Leonard Cohen's Priests

General discussion about Leonard Cohen's songs and albums
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B4real
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Re: Leonard Cohen's Priests

Postby B4real » Thu Mar 10, 2011 12:42 pm

Hi everyone,

Most enjoyable and thought provoking concepts you have all put forward.

I had been meaning to expound on my initial post here but never got around to doing it. It seems to be fairly well covered now and I agree with many interpretations but I still have a few different ideas floating around in my head. Hopefully they will stay still long enough for me to gather them together!

In the long run, Leonard has said "I understand my work is confusing enough to be construed as many things; I feel the same way about it myself." Even so, it is an enjoyable pastime trying to decipher the meaning as you see it - you can actually find out a lot about yourself in the process. Someone once said that it's not so important what the author meant in poetry analysis as in what the poem says to the reader. It's like that with my paintings. I paint them for my own personal reasons and different people see different things in them......and that is probably as it should be.

Bev
It doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to B4real ~ me
Attitude is a self-fulfilling prophecy ~ me ...... The magic of art is the truth of its lies ~ me ...... Only left-handers are in their right mind!
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Re: Leonard Cohen's Priests

Postby sharik » Fri Mar 11, 2011 12:40 pm

I agree with what you said bev,

The reason I started writing and singing is cause of songs like these...
sometimes i have a very clear picture of what i want to say, sometimes its flowing on its own and i just let it go...
and in the rare cases it combines both and then i can sing it again and again and find renewed/ new meanings,,,
what other people think -- thats way out of your control... let them fidget with it as they please if it makes them happy ;) ( like i do with this song)
some people don't talk about the lyrics at all, but show 'relative' pictures ,elaborate on speculated woman in the whims of his imagination when he wrote it exc i find this funny and i do this too sometimes- if it makes you feel closer to the song , happier,, why not ?
in the end its all symbols -- and- words ,symbols are not reality .. the body is not a highway shrine and the shrine is a figure of divinity not divinity itself ,, by itself its just an empty box holding no more-holier water than tap water....."the way you sip your tea.." is not the hand movement or in the 'earl Grey'....
the mind always tries to defile, relate, symbolize , compartmentalize--- thats also what this song abstractly wrestles with for - in my mind..:)
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Re: Leonard Cohen's Priests

Postby holydove » Wed Mar 16, 2011 6:57 pm

[quote="B4real"],These photos cover the first and second verses and the similar last two verses (sixth and seventh)

B4real: I have only found 5 verses for this song (I haven't heard it sung, but there is a printed version in the files); I wonder if I am missing something, or if we are just counting the verses differently?

I know I come late to the discussion, but a couple of ideas keep re-surfacing for me, so I thought I might put them out there.

First, I wonder if it's possible that the "priests" are the parts of the narrator's mind that connect the narrator's earthly level, with his spiritual/divine level, of existence. So the priests, here, would perhaps be performing a sacrifice to the "lord of memory": they are sacrificing the "enshrined"/sanctified memory of the woman, for the sake of the lord's artistic/creative pursuits (Tineke, you touched on this recurring conflict between love of woman & need to create art). First, they honor her memory by putting flowers at the shrine & gazing at her through the window; then they proceed to "wear away the window" & "trample on the grass"; they destroy the saintly image in the narrator's memory, for the sake of his art, which is concerned with speaking the Truth - seeing & portraying things exactly as they are.

Also, in Greek Mythology, Memory (Mnemosyne) is the mother of the nine Muses (who, of course, are the inspiration for all forms of art/creativity). And Zeus, the lord of all gods, mated with Mnemosyne & is the father of those nine muses. So, as lord of memory, the narrator would, it seems, have at least some degree of power over the muses on whom he depends for inspiration. He has created those who inspire his creativity!

Given that the very first line of the song is "And who will write love songs for you" - I think perhaps the 2 main, conflicting themes are presented there - writing & love. The narrator will continue to write songs, & he will continue to write love songs, but they may no longer be addressed to the woman who is addressed in this song.

This only covers (inadequately!) the first 2 verses, but I don't have any more time right now. . .
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B4real
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Re: Leonard Cohen's Priests

Postby B4real » Thu Mar 17, 2011 12:24 pm

Hi Rebecca,

The following are the lyrics of Priests as sung by Judy Collins on her Wildflower album. As you can see the first and second verses are exactly the same as the (sixth and seventh) second last and last verses. The version in the files is the same but it only shows the first line of the last two verses and then shows........ for the remainder of the verse. I am always interested in hearing your ideas so keep going.

And who will write love songs for you
When I am Lord at last
And your body is the little highway shrine
That all my priests have passed
That all my priests have passed?

