Leonard Cohen’s songs mix the sleazy and the sacred in ways that break down both categories. This music, delivered in Cohen’s nasal non-voice, often played on cheap synthesizers, shoddily produced, sometimes badly recorded and unreliably distributed, nevertheless finds unlikely access to words like “holy,” “saint,” and “prayer” as though to transcend its origins in the gut and the loins. Cohen has attracted many disciples and inspired many conversions. He is one of the most beloved figures in modern pop, but everyone who listens to Cohen feels he has bailed him out of impending obscurity.
These lines comprise the opening paragraph of “The ‘Stoned Gallantry’ of Leonard Cohen,” Dan Chiasson’s review of Sylvie Simmons’ I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen published in The New York Review of Books: February 21, 2013.
That clever first line and the discussion of Leonard Cohen’s unique role as a true poet who also writes songs with poetic sensibilities (see excerpt below) are must-reads for those with an interest in Leonard Cohen or songwriting.
But of all the lyricists people call “poets,” Cohen comes closest to surviving that hard passage into print. “Suzanne” is not a poem: too much depends upon the glorious, tentative melody backed by a choir of voices and strings. But you can see, even on the page, that Cohen’s sense of song includes the kind of inscrutable swerves of mind that great poets make. Somehow Constant Comment tea served to him by his friend’s gorgeous wife becomes “tea and oranges/that come all the way from China.” Cohen might have been thinking of Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” and its “late coffee and oranges/in a sunny chair”; in both cases, a secular Eucharist conjures the presence of Christ.
The other portions of the review, however, have less to do with Leonard Cohen or Sylvie Simmons’ biography of Cohen than with the author’s self-serving dismissal of the talents of the Canadian singer-songwriter, his biographer, and – well, that portion of humanity not on the editorial board of the New York Review of Books.
The article can be accessed in its entirety at Zone of Totality.
Note: Originally posted February 4, 2013 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric