Leonard Cohen Was Right: Songs & Years Of Wisdom Examined

Quietus writers Tom Hawking, Kate Hennessy, Julian Marszalek, Erin Lyndal Martin, Akira The Don, Chris Roberts, Cian Traynor and Luke Turner examine the lyrics of Leonard Cohen, and the truths both universal and personal that they carry. Thanks to Chris Carter for permission to use the image of Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson in his Leonard Cohen jacket. First published in 2014

The idea for this feature came from the image above, which I first spotted on Throbbing Gristle, Chris & Cosey and Carter Tutti Void member Chris Carter’s Flickr account. ‘Leonard Cohen Was Right’ – the slogan on the back of a jacket being worn by the late, lamented Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson of TG and Coil. Such clear words about a man who never was clear, whose music has danced into our ears for decades now, a man who has been at once a shaman, a poet, a wit and a monk, a lover of many, a singer who cannot really sing. Cohen’s poetry, made all the more clear by the deceptive simplicity of his backing music, have been one of the few constants and guides in my own life for approaching a quarter of a century. For those who have gone deep, as our writers reveal below, the truths that can be gleaned from his writing are at once universal and political as well as deeply personal – few have written so well about sex and death that their songs are crammed with some of the finest poetry of the late 20th century: "life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn", and so on.

Rather than the nostalgia twitching of our hearing and senses making Leonard Cohen’s music a soundtrack to one’s life, his words instead will will become manifest and real: hence, whenever I’ve seen Cohen play live, the huge roar from a middle-aged audience that greets "I ache in the places where I used to play" in ‘Tower Of Song’, which they must have heard when they were far younger and more lithe. Or the suspicion (explored by Adam Narkiewicz below) that The Future is a strangely prescient record, or when you realise that Cohen’s four decade exploration of the fragile magic that can exist between two people is perfect realism, like when ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ suddenly, and brutally, becomes real. There are the lines that can become mantras, personal codes by which to live: "love’s the only engine of survival" or, one imagines, ‘Bird On The Wire’ appearing at funerals as a slightly more bookish alternative to Sinatra’s ‘My Way’. Even his onstage chat booms with wise humour (for which Cohen is never recognised) – see the introduction to ‘Ain’t No Cure For Love’ in London in 2008: "I’ve studied deeply in the philosophies and major religions, but cheerfulness keeps breaking through".

What struck me when commissioning and putting together this feature was just how many people mentioned their fathers, as passers on of the Cohen flame, as advisors on what they were writing who have been impatient to see it printed. For many, his role as a guide and mentor is beyond that of a musician or another writer… though, perhaps, we should listen to his own view on the matter: as he sang on ‘Going Home’, from 2012 album Old Ideas, "I’d love to speak with Leonard / He’s a sportsman and a shepherd / He’s a lazy bastard / Living in a suit". – Luke Turner

"Follow me, the wise man said, but he walked behind."

‘Teachers’ from Songs Of Leonard Cohen (1967)

"There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in". This line from ‘Anthem’ on The Future is an all-purpose Cohen truism that resonates immediately – so gallant and full of hope you could slip it in your pocket to light the dark places like Galadriel’s gift to Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring.


But a Hallmark copywriter could have inked it too, probably after reading The Prophet by Kahil Gibran. Divorced from the other lyrics – as this Cohen couplet often is – its embattled optimism is inarguable, yes, but as smugly reductive as an inspirational Facebook meme. I prefer Leo when he’s challenging Bukowski in the savage stakes as he does elsewhere on The Future. 

Though when I began my life-long love for Cohen that many had before me, because I know that I’m not new, The Future‘s jaded propheteering didn’t suit me. As a teen I liked Cohen romantic and wrapped in riddle, his wisdom only beaming down when I needed it to, slipping behind a cloud again when I didn’t.

Written in 1967, ‘Teachers’ has serviced all my Cohen phases. It is a marvel of economy – in just three minutes galloping through more drastic psychological drama than most writers canvass in three hundred pages. His voice sounds distressed – not in the theatrical way of ‘Dress Rehearsal Rag’ but like his words might be an actual cry for help – tumbling forward like a stream-of-consciousness fever dream.

