Leonard Cohen's Priests

General discussion about Leonard Cohen's songs and albums
Gr8vettek
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Leonard Cohen's Priests

Postby Gr8vettek » Sun Nov 28, 2010 5:36 pm

I just heard this song for the first time and I do not understand the meaning. Could someone help me out?
Gr8vettek
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Re: Leonard Cohen's Priests

Postby Gr8vettek » Sun Dec 05, 2010 11:01 pm

Really? No one wants to give this a try?
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Re: Leonard Cohen's Priests

Postby Gr8vettek » Mon Dec 13, 2010 10:13 pm

Doesn't anyone read these posts?
MaryB
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Re: Leonard Cohen's Priests

Postby MaryB » Mon Dec 13, 2010 11:03 pm

Maybe no one has an answer. I know I'm waiting also to see what others have to say.
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TineDoes
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Re: Leonard Cohen's Priests

Postby TineDoes » Mon Dec 13, 2010 11:54 pm

Gr8vettek wrote:Doesn't anyone read these posts?
Maybe the people who would love to answer this post are still savouring the after effects of the last wonderful concerts.
Do bring this question to the attention some time later. I'm sure someone will answer.

Tineke
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Re: Leonard Cohen's Priests

Postby MaryB » Tue Dec 14, 2010 1:03 am

TineDoes,

I hope you will be one of the participants in this discussion. I enjoy reading your interpretations.

Best regards,
Mary
1993 Detroit 2008 Kitchener June 2-Hamilton June 3 & 4-Vienna Sept 24 & 25-London RAH Nov 17 2009 NYC Feb 19-Grand Prairie Apr 3-Phoenix Apr 5-Columbia May 11-Red Rocks Jun 4-Barcelona Sept 21-Columbus Oct 27-Las Vegas Nov 12-San Jose Nov 13 2010 Sligo Jul 31 & Aug 1-LV Dec 10 & 11 2012 Paris Sept 30-London Dec 11-Boston Dec 16 2013 Louisville Mar 30-Amsterdam Sept 20
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TineDoes
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Re: Leonard Cohen's Priests

Postby TineDoes » Thu Dec 16, 2010 3:54 am

MaryB wrote: I hope you will be one of the participants in this discussion. I enjoy reading your interpretations.
Thank you Mary for your encouraging words.
Judy Colins recorded i 'Priests' in 1967. I've listened to it and read it a few times. But I hardly dare voice an interpretation.
Leonard has in many songs used Biblical images for carnal theme's. In this song that maybe the case.
The first line reminds me of the lines from So long Marianne ' You know I love to live with you... And then the angels forget to pray for us. The 'angels' seem to portray Leonard 'muse'. He seems to say that he looses his 'muse' when involved with a woman. Priests is from the same period in Leonard's life.
'And who will write love songs for you/when I am lord at last' seem to say something similar.
The narator may have become a 'lord' when he has gained his love. It is the longing for love that gives the 'muse' (angels or priests) the freedom to have ideals about love and freedom to honor and glorify love in song and other actions like putting flowers. There is sadness for this loss and also envy "but he has seen me watching you when all your minds were free".
But this is just an idea, I hope someone else may give their views on this.
Tineke
"There’s no forsaking what you love ...."

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B4real
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Re: Leonard Cohen's Priests

Postby B4real » Sun Dec 26, 2010 8:19 am

Hi Tineke,

I thought I might join in this discussion because “Priests” is one of my favourite Leonard written-but-not-on-CD songs. He has sung this song and it has been recorded but not released and like some of his earlier works, it has been lost in time. When Tom Sakic wrote to Leonard in 2007 to ask why “Priests" wasn’t on Songs of LC re-release, he answered "They (Sony) didn't find it, I maybe have it somewhere."

It would be absolutely a treasure if it did in fact surface after all these years. Nothing is impossible.

You know, when I first heard this song (never saw the words) I thought it started as:

“And who will write love songs for you,
when I am gone at last.”

