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

Postby mkd1977 » Fri Nov 14, 2014 4:11 am

I see this as a (n imperfect) conversation. Parts of it could be the song of a father to his son, God the father to God the son. The father verses are " You who wish to conquer pain" and " Do not dress in those rags for me".
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Re: Avalanche

Postby rvdeynde » Sun Dec 14, 2014 12:28 am

I love this song! When I play it on guitar and sing it, it gives such a great feeling, I got the same with The Stranger Song. Also when he plays it live (doesn't happen so often) it's fenomenal and i've only seen it on film. My biggest wish is to see this song live together with The Stranger Song, I know i'll be in tears!
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Re: Avalanche

Postby nickflans » Thu Apr 13, 2017 11:43 pm

Hi, as I sit here listening to the Nick Cave "Black Sails" cover - and having heard his dissonant Bad Seeds cover as my intro to the song, years ago - I am happy to bring this thread back up. I know this is a beloved song and I definitely feel that way too. Musically and lyrically it is one of my favorites, but I just can't help but see the dark humor of the song. Everyone's interpretations are very intelligent and thoughtful and read deep meaning into it, but my view is that this is a song about a man who is misshapen, lowly and ultimately disdainful of those who reject him. In fact, he sees himself as better than them. "Your pain is no credential here" rejects the suffering of others compared to him completely. My favorite line is "I myself am the pedestal for this ugly hump at which you stare" , because it describes the self as a sort of display case for our flaws and/or beauty...I just think that's so funny and brilliant. So that's my take. A beggar musing on his superiority to cope with the world's rejection.
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Re: Avalanche

Postby Jean Fournell » Sun Aug 13, 2017 5:12 pm

What to say about Avalanche ?

Trying to find a woman behind the song, I failed at reading Esmeralda into it (with Quasimodo in the role of the hunchback of Notre Dame de Paris), and then gave up.

Searching for phallic symbols of poor masculine performance in the hunchback, the cripple, and the ugly hump, I only found vague memories of having been told that Sigmund Freud himself is said to have admitted that even a cigar sometimes is merely a cigar.
But then the whole song is just a narrator speaking about himself, and so it doesn't really matter most of what people say about their own performances is incomprehensible anyway.

We might try to read it as a reversed and twisted Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde story:
Hyde, the rather gentle and all-too-obvious hunchback, dreams up an overcompensation in which he, as an idealised but nasty Jekyll, is in a privileged position where he can disdainfully refuse all kinds of "crumbs of love", which Hyde would never ever have been offered in his real life.
A Jekyll who will scorn "everyone who reache[s] out for [him]" (Bird on the Wire).

I'm not saying that such a reading is impossible.
However, it would make the beginning somewhat hard to explain: "I stepped into an avalanche", as Meryam already pointed out, does not mean "by accident":
Meryam wrote: The I steps deliberately in the avalanche, he is not overtaken by it, it is his choice.
Jekyll, the mean one who ordinarily sleeps "beneath the golden hill", becomes Hyde on purpose and that doesn't make much sense. Why should he? Surely not in order to explore his dark side, since this Jekyll already is the dark side.
The hypothesis might possibly be saved by saying that it is an avalanche of overcompensations but Jekyll consists of no more than these overcompensations, he has no other existence, no independent existence of his own. So it would need an intellectual tour-de-force, and certainly some borderline juggling (he who already is the avalanche would be stepping into it). Difficult but not impossible, maybe...

But how would the end of the song fit into this framework?
"it is your turn, beloved,
it is your flesh that I wear"
What on earth should drive the addressee to step into an avalanche in turn? In the case of a beloved woman, why should she? And in the case of Jekyll, how is his position towards the avalanche supposed to have changed? He, who is the avalanche, steps into the avalanche, and now supposedly it's his turn to step into it again?
This difficulty increases in those of the live versions where Leonard Cohen sings
"it is your world, beloved" instead of "it is your turn, beloved".

Between these two points (the beginning and the end of the song), there are a few more passages that don't seem to fit too very well into such a Jekyll-Hyde framework (without mentioning any of the "pain" sequences, which will have to be treated separately):

"You strike my side by accident"

"as you go down for your gold."

"You say you've gone away from me,
but I can feel you when you breathe."

"Do not dress in those rags for me,
I know you are not poor;"

"don't love me quite so fiercely now
when you know that you are not sure"

I'm not entirely rejecting such a scenario, such a "remake of a Jekyll-Hyde syndrome", but it doesn't feel satisfactory to me.

