It might be nice at some point to write a blog about a wonderful encounter I had in the past with a girl as we listened to a romantic song off my favourite record, whilst impressing her with my encyclopaedic knowledge of the artist playing. Unfortunately, such events are sadly lacking from my past and anything that might have threatened to lead to something wonderful ended in failure and humiliation (apart from the time that Roo and I got together.)
So this is a tale of disappointment, naivety and rejection. It was 1974 at Royal Holloway and I had spoken to Justine on the Friday night and asked if she was going to the party at Cameron the following night. We agreed to meet up. Obviously, it being a Saturday in the Summer, I was playing cricket for the College team. At one point, while I was waiting to bat, one of my team mates looked at me and asked me if I was all right which was pretty unheard of. I was a bundle of nerves and was obviously not displaying my normal warm bubbly outgoing self (?). Having made an outstanding 3 runs, I eventually got back to College, spent the evening talking to Justine and afterwards went back to her room where she immediately put on “Songs Of Love And Hate”. Ten minutes of uncertainty, inexperience and inability to communicate followed while “Avalanche” was playing. The romantic setting which was so pregnant with promise quickly turned into me leaving, never to speak to Justine again. However, those first few minutes have stayed with me and “Avalanche” is probably the only Leonard Cohen song that I truly love.
Leonard Cohen has stated that while he was recording this record, “absolutely everything was beginning to fall apart around me: my spirit, my intentions, my will. So I went into a deep and long depression.” As I wound my way back to my hall of residence, I felt exactly the same way.
The meaning of “Avalanche” is hard to decipher. At a simple level, it seems to be sung by a hunchback. “Well I stepped into an avalanche/it covered up my soul/when I am not this hunchback that you see/I sleep beneath the golden hills/You who wish to conquer pain/you must learn, learn to serve me well.”
However, it could also be interpreted as a message from God, as he enters the material world. “You strike my side by accident/as you go down for your gold/The cripple here that you clothe and feed/is neither starved nor cold/He does not ask for your company/not at the centre, the centre of the world.” This could refer to the image of the soldier piercing the side of Christ on the cross. The “golden hill” could be interpreted as Mount Zion, which in the New Testament is God’s holy eternal city. “The crumbs of love that you offer me/they’re the crumbs I’ve left behind” could mean that God has given us the ability to love. We think that when we love, we are something special, but it is He who created goodness in the first place. “Your pain is no credential here” – when the time for judgement comes, those that self-flagellate will be judged along with everyone else. Their pain is not a substitute for righteousness. “I have begun to long for you/I who have no greed/I have begun to ask for you/I who have no need” – as powerful as God is, he still loves us and wants us to love him in return. “You say you’ve gone away from me, but I can feel you when you breathe” – we can try to hide from God, but it is impossible. “Do not dress in those rags for me/I know you are not poor/don’t love me quite so fiercely now/when you know that you are not sure” – hypocrisy will get you nowhere. Stop imposing suffering upon yourself. Do not act devoutly if you do not truly believe in God. He can tell you‘re faking.
The religious reference has gained credence (by one or two people) by the fact that on his last world tour, Leonard Cohen only played this song in Scandinavia. In Norse mythology Trolls are represented as a type of goblin, stumpy, misshaped, hunchbacked dwarves who live in mounds and hills, inclined to thieving and of substituting one of their own for a human baby. Pushing it a bit far in my opinion.
Another possible interpretation of the song, acknowledging Leonard Cohen’s Jewish background, is that it refers to the Holocaust.
Another interpretation makes it more personal. He is going through a time of sorrow, giving him a metaphorical hump. He has found a compassionate woman but he doesn’t need her compassion. By saying “I myself am the pedestal/ for this ugly hump at which you stare” he is suggesting that he is in control of this emotion, making him in control of the very reason why she wants him. He is suggesting that her job is only to serve him, that’s the only thing she’s good for. He doesn’t need her: he lives on a golden hill.
Leonard Cohen clearly had some intention of creating words that meant something to him when he wrote this song. The fact that their meaning defy strict interpretation either make this song frustrating or intriguing depending on your point of view. For many years, I have listened to this song (not always wallowing in self-deprecating nostalgia to be fair), just enjoying the sound of the song. I can love songs without fully “understanding” their lyrics and maybe the many ways to interpret a song is one of the aspects that makes me come back to it again and again.
The rest of the album is very good. It rose to Number 4 in the UK Charts. Many of the songs have been covered by other artists, including Jennifer Warnes, Nick Cave, Judy Collins, Tori Amos and Anna Calvi. In particular “Joan Of Arc” is an intriguing song; is it simply a literal story of the burning of Joan Of Arc or is the fire a metaphor for the devil?
“Joan Of Arc” is the last song on the record. The last words are “Myself I long for love and light/but must it come so cruel, must it be so brave?”
4 thoughts on “Songs Of Love And Hate by Leonard Cohen”
A typically honest and heartfelt piece and all the more moving and relatable to because of the way you link it to the uncomfortable emotions of the song while not losing sight of the beauty and preciousness that’s in there as well. There’s a bit I remember from one of Vince Clarke’s songs (an Erasure one probably), Ship of Fools, “why is life so precious and so cruel?” He might not be in Leonard Cohen’s league, but it’s a good line all the same. I’ve always felt intimidated by Leonard Cohen: his songs feel beyond me somehow. I really must try to listen to him properly.
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