He (or the song’s protagonist who I’m fairly sure is Cohen) is young and seeking answers but none are forthcoming. Worse, in his quest he feels mocked. "Follow me, the wise man said, but he walked behind." It is a terribly desperate song, its brilliance in that even though you hear the outcomes of its gruelling lessons over and over, you still hope you might someday arrive at a new interpretation; a place of answers where "the light gets in". Maybe, like Cohen, you weren’t looking in the right places or hearing his words the right way. "Are you a teacher of the heart? Yes, but not for thee." Or maybe it’s stared you in the face all along. "Have I carved enough my Lord? Child, you are bone."


I know it’s coming but for me hope is extinguished anew every time I hear the final lines. "Oh teachers are my lessons done, I cannot do another one, they laughed and laughed and said ‘Well child, are your lessons done? Are your lessons done?’" If being ‘right’ is a sense of arriving somewhere true and certain, somewhere intrinsically peaceful, ‘Teachers’ denies that is possible, suggesting peace is a place deep within the eye of the beholder that moves away at the same speed as we move towards it. And if Cohen was right about that, he may have been wrong about all the rest. – Kate Hennessy

"Let’s not talk of love and chains and things we can’t untie"

‘Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’ from Songs Of Leonard Cohen (1967)

All through my teens and 20s I couldn’t help but fall in love with Americans, dooming myself to the strains and loneliness of the long-distance relationship, the endless waiting for letters, the awkward telephone calls after redialing and hearing the higher pitcher ‘brrr’ of the US dial tone one too many times. In ‘Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’ Cohen perfectly captures the simple pain of love when its has to fit in around commuting across the pages of an atlas. He celebrates what there is: "I’m not looking for another as I wander in my time / walk me to the corner, our steps will always rhyme / you know my love goes with you as your love stays with me" before warning that love is never a constant "it’s just the way it changes, like the shoreline and the sea". Of course, these lyrics are are about all relationships, not just those governed by discount air fares and pining. "Many loved before us, I know we are not new" is a bullet through the heart of the nonsensical idea of the soulmate, the simple "your eyes are soft with sorrow / Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye" that concludes each verse an acknowledgement that every lover is just one more, that goodbyes are also opportunities. It’s "I loved", not "I love", you in the morning, after all. I’ll often find myself wondering if I should have paid more attention. – Luke Turner

‘The Asthmatic’

From the book Death of a Lady’s Man (1978)

Before reading this poem, I never really considered a correlation between asthma and anxiety. Both were a regular feature of my childhood but they seemed unconnected, beyond the obvious: allergies would set off an asthma attack, which would in turn trigger anxiety because, well, you can’t breathe.

Your airway starts constricting. Your lungs can shut down. It feels like you’re gasping for breath through a rusty whistle while in outer space. Who wouldn’t be alarmed by that? But the more you panic, the more the attack tightens its grasp around your windpipe, and the cycle becomes suffocating.

The asthma attacks faded out sometime after my teens but anxiety, in its various guises, would take many more years to untangle. Now that I feel a step removed from both, I recognise how Cohen deftly dovetails them together here:

"Because you do not know what is coming. You cannot breathe. Because this world is yours and it is not yours. You cannot breathe. Because you rest, because you strive, because you do not work. You cannot breathe. Because you let the world come between you and me. You cannot breathe. Because of an idea of the calm breath. You cannot breathe. Because you want to choose a way. You cannot breathe."

The entire poem feels like an emblem for the "whole breathless predicament" of anxiety: how it incessantly, but inconspicuously, tightens and pulls at your nerves until trivial details become deal-breakers; how it spills over everything until your mind is no longer fully present; how the frustration becomes so routine that you can’t even remember what it’s like to see things clearly.

That’s why grounding the poem in a loop is such a clever idea. At some point in life, most of us come up against an internalised refrain, keeping us from what we want to do. It could be about breathing, it could be about something else. It doesn’t matter. What Cohen captures here is how the tenor of it always runs along similar lines: "…because you can’t… because you can’t… because you can’t." – Cian Traynor

"All of you are thieves of holiness, all of you at war with Mercy"

‘Israel’ from Book of Mercy (1984)

Leonard Cohen is not one for giving things away. He communicates through his work and is a master of ambiguity. But as a songwriter known for exploring Jewish identity, Cohen’s stance on the Israeli-Palestine conflict has often been speculated over. He entertained IDF troops during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, which inspired the song ‘Lover, Lover, Lover’, and didn’t perform in Israel again until 2009, when he donated all proceeds from the concert to Israeli-Palestinian groups focused on reconciliation.

