I don’t blame my old school friend John Wylie for much. In fact, the only thing is my hitherto troubled relationship with Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen.
John was a skinny guy with lank hair. Sarcasm was his only shield against the school bullies. Pretty good shield it was too – you got the feeling the bullies left John well alone on the basis that he’d only stand up after they’d beaten him and say, ‘Call that a kicking? Radge Tambo did miles better last week and that was with him wearing slippers, and his better hand tied behind his back. You need to think about a career change.’
John and I went about in our latter years at high school along with a third pal, Donald Allan, and a more world-weary trio of seventeen-year-olds you couldn’t hope to meet. Donald impressed me for life by writing a story in Fifth Year that referenced blues men like Big Bill Broonzy. I had never heard of any of them, but I just knew I should have by that stage in my musical education. I think Blind Lemon Jefferson was in there too.
Anyway. Back to John, and Leonard. Here was the thing. Every time we hung out at John’s house, sitting about like world-weary seventeen-year-olds do, he’d put on Leonard Cohen, and we’d slag him off. ‘We’re seventeen-year-old boys with precious little experience of girls,’ we’d say. ‘Isn’t that depressing enough without this guy moaning on about some girl that gives you tea and oranges and then lets you sleep with her?’
John would join in the slagging, so I was never sure whether he actually liked Leonard, or if he just put him on the turntable (remember them?) as a rich vein of material for our ironic essays. He was just so sarcastic, so passive, so cool in an uncool kind of way, you couldn’t tell. I think now that John really liked Leonard Cohen, but that’s now, when I’m way past seventeen.
So, these many years since, I had set my face against liking Leonard. (As an aside, it might’ve been the same if John had passionately taken his side. My lifelong meh-ness to Bowie stems from my best pal at school’s having every one of his albums; similarly, I owe other friends a huge debt for going on about Genesis so much I never ever listened to them. The adolescent mind’s wiring on musical taste is a complex thing, indeed.)
Two things in recent years set me on the road to recovery from my Cohen-blindness. One was seeing a show about Tom Jones (now on his own road to recovery as a serious musician from the knicker-throwing decades) in which he sang Tower of Song; the other was a concert on t.v. late one night by the man himself.
A rapid re-assessment took place from a semi-prone position on the couch. Leonard was charming, and funny. He wore a sharp suit, and performed his songs of wit and subtlety with a supple, talented band. He wore a hat I could aspire to.
My recovery was completed when I bought his latest studio album, Old Ideas. (Ok, so it came out a year ago, but I never promised this would be an up to the minute kind of thing, did I?) Don’t be put off by possibly the most unappealing album title ever – this is a gem. If I have a negative thought about it at all, perhaps the beat lopes a little too much for my taste, the arrangements are a tad too spare; but then any guitar player probably always feels their instrument would give things a bit more bite.
Cohen’s voice is cello-like at times, at times the barest whisper: the lyrics are always the compelling thing however. Musically it draws from the usual deep wells of Americana, although there is predominantly a gospel feel to many of the songs. A good example of this is Darkness, with lovely Hammond organ scribblings and heavenly backing vocals: the Dylanesque lyric pierces through the middle of it all.
To this ear, Banjo, a slide guitar twelve-bar blues, also has a hint of His Bobness about it, although there is a chicken and egg issue there – should I be thinking now of recent Dylan songs as being Cohenesque? It’s a death-inflected reflection on a ‘broken banjo bobbin’ on the dark infested sea.’
Amen, for me, probably takes the cake for the best lyric: ‘tell me again when the victims are singing, and the laws of remorse are restored.’ Laws of remorse – did he just say that? Woaaaahh. More fine stuff in Crazy to Love You, about how the singer ‘had to go crazy,’ to love the woman ‘who was never the one.’ Cohen’s nylon-string acoustic plunkings are all the words need.
Going Home has had other reviewers reaching for their interpretative hyperboles. Neil McCormick in his Telegraph review has it as a meditation on the acceptance of death, while Joe Levy in Rolling Stone thinks the narrator is God himself. Certainly, the lyrics are compelling: ‘I love to speak with Leonard,’ Cohen breathes, ‘he’s a sportsman and a shepherd, he’s a lazy bastard living in a suit…’ Leonard, the narrator tells us, is nothing more than a ‘brief elaboration of a tune.’ My own reading of it is less portentous, maybe: for me this is Cohen the man casting off his stage persona, and going home at the end of a gig, or indeed a tour. But only Leonard – and possibly God – really knows.
More possible meanings in Show me the Place, another gospel-tinged song, with gorgeous cello over understated piano backing. The words could imply a religious conversion, or a sado-masochistic relationship. It is a strength of the songwriting that either could be right, and yet in the forest of alternative meanings, the light of Cohen’s wry sincerity shines through.