Celebrities and artists discussing religion is always a tricky business. Fame tends to be a of a very worldly nature and often threatens to cheapen the subject, or distract from the gravity of spiritual matters. This can go doubly awry when westerners project their exotic fantasies on Asian religions—the fantastic book, Karma Cola, by Gita Mehta is an insightful look at the phenomenon of American and European “pilgrims” traveling to India, hoping to find enlightenment. (Since people are people, anywhere you go, many of those pilgrims were defrauded by fake yogis—India’s snake oil salesman and televangelist swindler equivalent.)
However, Leonard Cohen’s narration of the 1994 documentary pair, The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Way of Life and The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation, is both understated and dignified (with the first film featuring The Dalai Lama himself). Cohen, who was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk in 1996, is staid in his narration of Tibetan Buddhist theory and practice, but the films are neither dry nor academic—a scene with a man in a hospice dealing with his own mortality is particularly affecting. I have to say, I initially just checked this out looking for something on Cohen’s Buddhism; what I found was an extremely respectful and compelling documentary, devoid of voyeurism, and mindful of the humanity of its subjects.
The series in its entirety is divided into five segments below, four being about 20 minutes long, with a two-minute clip in the middle.
Last August I wrote a Dangerous Minds piece about Hot Properties, a little-remembered Richard Belzer talk show on the Lifetime network in the mid-1980s. The most notable thing that ever happened on Hot Properties was Hulk Hogan accidentally injuring Belzer on the air, which led to an out-of-court settlement; that incident was the peg for that post.
It turns out I’m not the only one who recalls Hot Properties. Last week a DM reader emailed me, telling of a Betamax recording he had of Belzer interviewing Leonard Cohen on Hot Properties. Since that initial email YouTube user ‘jay sarajevo’ has kindly uploaded the video clip (about 15 minutes).
It’s hard to argue that this interview is anything less than choice material for a Leonard Cohen enthusiast. The best guess on the date is May 1, 1985. Cohen played Carnegie Hall on Sunday, May 5, 1985, and Hot Properties taped on Wednesdays, so it seems that this was taped on May 1. Note that during the call-in section (!) the word “Prerecorded” appears on the screen, which answers a question I had posed in that original DM post—namely, whether the show was aired live. Apparently it was! It seems possible that Lifetime was in the habit of airing Hot Properties a second time overnight or during the next day, so this Betamax video must have been taped at someone’s home as a rerun. It could, of course, simply have run some weeks later as a rerun.
Richard Belzer and Leonard Cohen hanging out 23 years later, in 2008
Belzer and Cohen have pretty decent chemistry, and even the callers’ questions are pretty strong. Unfortunately at no point did Cohen elect to place Belzer in a headlock, and history is the poorer for that decision. Cohen did, however, chat amiably about his difficulties getting his material released in the United States, ruefully told a mordant joke about Federico García Lorca being killed in a homosexual brawl with Spanish fascists, told a good story about legendary CBS Records honcho Walter Yetnikoff, and admitted that a lot of his material is “sad, woeful, depressing.” It’s a darn good interview, introduced with the entirety of the video for “Dance Me to the End of Love,” a single off of Various Positions, the album he was promoting at the time.
Whenever listening to Leonard Cohen’s “The Story of Isaac”—a song in which war is conceived of as the semi-ritual sacrifice of a younger generation by an older one a la the Biblical myth— I have always savored its mysterious last line.
“Have mercy on our uniform,
Man of peace or man of war, The peacock spreads his fan.”
In 1968, when Leonard Cohen came to record it for Songs from a Room, he had already seen an impressive amount of action for someone whose name remains a byword for tremulous introspection. Not only had Cohen made a point of visiting Cuba during the fall of Batista (purportedly as a kind of freelance revolutionary), but he had also made a beeline for Israel during the Six-Day War, where he hooked up with an “air force entertainment group” and performed for soldiers going into battle! Cohen’s experience on (or relatively near) the front line was apparently a very rewarding one:
“War is wonderful. They’ll never stamp it out. It’s one of the few times people can act their best. It’s so economical in terms of gesture and motion, every single gesture is precise, every effort is at its maximum. Nobody goofs off. Everybody is responsible for his brother.”
The kind of conflict alluded to in the “The Story of Isaac,” though, sounds closer in type to the Vietnam War, which pitched, to an arguably unique degree, the old—who waged it—against the young—who fought in and against it. In 1974, Cohen expanded on the concept behind the song:
“One of the reasons we do have wars periodically is so the older men can have the women. Also, to completely remove the competition in terms of their own institutional positions.”
