Songs of Leonard Cohen


When I taught at Oakmeeds, in Burgess Hill, I taught one of two twins. His name was Ace, and his brother, who I didn’t teach, was called Zak. They were both charming, decent boys with a fierce streak of independence. Ace never bought a ruler to my Maths lessons. On one occasion, I got on my knees and begged him to get organised. Although hilarity ensued, he still never bothered, so I gave up trying to force the issue and whenever he arrived in my classroom, I would literally run to my desk drawer to fetch a ruler and bring it to him, apologising profusely for the delay in serving him. Many years later he told me that this had been the highlight of his school career.

Did I have a successful teaching career? I was 28 when I became Head of Maths at an 11-18 Comprehensive School in Hertfordshire. I was 58 when I was appointed to the same role at Brighton, Hove and Sussex Sixth Form College. I never rose above that level. Does this constitute success?

What is success? Yesterday, I saw Brighton beat Liverpool in the F.A. Cup. Brighton are a humble club who are having a good run. Liverpool are one of the biggest football clubs in history, who won this trophy last year. Brighton are almost certainly not going to win the F.A. Cup this year; Liverpool could still win The Campions League trophy, which is the most prestigious club competition in the world.

How do we judge success? If Brighton fail to win the F.A. Cup, does that mean that they have not had a successful year. Is the only way to judge success by considering final outcomes or is success achieved every time there is a euphoric moment such as the instant when Kaoru Mitoma scored a brilliant winner in added time at 3:20 yesterday afternoon?

If I were to consider my teaching career, should my success criteria be whether or not I reached the pinnacle (I never became a Headteacher) or should it measured by a series of memorable moments (“I’m very sorry, Ace, for the late delivery of your ruler”)?

There’s a great Brighton football fanzine called “Dogma” which came hurtling through the post last week. It’s very well written by a number of different writers whose loyalty to the club is unquestionably single-minded. Being one of the smaller clubs, the articles tend to have a bias against the bigger, more “successful” clubs but I really loved the first piece which defined football as “a game about moments, moments that will forever be far greater to us than the success of any financially doped or extremely rich club”. The writer goes on to describe how winning a trophy could never instigate the same sensation as that felt when Stuart Storer scored a goal in 1997 that meant that Brighton’s very existence wasn’t threatened. “Those people who believe that trophies can be more important or special than a magical moment, well, they’ll never know.”

I’ve just googled “what is success” and the results were interesting. The more common definition is “the accomplishment of an aim”, which implies that a success outcome is an event measured against an individual’s expectation. If Liverpool finish fifth in the Premier League, most supporters would regard that as an unsuccessful season whereas if Brighton finished fifth, I would be ecstatic. By this way, “success” is not an absolute concept but, like beauty, is “in the eye of the beholder”.

Another, more archaic, definition of success is simply an outcome, which could be positive or negative. The example given is “the good or ill success of their maritime enterprises”. This fits in with the word “succession”, where one event follows another and no judgement about the value of the later event is implied.

Is “Songs Of Leonard Cohen” a “successful” album? How can success be measured?

  1. It reached Number 82 in the Billboard Charts
  2. It reached Number 13 in the U.K. Charts
  3. It spent a year and a half in the U.K. Charts
  4. It sold over 1,000,000 copies world wide

Can “success” be measured by outcomes or by moments? Was my career a failure because I never became a Headteacher or was it success because I sarcastically made comments about rulers which students remembered in later life? Will Brighton’s 2022/23 season be a failure because they don’t win the Premier League or was the season a success because of Kaoru Mitoma’s glorious goal yesterday? Is “Songs Of Leonard Cohen” a failure because it didn’t sell as many copies as “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” or was it successful because of moments like the opening two lines of “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”.

“I loved you in the morning, our kisses deep and warm
Your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm”

Leonard Cohen wrote “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” when staying at the Penn Terminal Hotel in New York. He wrote: “The room is too hot. I can’t open the windows. I am in the midst of a bitter quarrel with a blonde woman. The song is half-written in pencil but it protects us as we manoeuvre, each of us, for unconditional victory. I am in the wrong room. I am with the wrong woman.”