So I'll just have a go after my own fashion. Here's my two cents:

In a first reading of the song, I suggest to assume that it's the mind of the mountain speaking, the mind of the very mountain on which the avalanche is taking place.

The ongoing rumble of the guitar, until it ends in an exclamation mark strum, very much resembles the roll of drums ending in the gunfire of an execution. The melody of this mind of the mountain goes as though it were barely able to speak up without immediately falling prostrate again.
(And I prefer the studio version and early live performances, with the melody affirmatively falling on "avalanche", rather than the later almost question-like "avalanche?".
But then my favourites are Leonard Cohen's two trilogies, the first three and the last three albums, even if I haven't integrated them into a kind of hexagram yet. For the time being, the first trilogy seems more like theoretical wisdom which in the final trilogy has become living practice. Maybe that explains some of my idiosyncrasies.)

I stepped into an avalanche,
As already mentioned, I agree with Meryam that this is a deliberate action, not something happening "by accident". The mind of the mountain is stepping forth, out of itself and into the avalanche, in order to rumble down with the ice and snow.
Note: In this first approach, I think we shouldn't go into implications like the contrast to Joan of Arc, the last song on the album, where she does not step (down) into an avalanche of ice and snow, but climbs (up) into the fire. And like the parallels to The Butcher ("Blood upon my body and ice upon my soul") on the preceding album Songs from a Room, and to One of us cannot be wrong ("But you stand there so nice, in your blizzard of ice") on the first album Songs of Leonard Cohen. These implications are important, but first things first.

it covered up my soul;
The result is that not only the rocks and stones carried away by the ice and snow get crushed beyond recognition, but the soul as well or rather: the soul first and foremost.
when I am not this hunchback that you see,
All this broken stuff is not depicting the ordinary state of things, though; it is only an occasional and temporary occurrence.
I sleep beneath the golden hill.
Ordinarily, the mind of the mountain sleeps in a world of self-sufficient peace, beneath a natural golden hill rather than beneath a second-choice manmade gilded dome, or statue, or other vain copy.
You who wish to conquer pain,
you must learn, learn to serve me well.
Those who are religious for some gain are mistaken, along with all our offerings to dragons and gods and good or evil spirits, or whatever other superstition. We are mistaken in both method and addressee. If we want results, we must learn a different way.
The "gain" here would be to conquer suffering, which is spiritual rather than physical pain, our refusal of things as they are, of the world as it is, without any coherently organised work undertaken so as to modify those unwanted aspects.
These terms, "pain", and its refusal, "suffering", are currently used as synonyms. In the construction of the Avalanche lyrics, one single syllable is required, whence the term "pain". But in order to "conquer" it, no morphine nor prozac nor equivalent would ever do the job. What is meant here is "suffering".

You strike my side by accident
as you go down for your gold.
Whoever goes into the mountain dragons, gods, trolls, devout burrowers with "no diamonds in the mines" , we all strike the mind's side without noticing how close we come to it. We don't strike upon the real gold, we only strike its side; nor do we strike the problem at the root. We "miss[...] it by a fraction" (The Traitor), that which we were not even after; we "strike [its] side by accident", by some sheer luck we can't value because we don't as much as become aware of it.
Blinded by our search for material substitutes, or for salvation according to some dogma, or according to our own home-grown conceptions, with or without chemicals, we stumble by the real without realising, and go down for our own kind of gold.

The cripple here that you clothe and feed
is neither starved nor cold;
First we'll have to understand whom we're dealing with, otherwise our well-intentioned goodies are worthless. He who is everything, who has everything, who controls everything, is in no need for any petty stuff we might come up with.
he does not ask for your company,
not at the centre, the centre of the world.
At the centre of the world there is no difference between our illusory self and the rest of the universe. Where all is one, we cannot be his "company" (we cannot be distinct from the rest). His not asking for such an impossibility is his being in harmony with the world as it is.

When I am on a pedestal,
you did not raise me there.
When the rubble carried away by the avalanche was up there, we were not the ones who had put it there. When it will be up there again, we won't be the ones who will have put it there.
Your laws do not compel me
to kneel grotesque and bare.
We have no lessons to teach to the mind of the mountain. Our sterile normative conceptions are ridiculous in comparison with what life is, and life can't be forced to obey them.
I myself am the pedestal
for this ugly hump at which you stare.
The mountain itself is the pedestal for the pile of rubble that rolled down and that will lie there, for us to stare at, "for a little while" (My Oh My).

