Friday, 19 October 2012

Cohen for a song

Having just been absorbed and (in some ways unpleasantly) surprised by a major biography of a literary idol - Kurt Vonnegut - I am now in a state of delightful impatience for the UK release of Sylvie Simmons' book on Leonard Cohen.  It's lucky that we're on good terms with our postman, otherwise he might not be reacting so diplomatically to my clutching at his legs as he shuffles away down our drive while I wail 'Where's my book? Want my book' at him.  What follows may be entirely redundant, as I find it strains credulity to assume that any literate person could fail to have acquired an intimate knowledge of and passion for Cohen's words, but here goes.

It delighted and amused me in equal measure to see a particular thread unfolding on the Leonard Cohen Forum, comprising 71 posts over several months, more or less entirely devoted to one word from his recent album, Old Ideas.  Said word is the last one in this stanza from the opening track, 'Going Home':

He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man of vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tube.

This (superb) song discusses Cohen in the third person, through the voice of an aggressive species of muse who insists that Cohen, regardless of what he wants or thinks to be writing, can and may only produce variations on the muse's message of 'going home'.  This is already a neat encapsulation of the layers of complexity and structure that are common furniture chez Cohen.  Interpretations of the word 'tube' ranged on the Forum from it being of the speaking, test or fallopian varieties, through slang for television or penis and even actually being the word 'tune' (this last, radical theory relying on there being a misprint in the lyric sheet).  I don't wish to deride or dismiss any of these approaches, but they illustrate well one conspicuous aspect of Cohen's lyrics, which is the ease with which they resist obvious or straightforward interpretations.  Another hotly-debated song from the album, 'Different Sides', can and has been seen as discussing the divide between male and female, Israel and Palestine, the dark and light sides of an individual's personality and all of the above.  This occurs time and time again throughout Cohen's work, enriched by and structured around a range of references whose breadth challenges even the most erudite listener, including The Kabbalah, The Bible, alchemy and drug usage.  Mercifully infrequently, this approach tips over into wilful obscurantism and even pretentiousness, but please don't tell The Forum I've said so.

It's not all, however, densely interwoven and ambiguous symbolism in The Land of Cohen. There is some fine lyric imagery:

And while he talks his dreams to sleep
You notice there's a highway
That is curling up like smoke above his shoulder

And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbour

But climb on your tears and be silent
Like the rose on its ladder of thorns 

and, (as everyone knows who has not been deluded by the incessant propaganda of  ignorance) much humour, albeit often dressed in the motley of mordancy:

I fought against the bottle
But I had to do it drunk

Everybody knows you've been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet
Without your clothes.

I'd strongly recommend the Forum, in closing, as a rich, varied and constantly bubbling digital cauldron of ideas and information, most of which more or less revolve around perhaps the one true genius of Anglophone popular music lyrics.

Oh, I may have forgotten to mention Cohen's poetry and novels....

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