Cohensubstantiation: Leonard Cohen’s Transfiguration Of The Everyday Into Extraordinary Imagery
And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China
Today’s post examines these two well-known lines from Leonard Cohen’s classic, Suzanne, to offer insight into Cohen’s songwriting methodology.
Origin: In The Beginning …
Leonard Cohen’s songwriting process is an inversion of premise set forth in the opening verses of the Gospel of John 1:1 begins
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
There follows an elaboration of the creation of all things by God through the Word. Then, verse 14 identifies this Word:
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
The Cohen creation mythology, however, has the flesh becoming the Word. The content of Suzanne, like much of Cohen’s oeuvre, is grounded in the Canadian singer-songwriter’s personal experience, as Cohen himself points out in these two excerpts:
From a 1994 Leonard Cohen interview on BBC Radio:1
She [Suzanne Verdal] had a space in a warehouse down there, and she invited me down, and I went with her, and she served me Constant Comment tea, which has little bits of oranges in it.
From Leonard Cohen: Inside the Tower of Song by Paul Zollo:2
It [Suzanne] is a miracle. I don’t know where the good songs come from or else I’d go there more often. I knew that I was on top of something.
… I was spending a lot of time on the waterfront and the harbor area of Montreal. It hadn’t been reconstructed yet. It’s now called Old Montreal and a lot of buildings have been restored. It wasn’t at that time. And there was that sailor’s church that has the statue of the Virgin. Gilded so that the sun comes down on her. And I knew there was a song there.
Then I met Suzanne, who was the wife of Armand Villancour a friend of mine. She was a dancer and she took me down to a place near the river. She was one of the first people to have a loft on the St. Lawrence. I knew that it was about that church and I knew that it was about the river. I didn’t know I had anything to crystallize the song. And then her name entered into the song, and then it was a matter of reportage, of really just being as accurate as I could about what she did.
[Interviewer]: Did she feed you tea and oranges, as in the song?
She fed me a tea called Constant Comment, which has small pieces of orange rind in it, which gave birth to the image.3
Constant Comment: From Grocery To Sacrament
Some background information about Constant Comment tea is helpful.
Constant Comment, a black tea flavored with orange rinds and sweet spices, was the foundation upon which Connecticut-based Bigelow Tea Company was built in the 1940s and is today America’s most popular specialty tea.4
Constant Comment was the subject of a 1945 New York Times article, News of Food: New Tea Mixture Appears in the Market; Economy of Use a High Recommendation, by Jane Holt:5
Ruth Campbell Bigelow and Bertha West Nealey [are] both interior decorators whose enthusiasm for tea has led them to blend their own… an unusual and delicious brew called Constant Comment, which has just been introduced in city stores…. Unlike the ordinary sorts, it is so concentrated that a little goes a long way. For example, in preparing it, a scant half-teaspoon is recommended for three cups…. Several other varieties are in the process of experimentation in the laboratory…. The price ranges from 67 to 75 cents a [two-and-a-half-ounce] jar.
[Constant Comment] was named by its creator, Ruth Campbell Bigelow, who developed the tea at her kitchen table in the mid-forties, allegedly using an “old Colonial recipe” as inspiration to achieve a more zestful flavored black tea. Why she wanted her tea more zestful is an enigma …
After testing it on her friends and receiving those “constant comments” of approval, Ruth and her husband David launched their company, Bigelow Tea, in 1945 to great and continued success. Constant Comment could have been called constant success as it remains the number-one selling flavored black tea in the United States. That such an ordinary product with a clinging, intense fragrance should achieve this rank is an amazement to this author.
Often designated as a “tea connoisseur,” Mrs. Bigelow was a few notches below having a sophisticated palate. What she did have was a keen sense about what would sell and an understanding that catering to the American public’s desire for “zestful” in fragrance and taste is a key to financial success. Constant Comment retains its huge appeal because it has a strong aroma (predominantly cinnamon, that feel-good spice that connotes hot chocolate, New Year’s eve eggnog, and Christmas all in one.) It also has the bit of citrus in its orange peel and “holiday” spices. The reason it is hardly a connoisseur-level product is that it would be impossible to tell what kind of tea is underneath all that flavoring. If anyone can determine if the black tea used is from a particular region in the world, they win the Lynn-Worthy Tastebuds of the Year Award.
