Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: #3. Artistic Design – The Mystery & The Practicality Of Songs

rama900Note: This post, originally published June 23, 2014 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric, is an entry in a series of essays considering the question, “What makes a song a Leonard Cohen song?” An introduction and links to all published posts in the series can be found at Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: Summary Page.

Magic & Mystery

While craftsmanship, training, and hard work1 are the keystones of Cohen’s songwriting, it would be disingenuous not to note his conviction that metaphysical, almost supernatural forces are also at work:

If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. [Songwriting] is much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery.2

It’s something that you can’t talk about outside the moment, how it comes and when, how it’s done exactly. … It’s nothing to lament or regret. Songs are a gift and I have had my share — if there are no more than there are no more. If there are more then I will be grateful, but it’s nothing that you can speak about because these are curious events that you can’t command.3

Utility Of Songs Paramount

Leonard Cohen’s acknowledgement of the aesthetic mysteries of songwriting notwithstanding, the search for the touchstones of his songs inevitably leads to pragmatic matters. In keeping with his characterization of a songwriter as a craftsman, Leonard Cohen insists that a song ultimately be judged by its utility:

Songs have a very specific purpose. They must be measured by their utility. Any jaunty little tune that can get you from one point to another as you drive, or get you through the dishes, or that can illuminate or dignify your courting, I always appreciate. And to console yourself when you’re lonely, and to rejoice with another when you’re happy. That’s all we really do in human life.4

There are always meaningful songs for somebody. People are doing their courting, people are finding their wives, people are making babies, people are washing their dishes, people are getting through the day with songs that we may find insignificant. But their significance is affirmed by others. There’s always someone affirming the significance of a song by taking a woman into his arms or by getting through the night; that’s what dignifies the song. Songs don’t dignify human activity. Human activities dignify the song.5

Music is like bread. It is one of the fundamental nourishments that we have available, and there are many different varieties and degrees and grades. A song that is useful, that touches somebody, must be measured by that utility alone.6

There are people in mourning; there’s shock and grief. I really feel that an analysis of the situation from any point of view is premature. Regardless of what position we come from, we are all involved in some kind of way. And, as I say, in the Jewish tradition, one is cautioned against trying to comfort the comfortless in the midst of their bereavement. The most I can hope for is that the songs [from the Ten New Songs album] in some small way have some utility in providing solace, because they are gentle and on the side of healing in some sort of way.7

I’ve always held the song in high regard because songs have got me through so many sinks of dishes and so many humiliating courting events. 8

Cohen even couches the purpose of songs for the songwriter in terms of practicality:

Q: What are you trying to achieve in your songs; what is your ambition? Leonard Cohen: To create a vapor and a mist, to make oneself attractive, to master it, to keep busy and avoid the poolroom and try to get good at what you’re doing.9

Next in this series: Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: #3. Artistic Design – The Goal: Resonance, Not Slogans

Credit Due Department: Photo taken 27 October 2008 by Rama. Found at Wikipedia Commons.

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  1. See Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: #3. Artistic Design – Sacred Mechanics []
  2. Leonard Cohen by Paul Zollo. Boulevard Magazine: Jan 29, 2013. []
  3. The Strange, Sad and Beautiful World of Leonard Cohen by Andrew Furnival. Petticoat: December 30, 1972.  []
  4. At Lunch With Leonard Cohen; Philosophical Songwriter On A Wire by Jon Pareles. New York Times: October 11, 1985 []
  5. Leonard Cohen by Paul Zollo. Boulevard Magazine: Jan 29, 2013. []
  6. At Lunch With Leonard Cohen; Philosophical Songwriter On A Wire by Jon Pareles. New York Times: October 11, 1995 []
  7. Look Who’s Back at 67: Gentle Leonard Cohen by Frank DiGiacomo.  New York Observer: Oct 15, 2001 []
  8. Listening to Leonard Cohen by Pico Iyer. Shambhala Sun: November/December 1998 []
  9. Leonard Cohen: The Romantic in a Ragpicker’s Trade by Paul Williams (Crawdaddy, March 1975).  []