My priests, they will put flowers there
They will kneel before the glass
But they'll wear away your little window, love
They will trample on the grass
They will trample on the grass

And who will shoot the arrow
That men will follow through your grace
When I am Lord of memories
And all your armor has turned to lace
And all your armor has turned to lace?

The simple life of heroes
The twisted life of saints
They just confuse the sunny calendar
With their red and golden paint
With their red and golden paint

And all of you have seen the dance
That God has kept from me
But he has seen me watching you
When all your minds were free
When all your minds were free

And who will write love songs for you
When I am Lord at last
And your body is the little highway shrine
That all my priests have passed
That all my priests have passed?

My priests, 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
They will trample on the grass

And seeing that you haven't heard it sung before - here is a version similar to the above but the last verse is omitted.
by AlbionDavid (was kefra):
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_GNWSQQtLTc

and another with verses in changed order by Eyless in Gaza:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6o3MtXJAbs&NR=1

and still more changed verses by our moderator Henning:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9DWJ-PrZuuo

Richie Havens also sang this song on his albums "Richard P. Havens, 1983" and "High Flyin' Bird, The Verve Forecast Years - Disc 2" but I haven't been able to find him actually singing it.

Bev
It doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to B4real ~ me
Attitude is a self-fulfilling prophecy ~ me ...... The magic of art is the truth of its lies ~ me ...... Only left-handers are in their right mind!
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Re: Leonard Cohen's Priests

Postby holydove » Fri Mar 18, 2011 7:10 pm

Hi Bev,

Thank you for the links - it's really fascinating & beautiful to hear people singing this beautiful, mysterious song!! Actually, I do have a vague memory of hearing Judy Collins sing that song on her album, but it didn't leave a lasting or clear impression, because I only listened to her for a very brief period in my life, & it was a very long time ago! But I was pleasantly surprised to find that the basic melody that I thought I remembered, was essentially the melody that AlbionDavid & Henning were singing! And wouldn't it be totally amazing to hear Leonard singing that song - WOW!! And like John said, that would probably give us some interesting insight into the possible meanings/implications of those beautiful & mysterious lyrics!!

The verses you printed out (thank you for that too) are mostly the same as what I have, with some slight differences; but the one difference that I think is significant is this: instead of "and who will SHOOT the arrow", I have "and who will AIM the arrow". (Maybe there are 2 different versions within the files - I don't know!). But it reminds me of the difference between the mistaken lyrics (which were written somewhere by a reviewer) from Hallelujah, ". . .how to shoot someone who outdrew you" & the actual lyrics, ". . .how to shoot AT someone who outdrew you". (I'm not saying that the version of Priests that I saw is necessarily the "correct" one - just that the meaning would be different, depending on whether the word is "shoot" or "aim"; the shooter & the one who does the aiming might not be the same person; or even if it's the same person doing both, the word "aim" would signify something more specific than shooting). The other different lyric I saw is: "and your body is SOME (instead of "THE") little highway shrine"; for me, the word "some" implies more of a sort of denigration/trivialization, than the word "the".

Moving on: Let's say, for now, that the lyric is "and who will aim the arrow/ that men will follow through your grace/ when I am lord of memory/ and all your armour has turned to lace. . ." The image of the arrow could have several associatons: it has been mentioned that it could be Cupid's arrow; also, what comes to mind for me, is the image of a huntress goddess (like Artemis, also from Greek mythology); though Artemis is usually not represented as wearing armour (or lace!), she definitely carries bow & arrows - & uses them. Artemis is usually recounted as being twin sister of Apollo (god of music & medicine); she is goddess of night, of fruitfulness, of childbirth; she is, at the same time, the eternal virgin & protector of virgins; she is a personification of the moon, Lady of the Beasts, & woodland goddess.

The image of the arrow, by itself, brings up several associations: it could be associated with sexuality & reproduction (esp. male sexuality - penetrating & piercing as it is) - & that association could connect with the idea of the "priests" representing descendants of the narrator. On another level, the arrow could represent one-pointed focus of the mind. In Kyudo (Zen archery practice), the sound of the bowstring is said to express truth, beauty & goodness, but only if the bow is released at a moment when the archer's mind is FREE & CLEAR. The focus in Kyudo is the form/experience/journey, rather than the target or the goal. The aim of the practice is for the distinction between the body, mind & arrow, to disappear during the ritual - & the movements of the ritual are very much like a dance. Leonard has spoken of the moment when, for an artist, all boundaries are dissolved - how that is the moment of true freedom; at that moment, the artist does not exist as a separate entity - the ego or "I"-ness is dissolved. So, at the level of being "lord of memory", distinctions & boundaries dissolved, there would be noone left to do the aiming - who will aim the arrow, when no "one" exists.

