Friday, 11 November 2016

My Top Ten Leonard Cohen Songs

Well, this year just gets better and better doesn't it? All I can think of today is the title of that Kate Atkinson novel: When Will There Be Good News? Annus Horribilis doesn't even begin to cover it. The optimist in me thinks 2017 can only get better... but it's not looking likely at the moment. 

Anyway, Leonard Cohen. In a morbid synchronicity, my copy of his now-final album arrived today. I haven't had chance to listen to it properly yet, but I love the title track. If Bowie's final record was about the end of Bowie, Cohen's appears to be about the end of everything. You Want It Darker? All we can do right now is pray for some glimmer of light. 

In tribute then, ten of my favourite Leonard Cohen tunes. They may be (mostly) the obvious ones (minus a couple), but not (perhaps) in the obvious order. Really tough narrowing it down to ten...

10. Democracy
From the wars against disorder
From the sirens night and day
From the fires of the homeless
From the ashes of the gay
Democracy is coming to the USA
Of course, I should have featured this on my last Top Ten...
It's coming to America first
The cradle of the best and of the worst
It's here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it's here they got the spiritual thirst
It's here the family's broken
And it's here the lonely say
That the heart has got to open
In a fundamental way
Democracy is coming to the USA
9. First We Take Manhattan

Leonard Cohen tackles terrorists: firsthand. Chilling, despite the creaky 80s production.
Ah, you loved me as a loser
But now you're worried that I just might win
You know the way to stop me, but you don't have the discipline
How many nights I prayed for this, to let my work begin
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin
8. Death Of A Ladies' Man 

Cohen + Spector really shouldn't have worked. They were polar opposites in so many ways. And yet...
"I'll never see a face like yours in years of men to come
I'll never see such arms again in wrestling or in love."
And all his virtues burning in the smoky Holocaust
She took unto herself most everything her lover lost
7. Closing Time

The happiest song on this list. Under other circumstances... any other week... I might have placed it higher because of that.
Yeah the women tear their blouses off
And the men they dance on the polka-dots
And it's partner found, it's partner lost
And it's hell to pay when the fiddler stops
It's closing time
6. Famous Blue Raincoat

One for Hillary...?
It's four in the morning, the end of December
I'm writing you now just to see if you're better
New York is cold, but I like where I'm living
There's music on Clinton Street all through the evening
Apparently, he was never particularly satisfied with this one. Iffypedia suggests he was briefly a member of The Church of Scientology around about this time... he heard it was a good place to meet women!

5. Everybody Knows
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long-stem rose
Everybody knows
Yes, that seems pretty scary, but let's not forget he could make us laugh too...
Everybody knows you've been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet
Without your clothes
And everybody knows
4. Hallelujah

Many others would plasce this at Number One, obviously. Who am I to argue? 

Jeff Buckley did it proud.

3. Chelsea Hotel No. 2

Lloyd Cole, Rufus Wainwright, Lana Del Rey... you can tell the quality of a tune by those who choose to cover it.

Apparently written about Janis Joplin, though he came to regret revealing that.
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
You were famous, your heart was a legend.
You told me again you preferred handsome men
But for me you would make an exception.
And clenching your fist for the ones like us
Who are oppressed by the figures of beauty,
You fixed yourself, you said, "Well never mind,
We are ugly but we have the music."
2. Waiting For A Miracle

My Top Two are the first two Leonard Cohen songs that really grabbed my attention... but that's an understatement: frankly, they blew the doors right off. Cohen's 1992 album The Future is a masterpiece, but I first noticed them both on the soundtrack of Oliver Stone's Tarantino flick, Natural Born Killers. These songs are haunting, devastating, and... terrifyingly prescient.
When you've fallen on the highway
and you're lying in the rain,
and they ask you how you're doing
of course you'll say you can't complain --
If you're squeezed for information,
that's when you've got to play it dumb:
You just say you're out there waiting
for the miracle, for the miracle to come.
1. The Future

Looking down this list, hearing these songs again, you wonder if the events of this week were too much for Mr. Cohen to keep on fighting. It feels like what he's predicted so long may well be coming to pass... I'm just waiting for the headline to confirm it: Donald Trump Killed Leonard Cohen.
There'll be breaking of the ancient Western code
Your private life will suddenly explode
There'll be phantoms, there'll be fires on the road
And a white man dancing
You'll see a woman hanging upside down
Her features covered by her fallen gown
And all the lousy little poets come around
Trying to sound like Charlie Manson
And the white man dancing

Give me back the Berlin Wall
Give me Stalin and St. Paul
Give me Christ or give me Hiroshima
Destroy another foetus now
We don't like children anyhow
I've seen the future, baby
It is murder

Things are going to slide
Slide in all directions
Won't be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard
The blizzard of the world
Has crossed the threshold
And it's overturned the order of the soul

When they said repent
I wonder what they meant

Hey, I know, that's no way to say goodbye... but it's the best I can do.


  1. Very sad news, I'm a big Cohen fan. I agree The Future is a great album, and probably in my top 5 from his discography. I’ve always understood First We Take Manhattan as him touring from city to city. Didn’t notice the terrorist connotations. Yikes!
    I'm glad to see Famous Blue Raincoat represented. His 1967 and 1971 albums I go back to the most. Look forward to your thoughts on his latest.

    1. Thanks, Chris. I'll admit that I probably haven't spent as much time with his early albums as I should. I know the obvious songs (Suzanne, Bird On A Wire etc.) but haven't given the albums the attention they deserve. I bought a box set of his first ten albums some time ago and started gradually working my way backwards from the ones I already had / knew. Perhaps I'm saving the best till last.

      I first heard Manhattan from REM's cover which perhaps made me consider the creepier interpretation of the song.

      I'm sure I'll be giving my feedback on the new record soon.

  2. I'm starting to think all these dead celebrities are the lucky ones.

  3. Three of your selections would definitely have appeared on my own Top 10, Rol. As a teen, I purchased his books of poetry from my meagre allowance, "The Spice Box of Life" and "Flowers for Hitler" and they led me to seek out his first, near-perfect, album: "Songs of Leonard Cohen" (which would fill out the rest of my own list.)

    1. Another vote for me to give proper attention to that first album.

  4. Sad but how lucky are we to still have this great body of work. Quite a thing to achieve immortality with your words, and he surely will.

  5. Saw a great LC quote in the paper at the weekend: on being asked why he was a pessimist he replied (and I'm paraphrasing here) "I see a pessimist as someone who's waiting for the rain. I'm already soaked through."

    1. Thanks for that, Martin: I've already used it twice this week!

  6. 'Now I bid you farewell, I don't know when I'll be back
    They're moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track
    But you'll be hearing from me baby, long after I'm gone
    I'll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the Tower of Song'
    So long Leonard.

    1. I'm sure we will be hearing from him LONG after he's gone.


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