“I always wanted to sing for naked people”
Leonard Cohen (Song improvised during April 15, 1972 Amsterdam concert)
Women Disrobe While Leonard Cohen Music Plays; Yet, Something Feels Wrong
Note: This post was originally published Feb 28, 2007; consequently, some references to strip club practices and music may be out of date.
The reference in The “Have To See It To Believe It” Quentin Tarantino-Leonard Cohen Video: Dance Me To The End Of Love to a brief scene in the Dance Me To The End Of Love video in which Tarantino is naked leads, inevitably,1 to the observation that Leonard Cohen’s songs are brilliantly conducive to the shedding of clothes.
While appreciative of and grateful for this phenomenon, I nonetheless find myself disoriented by two films that spotlight individuals explicitly removing their clothes to the beat of tunes from the Leonard Cohen songbook.
The problem is cognitive dissonance arising from the setting of and motivation for the denuding; both movies feature exotic dancers in strip clubs.
I’m Your Fan Dancer
I confess that I am neither an aficionado or opponent of strip clubs and, in fact, am sadly deficient in first-hand knowledge of their offerings.
Based, however, on glimpses of such enterprises afforded by movies and TV shows,2 some reading on the topic,3 and data provided by colleagues, I would think that it would be the atypical establishment in this category that would have a Lots-O-Leonard playlist.
My sources indicate that, at least in the good old days, unclad dancers4 would writhe on poles and crawl across stages to the blaring accompaniment of songs such as
- Alice Cooper’s Poison
- AC/DC’s The Jack
- Pour Some Sugar on Me by Def Leppard
- The Motley Crüe anthem, Girls, Girls, Girls (or or any of a dozen other Motley Crüe hits)
- Any of the numerous versions of You Can Leave Your Hat On5
I’m told that currently the various formats of Hip-Hop are especially popular.
Conspicuously absent from the much longer complete listing of stripper tunes were Rock of Ages Cleft for Me, anything sung by Donovan, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, and Leonard Cohen numbers.
One notes some obvious disparities between Leonard Cohen and the notables on the standard strip show music canon.
Leonard, for example, rarely leaves home wearing significant amounts of mascara or spandex britches.
He has also published precious little in the heavy metal genre (those rumors that he subbed for the lead singer of Megadeth during that group’s Argentina tour simply cannot be verified although there is an ominous absence of any reports of Megadeth and Leonard Cohen being seen simultaneously during that time period).
And there is the matter of tempo. Which Leonard Cohen track does one use as background for gyrations of this sort?
Certainly, selecting songs by Leonard Cohen that are appropriately sensuous and sexual is a trivial task. But the traditional ecdysiastic6 hymns do not ordinarily strive for plaintiveness, sadness, irony, or thoughtfulness, which are among Cohen’s primary tools.
So, what gives? How is it that two movies about strippers employ Leonard Cohen songs?
The answer, I believe, lies in the specific films.
The Films, The Strippers, The Soundtracks
In Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, Mia Kirshner dances to Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows at a Toronto gentleman’s club inhabited by a group of patrons, dancers, and owners who are connected by previous and ongoing relationships. The film, a prize winner at Cannes and the recipient of French and Canadian honors, is a series of mysteries solved by the revelation of more mysteries – and then presented in a chronologically jumbled manner.
“Everybody Knows” from Exotica
Dancing at the Blue Iguana
In Dancing at the Blue Iguana the San Fernando Valley is home to the titular Blue Iguana, a strip club in which the dancers, played by Daryl Hannah, Jennifer Tilly, Sandra Oh, Charlotte Ayanna, perform to, among other songs, Dance Me to the End of Love.
The story that forms the basis of Dancing at the Blue Iguana evolved from a five month improvisational workshop led by director Michael Radford in which actors worked with exotic dancers and used that research to develop their own characters.
Let’s Go To The Champagne Room
The central question, in case one has lost track, is how did two Leonard Cohen songs, Everybody Knows and Dance Me to the End of Love, that may never have been played during an actual stripper’s performance end up on the soundtrack of two movies set in strip clubs?
The disappointingly simple answer is that those songs, however wrong they might be for strip clubs, were exactly right for the soundtracks of movies set in strip clubs.
It is significant that these movies were not actually about strip clubs, which in these cases are metaphorical elements in service of ambitious cinematic themes rather than the subject of documentaries.
Both Exotica and Dancing at the Blue Iguana are especially self-conscious theatrical exercises. In this context, the songs are tools by which to intensify the mood, emphasize (a bit heavy-handedly) the inevitable losses and grief of the situation, and underline the false, disconnected sexuality being promoted.
My difficulty with the notion of Leonard Cohen’s music as an incidental component of a striptease show stems from my characterization of Cohen’s numbers, especially Dance Me to the End of Love, as extraordinarily private psalms of intimacy.
Lyrics like these from Dance Me to the End of Love
Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone
Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon
Show me slowly what I only know the limits of
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love
are not well suited to be played over a substandard sound system in the raucous, pseudo-erotic environment of a gentleman’s club while a dancer earns her wages by artfully stripping, but are precisely perfect to be sung in a whisper with lips almost touching the ear of ones partner’s in the quintessentially authentic sexuality of lovers naked together.
- Well, inevitably in my case [↩]
- Tony Soprano’s Bada Bing Club and the last 20 minutes of a serendipitously discovered HBO production called “G-String Divas” come to mind [↩]
- E.g., Carl Hiaasen’s Strip Tease featuring a club with the (apparently) unforgettable name, “The Eager Beaver,” a bevy of feminist literature I’ve read in self-defense, and various journals found at your better barber shops [↩]
- This discussion is limited to female exotic dancers because (1) the Cohen songs accompany female stripteasers and (2) while I know little about the universe of female exotic dancers, I know far less about male strippers [↩]
- For the record, Kim Basinger was stripping to Joe Cocker’s version of You Can Leave Your Hat On in “9 ½ Weeks” while the rendition by Tom Jones was playing while the men in “The Full Monty” performed. The creator of this ditty was, however, Randy Newman. Keb Mo, Ty Henderson, Three Dog Night, Julliet, and Garou, among others, have also covered the tune. My personal favorite You Can Leave Your Hat On artist is Etta James. [↩]
- In a gallant response to a request by a striptease artist for a more dignified occupational title, H. L. Mencken devised “ecdysiast,” based on the Greek terms for “a getting out.” “Ecdysis,” as you recall from 8th grade biology is the periodic shedding of the exoskeleton by insects, such as grasshoppers, and other arthropods. [↩]
- Pictures by Atom Egoyan, who qualifies for the title of “critically acclaimed director,” include Krapp’s Last Tape, Ararat, and Next of Kin [↩]
- Hubba Hubba [↩]