Leonard Cohen – Opher’s World Pays tribute to a genius.
Leonard is the marmite of Rock. For those who love him he is a god who can do no wrong. For those who hate him he is a morbid producer of dreary melancholy that could push you over the edge. They can’t believe he hasn’t topped himself already.
I fall into the former. I not only find him not at all depressive; I actually find a lot of his material full of a whimsical humour.
One thing is for sure, whether you are a fan or despiser of Leonard, you cannot deny either his ability with lyrics or the depth and scope of his material. He’s not afraid to plunge right into the big issues; death, sex, democracy, religion, freedom and morality make up some of the lighter moments.
For me it doesn’t get much better than that. I don’t need trite love songs of teenage romance I want to get into the grist of longing, need, lust and real human emotions. I want to be cerebrally and endocrinally engaged. I crave that depth. I also delight in the word-play, the clever choices of phrases, the stories, the politics, the thought-provoking themes and the way he challenges the establishment. He is no protest singer yet his songs are revealing of the mechanics by which we are enslaved. There is an element of the Parisian world of Henry Miller and the fifties Beat poets about Leonard. He is distinctly dangerous and worldly. That earthiness pervades his work and speaks of a rich sensual life that is outside the normal.
Unpicking Len’s lyrics and unlocking the nuance is the same as with any poet. The words conjure pictures. The meanings intertwine at many levels. The imagery is dense, biblically inspired and has gravity. This is music for serious appreciation; not light sing-a-longs; it has to be listened too and absorbed slowly like a quality wine. This is not Pop. Yet when you penetrate those layers the rewards are many; it is rich in emotions, ideas and narrative. There is humour and self-deprecation there.
That is not to say that he does not produce the odd gem that is saturated in gloom, despair and suicide. He hasn’t got his reputation for nothing.
The music is also interesting and idiosyncratic. It is melodic and compelling; sometimes even light and playful. You can even sing along to some of those tunes. They are compulsive.
What completes the package is that incredible voice. Over the years it has matured like a French Brandy. What you have at the age of eighty is a deep resonant throb that is still incredibly sexual and virile. It’s no wonder he has the reputation as a ladies man; he could purr the knickers off a woman at ten paces.
Leonard was born in Canada and found some notoriety and controversy as first a poet and then a novelist. The sexual scenes in his novel Beautiful Losers caused a bit of a stir in the early sixties.
He lived a bohemian life on the Greek Island of Hydra with Marianne after having frequented the bars of Montreal and soaking up the wayward ways of the underworld.
He returned to America and, having had some experience with music early on, set about establishing himself as a singer-songwriter by putting his poetry to acoustic guitar. It may have been acoustic but the results were electric. It was a marriage made in Elysium. The combination of those fabulous lyrics with the hypnotic guitar, great melody and Len’s rich voice was a winner. Established singers started covering his songs. A recording contract ensued. The albums poured out.
He was an instant success to me. I bought the first album and though the second was even better. In that magic year of 1967 The Songs of Leonard Cohen had a special place. Tracks like ‘Suzanne’, ‘Sisters of Mercy’, ‘So Long, Marrianne’ and ‘Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye’ were intriguing insights into a different life and the sadness of love. While songs like ‘The Teacher’ provoked an empathy with that longing for truth and understanding that enveloped the sixties. We wanted meaning in life.
The stripped back songs on Songs from a Room really captured a bleakness with songs like ‘The Partisan’ having resonance with the Vietnam War’ and ‘The Old Revolution’ with sixties rebellion. There were the biblical imageries, the victims and losers, the colourful characters and tales. Bird on a Wire depicted that hopeless striving for freedom and failure to achieve it.
Once bitten I was rabid. The magic of Cohen, though sometimes patchy and not always up to standard, continued through the decades. There were always enough gems to keep you digging the mine.
The late flourish at the end with the incredible ‘I’m Your Man’ and then ‘The Future’ was well worth the wait. This was the Len with biting satire, the piercing thrust of a rapier and the perspective with which to mock and expose the society so bereft of substance. How anyone could not delight in the humour in I’m Your Man’ is beyond me. Len was devastating.
We owe his manager a huge debt of gratitude. She nicked all his money forcing him out of retirement and back into some resoundingly brilliant world tours. I caught him twice and each time was subjected to three hours of Len going through all his songs. There was more than enough first class material to fill up the time without any drop in quality which tells you about the standard of material he has consistently produced over the years. The musicianship was spectacular, the voice amazing, the sprightly performance an unexpected joy.
Who would have believed it?
In terms of the quality of his lyrics and the output of great music, the importance and gravity of his subject matter and impact Leonard is right up there with Dyan and Harper in my book. He’s a giant.