… All things must change
To something new, to something strange.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The Steadfast Changeability Of Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen has repeatedly changed the lyrics, arrangements, and stylings of his songs. In fact, certain fans – and you know who we are – become so stimulated upon detecting a change from the standard version of one of his classics that it is a measure of the immense respect felt for the Canadian singer-songwriter that (thus far) no audience member has mounted the stage on such an occasion to point out to the others in attendance that only twice before tonight’s performance, namely the 1972 Hamburg concert and the 1985 Helsinki show, has Leonard Cohen sung the “mysterious third verse”1 of “So Long, Marianne.”2
Cohen is hardly the only artist to vary his performances of the same song. Ike and Tina Turner’s routine performance of “Proud Mary,” in fact, specifically exploited two possible renditions of that song, explicitly pointing out the contrast between them. The number would begin with an almost laconic rendition of the chorus being played in the background as Tina Turner lays down these explanatory lyrics:
You know, every now and then
I think you might like to hear something from us
Nice and easy but there’s just one thing
You see, we never ever do nothing nice and easy
We always do it nice and rough
So we’re gonna take the beginning of this song and do it easy
Then we’re gonna do the finish rough
This is the way we do ‘Proud Mary’3
Leonard’s multiple versions of a single song may be the consequence of its aesthetic evolution, the venue of a concert (e.g., “I didn’t come to Joplin to fool ya”), the responsiveness of the audience, shifts in Cohen’s mood, memory, or energy, a passing whim…
Compare And Contrast “I’m Your Man” Versions
The Intimate “I’m Your Man” From The Ghent Concert
The availability of both a constrained version of “I’m Your Man” from the August 8, 2010 Ghent concert last month and a steamier production of the same song from the May 2009 Radio City Music Hall show affords an opportunity to examine this phenomenon of variability – not with the goal of determining which version is superior but to observe Cohen using the same material to construct different presentations, each with its individual and distinct flavor.
Describing the more contained “I’m Your Man” performed in Ghent is problematic. While I wax prolix if not poetic in characterizing the sleazier “I’m Your Man” (see next section), I find myself unable to adequately explain the power of this controlled version.
It may be that by stripping away the excessive flourishes, ad-libs, and Rococo elements, Cohen intensifies the focus on the conceptual basis of the song:
But you’ve got to be able to say that [“And if you want to work the street alone / I’ll disappear for you” from I’m Your Man] to someone you love. A man has to let another man bring gifts to his wife. That goes for us all. And the notion that a thing is fixed and doesn’t admit of any need for change or modification, that’s the sure formula for suffering. People have to decide between themselves whether they’re going to be true to one another, and what ‘being true’ means, they have to define for themselves. You may decide to share that thing exclusively with each other. But there’s a whole range of friendships that are available to people, and perhaps you suffer a great deal if you refuse them. Maybe I have a more radical view of the thing, which is private and even inarticulate to myself. But I know in myself there are times when that line is true. At times you have to disappear for your lover, and you have to let them cook by themselves and in whatever way they want. Otherwise you can’t hold it.4
Or, it may be that “you had to be there:”
The Raunchy “I’m Your Man” From The New York Concert
In The Sexiest “I’m Your Man” Ever? Leonard Cohen At Radio City Music Hall, May 17, 2009, I described this performance in these terms:
The Luminously Libidinous Leonard Cohen Will “Examine Every, Every Precious Inch Of You”
While cruising artifacts of the 2008-2009 Leonard Cohen concerts for possible additions to my Best Of Leonard Cohen World Tour 2008-2009 page, I happened onto the video recording of the six minutes of lasciviousness that was Leonard Cohen’s May 17, 2009 performance of “I’m Your Man” at New York’s Radio City Music Hall.
Words cannot convey – at least not words I can safely use in a post my mother might someday read – the raunchy eroticism that radiates from Cohen’s lyrics, voice, intonation, footwork, facial expressions, and posture.
The consequences of the nuanced changes in the lyrics are especially difficult to explain. The shift from the already provocative standard “I’m Your Man” lyrics,
And if you want a doctor
I’ll examine every inch of you
to the words used in this rendition (words added by Cohen are in bold),
And if you want a doctor
I’ll examine every, every precious inch of you
certainly doesn’t appear on paper to signal an exponential increase in salaciousness, but listening to (and watching) Cohen sing that sequence (beginning at 1:05) reveals an extraordinarily seductive invitation to conjoined carnality. Also, only listeners who know the original words (the vast majority of those in attendance if crowds at other shows are any indication) would be aware of the change, further enhancing the impact of the revised lyrics, which become a special gift from the singer to those individuals.
Cohen’s animated performance (he doesn’t stop moving even when he withdraws to the shadows to listen to the solo by Dino Soldo) is well supported not only by his musicians but also by the appreciative, responsive audience.
There is much more, but most observations I could make are destined to be rendered superfluous once readers view the video. I will note, however, that, as I previously pointed out in The Two Rules For An Outrageously Wonderful Relationship With A Woman, the lyrics of “I’m Your Man” are not an expression of a man overwhelming a woman with the goal of coital rapture; instead, the words of the song are an expression of a man offering a woman an entirely different proposition, “Whatever you ask, I’ll never refuse” and meaning it – with the goal of coital rapture.
Leonard Cohen – I’m Your Man
Radio City Music Hall, New York: May 17, 2009
Video from sasaradovanovic82’s channel
Originally posted Sep 12, 2010 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric
- Alert readers may note the similarity of this “mysterious third verse” in “So Long, Marianne” to the “mysterious third verse” of the long version of “Friends In Low Places” by Garth Brooks. If so, for goodness sake, keep it to yourselves. [↩]
- We also tend to debate, with profound erudition and intense passion, the relative merits of different versions of Cohen songs. No such matchup, of course, is laden with more cosmic consequences than contest between the 1976 and 1980 versions of Cohen’s “Do I Have To Dance All Night.” [↩]
- Oh heck, Ike and Tina are too good to miss. Watch the “Proud Mary” video. [↩]
- “As a New Generation Discovers Leonard Cohen’s Dark Humour – Kris Kirk Ruffles the Great Man’s Back Pages” By Kris Kirk in Poetry Commotion, June 18, 1988. [↩]
- Cohen’s performance of “Hallelujah” fills the first half of the video. For the purposes of this post, I’ve set the video to automatically begin with the start of “I’m Your Man.” [↩]