Any ICA is, inevitably, a tough task. Those of you who have contributed one or more submission to the series will know exactly what I’m getting at – to narrow down dozens or hundreds of songs into a solitary LP of ten tracks is a time-consuming, frustrating, seemingly impossible and yet, ultimately, a hugely satisfying task. And no matter what you come up with, you will look at your final selection and wonder why one or more great songs didn’t make the cut; oh and you’ll also provoke some sort of reaction from diehard fans who will be appalled that you’ve omitted something particularly special or meaningful to them.
In tackling the back catalogue of Leonard Cohen, I am expecting a fair bit of ‘WTF’ as reactions. You only have to type in ‘Top 10 songs of Leonard Cohen’ into a search engine to see how many different writers, journalists, authors, poets and fans have created lists that prove to be very different. So what follows is not my definitive list of 10 favourite songs, nor what I think are his best 10 songs. It’s simply ten songs that I think make up a fantastic vinyl album.
It is hard to fathom that by the time he released his debut album, Leonard Cohen was already 33 years of age, a well-known and regarded poet and novelist in his native Canada. He turned to music as a result of his failing to make much money as a writer, initially performing on stage in folk and jazz clubs in NYC where he befriended many of the bohemian set based around Greenwich Village. His big break came via a friendship with Judy Collins who, in addition to performing with him on stage, also arranged a TV show appearance for him in 1966 during which they duetted on a number of his songs, including Suzanne. The same year, Collins would record the song on her album In My Life and such was the interest in the songwriter that he was signed to Columbia Records with whom he would remain for the next 50 years until his death.
The debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen was issued in 1967 and opens with what was then his best known song. It has a particular simplicity that makes it sound as if could be from any of the past six decades. It is also the perfect introduction to his gravelly tones – you will know within 30 seconds or so if this song and this singer is for you in which case you will want to hear more; if it grates, well just take the record back for a refund or wrap it up as a gift for someone with taste. One word description : beautiful
2. First We Take Manhattan
It is somewhat astonishing to recall that the first airing of this song was via a Leonard Cohen tribute album with the great man not releasing his version for another 18 months. The original version was by Jennifer Warnes who had been a backing singer to Cohen in the 70s and 80s. The original was a decent enough song, with a lyric that hinted and suggested concerns about the way world politics were leaning ever-increasingly to the right. The version which opened up I’m Your Man in 1988, took the sinister elements to a whole new level, with Cohen rapping away like a madman who is intent on bringing the world to an explosive end. Looking back, it is scarily prophetic given that the past 30 years have seen a surge in high-profile acts of terrorism, carried out by those on suicide missions. One word description : chilling
3. The Future
The Future is a 1992 album of epics in that eight of its nine tracks are least six minutes in length – the exception being one of the two cover versions that made up the release. It’s also epic in the sense that the lyrics are full of giant and grim warnings, not least the key line in the title track – “I’ve seen the future baby; it is murder.”
First We Take Manhattan had suggested a lone madman would take us all down with him, but now Leonard, in soapbox preacher mode, is telling us that mankind itself is showing it is more than capable of doing the job itself. I’ve always thought that The Future, along with Anthem and Democracy, (two other outstanding tracks to be found on the record) would have made for great covers by Matt Johnson of The The, but I’m guessing he knew they would have been near impossible to better. One word description : apocalyptic
4. Chelsea Hotel #2
Much of Cohen’s early appeal lay in his ability to pen memorable odes to love that resonated with his listeners. This track from New Skin From The Old Ceremony, released in 1974 and his first album in more than three years, does sound, for the most part like a song that celebrates a brief and lustful affair, with lines of regret and longing that it had come to an end. And then, that killer and utterly ruthless closing line : “I don’t think of you that often” Indeed, on subsequent listens, it almost seems as the song is celebrating the location in which the tryst in question had taken place rather than any physical or emotional wellbeing it had provided. One word description : bittersweet
5. Famous Blue Raincoat
I’m closing off the first side of this ICA with a style of song – a lyric in the form of a letter – that, in many people’s hands, could be a cliché and a bore but ends up being a work of genius when done by Cohen. It’s also a song which, over the years since its release in 1971, has been interpreted in many different ways.
My own take on it is that the author of the letter, writing in the depths of a cold and bitter NYC winter at 4am in the morning to someone who has chosen to make a new life for herself in the warmth of the desert, is thanking the unnamed recipient of the letter, for the passion she bestowed on the other two parts of a bizarre love triangle – the author and his wife whose name we know is Jane. He’s also saying that if the desert dweller was to come back to NYC, he would not stand in the way of her and Jane fulfilling their lives together.
Others have said that there is no love triangle and that the writer is merely sending a letter to a male friend, who has left NYC after the discovery of his clandestine affair with Jane, in which he is offering his forgiveness for what happened. I’ve even read that it should be interpreted that Jane is the daughter of the letter writer and the recipient and that the recipient is being asked to come back to NYC to be reunited with her daughter in which instance the letter writer will move out and build a new life altogether.