When “Songs Of Leonard Cohen” was released, Arthur Schmidt of “Rolling Stone” wrote, “There are three brilliant songs, one good one, three qualified bummers, and three flaming shits.” Even if that’s true, surely the moments of glory listening to “Suzanne”, “So Long, Marianne” and “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” would surely make this a “successful” album.

John Hammond was initially assigned to produce Leonard Cohen’s first album after Judy Collins covered “Suzanne” for her album “In My Life”. John Hammond had signed Bob Dylan and produced his eponymous first album. Leonard Cohen wanted a sparse sound but John Hammond brought in a number of additional musicians to supplement the sound. When John Hammond fell ill, John Simon was brought in to complete the album and he had the same ideas, adding strings and horns and (on “So Long, Marianne”) drums. John Simon would go on to produce The Band’s eponymous second album.

In order to cope with the anonymous musicians brought into the studio by the two producers, Leonard Cohen arranged for a full-length mirror be brought into the studio. “Through some version of narcissism, I always used to play in front of a mirror. I guess it was the best way to look while playing the guitar, or maybe it was just where the chair was. But I was very comfortable looking at myself playing.” One of the musicians who played on the album was David Lindley, of Kaleidoscope, who would go on to work closely with Jackson Browne, particularly on “Late For The Sky“, the sixth best album of all time. His fiddle playing on “So Long, Marianne” is either beautiful or intrusive, depending on your point of view. I find it beautiful.

In another spooky moment of serendipity, I decided to write about Leonard Cohen last night, when deciding which “successful” album I should explore. As they say, “imagine my surprise” when I opened The Guardian this morning to see an article titled “Famous blue leotard: the Leonard Cohen dance show the singer never lived to see.” A Canadian ballet company, “Ballets Jazz Montreal”, are bringing their show, “Dance Me”, to Sadler’s Wells for five days, starting next week. In 2021, a new director, Alexandra Damiani, agreed to take over the production of the show, but only after her misgivings were addressed. She had doubts about dancing to music that she loved and which had their own distinctive voice. At first she thought “The work of Leonard Cohen can stand on its own. I don’t need a dance to enjoy it“, but having seen the show, she was “disarmed by the beauty of it. It’s such a poetic homage.

Suzanne Verdal was a dancer who was married to a sculptor named Armand. She developed a platonic relationship with Leonard Cohen in Montreal. The lyrics of “Suzanne” describe the rituals that they enjoyed when they met: she would invite him to visit her apartment by Montreal harbour, where she would serve him tea and they would walk around Old Montreal past the church of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours, where sailors were blessed before heading out to sea. Many people have interpreted lyrics such as “you’ve always been her lover” as an indication that the relationship was sexual but, in a 1994 interview, he said that he only imagined having sex with her, as there was neither the opportunity nor inclination to take their relationship any further. (Does this mean their relationship was “successful” because of their magical moments (I’m being flippant (or am I?))).

Here’s a link to a detailed interview with Suzanne Verdal, that’s well worth reading.

So Long Marianne” was inspired by Marianne Jensen, who met Leonard Cohen on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960. She had recently separated from her husband and was living on the island with her six-month-old son. They lived together in Hydra, Oslo and Montreal during the 1960s. He once introduced the song by saying “I began this in Montreal and finished it a year or so later at the Chelsea Hotel in New York. I didn’t think I was saying goodbye but I guess I was. She gave me many songs, and she has given songs to others too. She is a Muse.” Marianne Ihlen herself, however, said that the original words were not “So long, Marianne”, but “Come on, Marianne”, indicating that the song was originally a celebration of their affair and not a regretful farewell.

This is a successful album. It opened our eyes to the world of a poet who was obsessed with love, deficiency, compassion, desire, anger and treachery.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

4 thoughts on “Songs of Leonard Cohen

  1. I don’t often get starstruck (probably not true but hey), yet when I got to see him – maybe 15 years ago – I was most definitely walloped by those stars. Quite an emotional experience. I love this album.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: