Sunday, June 25, 2006

Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man

(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!

4 comments:

jmac said...

Z, I love how your discussion explores Leonard Cohen beyond the images on the screen, especially your observation that within L.C.'s poetry, he is propelled forward by the vivid presences of his past. This is very beautiful and thought provoking . . . and a good example of how cinematic his poetry is!

I get what you are saying regarding some of the performances in this doc, but I think that the poetry came to life by the presence of all these artists together . . . When Leonard Cohen appeared, it was distilled, concentrated L.C.!

My favorite lyrics right now are from "Suzanne"

Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbour
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror


(It will take me all morning to explain the significance of each line to me, so I'll sign off now. Thanks for writing about this doc. You are so lucid!)

Nictate said...

Excellent observations on the haunting Mr. Cohen. Now I'm more excited to see the doc. I feel the same smirky way about Bono.

My current favorite song of his is "Alexandra Leaving," which I first heard as a cover by Michelle Shocked at a Leonard Cohen tribute night in Topanga Canyon. Amazing.

"Even though she sleeps upon your satin.
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined,
Do not stoop to strategies like this.

As someone long prepared for this to happen,
Go firmly to the window. Drink it in.
Exquisite music, Alexandra laughing.
Your first commitments tangible again.

You who had the honor of her evening,
And by that honor had your own restored---
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Alexandra leaving with her lord.

As someone long prepared for the occasion;
In full command of every plan you wrecked---
Do not choose a coward's explanation
that hides behind the cause and the effect,

You who were bewildered by a meaning,
whose code was broken, crucifix uncrossed---
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost."

Zach Campbell said...

Thanks for reading, jmac and nictate! Glad you liked it. (Michelle Shocked singing Cohen? Cool...)

Brendan said...

I've been an an admirer of Leonard C for over thirty years, Alexandra leaving is a very special song for me, encapsulates LC's mystery and deep deep voice, what a talent. I saw him on Irish TV last night singing "Tower or Song" with U2 ....it was superb...he is complexity simplified