But in the time in-between, Cohen published Book Of Mercy, a collection of prose-poems or ‘contemporary psalms’ which contained a passage on Israel. It began: "Israel, and you who call yourself Israel, the Church that calls itself Israel, and the revolt that calls itself Israel, and every nation chosen to be a nation – none of these lands is yours, all of you are thieves of holiness, all of you at war with Mercy. Who will say it?"

However he may feel about the situation now, he was clearly conflicted at the time of writing. Since then, interest in the issue has only intensified around the world and, 30 years later, the questions Cohen poses throughout the passage have lost none of their relevance. – Cian Traynor

"I lived alone but I was only/Coming back to you."

‘Coming Back To You’ from Various Positions (1985)

Cohen once introduced this in concert as "a song in which I have achieved the ultimate confusion of God and Women". There are plenty of love songs that double as allegories about relationships with a higher power, but this one’s a cut above. The first verse in particular is a superb distillation of what it means to wrestle with a ghost from the past:

"Maybe I’m still hurting/I can’t turn the other cheek. But you know that I still love you/It’s just that I can’t speak. I looked for you in everyone/And they called me on that too. I lived alone but I was only/Coming back to you."

It’s hard to think of a better expression of a memory that outstays its welcome, a time you can’t help returning to, a severed connection that may never be resolved. You don’t have to enjoy Leonard Cohen’s music to connect with that sentiment. But even if you don’t, there’s something in the other words to this song for everyone. And what better mark of a lyricist is there than that? – Cian Traynor

"I ache in the places where I used to play"

‘Tower Of Song’ from I’m Your Man (1988)


"I ache in the places where I used to play," croons Cohen on ‘Tower Of Song’, the finale of his immaculate 1988 "synthpop" (ha ha ha ha ha) album I’m Your Man. Few have written as wryly as has Leonard on the rigours and indignities of the ageing process. Mortality is so ghastly that it’s hard to believe it exists. It’s strange to think we all trundle along in desperate denial, pretending it won’t bother us, stumbling downhill from a youthful peak of limitless zest and possibility towards an ever-diminishing, ever-shrinking set of claustrophobic returns in a wearily deflating globe.

But enough waggish levity. Leonard knows that for an ageing romantic such as himself, life can be both punishing and poignant. He confesses to the loneliness of existence: worse than that, he can hear a country singer coughing. A country singer! The horror.

Bitterness he won’t admit to, but he has learned through his years that "the rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor". That’s such a great line, what with "channels" having more than one meaning and all. You just don’t get that kind of multivalence from Ellie Goulding, even if she is young and therefore of more value to the world and a better artist than Leonard Cohen.

The river is wide, the bridges are burned, and no cliché is allowed through the gates by Cohen without its base being upturned. His only solace is that he was born with the gift of a golden voice, and even that is a self-flagellating triple-edged barb. There is one other plus: we’ll never have to lose "everything that we lost" again, muses Leonard, determinedly locating a bright side, despite fading eyesight.

Lest this pop profundity cause any of the teenagers reading this to err towards despair, I should clarify that Leonard Cohen was right only some of the time. When you’re old, most days there are minutes – sometimes as much as a whole hour – when some area of your back or neck isn’t hurting like hell. Occasionally you might attend a social function without going through a re-enactment of the twelve labours of Hercules just to get there. Some days you’ll even feel so brimming with energy that you can shake your rump to the funk of, say, ‘Rigor Mortis’ by Cameo. Overall though, Leonard was, as usual, correct: the passing of time is an excruciating cosmic joke, told by a spittle-flecked oaf, forever and ever. And then you die. Wait, first your manager steals all your money and you have to tour. And then you die. – Chris Roberts

"I’m just paying my rent every day, Oh, in the Tower of Song"

‘Tower of Song’ from I’m Your Man (1988)

My father is a music obsessive: the kind who started taking me to gigs on school nights when I was nine years old; the kind who used to spend every lunch break going from record shop to record shop; the kind whose sprawling music collection once led to our family moving house. He also has an encyclopaedic knowledge of musicians that he’s passionate about and one of them is Leonard Cohen. So when I asked my dad if any of Len’s insights came to mind within the scope of this article, he quoted, without hesitation, the first paragraph of ‘Tower of Song’:

"Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey.

I ache in the places where I used to play.

And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on.

I’m just paying my rent every day,

Oh, in the Tower of Song."

