I got trrapped in some Leonard Cohen songs the other day.
I didn’t mean to – I googled him to check something about the name of a poetry book I thought I had and couldn’t find (it was “the spice box of earth” and got caught up with listening to some of his songs. And stopping listening to Leonard Cohen songs is about as easy as coitus interruptus, or deciding that you’ve had enough baklava.
And I listened to a few covers of his songs by other folk. I did this on the grounds that Leonard, bless him, can’t sing for toffee. He sings these days like he’s just eaten a handful of iron filings and hasn’t quite coughed them all out.
Further than that, post his sixties and seventies albums, which were generally poetry set to music with a guitar and the occasional violin, someone decided that Leonard needed to be more trendy, and bought him a synthesiser for Christmas. What a move. Leonard took to it, one arthritic finger at a time, and he’s not been able to put it down since. It sounds, frankly, tacky.
But in a way that helps.
Leonard Cohen’s music is in a very rare category of artists for me – which is that his music exists in a world which is not this one. What we hear in this world is simply a small echo of what the music actually is.
It’s hard to put into words, (and if I could I would be a poet as good as Cohen) but it’s simply not possible to play or perform them fully. Just not possible. There are not many people’s music I feel like this about, but there are some. And my feeling about Cohen is like the music of Benjamin Britten, or some Handel.
When I hear bits of Theadora (Handel Opera) or some of the choral music of Britten, such as the hymn to St Cecelia, and most of Leonard Cohen, the more you get to know the music, the more you can tell what the composers are pointing at, you can feel what they want out of the music, but it’s just not possible to find that in the real world. Not through a lack of technique (although that can be true too) or lack of instrumentation or talent, it’s that the reality of the music is only realised in the word of the imagination away from the actual performance. The imagined memory of the music is far more powerful than the actual memory.
Being all religious as I am, I like to think of it as sacramental music. A sacrament, we are told, is an outward sign of inward grace, a pointer to something beyond. The performance that Cohen gives in his own songs, shows that this is an echo of what this should be, not the reality. – his gravelly voice, the cheap orchestration and the sometimes cheap accompaniement all say “this isn’t it, but it’s pointing to it”
Those who try and get closer to the actuality, through better arrangements and better vocals, slicker arrangements and more “normal” musical motifs, sometimes get closer to the mark, but I find often get further away from it. Whereas Cohen’s versions are like a finger pointing to heaven, most cover versions, in trying to be heaven itself, simply ride on by, missing the target and the slicker and better they are, the quicker they speed past the soul of the song.
Jeff Buckley got closest of course, by being completely unknowing and pouring himself into a song that could hold him. But there’s still plenty of room in the song for more souls.
I can’t believe Leonard’s 81 now. Of all the folk from the 60s he has retained integrity of self and of vision – mainly because he can do no other. The world need more music like his, and more souls with imagination to hear the perfection of songs that can never be perfect in reality.