A great song can be sung by anybody. And even though two covers of Leonard’s work are legendary, Judy Collins’s “Suzanne” and Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” it’s Don Henley’s cover of “Everybody Knows” that sticks with me, that I sing in my head again and again…remember when we could still sing songs?
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Sound like our election?
I certainly think it does. I understand the poor feel screwed, that they’ve been left behind in the march to globalization and digitization, but I have a hard time seeing how cutting taxes on the rich will help them out. As for bringing back manufacturing to America…well, that’s fine if you want to pay $2500 for a flat screen that’s made by few people anyway, automation is king.
“Everybody Knows” originally appeared on Leonard Cohen’s 1988 album “I’m Your Man,” which had very little impact, because by this time the buzz was done. After the thrill is gone, after you’re no longer the critics’ darling, will you continue to compose? The greats do, Leonard Cohen did.
And seven years later, Don Henley included it on his greatest hits album, “Actual Miles,” one of three new compositions included to implore completists to purchase the LP, back when that was still a thing, buying albums.
And now it’s twenty one years later and most people have still not heard “Everybody Knows,” but it’s lying in wait, you will be slayed by its truth when you finally discover it. This is the antithesis of today’s hit and run music, this is a time bomb, a land mine, waiting to go off when you stumble upon it, a great song is forever, never forget that.
My mother asked me about Leonard Cohen. Which was kind of surprising, because despite her being a culture vulture, I was the pop music king, this was before our parents were our friends, before oldsters turned their progeny on to the Beatles, when to be on the same page as your parents was a rare event.
And the first album made an impact, back when records didn’t have to chart, didn’t have to have a single, to do so.
You should probably start here, with 1968’s “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” produced by the unheralded John Simon who’s been forgotten by the wankers inducting second-rate poseurs into the Hall of Fame while he midwifed some of the greatest albums in the modern canon.
And “Songs of Leonard Cohen” sounds like a Simon album, in that it’s got a slickness, with strings, that most don’t think of when they think of Leonard Cohen today, but it’s a document, seared into my brain and the culture.
Its most famous song is the aforementioned “Suzanne,” which cemented Judy Collins’ career, made her a star, transformed her from a folkie into a pop princess. Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” ultimately put her over the top, but it was “Suzanne” that turned the tide, it was unlike today, there was not a baby boomer who hadn’t heard it, despite it not being a hit single.
Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river
You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night forever
Notice the difference? This is unlike today’s lyrics, which are all about status and accomplishment, “Suzanne” is about life, which is why Leonard Cohen’s song resonated and still radiates, we’re touched by humanity, flash comes and goes, real life sustains. And Leonard’s version is even more subtle than Judy’s, it’s like there’s a poet in the corner singing his song, quietly, to the point where you’re intrigued and you want to get closer, you need to get closer.
And just when you want to tell her that you have no love to give her
She gets you on her wavelength and lets the river answer
That you’ve always been her lover
That’s the power of people as opposed to corporations, they’ll surprise you, you’ll think they have no effect on you and then you can’t live without them. And no recitation of the power of “Suzanne” can be complete without reference to the lyrics about touching her (and his!) perfect body with her mind. We’re all seeking perfection, and we find it in the less than perfect, a conundrum that’s part of the mystery of life.
And the two other songs that touched me from the debut, they all did, but the ones that immediately come to mind are “So Long, Marianne” and “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye,” my college roommate used to play that album again and again, and they were imprinted upon my mind. We now know who Marianne was, she recently passed, but back then it didn’t matter, we created a picture in our own mind, the songs were for us. And we never disconnect from those we love, certainly not emotionally, we never really say goodbye, which is why these partings are always so awkward.
Suddenly, with the success of “Songs of Leonard Cohen” Leonard was no longer a poet from the Great White North, he was a member of the pop firmament, no one had previously crossed over, still, he inhabited his own space, he always existed in his own rarefied world.
The follow-up, 1969’s “Songs From A Room” is most famous for its opening cut, “Bird on the Wire,” which was famously covered by Joe Cocker on his second album, his best, as well as the live album “Mad Dogs & Englishmen,” great songs were passed around, sung by everybody.
