Leonard Cohen — The Tower of Song

By Gord Ellis

I’m not really sure when I first heard Leonard Cohen sing. But I do know his songwriting was on my radar long before I actually heard his voice. One of the first Cohen songs I recall hearing was done by Jennifer Warnes (a close friend and collaborator of Cohen’s). The song was “First We Take Manhattan” in 1987, and it was brilliant. The song had a classic 80s production—very clear, maybe a bit too antiseptic considering the subject matter—yet it completely worked. It was a modern blues with slinky guitar and featured many of the lyrical themes Cohen likes to explore. Those themes are death, conflict, religion, sex, war, fear, and mystery. Warnes sang the semi-apocalyptic lyrics with perfect pitch and delivery. Yet she clearly got the song. Her Cohen cover was a pretty big hit, especially in Canada, and was actually part of Warnes’ CD called Famous Blue Raincoat that was made up of all Cohen covers.

My next introduction to the Cohen songbook was via “Bird on a Wire” as sung by Aaron Neville on the Neville Brothers album Brother’s Keeper. This is one of Cohen’s signature songs, and he has described it himself as something of a prayer and an anthem. In the hands of Aaron Neville, the song became a beautiful ethereal psalm. He sung “Bird on a Wire” with that pure, schoolboy timbre only the immensely masculine Neville brother could pull off. Yet the song, with it’s simple but entirely gorgeous rhymes, was nearly the perfect vehicle for Neville. He nailed it. For one part of my life, I was obsessed with the version of this song. It’s one of Cohen’s greatest.

So back to Leonard Cohen and his voice. When I first really heard the artist sing his songs, on the 1988 album I’m Your Man, I was immediately struck by two things. The first was the incredible depth of his voice. It sounded like an echo from the bottom of a well, or the rumble of a subway car under your feet. It was deep and dark and smoky. Cohen’s whole life was revealed in that sound. The other thing about Cohen’s voice was the way he would deliver the most mind boggling lines without inflection. You could sometimes hear his smile, but mostly he sounded deadly serious in the most sexy way possible. Like a fire and brimstone preacher who sneaks off to the Mustang Ranch between sermons. Yet there were no histrionics. Cohen would have never been a finalist on The Voice. But he knew his songs and what they needed. He was the man.

Which brings us to the new Leonard Cohen song “You Want it Darker.” I was sitting in a dimly lit radio studio this past September, getting ready to play this song for the CBC audience in Northwestern Ontario for the very first time. I normally pre-listen to a new song, but this time purposely didn’t. A new Cohen song is an event. The first few bars of the song immediately showed we were going into a place a long, long way from top 40 radio. There was a gospel choir, throbbing bass, and then that voice. Bottoming out the woofers, it sounded exactly like a 82-year-old poet with one million cigarettes under his belt.

If you are the dealer
I’m out of the game
If you are the healer
I’m broken and lame

The words spilled out in a nearly deadpan delivery. This was dark all right. Yet not scary. Cohen seemed to be saying, “Hey, we are all going to kick the bucket, and I’m close to it. But I’m ready, and I can handle talking about it if you can.” There was a weird joy to it.  

My colleague, a longtime Cohen fan and true believer, was letting the sound wash through her headphones. She looked across the glass at me and smiled. “Isn’t it gorgeous?” she said. And I had to admit, it was. Nobody else in the world can make that sound.