“When I went to record the vocal for [I Can’t Forget] I found I couldn’t get the words out of my throat. I couldn’t sing the words because I wasn’t entitled to speak of the emancipation of the spirit.” Leonard Cohen

I Can’t Forget began as a song about the exodus of the Hebrew children from Egypt, which was intended as a metaphor for the freeing of the soul from bondage. When I went to record the vocal for the track, however, I found I couldn’t get the words out of my throat. I couldn’t sing the words because I wasn’t entitled to speak of the emancipation of the spirit. I was at the point of breaking downquotedown2

Leonard Cohen


Interview by Kristine McKenna (L.A. Weekly: May 6, 1988). The Leonard Cohen I Can’t Forget single depicted atop this post is from the private collection of Dominique BOILE.

More About I Can’t Forget: A comprehensive examination of this song can be found at I Can’t Forget By Leonard Cohen: A Dossier.

Leonard Cohen’s Original DeMille Opening Of I Can’t Forget

I was led to the edge of a mighty sea of sorrow / Pursued by the armies of a dark and cruel regime / But the waters parted and my soul crossed over / Out of Egypt, out of Pharaoh’s dream.

Pretty good – it’s DeMille! [laughs]quotedown2

Leonard Cohen


The original opening verse of I Can’t Forget. Read about the evolution of I Can’t Forget at About Those Songs On Leonard Cohen’s Can’t Forget Album: I Can’t Forget

Quotation is from Leonard Cohen’s Nervous Breakthrough by Mark Rowland, Musician, July 1988

“I always felt I invented Dylan” Hear 1988 Leonard Cohen Ritz Concert + Pete Fornatale Interview

“I’ve studied all the theologies and all the philosophies, but cheerfulness keeps breaking through.”

This recording includes the July 5, 1988 Leonard Cohen concert at the Ritz in New York and, beginning at 1:39:23, an interview by Pete Fornatale broadcast on Mixed Bag on July 31, 1988 (WNEW FM New York).

Mr. Cohen sang songs that ranged across the breadth of his career, from ”Suzanne” to ”Everybody Knows,” to two versions of his recent song, ”First We Take Manhattan,” in which the fashion world and drugs are held up as symbols of the terminal decay of New York. But the turning point of the evening was Mr. Cohen’s spare voice-and-guitar rendition of ”If It Be Your Will,” one of his two or three finest meditations. A prayer for mercy murmured to the void by a world wearing ”rags of light all dressed to kill,” it received a haunting interpretation in Mr. Cohen’s sepulchral bass-baritone growl.1

The interview includes Leonard Cohen discussing the influence of Bob Dylan and the assistance lent by Judy Collins and Jennifer Warnes, his “cheerfulness keeps breaking through” reference (erroneously attributed to Jonson), his multiple revisions that dramatically changed I Can’t Forget, his first public appearance as a singer, his “If I knew where good songs came from, I go there more often” comment, his religious symbolism and the notion of being punished for sin, the difference between a Ladies’ Man and a Romantic, and saying goodbye.

Update: This video has been removed

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  1. Review/Pop; Leonard Cohen Reflects Darkly On the World by Stephen Holden. New York Times: July 9, 1988 []

Leonard Cohen on Songwriting: “When it’s really personal everybody understands it.”

I don’t think my writing has got personal enough yet. I think it has some way to go before it gets really personal. When it’s really personal everybody understands it. There’s a middle ground which is just unzipping and self-indulgence but when you really tell the truth people immediately perceive that. Like when I wrote the lyrics for ‘I Can’t Forget’, it went through so many transformations to get it really personal. It started off as a kind of hymn and I ended up stuck sitting at this very kitchen table thinking, Where am I really? What can I really tell anyone about anything? So I thought, I’ve got to start from scratch. How am I living this day? What am I doing now? So I wrote, ‘I stumbled out of bed/Got ready for the struggle/I smoked a cigarette/And I tightened up my gut/I said, This can’t be me, must be my double/I can’t forget I don’t remember what.”quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen: Porridge? Lozenge? Syringe? Adrian Deevoy, Q, 1991.