But Leonard Cohen’s commercial impact was waning with each LP. The second and third were produced by Bob Johnston in accordance with Leonard’s wishes, but the sounds were less accessible than the John Simon work, but each album had a standout track, on 1971’s “Songs of Love and Hate” it was “Famous Blue Raincoat,” which Jennifer Warnes made famous as the title track of her 1987 album, her artistic and commercial peak.
And then it was a journey into the wilderness, everybody knew Leonard’s name, he got press, but few acquired albums that got no airplay and therefore had little cultural impact. More people remember that 1977’s “Death of a Ladies’ Man” was produced by Phil Spector than any of the songs. I bought it, it was a curio, kind of like the Ramones album “End of the Century” that Spector also produced, equally a mismatch.
1984’s “Various Positions” included “Hallelujah,” a modern day standard, but completely ignored upon its release.
And 1988’s “I’m Your Man” included “First We Take Manhattan,” as well as “Everybody Knows,” the former the opening cut on that Jennifer Warnes album “Famous Blue Raincoat,” featuring searing guitar work by the dearly departed Stevie Ray Vaughan. You see the public might not have been listening, but the artists were, back when being an artist was just that, you weren’t in the hunt for corporate opportunities, you weren’t a brand, but a malleable mass in search of experimentation and satiation as well as riches. Pushing the envelope was key, and the music spoke for you.
The music was speaking for Leonard Cohen. Because he wasn’t speaking at all. He’d checked out, he’d gone up the road to Mt. Baldy, he’d joined a monastery.
There’s this illusion that rock stars live that life 24/7, but the truth is people are paying attention for a very short time, especially in the pre-Internet era, if you weren’t making hits and you weren’t getting arrested it was like you didn’t even exist. When I went to a birthday party in the Valley back in 2003 and Leonard was there he was just an old Jew in a hat, not someone who changed the tenor of the entire assemblage. He radiated a charisma, but he seemed self-contained, in his own bubble, you could lean in, but he was not leaning out, it was very different from the famous people who are looking for attention and adoration, it was like he knew something we did not, that the joke was on us, that money and fame were secondary to personal fulfillment, and that life was hard, and you did your best to soldier on.
And then Leonard Cohen lost all his money and went on the road and became an icon.
How weird is all this. If that woman hadn’t stolen from him, he might never have played live again, gotten all that press, those accolades. Funny how life goes. You think you’re in charge, but you’re not.
Leonard got a victory lap nonpareil. He just released a new album that got rave reviews.
And today he died.
So what are we left with?
The songs. He’s no longer here, but his work will live on, he’s got a legacy.
And what is that legacy?
Someone who did it differently. Who was in search of pleasure, who experienced the pain. Leonard Cohen was a seeker. Whether it be that foray to Greece way back when or up the hill to the monastery, he was looking for answers.
And now he’s revered for that.
Let that be a wake-up call. That despite all the emphasis on money, the constant social networking, life is really a mysterious adventure you go through alone, you’ve got to put one foot in front of the other, you’ve got to make choices, they’re only your own. And those who are willing to buck the trends, who do it their way, are the ones we look up to.
He was a charming poet from Canada, not the scion of a studio head in Los Angeles.
He followed his muse, it led him to a recording contract and the fruits that ultimately bore.
But when I think of Leonard Cohen today, I think of someone who was sui generis, who was birthed in an era where who you were was more important than what you did. A man who realized that telling his own personal story was more important than playing the game, that ultimately it’s not statistics we’re drawn to, but truth.
And like I said, there’s a lot of truth in “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’s talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long-stem rose
We all know the truth, we’re just afraid to speak it. That’s what we depend upon artists for, that’s why we’re drawn to them.
I feel like my father or my dog just died. I’ve been at loose ends for forty eight hours.
And when you’re in a spot like that, the only thing that resonates is music.
Leonard Cohen made music, and so much more.
He needed to express himself.
We needed to listen.
That’s how it goes.