When I started out buying records, it was a fairly lonely process. There were a few books and greatest albums lists I used as reference points but for the first year or so, I didn’t speak to anyone at all. Any friends I had listened to U2, Simple Minds and that was about it. I spent virtually every penny I had accumulating vinyl, the ritual absorbing me completely, then just lay on my bed secretly enjoying the discoveries I’d made.
I got talking to someone I recognised from school at a football match one Saturday, and was invited round to his house the following week to borrow some LPs. I thought he had perhaps exaggerated, but when I got there, I met with an Aladdin’s Cave of delights. I recall my heart racing as I headed home with a bundle of LPs tucked under my arm, including albums by The Electric Prunes, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Jonathan Richman, Buffalo Springfield, Wire and Orange Juice. It was a life-changing moment. That there were other people who appreciated the kind of music I loved was reassuring, but now suddenly I would have access to all these wonderful sounds I had only read about.
A few years down the line, my friend and I were gradually finding we had less in common than we had at first, and when he began to extol the virtues of the latest Deacon Blue album I knew the small batch of albums I was returning to him would be the last. By then I had other friends whose discernment of all things musical I trusted more, yet I remain eternally grateful to him for being an important part of my musical education.
At the bottom of that original pile of borrowed records had been the first Leonard Cohen album. It was probably the last one I took out of its sleeve. It didn’t look psychedelic, punk or sufficiently interesting enough to bother with, but there was something mysterious about the sepia-tinted portrait on the sleeve. The photograph looked like it could have been taken in 1902. I had never heard of Cohen before and my first thought was that he looked like a young Al Pacino. Upon first listen its cryptic poetry, set to some largely uninspiring folk guitar, completely failed to register. Nevertheless, like everything else I borrowed at the time, it was quickly copied onto one side of a C90 cassette, for which I made a little cover with a Canadian maple leaf on it before shelving it (After The Gold Rush took up the 45 minutes on the other side). As autumn began, in a moment of boredom I played the album again. By the time winter had arrived I was playing little else.
To this day, it remains one of my all-time favourite records and so I am always mystified by Cohen’s absence from greatest albums lists. I tend to attribute this oversight to the steadfast unrock’n’roll-ness of his stage persona, and the fact he was in his mid-thirties before he recorded his first album. To paraphrase Joseph Cotten in Citizen Kane, he “was always too old.” Perhaps others simply find him too depressing or pretentious. But as a wordsmith Cohen was incomparable. In fact using that expression seems wholly inadequate. After all by 1967, he was a well established author of two novels and several volumes of poetry before deciding that the best vehicle for its expression was through music.
It is not always easy to deconstruct the meaning of his songs – they are so richly nuanced and highly personal – it can somehow seem a disservice to try at all. Take ‘Suzanne’ for instance, a remarkable piece whose lyric Cohen laboured over for four to five months in order to ensure each word ended up in its proper place. “I’m really in the middle of writing a wonderful song and I never said that before or since to anybody” he told Sam Gesser, a Montreal producer in 1966. Composed after he had first met Suzanne Verdal, a dancer he had already written poems about, and inspired by a visit he made to her loft apartment near the St. Lawrence river in Montreal, the language is unabashedly poetic, precise yet oblique, mysterious and arresting, and the voice so quietly hypnotic that it draws you inexorably into the unbearable beauty of his verse. He first played the song tentatively to Mary Martin who would go on to become his manager, after which he visited Judy Collins whose approval he sought, singing for her several of his compositions, amongst them ‘Suzanne’. Collins was instantly smitten with it and recorded the song for her ’66 outing In My Life. Leonard was thrilled and it provided him with the confidence to perform his songs in public for the first time (30th April ’67. He froze during the first song and walked off stage)
Collins would record three more of Cohen’s songs on her next album, by which time Mary Martin has secured for him a deal with Columbia Records, whose A&R chief executive John Hammond was immediately won over. “Leonard had his own rules and was an original” he said. Cohen entered Columbia’s Studio E on 52nd Street before the ink on the contract had had time to dry. He had never set foot in a recording studio before and – conscious of his own technical shortcomings – was overawed by the proficiency of the session musicians hired to accompany him. He burned candles and incense to build the appropriate atmosphere for the songs, then requested a mirror be placed between himself and the other musicians, so that he could watch himself as he played. The bass player Willie Ruff had an innate understanding of the songs and Cohen was able to struggle through the recordings with Ruff’s gentle encouragement providing the spur, recording ‘Suzanne’, ‘Sisters Of Mercy’, ‘Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’ and ‘Master Song’ during the very first session.
Leonard was determined to avoid overworking the material, a task which became harder when Hammond fell ill and John Simon took over as producer. He and Cohen had sharply contrasting ideas about how the songs should be arranged. Simon added strings and horns to them and on ‘Suzanne’, even piano and drums. These were later removed by the singer who alluded to the tension in the note on the lyric sheet: “The songs and the arrangements were introduced. They felt some affection for one another but because of a blood feud, they were forbidden to marry. Nevertheless, the arrangements wished to throw a party. The songs preferred to retreat behind a veil of satire.” The melodies, deceptively simple on the surface, contained some fairly unorthodox key changes and timings such as on ‘Stories Of The Street’, where Cohen recalled the sense of dislocation he experienced during his early days in NYC (“I lean from my window sill / In this old hotel I chose / One hand on my suicide / One hand on the rose”) and ‘Sisters Of Mercy’ where the company provided him by two hitchhikers he allowed to stay in his Edmonton hotel room during a blizzard was mirrored here by the delightful addition of calliope and bells. This Simon got right, perhaps more so than the backing chorus on ‘So Long Marianne’, which nevertheless remains one of his most enduring songs. The recent BBC documentary about the love affair between Leonard and his muse (Marianne Ihlen) was a genuinely moving piece of filmmaking, which demonstrated great compassion for its subjects. Observing them drift in and out of one another’s lives, the intervals between growing in length, the distance apart expanding was heartbreaking to behold. But breathing in the atmosphere of Hydra in the early ’60s helped provide greater insight into the mind of the author and the world from which these songs were conceived. It’s a song of its time and yet for all time. In the ’70s Cohen sang it on stage under the influence of LSD, and a vision of Marianne materialised before him. He turned away from the audience sobbing to find each member of the band behind him also in tears. Think of that next time you listen to it.
Then there was the dark rolling lines of ‘The Stranger Song’, it’s confessional pessimism filled with such ‘stop you in your tracks’ verses as: “And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind / You find he did not leave you very much, not even laughter / Like any dealer, he was watching for the card / That is so high and wild
He’ll never need to deal another”, and then of course there’s the maniacal wail at the end of the closing track ‘One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong’. Individually the songs are masterful portraits, collectively a gallery of riches.
When the album appeared in it’s final form, Simon’s arrangements could not overwhelm the delicacy of the verse. Cohen’s final mix jettisoned much of what he deemed unnecessary. Bring the whole world inside and the house might fall down. Cohen knew his own songs and what they needed, but some of Simon’s embellishments could not be erased from the original four-track master tape. On his next album the arrangements would be stripped back even further. The reviews were not entirely positive with many accusing the singer of being self-absorbed, depressive or pseudo-intellectual – the kind of charges which were continually levelled at him throughout his career. But there’s nothing to fear with a little erudition when it comes to writing pop lyrics, and these songs are little miracles, and a match for anything written by Dylan, Lou Reed or Joni Mitchell. Oh, the treasures you find at the bottom of the pile. (JJ)