I Can’t Forget By Leonard Cohen: A Dossier

I Can't Forget1600

About Those Songs On Leonard Cohen’s Can’t Forget Album

Leonard_Cohen_ASouvenirOfTheGrandTour_5x5_1500x1500About Those Songs On Leonard Cohen’s Can’t Forget Album is a series of posts offering background and historical context for songs on Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour, the Leonard Cohen live album scheduled for release May 12, 2015.1  Most of the following content was originally posted at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, the previous incarnation of Cohencentric, on Sept 26, 2012; it is being republished with some revisions (primarily changes in verb tense) now in anticipation of the new album’s release.

What Is It That Leonard Cohen Can’t Forget?

iymRecorded August-November 1987 and released in February 1988 on the I’m Your Man album, “I Can’t Forget”  was part of Cohen’s standard concert setlist during the 1988 and 1993 tours.  After 1993, however,  “I Can’t Forget” was on hiatus for 19 years until August 12, 2012 when it was performed at Ghent  in the first show of the 2012 tour. “I Can’t Forget” then became one of the spotlighted songs on the 2012 Leonard Cohen European Tour, during which it was played 15 times. It only appeared once, however, in the 2012 North American Tour and  only three times during the entire 2013 Tour.2

Resurrecting a song after 19 years is itself  unusual enough to be considered noteworthy, but even before “I Can’t Forget” was officially performed and recorded the first time, the account of its creation was convoluted and intriguing.

Evolution Of “I Can’t Forget”

In an interview shortly after the release of the I’m Your Man album,3 Cohen explained his decision, after he had already spent months laboriously developing and polishing “I Can’t Forget,”  to essentially rewrite the song, instituting such fundamental changes that, other than those aware of its convoluted history, few who listen to both versions will recognize their connection:

I’ve always been slow, but this was very slow and tricky and it broke down a lot. And I had to leave it many times and I spent a lot of money and my judgments were all wrong. In the middle of the recording I realized that the lyrics were all wrong and they’d already taken a year or two to write.

For instance, “I Can’t Forget” has that limpid kind of language that doesn’t twist your arm at all. It’s a dead, flat language that I like. But that song started off as a song about the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt. As a metaphor for the journey of the soul from bondage into freedom. It started out, I was born in chains but I was taken out of Egypt / I was bound to a burden but the burden it was raised / Lord I can no longer keep this secret / Blessed is the name, the name be praised. It went on like that for a long, long time, and I went into the studio and tried to sing this song about how “I was born in chains and I was taken…” But I wasn’t born in chains and I wasn’t taken out of Egypt, and not only that, but I was on the edge of what was going to become a very serious nervous breakdown. So I hadn’t had the burden lifted and the whole thing was a lie! It was wishful thinking.

And this song, “Taken Out of Egypt,” took months and months to write. Nobody believes me when I say these things but I have the notebooks and I don’t fill them in an evening. And there were many of them. So it wasn’t as if I had an endless supply of songs: I had to start over. And I was saying to myself, “What is my life?” and that’s when I started writing that lyric: I stumble out of bed / I got ready for the struggle / I smoked a cigarette / And I tightened up my gut / I said this can’t be me / Must be my double / And I can’t forget / I can’t forget / But I don’t remember what. That was really true.”

Incidentally, the Canadian singer-songwriter also offered, while introducing “I Can’t Forget” at his April 12, 1988 Mannheim concert, the unarguably accurate but minimally enlightening proposition that

This is a song about what I can’t forget.4

Leonard Cohen, One Man Band

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  1. See It’s Official – Leonard Cohen “Can’t Forget” Live Album: Tracks, Sources, Pre-Order Info, & More []
  2. Statistics courtesy of the all-knowing Roman Gavrilin aka Hermitage Prisoner, []
  3. Leonard Cohen’s Nervous Breakthrough by Mark Rowland (Musician, July 1988) []
  4. Source: Diamonds In The Lines []