It’s an especially dark idea, this, that behind the draft and the domino effect and the military industrial complex, lurked (and forever lurks) an aging establishment’s instinct to safeguard its tribal, reproductive privileges—shipping off the emergent generation to distant killing fields.
That Cohen was apparently thinking in the above quasi-Darwinian terms inclines me to think that (as I’ve long suspected) the song’s last line—“The peacock spreads its fan”—is intended to evoke or echo Darwin’s famous misgiving: “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!”
Darwin’s point is widely taken to refer to the egregious impracticality of a peacock’s fan, as being inhospitable to the notion of natural selection. The paradox of the peacock’s fan can be applied to the paradox of war—surely both should by now have condemned their native species to extinction. Or inevitably will,
Here’s a great song that has been beaten into banality by the ever-growing number of people who sing it with none of the sense of humor, sexiness or irony that Leonard Cohen intended when he wrote it. “Hallelujah” has been turned into musical mulch in which the insipid flowers of sentiment and false emotion have blossomed and unfurled their sickly sweet petals.
John Malkovich is using a cheat sheet to inform him of what he’s feeling. Oh, the passion.
YouTuber broccoliz has his wires scrambled but this might actually work, if Leonard Cohen decided to cover Edwyn Collins’ pop classic “A Girl Like You.” Just imagine it. Cohen and Collins do share a robust masculinity in their voice. No, yes?
I’m sure I’ll catch horrendous amounts of shit for this, because we all know that manufactured pop princesses like Lana Del Rey will be the absolute death of all that is pure, but I don’t think it’s that bad. Personally, I’m not particularly concerned with notions of “authenticity” when a manufactured persona is half of what I love about performance.
Authentic she ain’t, but let’s face it, it’s not like a Leonard Cohen song is sacrosanct anymore after the number of times “Hallelujah” has been badly mangled on American Idol...
What say you? Doesn’t it have a certain charm? Or am I simply a sucker for a smokey chanteuse? Or am I angling to write songs for her next album? (Call me, girl!)
In 1986, Leonard Cohen guest-starred on Miami Vice, playing Francois Zolan of the French Secret Service involved in a plot to blow up Greenpeace boats. The episode was called “French Twist.” His role was all too brief.
Leonard Cohen sings an indescribably beautiful version of “Suzanne” in Montreal in November of last year. This man is truly a living tower of song, jutting into our consciousness like huge loving fingers of light.
Thinking back on my musical epiphanies of 2012, Leonard Cohen’s performance in Austin was possessed of enormous soul that made me weep tears of gratitude.
This video is pretty extraordinary in its intimacy. Thanks to Mad Lenny Fan.
Night Music, hosted by Jools Holland and David Sanborn and produced by Hal Wilner, ran on late-night TV from 1988 to 1990. It was a particularly smart show, featuring many musicians who did not appear that often on television. This episode is a perfect example of its eclectic and sophisticated offerings.
From 1989: Was Not Was, word jazzist Ken Nordine (rare to see him perform live), Sonny Rollins and Leonard Cohen.
Hello Operator (Was Not Was)
Kim (Sonny Rollins)
Tower Of Song (Leonard Cohen)
Winter Sketch aka Don’t You Wish (Ken Nordine)
Who By Fire (L. Cohen/S. Rollins)
I Can’t Turn You Loose (Was Not Was)
I recently found myself wondering–as you do–what, exactly, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” was all about. Precluding, that is, getting high (Dylan: “I never have and never will write a drug song”). My curiosity led me to the following observation by Dylan scholar Clinton Heylin, who observed that the title seems to allude to the following beauty from the Book of Proverbs (chapter 27, verse 15): “A continual dropping in a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike.” (Well if that ain’t the Old Testament’s lightest moment!?) Heylin suggests the title was meant to throw off the censors. Better yet, though: a continual dropping: stoning! “Everybody must get stoned”: Every man (the ones that shack up with women anyhow) must get nagged. The “They” being none other than (Rainy Day) “women.”
Well, they’ll stone you and say that it’s the end
Then they’ll stone you and then they’ll come back again
They’ll stone you when you’re riding in your car
and they’ll stone when you’re playing your guitar
It all comes into focus when you picture a henpecked hubby– even, I fancy, “sent down in your grave,” which suggests the dirt dropped on hubby’s coffin lid by the surviving widow.
While Heylin’s sourcing of the title in Proverbs arguably seals the deal, it turns out plenty of sharper-eared listeners have long held this interpretation of the song (fair enough: it’s hidden in plain sight), and I found it suggested online that the “#12 & 35” element coincides with a woman’s peak fertility. “A continual dropping in a rainy day…” The song’s about PMT!
