Songs from a Room

General discussion about Leonard Cohen's songs and albums
AlexandraLaughing
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Songs from a Room

Postby AlexandraLaughing » Thu Feb 05, 2015 7:19 pm

These days, so I understand, it's pretty much axiomatic that if a first album or book has been a success, the second will be a disappointment. But listening to Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs from a Room, it strikes me that the latter is the better album- one that does that rare thing of taking personal, touching narrative material and opening it up to a further, more universal, more political stage without losing the particular.

I something think LC's later, knowing take on sexuality is the enemy of his earlier take on politics, the politics of generations and 'races' and the human love of violence, before it became a take on sexual and gender politics (or in the perhaps brief moment when it was not just that).

'The Old Revolution' is such a brilliant song- as is the 'Story of Isaac'. I hope we get to see more of those political depths in the next stages of LC's writings, whatever form they take. I think it's a promising sign that he took to performing The Partisan in recent concerts, even though he revisits this album less than some. (I don't understand why 'The Old Revolution' is missing from the 'little black book', along with some other greats such as 'Diamonds in the Mine' and 'Night Comes On'- does anyone know if LC chose the songs for that book, or someone else did?)
John Etherington
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Re: Songs from a Room

Postby John Etherington » Sun Feb 08, 2015 3:46 am

Alexandra - "Songs From a Room" was the first Leonard album I bought (even though I had "Sisters of Mercy" and "Hey That's No Way To Say Goodbye" on the "Rock Machine" albums). I always thought "it was the greater work, even if "Songs Of" has more classic songs. I remember Leonard saying words to the effect that "Songs From a Room" had an affinity with Nico's "Desertshore", and that more people would come to appreciate those albums as they broke down and entered the same psychic landscape from which they had emerged.

I love the solemnity and seriousness of "Songs From a Room". It has benefited from being Leonard's least commercial album, and there is still an element of mystery to songs such as "The Old Revolution" and "Bunch of Lonesome Heroes". Fortunately these songs have never been overplayed or analysed to pieces, and remain the vital resource that they always were. When I first heard these songs I was only 18 and didn't have too wide a frame of reference, but the songs were still deeply meaningful in an internal, non-verbal sort of way.

Although I was never totally clear on Leonard's political position, I appreciated the political aspects of his early work and poetry. In those days most of Leonard's audience were aligned to the counter culture, and you certainly had a sense that he was your side and represented many of the same values.

Personally, I think "Popular Problems" is Leonard's finest work in years, so it bodes well for the direction his future writing might take.

All good things, John E
Mordy
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Re: Songs from a Room

Postby Mordy » Mon Feb 09, 2015 8:46 pm

AlexandraLaughing, have you seen this film about LC's early work with Ira Nadel and Jim Devlin, amongst others? Interesting information/analysis of the early work.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DCbekHrQNYU
I only discovered it recently and haven't found anything about it on the forum here (although I'm sure there must be something somewhere).
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Re: Songs from a Room

Postby jarkko » Mon Feb 09, 2015 9:29 pm

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Re: Songs from a Room

Postby its4inthemorning » Mon Feb 09, 2015 10:20 pm

My impression is that while LC certainly did include references to political topics in his writings, he seemed to provide fuel for proponents of both sides of most issues. Whether intentionally or not, he avoided taking blatant political positions and seemed to not want to be perceived as part of any political group or side. This carried through into his interviews as well. Without revealing my political bent, I can honestly say that I have no idea if LC is aligned with or opposed to my views. So if shrouding his political views was his goal, I would rate his efforts as successful.

This comment is made only as a general observation and is not meant as the start of any political discussion.

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Joe Way
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Re: Songs from a Room

Postby Joe Way » Tue Feb 10, 2015 3:50 am

Dear Alexandralaughing-I've been meaning to thank you for all of your posts and interest in Leonard. You are a breath of fresh air here.

I, fortunately, discovered Leonard even before he released his first album, by a cover by Chad Mitchell of all people. Discovering that and also reading something in Time or Newsweek about upcoming singer-songwriters, encouraged me to buy "Songs" when it came out in 1968. I was still in high school then, and it was like this amazing wake-up call. If you've ever seen Lian L.'s movie, "I'm Your Man"-I liken it to to the scene where Nick Cave talks about discovering Leonard from one of his sister's friend's album; I don't know the quote, but Nick made a big deal about discovering him in a small town in Australia.

I also bought "Songs from a Room" as soon as it came out-I was still in high school. I remember singing "The Old Revolution" out in the country with some friends at an under age beer party. I never compared the two albums, I thought they were both just great-especially with that fantastic photo of Marianne on the back cover of the 2nd album. I was mostly hoping to use some of Leonard's great lines to impress the girls!