… Bigelow Tea, which produces approximately 1 billion tea bags a year, (about 150 to 400 bags per minute) has 330 employees …
The company is a true American success story. It has not only carved out a particular niche in the American tea market, it has made it primarily on the foundation of one consistently produced product, added others designed with bright graphics, careful packaging, and consistent if mediocre ingredients.
To summarize, the tea Suzanne prepared for Leonard Cohen, the tea that inspired those compelling lines, is a popular, widely distributed commodity, developed and manufactured by a Connecticut-based company, the chief gastronomic virtues of which are “consistent if mediocre ingredients” and “economy of use.”
And as for the tea and oranges “com[ing] all the way from China,” the customer service folks at Bigelow inform me that neither the tea or the orange rinds are imported from China. The black tea used is grown primarily in Sri Lanka and India; the orange rind is obtained domestically.
Leonard Cohen’s preferred field of exploration is Leonard Cohen.
He eschews, in fact, the conceptual and metaphysical:
I think you work out something [by writing songs]. I wouldn’t call them ideas. I think ideas are what you want to get rid of. I don’t really like songs with ideas. They tend to become slogans. They tend to be on the right side of things: ecology or vegetarianism or antiwar. All these are wonderful ideas but I like to work on a song until those slogans, as wonderful as they are and as wholesome as the ideas they promote are, dissolve into deeper convictions of the heart. I never set out to write a didactic song. It’s just my experience. All I’ve got to put in a song is my own experience.7 [emphasis mine]
…most of the time you’re just scraping the bottom of the barrel to find any kind of voice at all. It could be a few words, a tone of voice, two chords together–it’s a ragpicker’s trade as I practice it; I don’t stand on the mountain and received tablets.8
Cohen possesses three qualities that come into play at this point in his songwriting.
First, he has the capacity to invoke what psychoanalysts call an observing ego. In oversimplified form, the observing ego is the part of the self that can view ones own behavior as it happens with curiosity and interest but without judgement, thus allowing the toleration of anxiety produced. The observing ego has no emotional reactions, is not concerned about making decisions or changing ones life. It simply perceives the internal psychological movements. Leonard Cohen’s observing ego is particularly robust and can inspect his own behavior without guilt, defensiveness, angst, rationalization, or any similar feeling-states.9
Second, he is able, by intuition or intellectual deduction or some combination of the two, to recognize the potential of certain actions, objects, people, etc. that have been part of his experience to serve as elements in his songs. In this case, he perceived in the tea he is served by Suzanne something emblematic – and that, as he says, “gave birth to the image.”
Third, Leonard Cohen is a gifted wordsmith who is skilled in the mechanics of poetry. He can create lyrical imagery that powerfully and gracefully affects the listener.
And that’s how it works. Leonard Cohen, having detected something special in being served a rather ordinary brand of tea, artistically reconfigured that action into an image that conjures up, in those who listen to those two lines of Suzanne, exotic, oriental tones and intense sexuality, an integral part of the gratifying experience of listening to the song.
And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China
Note: Originally posted April 30, 2013 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric
- Transcript of BBC Radio 1 programme about Leonard Cohen, broadcast Sunday August 7, 1994. [↩]
- Leonard Cohen: Inside the Tower of Song by Paul Zollo. SongTalk, April 1993. [↩]
- For the record, Suzanne Verdal did not recall serving Constant Comment. See the ARTE documentary “Girls in Pop Songs” shot in 2011 and the narration of the CBC video about Suzanne. [↩]
- Bigelow website [↩]
- Holt, Jane (1945), “News of Food: New Tea Mixture Appears in the Market; Economy of Use a High Recommendation” The New York Times, May 21, 1945, p. 16 [↩]
- Bigelow Tea: A Recipe for Success by Agnes Lynn-Worthy. TeaMuse: November 2003 [↩]
- Leonard Cohen: ‘All I’ve got to put in a song is my own experience’ by Dorian Lynskey. The Guardian, 19 January 2012. [↩]
- Leonard Cohen: The Romantic in a Ragpicker’s Trade by Paul Williams. Crawdaddy: March 1975. [↩]
- That Leonard Cohen can observe his internal psychological state does not, however, mean he will reveal that intimate understanding to others. An observing ego can be used to protect secrets as well as set them out for examination by others. [↩]