First, let’s confirm what it is that Leonard Cohen says. This video from the April 13, 2013 Halifax show begins 30 seconds before Cohen issues his signature promise to the audience: “We’ll give you everything we got.”1
The Power Of Elegantly Employed Vernacular
Simply put, Leonard Cohen promises “We’ll give you everything we got” rather than “We’ll give you everything we’ve got” because the former is more arresting and more earnest.
In his essay, Slang in America, Walt Whitman, accounted slang4 “the lawless germinal element, below all words and sentences, and behind all poetry.” He goes on to describe it as
an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably, which in highest walks produces poets and poems, and doubtless in pre-historic times gave the start to, and perfected, the whole immense tangle of the old mythologies.
And no other songwriter – and few poets – match Cohen’s ability to install precisely selected, unavoidably recognizable chunks of vernacular into his lyrics and his spoken word that powerfully impact the audience, enhancing and sometimes serving as the primary carrier of his message without disrupting the sense or the flow of the song or speech. Consider his explanation for the phrase in The Future, ““I have seen the future, brother, it is murder!”
Well, you know that’s also a very common expression in English, like saying “I got stuck in traffic, it’s murder” … or “I missed my ‘plane, it’s murder…” it can have a much lighter sense. But the difference between this expression and the description of something, I don’t know… the way I work is that when I’m talking in conversation I don’t have a lot of ideas, ideas about what’s going on, when you’re in the midst of your work, when you’re writing things, writing verse, your antennae are very sensitive and somehow you pick up things, answers which you don’t normally access in ordinary thought so my songs come out of that. That way of working. It’s something true and it rings true at the time when I’m writing it but I don’t feel that I have to defend all the ideas, all the nuances…5
And clearly Cohen is aware of the nature of the notably American language he chooses.
I like singing in the United States because my language comes out of this language and people can follow the real meaning of the songs. I use the cadences and rhythms of the American language.6
Rather than construct a dissertation on the literary mechanics involved in this feat (no one wants that), I can muster, I submit, a strong argument by presenting a few examples of Cohen’s use of the vernacular. Consider which instance of the following pairs is more compelling:
- Ain’t No Cure For Love7
[There] Isn’t A Cure For Love
- and the Holy Spirit’s crying, ‘Where’s the beef?’8
and the Holy Spirit’s crying, ‘Where’s the substance?’
- from the brave, the bold, the battered
heart of Chevrolet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A. 9
from the brave, the bold, the battered
heart of America’s middle class:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
Thus it is, at least to my ear, that Leonard Cohen promising “We’ll give you everything we got” is grittier and more determined, more aligned with Cohen’s self-professed working stiff persona, and altogether more convincing than the more grammatical “We’ll give you everything we’ve got.”
The efficacy of opting for “we” instead of “we’ve” in that line, whether as a result of instinct or a calculated decision, is a prime example of Leonard Cohen’s capacity to both sculpt masterpieces of language and connect with his audience.
Note: Originally posted Apr 25, 2013 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric
- “We’ll give you everything we got” has been a promise consistently given at 2012 and 2013 concerts and was sporadically offered at shows before 2012 dating back to 2009. [↩]
- Including that paper of record, the New York Times. See Confessions of a Man in a Fedora by Jon Pareles. NY Times: Dec. 21, 2012 [↩]
- Occasionally, “you” comes out as “ya,” but for now, let’s focus on we/we’ve. Besides, the you/ya discussion is still being played out in the Hallelujah debate re “But you don’t really care for music, do you?” Vs “But you don’t really care for music, do ya?” [↩]
- In this context, slang is a close approximation of, if not a synonym for the vernacular. [↩]
- Interview With Leonard Cohen. France-Inter: October 6, 1997.Transcription of the radio program Synergie With Jean-Luc Esse And Leonard Cohen. Translated from French by Nick Halliwell, UK. Accessed at LeonardCohenFiles. [↩]
- From Stolen Moments: Leonard Cohen by Tom Schnabel. Acrobat Books, 1988. [↩]
- From Ain’t No Cure For Love [↩]
- From Closing Time by Leonard Cohen [↩]
- From Democracy by Leonard Cohen [↩]