That that song ends with the words ‘Yours Sincerely, L. Cohen’ makes if feel autobiographical, but yet, unlike Chelsea Hotel #2, the writer has never revealed anything about the characters in the song. For the record, Cohen was never married to anyone called Jane…….but he did live on Clinton Street from where the letter is being written. One word description : mysterious
1. Tower Of Song
The LP I’m Your Man was the first time I ever bought a Leonard Cohen album when It was actually released. I’ve said before that I came to him late in terms of appreciating him. My first exposure had been back in the mid 70s when a mate’s older brother insisted on playing his stuff all the time when I dropped by their family house and I wasn’t impressed as it was all doom and gloom that went right over my head at the time. But as a number of my own favourite musicians in the 80s began to name check him as an influence I re-approached his material with a fresh mind and discovered that I was indeed a fan.
The jazz-tinged, almost easy listening aspects of I’m Your Man should have seen me run a mile, but I was beguiled by its opening song First We Take Manhattan and almost all of its other songs provided something to enjoy on repeated listens. The album closes with a self-deprecating masterpiece, one in which Cohen pokes fun at his singing style and the painstaking way he comes up with finished lyrics. He also, in an era that was seemingly besotted by image and trying hard to stay youthful (Jane Fonda keep-fit videos anyone?), reflects that growing old in a graceful way isn’t so bad after all. All done to a tune that was as simple as anything he’s ever come up with, almost as if it came direct as a pre-programmed number in a Casio keyboard. One word description : genius.
2. So Long Marianne
Marianne Ihlen was the inspiration for so many of Cohen’s writings, songs and poems alike. They had met in early 1960, when they were both in their mid-20s, on the Greek island of Hydra. They would end up living together for the best part of that decade in Montreal, NYC and Greece. So Long Marianne, like many songs composed by others over the years, deals with a break-up. It is hugely autobiographical and its release in 1967 was a very early indication that Leonard Cohen was a different sort of songwriter and that indeed he was, at heart, a poet.
This doesn’t mope over the ending of a relationship, but instead looks back joyfully over an extended period in which two perfectly matched and compatible people had enjoyed life to the full, the ending caused by Cohen feeling he could not be content in a monogamous relationship. “You left when I told you I was curious / I never told you I was brave”. And not once did he blame her for what she did. One word description : heartfelt
PS : In 2016, Cohen learned that Marianne was dying from leukaemia. He also knew, at this time, that his cancer was likely to result in his death. He was able to compose a final letter which was read to her, by a friend, as she lay on her death-bed.
“Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and for your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”
If that doesn’t bring moisture to your eyes, then there really is no hope for you.
Placed here cynically on the ICA just to keep the tear ducts on overtime.
In all honesty, we should be sick to the back teeth of this, such are the number of cover versions (many of which are superior to Cohen’s take) and its use as a poke-in-the-ribs to make you feel sad and upset at a particular point in a film or TV show. But, and I say this as someone who is not remotely religious or spiritual, Hallelujah is a song that makes me think, for a few minutes at least, if there really is something beyond what we know and experience on this planet. One word description : timeless
4. In My Secret Life (live)
It took until 2008 before I experienced Leonard Cohen in the live setting, in front of 3,000 adoring fans in the Clyde Auditorium (affectionately known locally as The Armadillo –have a look on-line and you’ll see why). It’s up there with the greatest experiences of my concert going life, with a near three hour-show in which the energy and vibrancy of the then 74-year old maestro was almost beyond belief. The set-list drew from throughout his entire career and, is usually the case, the old classics got the loudest and longest receptions.
But one of the real highlights was a lesser-known number, the opening song on Ten New Songs that had been released in 2001. The album was entirely co-written with Sharon Robinson and was his first since The Future back in 1992. Although the album was reasonably well received, the songs didn’t really come across as being essential listening until experienced in the live setting, with Lenny and Shaz turning it into a beautiful, soft rock tour-de-force. One-word description : smooth
The closing track of an ICA is always the hardest to settle on as it has to make the listener want to go back and play the whole thing over again.
This is the song that Nick Cave really wishes he had written – indeed he did a more than passable cover for his 1984 album From Her To Eternity (which was, as you may have guessed from what I said earlier, one of my routes into re-assessing the merits of Leonard Cohen).
This is my all time favourite Leonard Cohen song. The lyric is adapted from one of his earlier poems; it is utterly mysterious, bewildering and full of self-loathing and an entire thesis for a master’s degree could research and disect but still come up with nothing definitive. But what elevates this to the very pinnacle is the playing and arrangement. Once heard, never forgotten. A bit like the man himself. One-word description : almighty
RIP Leonard. And thank you for everything.