After discovering that it was indeed ‘lord’ not ‘gone’, the whole song took on a different meaning to me. In fact, it has led me to look at it as a whole in two diverse ways. My initial impression was to see the overall feeling as one of sorrow and lament. Then upon further reflection, the secondary reactionary images I get are one of a darker scenario. Having arrived at that conclusion it would be realistic to say that this song is possibly encased in sensual and religious interwoven feelings and images to a degree more than I thought it was at first glance.
TineDoes wrote:Leonard has in many songs used Biblical images for carnal theme's. In this song that maybe the case.

I agree.

A possible actual visual inspiration for this song:
Shrine along the road to Vlichos Hydra.jpg
shrine along the road to Vlichos Hydra
Shrine (close-up) along the road to Vlichos Hydra.jpg
Shrine (close-up) along the road to Vlichos Hydra
These photos cover the first and second verses and the similar last two verses (sixth and seventh) and could in fact, be the actual physical image that Leonard saw to inspire him. It is reasonable to think he would have seen it. It is one of the roadside (highway) shrines on Hydra along the road to Vlichos.

I have been generalising on the darker scenario here. I actually would prefer to take the lighter face value approach but for now this is how it appears to me.
Anyone, feel free to analyse each line or verse and it will probably change the overall feeling again.

PS moderators - maybe this should be transferred to the music section.
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Re: Leonard Cohen's Priests

Postby sharik » Thu Mar 03, 2011 11:28 am

this is a complex song so don't expect simple interpretations......
well---in my opinion
he is expressing the dilemmas/ contradictions/ bridge between 'earthly' love and 'divine love' --
Also this is his take on "lila" of hindu mythology - "This creative activity of the Divine is called lila, the play of God"
"..The basic recurring theme in Hindu mythology is the creation of the world by the self-sacrifice of God .."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lila

what i like about this song apart from the haunting melody ( in the judy collins version)exc is his attempting to describe
the limits of his love-reach in human form...which can never be paralleled to a 'saints'/lord form---
the incomparable imagination of a man turning himself "lord" and what happens with his earthly "shrine" of love--
which is ultimately his own divine - expression....(?)
-- that's why there are almost no songs like this...;)

and what are the "priests"? -- the priests are the mediators between divine love and the objects of desire/symbols of divinity --- the ones "turning the wheel" ...'wear ing away' the shrine itself ,, ' confusing the sunny calender '....


hope this helps , or at least slightly amusing ;)
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Re: Leonard Cohen's Priests

Postby hydriot » Sun Mar 06, 2011 3:52 am

This is also one of my favourite songs.

It is the final verse which I find so haunting and poignant. To me, it talks of the fundamental loneliness of creativity. An author can only ever be a voyeur, never allowed to take part in the dance, only permitted to watch others dance and record them doing so; never allowed to be free, only allowed to watch others being free.

At the time Leonard wrote that song, Greece was covered with these wayside shrines. They seem to be disappearing. I only know of two on Hydra now: the one shown above by B4real and this one, at the western end of Vlichos, dedicated to Saints Andreas and Barbara. Inside the shrine, there is traditionally some water so that the weary traveller can gain physical as well as spiritual comfort when he opens the window.
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“If you do have love it's a kind of wound, and if you don't have it it's worse.” - Leonard, July 1988
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Re: Leonard Cohen's Priests

Postby sharik » Mon Mar 07, 2011 11:37 am

Hi Hydriot ,
As a creator of sorts myself and in general i totally disagree with your opinion---
factually many artists/writers/painters/mystics are known to have very extravagant lives , lively lives,
many also have depressing lonely lives... leonard had them both i would say -- but he surely was "allowed to take part in the dance" .
in my opinion the very act of writing /creating and singing a song that 'nailes it' is a great moment of touching the divine and a highlight of freedom most people rarely get to feel.

as to the song 'Priests' --- leonard puts himself in the shoes of lord, "lord of memory" exc, but in the same breathe almost --
feels totally disconnected ---"..the twisted life of saints.." " ..the dance that god has kept from me.."
i think he yearns and is a aware of the idea of total freedom -enlightenment --
but also he struggels to undersatnd this type of freedom confined to his human form ...
Thus 'secretly' he actually wants to stay in this physical realm -- get lost in the dance ...BUT-- as seekers of truth come to see -- one can never really go back to the world of men...