You who wish to conquer pain,
you must learn what makes me kind;
The true absence of "pain" (of suffering !) cannot be conquered. Any such voluntarist concept needs complete reconsideration.
the crumbs of love that you offer me,
they're the crumbs I've left behind.
None of our precious stuff is any more than some leftovers that even a beggar would not so much as look at. They won't buy anything.
Your pain is no credential here,
it's just the shadow, shadow of my wound.
We have no idea yet what sort of hell that avalanche is. The pain and/or suffering of our ego is nothing compared with the suffering of all sentient beings.

I have begun to long for you,
I who have no greed;
"O longing of the branches to lift the little bud, o longing of the arteries to purify the blood" (Come Healing)
I have begun to ask for you,
I who have no need.
It's not our way that things work. It's from the mind of the mountain that love emanates. Unconditional love whose purpose is the other, not the self.
Here the mind of the mountain, having deliberately stepped into alienation, out of the mountain and into the avalanche, steps into the opposition of the world as it is versus the world as it ought to be, it deliberately steps into suffering, into our suffering.
(Different Sides: "Though it all may be one in the higher eye / Down here where we live it is two")

You say you've gone away from me,
but I can feel you when you breathe.
"I never turned aside," he said,
"I never walked away.
It was you who built the temple,
it was you who covered up my face."
(Lover, Lover, Lover)

If we go away from the mountain, that doesn't mean that the mountain automatically goes away from us, too. The mountain is wherever we are, it is more aware of us than we ourselves will ever be.

Do not dress in those rags for me,
I know you are not poor;
No point in adopting whichever disguise. Especially not the disguise of holy people or of sinners, or of both at the same time.
don't love me quite so fiercely now
when you know that you are not sure,
Our human love is valid only if we admit that it is as it is: fallible. No point in overcompensating.
it is your turn, beloved,
it is your flesh that I wear.
The mind of the mountain, through stepping into the avalanche, is incarnate in the human flesh. It's the mind of the mountain who made this decision the reason is not at all that we in our unsteadiness deemed ourselves ready to receive it, arrogant as we are.
It is our turn therefore to step out of ourselves now, and into the avalanche. As though we were "equal to the task" (Steer Your Way), as though we were equals of the mind of the mountain. As though such an honour in itself were not far more crushing already than the avalanche can ever be. As though our soul, covered up by the avalanche, had any semblance of a chance of surviving this.
We as the beloved of a mountain whose love we can never requite.
(And sometimes it's more than our turn, sometimes it is our world. As it was previously in The Butcher: "lead on, my son, it is your world.")

Avalanche is the tremendous prostrating before the insignificant.
And this prostration, by virtue of the alienation it implies (the suffering), by virtue of the fundamental difference it implies between the one who is prostrating and the one before whom he is prostrating, the dialectics of the one being two and thence many (paradoxical if static, in timelessness perfectly normal if dynamic, if complemented with passing time, if it "step[s] into an avalanche"), this prostration is indeed at the centre of the world, at the hub of the wheel of samsara, where the static and the dynamic, both at point zero, are one:
"By virtue of suffering I claim to have won
You claim to have never been heard"
(Different Sides)

Thereby occasionally some of the insignificant might wake up and, in turn, prostrate before the tremendous.

Which means that in a second reading I suggest that now it's a bodhisattva (or a messiah) stepping forth into an avalanche, from beneath the golden hill of the self-contained hinayana "Empty Circle" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Bulls) and into the real world (Different Sides: "You want to live where the suffering is"), giving up whatever realisation may have been achieved, for the sake of all sentient beings (or all human beings, or the chosen few).

Those bodhisattvas (or messiahs) are everywhere. We jostle them ("strike [their] side") in the marketplace of the last of the ox-herding pictures. But we cannot buy the teaching with pious actions. It is bestowed for free the problem is that we must realise it within the ordinary daily wear and tear. As long as we have the teaching "for [...] company", as long as we don't become one with the teaching, it is to no avail.

And they are teachers, not gurus to be raised onto pedestals. The only valid pedestal for truth is truth, and whatever fancies the ugly hump may cherish, they are of no interest be they personal madness or collective rules and regulations.

Our private or sectarian problems are no credentials when it comes to the suffering of all sentient beings as a whole. Superficial local solutions ("crumbs of love") won't suffice.

