(Part of a Blog-a-thon which includes--tentative list here--Jen at Invisible Cinema, Michael at The Evening Class, and Girish.)
I don't know entirely what I want to say about this film (Lian Lunson's documentary Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man) or this artist (Cohen), so I'll figure it out as I write. The film intersperses footage of a tribute concert for Cohen with interviews with and some archival material about Cohen himself. U2 (particularly the Edge and Bono) make an appearance, and their presence closes the film, which is to me a blemish on an otherwise tasteful selection of musicians. (At this point, can anyone watch Bono without smirking or sneering? He brings out the cynic in me, that's for sure.) The rest of the talent (which includes Rufus Wainwright, Antony, Nick Cave, Linda Thompson, and many more) does passable-to-excellent covers of Cohen songs. What's fascinating to watch is how much fun most of these people seem to have singing these songs. Some of them dance or contort in ways that made me think that they were performing in front of a mirror at home, "trying on" Leonard Cohen like a suit, taking his words and milking them for full expressive effect. As though his words guided them somewhere altogether new--chords and lyrics (tea and oranges) that seduce them.
Here are some lyrics from one of my favorite Cohen songs (unfortunately left out of the tribute concert):
"And now you look around you,
see her everywhere,
many use her body,
many comb her hair.
In the hollow of the night
when you are cold and numb
you hear her talking freely then,
she's happy that you've come,
she's happy that you've come."
This is the fourth and final verse of "Seems So Long Ago, Nancy," which is a reflection upon a woman, Nancy (apparently someone Cohen knew who committed suicide). These lyrics are an exposition upon a certain haunting memory: the ghost of Nancy is that which invades your perception, showing others "using her body," "combing her hair," a voice which comes to you in the deep hours of the night. There's something both romantic and amicable in the narrator's recollection of Nancy, but it's told in an almost casual way ("Nancy wore green stockings / and she slept with everyone," etc.) so that her specter hovers in the mind of the narrator between significance and insignificance--she's an elusive figure, neither cipher nor center.
What makes this important to me is that, as Cohen insists in I'm Your Man, he's not a nostalgic person. Instead, LC deals with the problems of memory, and the inclusion of the past inside the present, not as a matter of nostalgia but as a condition of daily experience (compare this song to, say, "Bob Dylan's Dream"--a heartbreaking song, but as wistfully sentimental as "Seems So Long Ago, Nancy" is stoically-resigned). This is to say, maybe, one doesn't look back in LC's universe so much as he or she is pushed forward by constant, complex, and even irrational presences of the past. Even when the signifiers can be ascribed to Cohen's personal life and history, the relation to the listener (and the potential for the reinterpreter) works because it is a whole self-sufficient system of meaning-making. This is what good songwriters and poets often do, constructing something deeply personal but expressing something that exists outside of persona.
At any rate, this is what I have to offer up in honor of Leonard Cohen--it's not much but there it is. Respond with your favorite LC songs/poems!