Having finally sussed “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” (it’ll do me!), I moved on to the similarly enigmatic Blonde on Blonde classic “Just Like Woman.” Immediately, of course, we find ourselves assailed by a further “continual dropping” (Bob’s standing “inside the rain,” no less), but – as I chewed again on the song’s famous words – light was shed in an unexpected and entirely different direction…
Does the following verse of “Just Like a Woman” remind you of another famous song at all?
That Baby’s got new clothes
But lately I see her ribbons and her bows
Have fallen from her curls.
How about Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”?
Everybody knows that you love me baby Everybody knows that you really do Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful
Ah give or take a night or two Everybody knows you’ve been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet Without your clothes
And everybody knows
And if you’re still not convinced that Cohen is here (Dylan’s “new clothes” suggesting “no clothes,” after all) paying subtle tribute to the source of his song’s indelible refrain, remind yourself of the following verse also…
And everybody knows that it’s now or never
Everybody knows that it’s me or you
And everybody knows that you live forever
Ah when you’ve done a line or two
Everybody knows the deal is rotten Old Black Joe’s still pickin’ cotton For your ribbons and bows
And everybody knows
Which is a stunningly imaginative way to recycle Dylan’s rhyme. Those guys eh!
Finally, here’s Al “right place/time/riff” Kooper specifically reminiscing about recording Blonde on Blonde in Nashville, describing his role as a “human tape recorder” who would go learn Bob’s emerging songs and then go prepare the musicians (sketching the odd arrangement too, by the sound of it).
Tom Jones performs Leonard Cohen’s “Tower Of Song’ on the Jools Holland show - May 11, 2012.
Jones may not quite get the humor in the lyrics, but there’s no denying the man IS a tower of song. A monumental voice. And the guy is still built like a brick shithouse.
“Tower Of Song” appears on Jones’ new album Spirit In The Room which comes out on June 5 in the United Kingdom. This is the second new album release I’ve wanted to purchase that hasn’t been made available in the USA other than on expensive imports. The other is Richard Hawley’s Standing At The Edge Of The Sky. You can’t even buy em as MP3s. And Spotify won’t let you listen to Hawley’s album if you live in the USA. What’s with that? This is bad business for the artists and encourages illegal downloading. The music industry just doesn’t learn. The death wish continues. The only place to hear some of these new albums is on YouTube…and that may not last for much longer.
Leonard Cohen’s former manager and lover Kelley Lynch was sentenced on April 17 to 18 months in prison for breaching restraining orders by sending scores of nasty e-mails and making harassing phone calls to Cohen. Lynch had a history of predatory behavior in her dealings with Cohen. In 2005 she was found guilty of stealing millions of dollars from Cohen and was ordered by a judge to pay the singer $9.5 million.
At the sentencing, Cohen read a statement that only confirms his standing as a world-class poet, Buddhist and a man with an incredible sense of style:
It gives me no pleasure to see my onetime friend shackled to a chair in a court of law, her considerable gifts bent to the service of darkness, deceit and revenge, [But] I want to thank the defendant Ms. Kelley Lynch for insisting on a jury trial, thus exposing to the light of day her massive depletion of my retirement savings and yearly earnings, and allowing the court to observe her profoundly unwholesome, obscene and relentless strategies to escape the consequences of her wrongdoing… It is my prayer that Ms Lynch will take refuge in the wisdom of her religion. That a spirit of understanding will convert her heart from hatred to remorse, from anger to kindness, from the deadly intoxication of revenge to the lowly practices of self-reform.”
Yes, Cohen briefly turned a courtroom into a Tower Of Song.
So you can stick your little pins in that voodoo doll
I’m very sorry, baby, doesn’t look like me at all
I’m standing by the window where the light is strong
Ah they don’t let a woman kill you not in the tower of song
This seems like a good time to enjoy this concert footage from Leonard’s 2008/09 world tour.
Age may weary and death may claim, but the ears will not condemn this fine selection of essential listening from Blondie, Joe Strummer, Ian Dury, Sonic Youth, David Bowie, Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen taken from Later with Jools Holland.
01. Blondie - “Heart of Glass” from 1998
02. Joe Strummer - “London Calling” from 2000
03. Ian Dury - “Sex and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll” from 1998
04. Sonic Youth- “Sacred Trickster” from 2009
05. David Bowie - “Ashes to Ashes” from 1999
06. Johnny Cash - “Folsom Prison Blues” from 1994
07. Leonard Cohen - “Dance me to the End of Love” from 1993
Australian artist Ben Smith’s “The Influence. Leonard Cohen consoles Nick Cave” depicts, with both wit and affection, the two melancholic bards as guru and student, father and son, ventriloquist and dummy, sharing the blood of Jesus and the fruit of knowledge.
Visit Smith’s website for more tantalizingly cool paintings.