The action of those bodhisattvas (or messiahs) is not determined by our merit; it is they who "long for" it to be done, in their freely chosen alienation of the world as it is versus the world as it ought to be, in the collective suffering shared and transcended.

There are no disguises required, no miraculous techniques: "It's over now, the water and the wine" (String Reprise / Treaty). Nor is there anything special about those bodhisattvas (or messiahs). They are ordinary people, like you and me.
It is our flesh, our suffering that they wear.

Avalanche, in this second reading, is those bodhisattvas (or messiahs) prostrating before all sentient beings (or all human beings, or the chosen few).
(Leonard Cohen spreading his priestly blessing over the audience is theoretical religious wisdom his kneeling before each individual listener's Buddha-nature is enlightened practice.)

Thereby, some time maybe, in turn, in a third reading...
(But that's not my two cents anymore.)
Therefore know that you must become one with the bow, and with the arrow, and with the target
to say nothing of the horse.

... for a while
... for a little while...

(Just a filthy beggar blessing / What happens to the heart)
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Re: Avalanche

Postby Annika » Thu Feb 01, 2018 12:18 am

Well found this thread because I wanted interpretation for the first few lines but the rest seems like a pretty transparent song about God (particularly Jesus - Leonard Cohen was Jewish but he did write about Jesus and Christian themes a lot, I think here at least rather as a metaphor for the divine)

Well I stepped into an avalanche,
It covered up my soul;

Confusing and I bet there's something else but it has shades of Christ being buried in the tomb - I could see it as a metaphor for the Church and religion in general eclipsing God - Jesus said 'you are Peter and this rock I will build my church' and from this followed a number of churches, leaders, etc. - many rocks, an avalanche, through which people did not see the soul of God

When I am not this hunchback that you see,
I sleep beneath the golden hill.

Hunchback - either reference to above, crippled religion, or simply 'when you are not seeing me in the face of the poor and disadvantaged'
Brings to mind legends of kings who are legendarily meant to come again, Jesus being obvious example and 'golden' draws contrast to hunchback
But this is all so specific that I feel there must be something else

You who wish to conquer pain,
You must learn, learn to serve me well.

Basic Christian (+?) principle, to attain salvation you must serve God well, perhaps could be reference to conquering pain in others as well

You strike my side by accident
As you go down for your gold.

One of Jesus' principle five wounds was on his side and there's the 'Lord forgive them for they know not what they do', to me bringing to mind that humanity as a whole crucified Jesus, Judas specifically betrayed Him for gold and the idea being that we are all constantly betraying God, notably via:

The cripple here that you clothe and feed

"For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me...Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’"

Is neither starved nor cold

Because He is God

He does not ask for your company,
Not at the centre, the centre of the world.

I guess the wooden tower is not so lonely after all

When I am on a pedestal,
You did not raise me there.

(Unlike a false idol) and the power doesn't flow from us, but God, even charity to the poor is in a paradoxical way unnecessary

Your laws do not compel me
To kneel grotesque and bare.

I guess general reference to Crucifixion (temptation (in the desert?) as well?) but I do think there is a bit more going on in this song

I myself am the pedestal
For this ugly hump at which you stare.

Again, source of power, and maybe that God's manifestation in the world is not all butterflies and roses or something else

You who wish to conquer pain,
You must learn what makes me kind;

You can't find the Balm of Gilead without its source, I have to imagine a bit of 'you must learn suffering to conquer suffering' but that's extraneous

The crumbs of love that you offer me,
They're the crumbs I've left behind.

If our joy and love and sacrifice comes from God, then the joy and love and sacrifice we put into the world, ultimately back to God, came from God, it's like this bit from C.S. Lewis:

"Every faculty you have, your power of thinking or of moving your limbs from moment to moment, is given you by God. If you devoted every moment of your whole life exclusively to His service you could not give Him anything that was not in a sense his own already ... It is like a small child going to its father and saying, 'Daddy, give me sixpence to buy you a birthday present.' It is all very nice and proper, but only an idiot would think that the father is sixpence to the good on the transaction."

Your pain is no credential here,
It's just the shadow, shadow of my wound.

Again I see this as a reference to the Crucifixion, our love comes from divine love and our pain from the divine pain (only a fraction, God already suffered the most, don't try to use your pain as a bargaining chip)

I have begun to long for you,
I who have no greed

God wants the lost sheep to return to Him even though he has no selfish reason for it, perhaps a light paradox or just underlining the power of that

I have begun to ask for you,
I who have no need.