Greg Wells who used to post here, argued that "Songs from a Room" was Leonard's best album. I don't know if his post was here or back in the old days on the Usenet group "alt.music.leonard-cohen." Greg was a wonderful guy who posted lengthy and wise posts that were very astute and learned and who unfortunately passed away from cancer a couple of years ago. Some of his posts were epic-as when he declared that he was bound and determined to be the world's leading expert on the song, "Suzanne." I'm sorry you missed those days-he was a great man and there are still some wonderful posters here-like John Etherington who first answered you post. There is less volume now as many of us became friends and continued our conversations directly. Back in the late 1990's most of us thought we were the only one interested in Leonard and were so delighted to discover that there was a small group of others who thought like we did.

Now we have Alan Light with his book length discussion of "Hallelujah" (which is excellent, by the way).

I certainly still don't have a strong opinion about which of the albums is better. I once asked Esther Cohen which was her favorite album-I think she thought it was a trick question-she answered the original "Songs" album and then added what was his latest, "Ten New Songs."

I am so glad that you were able to discover Leonard at the point you did. Imagine, those of us who have been able to follow his career from the beginning (at least as far as it goes musically-though I also bought his 1968 volume "Selected Poems" while I was still in high school.

Please keep posting things and asking questions.

Joe
"Say a prayer for the cowboy..."
AlexandraLaughing
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Re: Songs from a Room

Postby AlexandraLaughing » Wed Feb 11, 2015 3:47 pm

Many thanks for all these answers, and your kind welcomes. I am aware I have come late to the LC party, both in terms of the internet revolution (and hence this forum), and in general. I can tell it has been a great party at various moments! However, I think of this forum as 'some kind of record' of people who love Cohen, so I am happy adding my little footnotes on at the end of a series of conversations which have been going on a very long time.

The account of LC's early years you link to with Ira Nadel is fascinating for many reasons- I must get hold of Nadel's biography (or maybe I should read the novels and poems first- but not until I've absorbed all the studio albums properly). Nadel is keen to analyse LC as a literary writer of the tradition of the first half of the twentieth century, and I hope we haven't seen the last of that side of Cohen. The sexual revolution was in general quite bad for literature, it seems to me, because it elbowed aside structure and subtlety in favour of shocking one's maiden aunts and scratching an itch. You used to have to earn the right to talk about sex by employing beauty or transcendent ugliness of form in the service of the conversation, and by being deliberately difficult. LC retained some of that love of form and linguistic precision, but seems to have lost the ambition to display it at greater lengths than the individual song, or the album-length song cycle. That's what I'd most love to see him do next- go back to longer writing.

I was struck by some of the footage of the young LC, and it seemed to explain some things about him. I'd always thought of LC as effortlessly handsome- I never understood how Joplin could have referred to him as ugly. But in his younger days, he seems to have had a sort of geekish, hungry look- a bit Alfred E. Neuman. So the mean, moody and magnificent LC that one knows from the 80s and beyond is a careful construction. It's a syndrome I've seen before- the hunger of the puppyish ugly adolescent who feels inherently unattractive still sitting behind a man who has ended up being very attractive and having it all- but still somehow acting as though he doesn't, because that's not how it feels inside.

I hope LC revisits his early period himself from time to time, and thinks of picking up strands from that period and developing them further. I hope he doesn't get hung up with performing being 80 and having to act up to some image of old age- he should just pretend he's in the prime of life and get on with it, like everyone else who is successfully in their 80s does.
jazzmanchgo
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Re: Songs from a Room

Postby jazzmanchgo » Thu Feb 12, 2015 10:01 pm

RE: Leonard's politics

" Back in the day," as they say, a lot of "us" with countercultural/leftist tendencies saw in Leonard's dissatisfaction and angst a sense that he was on "our side" politically. In fact, part of his popularity in countries like Poland is due to his apparent distrust of pat answers, ideologies, governmental systems, etc. (The Polish people KNOW better than to fall for that!) There are photos of him performing (for free?) in college classrooms that had been taken over by anarchist/revolutionary students (in Europe, I believe) -- many of us, for years, considered him a kind of existential anarchist ally in "the struggle," however that struggle may be defined.

In reality, though, I think his politics are, in fact, existential more than real-world ideological. Yes, anti-war themes predominated in some of his songs (esp. his earlier ones); yet he has also exhibited a fascination with totalitarian control dating back at least as far as the children's Nazi torture games and Breavman's mass-hypnosis fantasies in "The Favorite Game;" he has reveled in the military-like discipline it takes to coordinate a tour, and of course he named his original touring band "The Army" -- ironically, or admiringly? He no doubt intentionally left that question unanswered. Certainly, the first time he went to Israel, he found himself romanticizing war with intensity and poetic eloquence -- a side to him that I think a lot of his admirers would prefer to downplay or ignore.