he expreses similar themes also in the song 'Suzanne ' --"jesus....he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower....but he himself was broken ..forsaken almost human .. He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone .."
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Re: Leonard Cohen's Priests

Postby John Etherington » Tue Mar 08, 2011 3:46 am

“Priests” is one of Leonard's most mysterious songs, and one that I can't remember being discussed before (even in the earliest writings about Leonard's lyrics). As with the other songs from "The Songs of Leonard Cohen" era, romantic and sexual longing is amplified with religious, predominantly catholic imagery. The theme of saints recurs in Leonard's writing. Examples are: (Saint) Catherine Tekakwitha in "Beautiful Losers", and from the songs "I heard of a saint who had loved you" , "angels, demons and saints", etc. The theme of heroes also recurs..."there are heroes in the seaweed", "a bunch of lonesome heroes", "the paths your heroes came" etc. Leonard of course is a Cohen (one of the Kohanim or priestly lineage) and he has often referred to this - perhaps originally in the early poem "I Am a Priest of God".

The song “Priests” appears to be addressed to a woman who Leonard is unable to get as close as he would like to, and who he has raised to an iconic status. He has projected himself to a position where his present dilemma has been transcended and he is able to think back (as the lord of memory). The unreachable woman is symbolized as being on the other side of the glass, or impenetrable with the "armour" that is protecting her. However, Leonard sees his priests or those who would follow in his footsteps, as being able to cross the threshold. Hence, "they'll wear away your little window, love/they will trample on the grass", and futuristically "your armour has turned to lace" (an association can be made here with “Joan of Arc”).

I discussed the above thoughts with Jim Devlin earlier this evening, and he was in agreement with most of the things that I said. He also came up with a couple of valid theories. He interpreted "and who will aim the arrow" as perhaps referring to cupid's arrow, and as an arrow that reaches its target over a period of time. The use of red and gold he associated with religious ornamentation. I thought of red as being associated with lust (to which Jim added "blood"), and gold as a spiritual or alchemical colour (as elsewhere "I feel I'm turning into gold"). Thus we might associate red with heroes, and gold with saints. The life of the heroes is simple, but the life of saints is twisted and tortured (Leonard here, associating with the latter). An image is conjured of the crucified body of Christ. The "sunny calendar" remains something of a mystery.

Regarding the last verse, Jim said he thought that Leonard was addressing the listener. We were in agreement that the dance refers to the dance of life and of love (also alluded to in "Dance Me To the End of Love"). In the song, Leonard feels that God is keeping him separate from this, and from a detached perspective observes the freedom that others have, who have not had to take the path that he has been destined to follow. Reading the other posts above, it seems that everyone is on the right track, and that overall there is a general consensus of agreement.

All good things, John E
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hydriot
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Re: Leonard Cohen's Priests

Postby hydriot » Tue Mar 08, 2011 11:43 am

hydriot wrote:To me, it talks of the fundamental loneliness of creativity. An author can only ever be a voyeur, never allowed to take part in the dance, only permitted to watch others dance and record them doing so; never allowed to be free, only allowed to watch others being free.
Sharik, I did say 'To me'. Different people create in different ways and for different reasons. The Ancients believed that if you could name your enemy you had power over him. My enemy is Death. So I try to 'name' him in the creative things I do. As the penultimate sentence of what I consider to be the finest book written in the English language says: "Against you I will fling myself unvanquished and unyielding, O Death." But always I am outside the dance, like the catcher in the rye.