As above

You say you've gone away from me,
But I can feel you when you breathe.

Like Jonah, we can't run away from God, I like the intimacy of this line as well

Do not dress in those rags for me,
I know you are not poor

I think there's a more specific Biblical verse that refers to this (or maybe it was Emily Post :lol: ) but more or less:

"When you fast, do not be somber like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they already have their reward."

God knows everything so false displays of humility are worthless

You don't love me quite so fiercely now
When you know that you are not sure,

Confusing phrasing but maybe just that awareness of doubt makes people less devoted?

It is your turn, beloved,
It is your flesh that I wear.

Your turn to sacrifice, think there's a double meaning in that the first thing I thought of for 'your flesh that I wear' was Jesus taking on human form but then I realized it could be taken more properly 'you are the hand of God', people ought to act as Jesus would, as instruments of God.

So I think in general about Jesus/God/religion and specifically charity
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Re: Avalanche

Postby Dromedaris » Mon Mar 26, 2018 3:26 pm

Meryam wrote:
Wed Oct 24, 2012 7:55 am
You are right. Interesting, thanks.

But the first impression I get: the I is boasting : I'm of good descent, I live in a rich place, I am not just a boy from the street, I am a good catch!
He is suspicious, expects the woman to go for gold, while in reality she is compassionate.
Very sad.

(By the way, there are a few songs I like to comment.
But on this forum I cannot find "Waiting for the miracle")
So I am a man, and you don't understand this song at all. It is not about that.

Leonard tries to describe one thing: his Jewish roots, as has been said; but moreover, he shows that the nature of Jewish culture leads to a status of sonhood, the Son of the Jew. Women are actually what you describe: greedy. They give absolutely zero love to the gentle man, and the typical Jew is a gentle man. - Women always love - or give away their love to - the jerk. Because they cannot tell truth from lies. Now Leonard was not really a gentle man, but he carried his roots with him in his language and his life. He had a gentle mind, at least; a gentle soul, certainly. The Golden Hill is the divine science of the Jews. The burden of all Jews, because they practically ARE the nervous system of the whole world, and they have the most religious credentials. Now women like men because of their enormous power - both in mind and deed. But men are - because of that - continuously aware of their own feebleness in the face of nature, and other men, which combines in the countenance of the Angry Father-God. Cohen, in this song, sings indeed about the persecution of the Jews by other - wolfish - men, Nazis and small-talkers who would say anything ("You strike my side by accident.") The side the symbolic of the exposure to danger that gentleness brings. You try to give people a hug, but they stick a knife in your side, et cetera; same happens when you are dutifully doing your morning jog: because you're a gentle person, you're being pained, because the world is based on the gentle getting eaten by the evil wolves. And wolf will always be evil, unless when tamed by the State, for a wolf has little mind and practically zero Will.

So this song is basically about 1. falling in love as a person of gentle mind. 2. falling in love with a talkative, impertinent woman. 3. trying to be strong about it, knowing your doom and seeing from ten miles away, being completely enslaved to the talkative woman and never getting out of the black hole of sensativity you've been manipulated into.

Our only solace is that Cohen was just a poet, or rather a beautiful loser (his words), and he did not actually feel any of this. But I can tell you, that as a person of gentle mind, I relate to this song and consider every word true.
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Re: Avalanche

Postby ofirgranot » Sun Aug 05, 2018 8:24 am


In the way that I personally entered the song, I felt in the dialogue a kind of conversation between a warrior / a man who is desperate for God, that desperate warrior / man at crucial moments, when his chances are so low that he uses metaphors and human motifs when speaking to God and God

Thank you all for your kind interpretations and opinion is all very interesting and cause a deep anlysis of this amazing song
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Re: Avalanche

Postby Evilscheminggenius » Sun Aug 12, 2018 7:57 am

It is a breakup song. It describes the tail end of a relationship & the desire to punish the lover who has wounded him. It describes a deep mistrust of the lover and a feeling of being wronged. Also his longing for who has wounded him & his feeling of connection to that person & his knowledge that the other’s pain is coming.

You who wish to conquer pain, you must learn what makes me kind
The crumbs of love that you offer me are the crumbs I’ve left behind
Your pain is no credential here, it’s just a shadow of my wound.
Do not dress in those rags for me, I know you are not poor,
do not love me quite so feircely now, when you know that you are not sure.
You say you’ve gone away from me but I can feel you when you breathe

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