this should give you some food for thought.

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Harold Lepidus
Mar 4, 2013 5:15pm

Mutual admiration society- Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and that 'Hallelujah' song:

http://www.examiner.com/article/mutual-admiration-society-bob-dylan-leonard-cohen-and-that-hallelujah-song

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Harold Lepidus
Mar 4, 2013 5:39pm

Mutual admiration society- Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and that 'Hallelujah' song:

http://www.examiner.com/article/mutual-admiration-society-bob-dylan-leonard-cohen-and-that-hallelujah-song

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Kevin Larkin Angioli
Apr 23, 2013 11:21pm

Nick Cave has covered Dylan several times, and recently said "You can forgive and forgive and forgive." Dylan is a songwriter first, a poet accidentally and second. Cohen is a writer, a poet, a lover first, a seeker in the Mystery; he is a musician by natural progression. Absolutely, Cohen's lyrics are more carefully crafted, but that does not dismiss the tons of great Dylan lines.

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Mick
May 2, 2013 6:46pm

In reply to Kevin Larkin Angioli:

Kevin,astute comment. Leonard is a great craftsman, and deserves great credit for his wonderful song-writing and performance. However, Dylan is something else entirely, as Leonard himself has asserted more than once. Dylan is sui generis, a genius. That is why he can get a masterpiece on paper in minutes, while Leonard may take considerable time to craft a song. Dylan himself can't explain how he does this, but that is the nature of genius.

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Nathan Parsons
Dec 4, 2013 4:51pm

Bob Dylan has released about 40 albums a dozen of which are brilliant. Leonard Cohen has released about a dozen albums and they're all brilliant.

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tyler hill
Mar 2, 2014 11:09pm

I can dig it my friend

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tyler hill
Mar 2, 2014 11:09pm

I can dig it my friend

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Alex
Mar 28, 2014 2:54pm

I agree with you about Cohen, he's a powerful poet. But it's sad that you have to denigrate Dylan to make your point. Especially as it seems Cohen disagrees with you. Some quotes about Dylan from

"Bob Dylan has a secret code with his audience. If someone came from the moon and watched it they might wonder what was going on. In this particular case he had his back to one half of the audience and was playing the organ, beautifully I might say, and just running through the songs. Some were hard to recognize. But nobody cared. That’s not what they were there for and not what I was there for. Something else was going on, which was a celebration of some kind of genius that is so apparent and so clear and has touched people so deeply that all they need is some kind of symbolic unfolding of the event. It doesn’t have to be the songs. All it has to be is: remember that song and what it did to you. It’s a very strange event."

and

"I think Dylan has lines, hundreds of great lines that have the feel of unhewn stone. But they really fit in there. But they’re not smoothed out. It’s inspired but not polished. That is not to say that he doesn’t have lyrics of great polish. That kind of genius can manifest all the forms and all the styles."

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afdtg
Apr 2, 2014 12:49am

In reply to rami ram:

that was glorious

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J.p.Rooney
Apr 24, 2014 3:03am

One eyed laid back smooth written poppycock. Dylan has covered and revivified more genres and moved on restlessly. Cohen knows this, and smiles cutly for the laid back .I myself play and found Cohen's code easier to parody and please me to the point of making me feel talented yet sick!
Think Protest, comedy, dark ballad, love song,hate song, gospel song, rap song, spitfire song, punk song, country song, smartass song,honest song,neo-blue song,heaven/hell song, beatnik song, movie mood song, song /song, story song, electric rock song,nervous anxiety song, escape song,brass ball song, where the hell are we? song, gypsy boy song, by the window songs, fastening songs, crucifix songs, eye lid songs, so long songs, lady songs, songs for Cohen to draw from songs......... My hand is now numb

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Mar 13, 2015 5:17am

This is stupid, Dylan music for conservative bores? Dylan doesn't get covered? Are you kidding me?? There almost hasnt been an artist in contemporary history, from Jimi Hendrix to the Lumineers to Adele that havent paid tribute to Dylan. Not that Cohen is any inferior to Dylan, but this peice rings not only unbalanced but a pack of lies aswell.

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Apr 24, 2016 12:32am

"Last Saturday morning, lying as usual in my pit listening to Radio 4, my somnambulant ears twitched"...
I am sorry i cant take a review serious that starts this way.

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sue meek
Jun 6, 2016 1:34am

still relevent in 2016. Cohen inspires and excites in such a personal way, it is like he is singing in your ear. Not to knock Bob Dylan, he has great lyrics but doesn't connect like Leonard. He flirts with his listeners.

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Roland
Aug 19, 2016 4:00pm

Are you really writing: "He's merely the voice channelled by a thousand randy open mic night losers on the prowl for hippy chicks" I mean.....are you really, really saying this? This must be the absolute depth of rock n roll journalism. I mean, if I were your boss, I would fire you over this, this is a critique of a couchpotatoe who does not know how to describe Dylan. I mean I would not say you are obliged to like Dylan as rock journalist, but it does help. I am appaled by this line and it overshadows just about anything you wrote in this article and anything you will ever write......

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Thaddeus Lovelock
Oct 27, 2016 8:28am

Dylan's work is widely uneven, a lot of his post sixties stuff is full of clichés. Dylan has also written a lot of bad lyrics. Take a look a his eighties stuff. Dylan has also written some great lyrics but they are not a s good as Cohen's at his best.

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