It occurs to me that the "shrine" is analagous to the "armour"; it is what keeps the woman separate/protected. The idea of "lord of memory" could be analogous to "lord of the muses/ lord of creativity & art/ lord - therefore - of his own mind (the soul WITH a king) & his own reality. And the image of the "lace" is rather multi-faceted; what color is the lace? White lace conjures the traditional image of the bride/virginity/purity/etc.; whereas black or red lace would conjure something quite different: black would associate with death & mourning; red would associate with seduction, or even prostitution. These divergent associations could also connect with the image of Artemis as, at once, the eternal virgin & goddess of fruitfulness/ childbirth.

These lyrics (like most or all of Leonard's lyrics) are so complex, with so many potential levels of meaning, that it is difficult to know where to start & how to potentially put it all together - one can put it together in various ways, of course; so I thought that it might be helpful to just contemplate some of the possible images/associations for a while. I know I have left the pieces quite scattered all over the floor, but perhaps we can return later, to explore the possibilities, along with the other verses. . .

(Oh, BTW, Bev - just so you know, my actual name is not Rebecca, it's Rachel - but don't worry, lots of people have made the same mistake!!)
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B4real
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Re: Leonard Cohen's Priests

Postby B4real » Sat Mar 19, 2011 12:10 am

holydove wrote:Oh, BTW, Bev - just so you know, my actual name is not Rebecca, it's Rachel - but don't worry, lots of people have made the same mistake!!)
Sorry Rachel :oops: Do you know that I had written your name right first time and changed it after I posted it - because I saw someone else say it that way and thought I was wrong!!

Anyway, I've also made another mistake :oops: again! I had two different versions and posted the alternate lyrics :razz: Here they are correctly from the files. btw there are a few different words in other songs in the files to those published in the Little Black Songbook which could be worth further investigation on another thread.

Priests
Recorded by Judy Collins (Wildflowers, in 1967),
Richie Havens (Richard P Havens, 1983, in 1969,
and Enrique Morente (Omega, in Spanish, in 1996)

And who will write love songs for you
when I am lord at last
and your body is some little highway shrine
that all my priests have passed,
that all my priests have passed?

My priests 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,
they will trample on the grass.

And who will aim the arrow
that men will follow through your grace
when I am lord of memory
and all your armour has turned to lace,
and all your armour has turned to lace?

The simple life of heroes,
and the twisted life of saints,
they just confuse the sunny calendar
with their red and golden paints,
with their red and golden paints.

And all of you have seen the dance,
that God has kept from me,
but he has seen me watching you
when all your minds were free
when all your minds were free.

And who will write love songs for you ...

My priests they will put flowers there ...

Glad you enjoyed the links. You know, it does appear that Leonard has actually recorded this song, but it has been at best misplaced and at worst lost.
B4real wrote: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, Leonard answered "They (Sony) didn't find it, I maybe have it somewhere."
Let's hope that it does surface sometime in the future. :D
It doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to B4real ~ me
Attitude is a self-fulfilling prophecy ~ me ...... The magic of art is the truth of its lies ~ me ...... Only left-handers are in their right mind!
Robin
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Re: Leonard Cohen's Priests

Postby Robin » Tue Apr 19, 2011 2:33 am

Just a couple of thoughts.

I have always loved this song since buying Wildflowers circa 1971, and I think that Judy Collins' version is simply beautiful.

Leonard has stated at least twice that the reason he has never released his own recording is that he can't sing in a high enough register or key to do the song justice.

I find the elusiveness of the song very attractive. However, here are a couple of impressions I have long held. Firstly, there is something mediaeval about the content. In that light the "sunny calendar" is actually almost literal, referring to the illuminated manuscripts that were painstakingly created by priests. These manuscripts were always sacred texts, so the depiction of "red and golden paint" is just that: the decorative touches that illuminate the holy text.

