I’m Just Paying My Rent Every Day in the Tower of Song
What can be said about Leonard Cohen? Well, the first thing we can say is that he’s funny. I mean, hilariously funny. All too often, tributes to Leonard are very sombre affairs, and they reinforce this notion that his music is only listened to by lovelorn philosophy students in dingy bedsits. He’s not the “Prince of Doom” or any of the other epithets that have been lazily applied to him over the years by people who haven’t taken the time to listen to him. Take, for example:
“Well my friends are gone and my hair is gray
I ache in the places where I used to play”
“So you can stick your little pins in that voodoo doll
I’m very sorry, baby, doesn’t look like me at all”
(“Tower of Song”)
“You told me again you preferred handsome men
But for me you would make an exception”
(“Chelsea Hotel No. 2”)
“Take the only tree that’s left, stuff it up the hole in your culture”
“I showed my heart to the doctor, he said I’d just have to quit,
Then he wrote himself a prescription, your name was mentioned in it”
(“One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong”)
Lou Reed read out that last quote when he inducted Leonard into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. After reading it, Reed threw his arms in the air and said, “He could have stopped there!” I’m inclined to agree. Although I’m glad he didn’t.
The first Leonard Cohen album I bought was a “Best-Of” album. On the front cover, there was a photograph of Leonard in front of a mirror, looking sharp in a dark fitted suit. Leonard the lothario, the man with the voice like silk being dragged across gravel, and the face like a lost ‘50s movie star. The Casanova figure, with album titles like Death of a Ladies Man, and photographs of him with beautiful young women in varying states of undress. Leonard, apparently, disliked that image and often rubbished it. As a young man listening to his music, though, I believed it. And with lines like, “Giving me head on the unmade bed, while the limousines wait in the street,” you can understand my confusion.
Leonard knew how to capture the sense of a moment in time. For years, I was convinced that he’d written an actual song about two people trapped in a hot room arguing. When I went to look for it, I couldn’t find it. That’s because he never did. He wrote many songs about couples, about couples arguing or falling out of love, and his descriptions brought to life such vivid images for me that I thought he’d actually written those images himself.
Likewise, I’d always imagined that there were numerous album covers with photographs of women in rooms. There aren’t. There’s just one: a black and white photograph of a beautiful blonde woman, sitting at a desk in a room. The woman is Marianne, his muse, and the subject of a number of songs. The album is called Songs from a Room. This is how the crafty bastard gets you.
I remember listening to that “Best-Of” album as a teenager – poring over the lyrics and the liner notes – and wondering how a human being could be so wise about the workings of the heart and the mind. I thought it was a gift of age. I was wrong. It was the gift of the universe – to us – the gift of a gentle soul with the heart of a poet and the mind of a genius. A gift that would never be repeated.
Interestingly, one of his – now – most famous songs, “Hallelujah” wasn’t included on that “Best-Of” album. (No doubt, because it hadn’t been crucified to death at that point by a succession of unworthy singers.) If there is one song that captures the essence of what Leonard Cohen is about, that is surely it. It is one of the greatest pieces of work on humanity, on human (and spiritual and physical) longing.
“Well there was a time when you let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show that to me do ya
But remember when I moved in you
And the holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah
Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah”
Of course, Leonard – gentleman that he was – would probably demure and say he was no expert on relationships. Another album – Death of a Ladies Man – features a photograph of Cohen seated between two beautiful women, with him staring nonchalantly at the camera. The album notes credit the shot to “Anonymous Roving Photographer at a Forgotten Polynesian Restaurant.” This nonchalance is what makes you fall in love with Cohen. Because, of course, he’s not nonchalant at all. In his lyrics, he’s yearning and lustful and world-weary. But at the same time, he seems like the kind of guy who might lose a woman as easily as he might lose an umbrella.
I’ll finish with one of my favourite Leonard Cohen quotes, which could easily be read as his epitaph. It’s taken from “Tower of Song”, his rumination on – amongst other things – what it means to be a songwriter (or as he so beautifully puts it, “paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song”):
“I bid you farewell, I don’t know when I’ll be back
They’re moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track
But you’ll be hearing from me, baby, long after I’m gone
I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the Tower of Song”
Derek Flynn runs Writing.ie's SongBook blog, and is an Irish writer and musician. He has a Masters in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin. He’s been published in a number of publications, including The Irish Times, and his fiction was featured in 'Surge', an anthology of new Irish writing published by O’ Brien Press with the aim of showcasing “the very best of the next generation of Irish authors”. Online he can be found at his writing/music blog – ‘Rant, with Occasional Music’ – and on Twitter as @derekf03