As Aldous Huxley wrote in After Many A Summer, "Propinquity is never fusion, and even the closest contact is only of surfaces". Quite so. My contact with the dance is only with surfaces. My artistry is a pathetic attempt to come closer to fusion.
“If you do have love it's a kind of wound, and if you don't have it it's worse.” - Leonard, July 1988
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Re: Leonard Cohen's Priests

Postby sharik » Tue Mar 08, 2011 1:11 pm

Shalom

hydriot, thanks for sharing more of your message .. i was just giving MY opinion too,i agree there are different types of creators..
to me its very important to deal with death, but death is not an enemy but a pace-maker...
the more you hold the mirror of death close.. the more you potentially cherish life..but also .. you have to get lost in the dance ..
which is a kind of death.....keeping your awareness while totally drunk in the dance thats my definition of saintlyness...

Jhon, I enjoyed reading your well written comments, learned more about the song - thanks.
I differ in views in some cases and would be happy to discuss things further,,

in my opinion the priests/his priests/himself as priest are NOT "being able to cross the threshold" of the 'shrine' as you mention , but instead just wear it down or defile it in some sense... this image that even the priests don't really 'get in' is very interesting... i disagree with your opinion mainly because of the word "but" and "trample on the grass" --" ...they will put flowers there, they will stand before the glass, BUT.. they'll wear away your little window, love, they will trample on the grass..."
This also makes sense with the third verse and the first verse in some kind of way -
like he's saying that only the lord himself is good enough for 'her' ,
but his minions ( his priests , himself as man) job is to reach her and ultimately fail... that is the gist of the song for me...

Red and golden paints on the sunny calendar - i would add on what you said-- these are happy (golden) and mournful (red) days the 'saints' emphasize we should keep- While in fact the days are flowing like wine without any need to really mark them in any way.

Last remarks ( yay) - on the last verse--
its interesting that he doesn’t really say the 'listeners'/priests/saints actually danced .. he writes " ..all of you have SEEN the dance.."
this means they didn't dance themselves - since you cant really see the dance while you are in the midst of dancing (or can you?)
... adds another layer of mystery .. also he refers to god as 'he'..

thanks
Sharik
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Re: Leonard Cohen's Priests

Postby John Etherington » Wed Mar 09, 2011 4:28 am

Hi Sharik,

It's interesting to hear your take on this; especially regarding the last part. Of course, there's no ultimate answer here...only our personal perceptions. I'm reminded how "off the mark" some of the supposedly scholarly early interpretations of Leonard's lyrics could be (in books now out of print). I still suspect that "when your armour turns to lace" implies something sexual, but I may be wrong. Leonard occasionally juxtaposes a religious image with something explicity sexual. Take the "f--- a saint" passage in "Beautiful Losers", and the verse about St. Francis in "Death of a Ladies Man".

Even though I've owned Judy collins version of "Priests" for over 40 years, I hadn't really tried to interpret it, until the question was raised, here. Hearing Judy's very pure rendition, I always thought of it simply as a beautiful love poem with religious imagery, and I let if affect me in a subliminal way. We can but wonder how our perceptions of the song might differ, if Leonard had recorded it. I've heard Richie Havens version and like it, but because of its context, I have always thought of that as a cover, and of Judy Collins version as the definitive version, to date.

I've wondered which of Leonard's Sixties ladies "Priests"may be addressed to (assuming that it was intended for one specific person). Joni Mitchell sprang to mind, since she wrote the song "The Priest" about Leonard (on "Ladies of the Canyon"). However, to the best of my knowledge they didn't meet until 1968. Could it maybe have been written for Judy Collins, hereself? Otherwise, "Priests" has some of the feel of Leonard's "Nico songs", which possibly include "One of Us Cannot Be Wrong", "Joan of Arc", "Last Years Man"and "Take This Longing" ("Hungry as an archway through which the troops have passed" alludes more obviously to sexual encounters between a woman and her lovers). Incidentally, I don't feel it is inappropriate to take this line of enquiry, since Suzanne, Marianne, Janis, Nico etc have all been discussed openly,and are all suitably distant and iconised. It was only on the early songs that naming of women took place (since "Chelsea Hotel" this has not happened). Ultimately, I will be quite happy if "Priests" retains some of its mystery. After all, we may never fully crack any coded language that Leonard might have put into the song.

All good things, John E

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