There was no need for an explanation: in the decades since my father started listening to Cohen’s music, those words have gradually turned into something that resonates. Instead he paused for a moment, thought back over the verse, and looked over at me with a nod. "That is extremely well put." – Cian Traynor

"You can say that I’ve grown bitter but of this you can be sure / The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor…"

’Tower Of Song’ from I’m Your Man (1988)

You can talk all you like about the virtues of trickle down economics – or, as it’s known round these parts, defending the indefensible – but that fact of the matter is that when the shit goes down and the ladder gets pulled up, it’s always the most vulnerable that end up paying. Witness the Global Banking Crisis of 2008, a financial cluster fuck widely held to be worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

With many banks being bailed out by their respective governments as they dipped into large sums of public money, it soon became apparent that public services would be hard hit. So rather than raising revenues by taxing the people that could afford to them, Britain’s coalition instead elected to squeeze the pips out of those least able to shoulder the burden whilst demonising them as lazy scroungers.

In one of the most evil and heartless moves by any administration in living memory, the Tory-led coalition have embarked on a hideous mission of social engineering by forcing vulnerable people to leave their homes or face complete financial ruin with the introduction of the so-called ‘Bedroom Tax’ whereby housing benefit is cut under the guise of an ‘under-occupancy penalty’. The irony being, of course, that the poor are being punished for having too much space by those who really do have enough room to swing several cats with their tails tied together. – Julian Marszalek

"I have seen the future… it is murder"

‘The Future from The Future (1992)

It is said that the best science fiction describes the present as well as it predicts the future, and so it is with Cohen’s dystopian concept masterwork The Future, unleashed upon an unsuspecting populace in the winter of 1992, as the embers of the LA riots still burned, a grinning pervert from Arkansas was sworn into presidential office, a tornado ravaged the Midwest killing thousands and "Queen" Elizabeth Windsor’s castle burned to the ground.


I was 12 at the time and a fan, but I didn’t take the time to study Cohen’s warnings as I might have. My attention was taken by Ice Cube who’s Death Certificate plainly and explicitly described to me the reality of Western Democracy as untold by newspapers, television and school. It wasn’t until a decade later that I paid The Future proper attention, whilst residing in a New York apartment with a fridge packed full of V8 and sparkling, crystal encrusted marijuana, recording my debut album for a major label, as the world seemingly collapsed around me. New Orleans was drowning, unreported by the mainstream media, and I awoke to the sound of protestors marching the streets outside my apartment, carrying giant cardboard coffins and a huge polystyrene grim reaper, chanting "MURDER! MURDER! MURDER!" The news screamed of anthrax and swine flu and crazed militants chopping off heads and blowing themselves up with crude bombs you could learn to make on the internet. Hitchens and Dawkins waged war on the murderous old Skygod to ever-increasing applause. Porn abandoned all pretense of story and context and surrendered to ultraviolence. Birds fell out of the sky in their thousands and vast armies of jellyfish swarmed the bubbling oceans, wiping out salmon farms and terrorizing fishermen.


It felt a lot like the end of the world. I sat in the dark in an apartment in the sky and smoked my sparking weed and drank my V8 and read about MK Ultra and The Franklin Cover Up and other such horrors as Cohen crooned sweetly, a voice as deep as the abyss, perfectly describing what I was experiencing. "The blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold, and it’s overturned the order of the soul."


When I completed my own record, I had The Future‘s album art, a hummingbird, heart, and handcuffs, tattooed on my neck. "There’s a tension between the hummingbird and the handcuffs," said Cohen in an interview. "We all live somewhere between the two."

A decade later, that feeling has returned to the western world, intensified and exaggerated like a Hollywood superhero reboot. Al Quaeda and Anthrax have been replaced with the Brass Eye insanity of Isis and Walking Dead Ebola, pedophile rings have leapt from conspiracy websites to the newspaper frontpages, beloved children’s television presenters and popstars squirm in police cells, unflattering, shifty-eyed portraits littering the roadside like old pornography, leering out of giant screens in train stations and airports at a terrorized populace bombarded alongside nightmare images of bombed hospitals and beheadings and dead babies piled high like rotting meat in landfills, cheering spectators clinking champagne glasses as they watch from hilltops. "Destroy another fetus now, we don’t like children anyhow."


We’ve seen the future, baby. It is murder.


"There’ll be a breaking of the ancient western code… Your private life will suddenly explode…" 

You don’t have to be a UKIP MP or the celebrity victim of some leaked nudes to make sense of these warnings.