It is a song about veneration, both secular and sacred. The Joan Of Arc suggestion above is perfectly sound I think. I would add that "lace" could refer to the material of the shroud. Mortality is here. The reference to "When I am Lord at last" is perhaps the most difficuly aspect of the song. I would guess that it is a (slightly heretical) exaggeration of the transformative power of death to attain a higher plain, the very aim of a priest's lifelong devotion after all.
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TineDoes
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Re: Leonard Cohen's Priests

Postby TineDoes » Wed Apr 20, 2011 1:33 am

After some absence it is wonderful to read all the posts on "The Priests'. I do hope that the person who started this thread has comeback to read the interesting discussions here.
holydove wrote:I know I have left the pieces quite scattered all over the floor, but perhaps we can return later, to explore the possibilities, along with the other verses. . .
Rachel I hope you do return.
holydove wrote:Given that the very first line of the song is "And who will write love songs for you" - I think perhaps the 2 main, conflicting themes are presented there - writing & love. The narrator will continue to write songs, & he will continue to write love songs, but they may no longer be addressed to the woman who is addressed in this song.
I feel that the whole tragedy is that when he is 'lord at last' he is no longer able to write. In order to write, like the dance he seems to long for, he has to be free of mind. Like you wrote.
holydove wrote:Leonard has spoken of the moment when, for an artist, all boundaries are dissolved - how that is the moment of true freedom; at that moment, the artist does not exist as a separate entity - the ego or "I"-ness is dissolved.
Now that he is 'lord' he seems no longer to have this freedom; the ability to step into 'the dance'.
Tineke
"There’s no forsaking what you love ...."

Rotterdam 2008; Antwerpen, Dublin 2009; Gent 2x, Lille , Las Vegas 2x 2010, Gent, Amsterdam, Dublin 2x 2012, Antwerp, Berlin, Rotterdam 2013
ianinfrance
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Re: Leonard Cohen's Priests

Postby ianinfrance » Tue Nov 22, 2011 5:01 am

The only reason (forgive me) that I joined this forum, of whose existence I was ignorant, was to comment on this thread. Oh how I wish we could hear Leonard Cohen singing it. I've heard three versions now and all illuminate the song differently, which has to be a measure of what a great song it is. There is a clip of a Judy Collins interview in which she talks about the song and what she understood it to mean. I won't rehash her points which you can hear for yourselves. What I would say is that I suspect that it's possible that just as Stravinsky said of "The Rite of Spring" - "I was the vehicle through which the music passed." is it not possible that Cohen didn't really know exactly what he meant when he wrote it? Sometimes the constraints of metre and rhyme push one into writing something more profound and ambiguous that the writer expected. When Leonard Cohen said of his own works, in effect "I finds them ambiguous and confusing" we - as his admirers - discount that, but I wonder if he wasn't speaking the simple truth.

For me in much of his music Cohen is a link between his Jewishness (Cohen is/was the priestly family name) from his background, and the Christianity of his surroundings when he was growing up. I'm not saying that he believed in either necessarily, but that he was a bridge between these cultures. So I am not surprised to see him using Christian symbolism.

Anyway, let's hope that either he decides to re-record it, or manages to disinter it.
All the best
Ian
Jan Hall
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Re: Leonard Cohen's Priests

Postby Jan Hall » Wed Oct 23, 2013 6:23 am

To me, Jesus is imagining talking to God. Jesus wonders, after he is dead, who on earth will so much love God. ("Who will write love songs for you, when I am lowered at last?")

Will God then be just the highway shrines, that the priests dutifully stop at? ("And your body is the little highway shrines that all my priests must pass?") This is not the same love that Jesus on earth has for God.

The priests will make perfunctory efforts to dutifully love God in rituals, but merely make the window to God less clear, and trample the vibrancy and life of what God is. ("My priests they will put flowers there, they'll kneel before the glass. But they'll wear away your little window, Love, they will trample on the grass.")

As for the heroes and saints who worked for God, their work will just become known as saints' days written on a calendar. What they did, their passion for God, will be forgotten.

He wonders when he is dead, who will direct men how to live through God. ("Who will shoot the arrow, that men will follow through your grace?")

He says that after death, he (Jesus) will become Lord of Memories (as if reduced to the past), and that eventually God's vengefulness will be only known as love (armor to lace, from old to new testament).

It is as if the intensity of his love for God will never again be seen on earth, after he (Jesus) is no longer on earth.

Jesus says that he has observed the physical human love (of couples) only from afar; that God kept him from it. It is something he was not to experience in his time on earth.

So the song is about love. Jesus is thinking that after he is dead, no one on earth will ever again love God as much.
GCL
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Re: Leonard Cohen's Priests

Postby GCL » Fri Feb 08, 2019 10:06 pm

I Was looking for guitar chords when I came across this thread and just wanted to comment on Jan's reply by mentioning that in my Judy Collins Song Book from the 60's (She introduced me to Cohen.) the first line is written as "And who will write love songs for you when I am low'rd at last?" All the lyrics I've found online have the word "lord".
Likely it was meant to sound ambiguous to the listener and Leonard was certainly known to change his lyrics. The lyrics he used for "The Story of Isaac" certainly became more cynical than those in the song book.

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