Frankie Laine, he was singing Jezebel
I pinned an Iron Cross to my lapel
I walked up to the tallest and the blondest girl
I said, Look, you don’t know me now but very soon you will
So won’t you let me see
I said “won’t you let me see”
I said “won’t you let me see
Your naked body?”
From “Memories” by Leonard Cohen
This is the first post in the Leonard Cohen Down Memories Laine series examining “Memories” by Leonard Cohen.
One of the world’s great unsolved mysteries, along with the sudden eradication of an entire civilization at Angkor Thom, the meaning of the giant drawings by the Nazca Indians on the plains of Southern Peru, and the technology by which the stone heads were constructed on Easter Island, is the disappearance of “Memories,” a favorite Cohen tune for many fans,1 from Leonard Cohen’s concert repertoire.
And, since it doesn’t look as though Leonard is going to feature “Memories” any time soon, it’s up to Cohencentric to do so. We’re going to take a look at this song over the course of a few posts, starting with its birth as a track on Death Of A Ladies’ Man.
Memories & Death Of A Ladies’ Man
“Memories” was released on the Phil Spector-produced Death Of A Ladies’ Man album in 1977. (A live version of “Memories” with many of Spector’s trademark Wall of Sound features eliminated, was included on the 2001 release of the “Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979″ album.) Notably, “Memories” is the only song on that album that Cohen regularly performed in concert (during the tours of 1979, 1980 and 1985).
It is also one of the songs, along with “Joan Of Arc,” “Take This Longing,” and One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong,” inspired by Nico, the German singer with the Velvet Underground and a fixture in Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd. Nico – the woman who repeatedly spurned Cohen’s advances,2 preferring younger men – was indeed “the tallest and blondest girl” in “Memories.”
Both the song, “Memories,” and the album in which it first appeared have been the targets of negative commentary, if not outright contempt, from most fans of Leonard Cohen, the public in general, and music critics, This comment from Thomas D. Ryan “American Hit Network” writing on the Amazon page for Death of a Ladies’ Man, is representative:
To add injury to the insulting production, the lurid topics of most of this album’s lyrics are as dated as coke spoon necklaces. Cohen carries on in the pre-AIDS era of mid-seventies decadence without ever managing to transcend his insipid surroundings. He sounds like he’s lost on the dance floor, trying to seduce whomever ambles by. “Memories” is almost beyond ridiculous. The arrangement is as decadent as anything ever mustered by the Roman Empire, all to service Cohen’s obsession with seeing his partners’ naked body.
The second version of “Memories” doesn’t fare much better. Ryan Kearney, writing a generally favorable review of the “Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979” album in Pitchfork, could have been writing the official critical judgment on the track when he opines
There are a few other missteps. For instance, the one cut from Death of a Ladies’ Man, “Memories,” is infinitely more grating than the studio version. Forgoing any sense of tact, Cohen gives the song a full doo-wop makeover, coating the song– a sexual fantasy set at a grade-school dance– with irony.
For a more nuanced and deeper perspective on “Memories,” I recommend this excerpt from Wall of Crazy by Liel Leibovitz (Tablet: Dec 11, 2012)
Take the album’s best-known track, “Memories”: It’s a grand doo-wop anthem, and it ends with a snippet from The Shields’ 1958 hit “You Cheated, You Lied,” which it closely resembles. Hearing the newer song melt into the older one delivers a brutal jolt of emotion. Here is doo-wop, two decades later, its promises all soured. It is sung now not by the sweet-voiced youths that Spector was so good at finding and cultivating (and sometimes destroying) but by a raspy-sounding middle-aged man. The Shields’ song conveyed the genteel sadness of broken-hearted teenagers who grieved for an affair gone bad but who sensed, however unconsciously, that they had their entire lives ahead of them to fall in love all over again. Working with more or less the same tune, Cohen sounded desperate as he sang about walking up to the tallest and the blondest girl and asking to see her naked body. He cast himself as the same doo-wop crooner, 20 years older, realizing that heartbreak wasn’t a sweet and passing sorrow but a permanent state of being, now seeking not romance but meaningless sex. The melody is louder and more frayed, almost hysterical.
Let’s end this first Leonard Cohen Down Memories Laine post with a recording of the studio version of the song.
Leonard Cohen – Memories
Down Memories Laine Posts:
- Leonard Cohen Down Memories Laine: Memories & Death Of A Ladies’ Man
- Leonard Cohen Down Memories Laine: Leonard Cohen On Memories
- Leonard Cohen Down Memories Laine: Memories & I Am A Hotel
- Leonard Cohen Down Memories Laine: The 1979 ZDF-TV Droll, Deadpan Version
- Leonard Cohen Down Memories Laine: Live Performances Of Memories Online
Note: The core of this material was originally posted Feb 22, 2008 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric