A crack in everything: Leonard Cohen's biggest downers
"Laughin' Len" is here to dance you to the end
Though he himself has claimed to not quite understand it—and diehard fans have long written such interpretations off as “shallow” or “unfair”—Leonard Cohen’s reputation for being depressing is unparalleled in the music world. True, he’s also a crackling wit, a “Bard of the Boudoir” with mad red-wine-and-late-night-conversation seduction skills, and a crafter of beatific poetry that posits Cohen as David’s rival for the title of “sweet singer of Israel.” But when you’re truly looking to wallow, nothing will drag you down faster than sitting in a dark room enveloped by Songs Of Love And Hate—just the widest and deepest of Cohen’s many pits of ultimate despair. In anticipation of his two-night stand down south in Chicago (beginning tonight at the Chicago Theatre), Decider looks at some of Cohen’s most legendary downers.
Sample lyric: “And I heard of the saint who had loved you / Yeah, I studied all night in his school / He taught that the duty of lovers is to tarnish the Golden Rule / And just when I was sure that his teachings were pure / He went and drowned himself in the pool.”
The sadness: Rumored to be one of several odes written to icy, aloof chanteuse Nico, “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong” is, like so many of Cohen’s “love songs,” about a longing that’s not only futile, but absolutely ruinous. Whereas many ballads of unrequited amour end in bitterness or regret, Cohen’s tend to end in death, metaphoric or otherwise. Here Cohen’s unquenchable desire is for a woman encased in a “blizzard of ice,” a heart so cold that she manages to freeze an Eskimo blue, and who has the power to end the lives of men who only come into contact with her even tangentially—like the doctor Cohen’s narrator consults with, only to taint him with “all the details of our shabby honeymoon” and whose practice has since “fallen to ruin.” Love hurts, sure, but never quite like in Cohen’s world.
Slit-o-meter: 5. There are plenty of fish in the sea, and not all of them are frigid bitches.
Sample lyric: “You who wish to conquer pain / You must learn what makes me kind / The crumbs of love that you offer me / They're the crumbs I've left behind / Your pain is no credential here / It's just the shadow, shadow of my wound."
The sadness: Through the years, Cohen has honed his bitterness into a smiling, cynical wit, but around Songs Of Love And Hate, he was operating almost entirely unfiltered. Hence this angry, Richard III snarl of a “hunchback” whose despair is so all-consuming that it “covered up my soul,” and who stays, callous and far removed, comfortable in his cave at “the center of the world.” But just as this self-loathing "cripple" seems to have turned misanthropy to his favor—and in fact, uses it to taunt the rest of the human race—he finds himself disturbed by a longing he can’t quell, saying, “I have begun to ask for you / I who have no need.” Just in case you couldn’t imagine anything sadder than an outcast finding cold comfort by wallowing in his misery, Lenny ups the ante by giving him the cruelest disease of all: hope.
Slit-o-meter: 7. Lighten up, Francis.
Sample lyric: "And what can I tell you my brother, my killer / What can I possibly say? / I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you / I’m glad you stood in my way.”
The sadness: This letter from a man to his cuckolding former friend is steeped in dolor—from its slow minor chord progression to the mournful wails of backing vocalist Susan Mussmano—even though the message is ostensibly one of gratitude. But this is Leonard Cohen we’re talking about, so naturally it’s gratitude of the most bittersweet kind: Cohen actually thanks his friend for sleeping with his lover and “the trouble you took from her eyes”—something he believed he was incapable of doing on his own and had long since given up on trying—but his admission, “I guess I forgive you,” sounds less than sincere and more like something he’s come to terms with only because he has no choice. Still, as love triangles involving close friends go, this one has a happier ending than most, even if the implication is that he’ll never be able to look at Jane again without seeing his friend “there with the rose in your teeth.”
Slit-o-meter: 3. Bros before hos, right?
Sample lyric: “Things are going to slide, slide in all directions / Won't be nothing / Nothing you can measure anymore / The blizzard, the blizzard of the world / Has crossed the threshold / And it has overturned / The order of the soul.”
The sadness: Somewhere around the cold and unfeeling ’80s, Cohen became less the “grocer of despair” and more of a synthesizer-fiddling Nero, cracking wise on the edge of Armageddon. While songs like “Everybody Knows” posits a giddy, nihilistic philosophy, and “Anthem” sees the world’s imperfections (the “crack in everything”) as freeing, “The Future” is true hellfire-and-brimstone, street preacher stuff, a litany of all the ways humanity has condemned itself delivered with a sarcastic smile. “Give me crack and anal sex,” Cohen snarks, dipping into Swiftian satire with “Destroy another fetus now / We don’t like children anyhow,” and admonishing that “it’s over, it ain’t going any further.” Throughout, Cohen seems to be saying, “The world is ending, baby, so let’s enjoy the ride”—and whether you find it depressing depends mightily on your sense of humor.
Slit-o-meter: 1. Fuck it. Have another drink.
Sample lyric: “Now if you can manage to get / Your trembling fingers to behave / Why don't you try unwrapping / A stainless steel razor blade? / That's right, it's come to this.”
The sadness: A song so relentlessly maudlin that Cohen has reportedly only performed it live a handful of times, “Dress Rehearsal Rag” is a minute-by-minute account of a man not merely contemplating suicide but staring it square in the face, conjuring up painful memories and using them to goad himself into ending it all. No longer the “golden boy” or “crown prince,” Cohen’s subject finds himself alone in the bathroom looking at “a funeral in the mirror,” fumbling with his razor and making the “veins stand out like highways” as he realizes that “it’s come to this.” There’s not much room for interpretation here: “You’ve used up all your coupons / Except the one that seems to be written on your wrist,” and although the “cameras pan” at the last instant, revealing this to be just another run-through, the implication is clear that—one of these days—the final curtain call is going to be all too real.
Slit-o-meter: 10. Hide the knives and call your mom.