14 November 2016

A Fine Song

(In memoriam: an article first published on 20th March 2013 on the Mslexia guest blog.)

“This is a fine song. A fine song.”

With this statement, I was introduced to the work of Leonard Cohen. His praises were being sung in Woodroffe High School, Ottawa, by my English teacher – an inspirational individual who was inclined to deliver a class from inside the closed store cupboard, or encourage us to graffiti over the blackboard and then award a prize for the most biting witticism, or write in huge lettering across an exam answer: GADZOOKS GIRL!!! READ THE QUESTION.

For such a person, how would we not sit up and listen?

We had the word-sheet and we sang along. And yes, we were prepared to concede: Leonard Cohen’s So Long Marianne was a fine song.
Although I didn’t take at the time to Cohen’s rather scratchy thin voice – nor appreciate that the bouzuki sound towards the end of the song was a neat allusion to the Greek island of Hydra where Cohen lived with the eponymous Marianne – a couple of verses from that song began to imprint themselves and have never left me:

Well you know that I love to live with you,
But you make me forget so very much.
I forget to pray for the angels
And then the angels forget to pray for us
Your letters they all say that you’re beside me now.
Then why do I feel alone?
I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web
Is fastening my ankle to a stone.

Now as I contemplate the prospect of writing my own lyrics, it occurs to me there is much to learn from Leonard Cohen, who at the age of 78 is still out on the road, performing his latest album Old Ideas. It is not so much his personal longevity that interests me, admirable though that is, but the endurance of his songs.

Perhaps Cohen’s lyrics were always destined for a superior kind of polish given that he was first and foremost a printed-page poet.  A number of collections that won praise in Canada before be became a singer and a name on the world stage – Let us Compare Mythologies (1956) The Spice-Box of Earth (1961) and Flowers for Hitler (1963) – established his craft before ever Marianne, as it is rumoured, handed him a guitar on which to compose tunes as well.

It is his poet’s attention to detail, to syllabics and rhyme, that have, I feel, given his songs their legs. But though one might think this set of skills would make for an easy transition to songwriter, Cohen has spoken about the sheer slog of finding the right words to link with melody. He is famed for drafting and redrafting, for notebooks stuffed with ideas, for songs that have taken years to write.  But even after all that, he is aware that there is still something indefinable in the songwriter’s task. As he says in Songwriters on Songwriting:

Well, things come so damn slow. Things come and they come and it’s a tollgate, and they’re particularly asking for something that you can’t manage.  

They say: “We’ve got the goods here. What have you got to pay?” Well, I’ve got my intelligence, I’ve got a mind. “No, we don’t want that.”I’ve got my whole training as a poet. “No, we don’t want that. “I’ve got some licks, I’ve got some skills with my fingers on the guitar. “No, we don’t want that.” Well, I’ve got a broken heart. “No, we don’t want that.” I’ve got a pretty girlfriend. “No, we don’t want that.” I’ve got sexual desire. “No, we don’t want that.” I’ve got a whole lot of things and the tollgate keeper says: “That’s not going to get it. We want you in a condition that you are not accustomed to. And that you yourself cannot name. We want you in a condition of receptivity that you cannot produce by yourself.” 

One of Cohen’s most extraordinary successes is Hallelujah, a song that has been recorded some 370 times by artists of larger and smaller note, used as soundtrack in films and TV series such as Shrek and The West Wing, and requested at funerals and  weddings. The song, alluding to the Biblical story of David, to sexual temptation, to the sacred and the secular, and to questions of faith, had a difficult gestation of three years and seventy verses. “I remember being on the floor, on the carpet in my underwear, banging my head on the floor and saying, ‘I can’t finish this song’” Cohen said, quoted in a  BBC article on Ian Light’s recently published book about the story of Hallelujah.

When Cohen finally came to the recording studio, the song had been honed to four verses. But compared to later versions, Cohen's original is a surprise – a rather cheesy number, with staccato endings in the chorus and a swing feel.  Columbia Records had such commercial reservations about it and the entire album Various Positions, that the decision was made to release first in Europe, in 1984, before a launch in the US the year later.

Nonetheless, Cohen, whose career had hit a slight doldrums, was still doing live appearances and Hallelujah, aired at times with substitute verses, met favour with audiences.  Even Bob Dylan, arguably the most famous of the 60s generation wordsmith singers, performed it in 1988.  But then the song underwent two important regenerations – first by John Cale (originally from Velvet Underground) who used a simplified piano arrangement and a different set of Cohen’s verses, and then, in 1994, by Jeff Buckley, who stood before a microphone with spell-binding vocal inflections and an echoing guitar.  His tragic death by drowning two years later at the age of thirty made a threnody and cult classic out of this haunting – and many would argue definitive – version.

Both Cale and Buckley sang the same first two verses as Leonard Cohen did in his original recording, but added a different final three, rooted in relationship and  physicality, and with a bleaker end line: It’s a cold and broken Hallelujah rather than Cohen’s more defiant: With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.

Leonard Cohen original recorded version
Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
John Cale/Jeff Buckley version
Verse 1 – same

.Verse 2 – same

.Baby I’ve been here before
I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor (you know)
I used to live alone before I knew you
And I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
and love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, hallelujah,
hallelujah, hallelujah…

There was a time when you let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show that to me, do you?
But remember when I moved in you
And the holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

Hallelujah, hallelujah,
hallelujah, hallelujah…

Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah,
hallelujah, hallelujah…

Other artists have endeavoured to put their own stamp on the song – from K.D. Lang’s acclaimed performance, through Bon Jovi, Rufus Wainwright and Alexandra Burke, winning contestant on the UK’s X Factor in 2008 who, despite the de rigueur schmaltzy key change for the final verse, gave a creditable interpretation, and all the way to a highly idiosyncratic recording by Bono.

Even the  ukelele-playing Jake Shimabukuro has finessed an instrumental version, drawn he claims, to the tune. But it is my assertion that he would not have been captivated by this song had it not been for the musicality mined in it by Jeff Buckley via Jim Cale. And those versions may never have existed were it not for a compelling set of lyrics that invited reinterpretation. I think Shimabukuro would not have heard the song in the way that he did but for those who passed it on. It’s like the end of a Chinese Whispers round.

Yet this song, to me, was cemented through its lyrics. 

So, what can a would-be lyricist learn from Leonard Cohen?
  • That sweat and tears may be the sine qua non of great lyrics. Cohen has talked eloquently about frustrations.“If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition. It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery.”
  • That words in which a sentiment is authentically conveyed become more than just a simple plate on which a tune is delivered.
  • That a poem, sung, might have much wider reach than a print version.
  • That evocative lyrics can transcend a rather average musical arrangement…
  • …and that, therefore, other people with different rhythms, inflections and music within them can run differently with the blueprint.
About this last point, I am reminded of “the eye” referred to by the poet Alice Oswald on a recent Radio 4 programme, The Echo Chamber presented by Paul Farley. “There’s something mysterious about what animates a poem,” she says. “I always try to create an eye in a poem … which I see as a kind of pinhole through which light can pass….It’s a kind of exit point in the poem that stops it from being a solipsism….But when I see that it has a pinprick hole in it through which something different can enter then I’ll be satisfied. Even if it’s an imperfect poem, at least it’s got a kind of consciousness of its own.” 

I think that Leonard Cohen’s lines in songs such as So Long Marianne and Hallelujah have such an eye – giving them a “kind of consciousness” that inspires other performers to sing the words again and again. There could be no better accolade for a lyrics writer.