Everybody knows the dice is loaded. Everybody knows the captain lied. Cohen pointed this out on his previous LP, The Future’s sweeter, more flirtatious wingman, I’m Your Man, and we grimly nodded in a agreement. Yes Leonard, this we know. Our shit, in the words of the great Warren Zevon, is fucked up. Now tell us something we don’t.


And so he did.


"RING THE BELLS! THAT STILL! CAN RING!" he implores evangelically on ‘Anthem’, the stirring Yin to the title track’s doomed Yang, "FORGET! YOUR PERFECT OFFERING!" For there is, as Lou Reed noted two years earlier, no fucking time for any of that shit, not now, in these desperate last days. Lou and Len were both screaming from the same apocalyptic hymn sheet, and both had run with the same "lawless crowd" Cohen renounced on ‘Anthem’, and warned darkly would be hearing from him. He was a deeply connected individual, part of the formative years of LA Scientology, a former MK Ultra experimentee, a friend of movie stars and politicians CIA agents. The Future wasn’t just eerily accurate prophecy from a scholar of history and multiple religions. It was insider info from a man privy to the plan.


"I’ve seen the future, brother. It. Is. murder."


All men, whether they believe in depopulation agendas or have merely observed a few History Channel documentaries and noticed a pattern know this to be true in their hearts. Civilization is built on a million unmarked graves, for good or ill. Cohen came to warn us, but he wasn’t fear-mongering, like some melodically inclined conspiracy-radio personality blessed with the gift golden voice. "Love’s the only engine of survival," he notes on ‘The Future’, almost as an aside, before  elaborating further on ‘Anthem’:


"There is a crack… a crack in everything."


He proclaims this as cosmic fact, with revelatory conviction of a man who has seen it, like Rust gazing at the stars at the end of True Detective.


"That’s where the light comes in."


Once there was only black. We are winning. All is right. – Akira The Don

"There is a crack in everything. / That’s how the light gets in"

’Anthem’ from The Future

What is it about breaking that finally permits honesty? In 2007, the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo installed a 167-metre crack in the floor of the Tate London. Salcedo said that this piece, called Shibboleth, "represents borders, the experience of immigrants, the experience of segregation, the experience of racial hatred." When Leonard Cohen wrote his famous lyric in ‘Anthem’, it is unlikely that he was anticipating Salcedo’s installation, but I wonder how many people, walking the length of the crack in the floor, had the light come in and illuminate ideas of difference in human experience. Sometimes the crack between us is a physical crack in the floor that forbids passage and subsequent communion. Usually, the cracks are invisible trenches in sociopolitical differences that keep us apart, often without our consent, leaving us feeling broken and alone. The thing about cracks, though, is that they tend to go away once we talk about them, or at least that’s when we can start mending the metaphorical cracks between us. The director of the Tate, speaking of Shibboleth, said, "There is a crack, there is a line, and eventually there will be a scar. It will remain as a memory of the work and also as a memorial to the issues Doris touches on." Perhaps if Leonard Cohen were to write a sequel to ‘Anthem’, it would be about a scar. – Erin Lyndal Martin

"Suddenly, the night has grown colder…"

‘Alexandra Leaving’, from Ten New Songs (2001)

Break-ups are awful.

Quite apart from the visceral emotions a break-up will evoke — depending on the circumstances, you might be angry, sad, bewildered, regretful, or god knows what else — it represents a fundamental challenge to the way you see life. Depending on how long the relationship has endured and how serious it was, its end might well require a complete recasting of the way you see the world — perhaps the trust you put in another person has been proven false, or perhaps it’s the trust you put in yourself. Perhaps your plans for the future are dashed. Perhaps the time you’ve spent with the other person feels suddenly somehow invalidated, like it was a waste of time, or an awful case of self-delusion. Perhaps you’re just really fucking pissed off.

I’m writing about this through personal experience, of course, and I’m not going to bore you with the details — suffice it to say that a couple of years ago, a relationship I was in for the best part of a decade came to an end. I did what pretty much everyone does in these circumstances: I felt awful, I got drunk, I made dubious life decisions, I questioned myself endlessly. And I listened to "Alexandra Leaving" a lot.