(Likewise, when he sings of desiring a return to "the Berlin Wall . . . Stalin and St. Paul" in "The Future" -- is he being ironic? Or is he saying [as, in fact, he has suggested at times] that he truly believes people need strict order and discipline -- imposed from above, if necessary -- in order to flourish and survive? Certainly his immersion in the strict, punishing discipline and rituals on Mt. Baldy, which he has said bascally saved his life, would make a strong case for the latter.)

Without getting into the argument over whether he's pro- or anti-choice (or whether that matters), it's safe to say that to many feminists, at least, a lot of his attitudes towards women would seem conservative/patriarchal, if not downright atavistic (even though a lot of women who consider themselves feminists also admire him greatly). Also, his well-known despair over the fact the "all the institutions" of society have been threatened or annihilated, and for this reason we're living "in a catastrophe," can certainly be taken as what we'd normally call a "conservative" longing for an earlier era when the rules were clear, people followed them, and social institutions of power and autority held sway.

Yet at the same time, he portrays himself as -- well, a "soldier" in the ongoing campagin to liberate the human heart from its bonds, whether self-imposed or imposed from outside by society. He has, of course, resolutely refused to take a public side on most political issues (with the arguable exception of Israel's right to defend itself militarily, even though I once heard him in concert saying that when he sang "There Is A War" to the soldiers in Israel, he tried very hard to address it to the "soldiers on both sides") -- this more or less concurs with what its4inthemorning says above.
jazzmanchgo
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Re: Songs from a Room

Postby jazzmanchgo » Fri Feb 13, 2015 2:35 am

"Nadel is keen to analyse LC as a literary writer of the tradition of the first half of the twentieth century . . ."

Mind if I respectfully disagree? I didn't find Nadel's bio a "literary biography" at all. Yes, he referenced Leonard's works (sometimes, as in his "discussion" of Parasites of Heaven, in a really cursory, offhand way); he did lend some analysis to "Death Of A Lady's Man" (book, not album), a few of the earlier poems, and (again cursorily) "Beautiful Losers." But there really wasn't any in-depth literary critcism or exegesis. We got a few examples of episodes from Leonard's life that made it, pretty much as they occurred, into "The Favorite Game." But I think we're still awaiting a biographer who can give us "The Life" of the poet in a way that fully integrates his writing and his artistic vision into that life.
AlexandraLaughing
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Re: Songs from a Room

Postby AlexandraLaughing » Tue Feb 17, 2015 3:50 pm

jazzmanchgo wrote:"Nadel is keen to analyse LC as a literary writer of the tradition of the first half of the twentieth century . . ."

Mind if I respectfully disagree? I didn't find Nadel's bio a "literary biography" at all. Yes, he referenced Leonard's works (sometimes, as in his "discussion" of Parasites of Heaven, in a really cursory, offhand way); he did lend some analysis to "Death Of A Lady's Man" (book, not album), a few of the earlier poems, and (again cursorily) "Beautiful Losers." But there really wasn't any in-depth literary criticism or exegesis. We got a few examples of episodes from Leonard's life that made it, pretty much as they occurred, into "The Favorite Game." But I think we're still awaiting a biographer who can give us "The Life" of the poet in a way that fully integrates his writing and his artistic vision into that life.
Since I haven't actually read Nadel's biography yet, I can only defer to you on that.

My guess is that we will now see a swift development of international Leonard Cohen studies as an academic discipline, and everyone will have to up their game. The Canadians in particular will have to make a proper pitch for their share of the narrative. Leonard's rising international tide should also raise the other Canadian poets in the group he was part of and get them better known internationally.
AlexandraLaughing
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Re: Songs from a Room

Postby AlexandraLaughing » Tue Feb 17, 2015 5:32 pm

jazzmanchgo wrote:RE: Leonard's politics

" Back in the day," as they say, a lot of "us" with countercultural/leftist tendencies saw in Leonard's dissatisfaction and angst a sense that he was on "our side" politically. In fact, part of his popularity in countries like Poland is due to his apparent distrust of pat answers, ideologies, governmental systems, etc. (The Polish people KNOW better than to fall for that!) There are photos of him performing (for free?) in college classrooms that had been taken over by anarchist/revolutionary students (in Europe, I believe) -- many of us, for years, considered him a kind of existential anarchist ally in "the struggle," however that struggle may be defined.