I’m sure I remember reading somewhere that this oft-overlooked masterpiece from Ten New Songs took our hero decades to finish, perhaps because it took him that long to process the end of the relationship to which it is linked. It’s based on CP Cavafy’s poem "The God Abandons Antony", which in turn takes its inspiration from Plutarch’s story of Octavian taking the city of Alexandria from (Marc) Antony. In Cavafy’s poem, Antony stands and listens to the sound of an imaginary procession out of the city and interpreting it as confirmation that Bacchus, his patron god, has abandoned him.

Antony, of course, committed suicide, but Cavafy’s version of the story isn’t morose or tragic. The narrator — the god himself? — exhorts Anyony to accept his fate with courage and equanimity, to go to the window and take a last look at the city he is losing — and to rejoice in it:

As one long prepared, and graced with courage,

as is right for you who were given this kind of city,

go firmly to the window

and listen with deep emotion, but not

with the whining, the pleas of a coward;

listen—your final delectation—to the voices,

to the exquisite music of that strange procession,

and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

It’s a poem that’s also been quoted in the title of Richard Holloway’s memoir Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt, which narrates the author — a former Bishop of Edinburgh — deciding to leave the Church to which he’d devoted much of his life. Like Cohen, Holloway spent time as a monk, and like Cohen, he eventually found that his chosen path wasn’t enough to assuage either his doubts or some deeper longing for spiritual fulfillment.

Understanding with a creeping certainty that the place you’re in is not the place for you, of course, is a feeling that can also apply to a relationship. Cohen, bless him, reimagines Alexandria as Alexandra, a woman who is leaving for the last time. The result is a song that speaks of reflecting on the joy a love has brought, instead of mourning for its end. It calls to mind Tennyson’s famous observation that "’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all," but it’s less pithy than that.

But still, ultimately, its advice is the same as Cavafy’s: "And you who had the honor of her evening/ And by the honor had your own restored/ Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving/ Alexandra leaving with her lord." If you’re the one deciding to end things, you get a whole nice big serving of guilt to go with all the other emotions a break-up evokes. Even this, Cohen advises us to embrace: "As someone long prepared for the occasion/ In full command of every plan you wrecked/ Do not choose a coward’s explanation/ That hides behind the cause and the effect." The imagery he uses certainly evokes a loss of faith: "[Your] code was broken, crucifix uncrossed."

It’s a song, ultimately, about facing up to reality — because when it’s you who’s sitting there pondering the end of love, it’s tempting to cast yourself in the role of tragic (anti)hero, to feel sorry for yourself because something that you were part of has come to an end. But the sooner you accept that reality, the sooner the healing can begin. You’re not being singled out for some special existential agony, and no matter how bad it feels, your life will continue. As Cohen’s lyric observes, "It’s not a trick, your senses all deceiving/ A fitful dream, the morning will exhaust."

And ultimately, you’ll come to see that what you were part of is something to be celebrated, not to be wept over because it’s gone. No-one has the right to be loved forever. Some people are never loved at all. For a while, like Antony, you had something beautiful. Bid it goodbye, and remember it fondly. – Tom Hawking

"The answer… to the mysteries… ‘do-dum-dum-dum di-do-dum-dum’"

‘Tower Of Song’ from Live In London

Has any other artist managed to come close to exploring the mysteries of song, the role of the singer, as Leonard Cohen does in ‘Tower Of Song’. That this is the fourth entry here on the track suggests that they haven’t. What I love about the end to this track, recorded at the 02 concert that was one of the earliest dates of Cohen’s comeback tour, is how he wittily builds up ("I am so grateful to you because tonight it has become clear to me, tonight the great mysteries have unravelled, and I have penetrated to the very core of things") to the bathetic conclusion above. To return to Peter Christopherson, whose jacket triggered these 6000 words, I’ve long felt that the lyrics of Coil in an earthy, magical way, echo those of Cohen. Just consider Coil’s ‘Broccoli’ – "By working the soil we cultivate the sky / We embrace the vegetable kingdom / The death of your father, the death of your mother / Is something you prepare for / All your life" – Cohenesque in its mixture of the banal and the profound, the morbid and the strangely amusing. I hear a connection there to the great line in ‘Everybody Knows’ "Everybody got this broken feeling / Like their father or their dog just died". Mortality is at once terrifying and commonplace, and one day Leonard Cohen, teacher to so many, will be gone. "You’ll be hearing from me darling, long after I’ve gone"… does Cohen believe that? Or is this is all obfuscation, and Cohen, student of spirituality, is aware that songs, like himself, are more mortal than those who romanticise rock & roll would like to have us believe. – Luke Turner

First published in 2014

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