In reality, though, I think his politics are, in fact, existential more than real-world ideological. Yes, anti-war themes predominated in some of his songs (esp. his earlier ones); yet he has also exhibited a fascination with totalitarian control dating back at least as far as the children's Nazi torture games and Breavman's mass-hypnosis fantasies in "The Favorite Game;" he has reveled in the military-like discipline it takes to coordinate a tour, and of course he named his original touring band "The Army" -- ironically, or admiringly? He no doubt intentionally left that question unanswered. Certainly, the first time he went to Israel, he found himself romanticizing war with intensity and poetic eloquence -- a side to him that I think a lot of his admirers would prefer to downplay or ignore.

(Likewise, when he sings of desiring a return to "the Berlin Wall . . . Stalin and St. Paul" in "The Future" -- is he being ironic? Or is he saying [as, in fact, he has suggested at times] that he truly believes people need strict order and discipline -- imposed from above, if necessary -- in order to flourish and survive? Certainly his immersion in the strict, punishing discipline and rituals on Mt. Baldy, which he has said bascally saved his life, would make a strong case for the latter.)

Without getting into the argument over whether he's pro- or anti-choice (or whether that matters), it's safe to say that to many feminists, at least, a lot of his attitudes towards women would seem conservative/patriarchal, if not downright atavistic (even though a lot of women who consider themselves feminists also admire him greatly). Also, his well-known despair over the fact the "all the institutions" of society have been threatened or annihilated, and for this reason we're living "in a catastrophe," can certainly be taken as what we'd normally call a "conservative" longing for an earlier era when the rules were clear, people followed them, and social institutions of power and autority held sway.

Yet at the same time, he portrays himself as -- well, a "soldier" in the ongoing campagin to liberate the human heart from its bonds, whether self-imposed or imposed from outside by society. He has, of course, resolutely refused to take a public side on most political issues (with the arguable exception of Israel's right to defend itself militarily, even though I once heard him in concert saying that when he sang "There Is A War" to the soldiers in Israel, he tried very hard to address it to the "soldiers on both sides") -- this more or less concurs with what its4inthemorning says above.
All these contradictions are among the things that make LC so fascinating, indeed, great.

As a feminist, I admire the honesty of LC's early discussions of sexual politics- particularly 'There is a War'. What I don't admire at all are his post-Buddhist (or at least post-Roshi) views on the eternal masculine and feminine, which are grade A boloney as far as I am concerned. The sun and the moon have nothing to do with men and women- one is a huge ball of fusing hydrogen which acts for us as source of heat and light, the other is a dead sphere of rock which broke off from the earth a few billion years ago and formed a separate ball about a quarter of its size, and which regulates the rhythms of the earth in some very useful ways, happening to reflect the light of the sun like most other large objects in proximity to it, but more visibly so to us because of its nearness. The attraction of the 'eternal feminine' is just an attraction for the fact that people who are economically, socially and physically weaker than you are easier to win over than those who aren't. In any case, since we now know Roshi's views on women were just an excuse to feel them up, I think this case is pretty much closed.

I don't myself believe the 'existential' LC is the real LC- that's one reason why I prefer the political LC. The 'existential' LC is the lazy LC- who knows he can get away just with being cocktail-drinking, attitude-taking, women-chasing Field Commander Cohen (basically a version of James Bond) because everyone else is equally lazy and loves it. But what's most real in LC, to me, are his attempts to try and understand the dynamics of power rather than just surf them, and especially his awareness of the cost of them to individuals and peoples, starting with the Gypsies and the Jews, as historical individuals and as types, and moving on to suicide victims, the people of New Orleans and many others, including of course himself.

His own need both to have order and structure and to flout them is a pretty standard response to the period when he grew up. He wants them for short periods, and on his own terms, but not for long ones. He can cope with Mount Baldy for short periods and on his own terms (that he could drive himself away whenever he wanted), but he was no more able to commit to it in the long term than to marriage, and he found it soul-destroying by the end, by his own account. His analysis of the regime on Mt Baldy ends up in his 2011 interview with Sylvie Simmons being much more bleak than it was in some early interviews.

Yes, he romanticised war at a couple of moments, especially in 1974, but he's self-aware- he knows the effect on himself of the glamour of the uniform, and he knows it's also devastating. And it's also all tied up with his image of his father, who was both glamourized and destroyed by war.

There's another political dichotomy he is fascinated with- truth and lies. Dying for the truth- or not.

It seems to me that The Partisan sums up a lot of LC's political vision- more than vision, life. The political imperative on the Gypsies and the Jews of surviving and escaping at any cost, even if the people with you or those who help you are lost. Which can seem selfish- but your survival is also your people's survival, and so in a certain sense also the survival of those who die for you.

(Actually, I think the song of LC which best sums up his attitude to politics is Jazz Police.)

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