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5 Leonard Cohen songs you may not have heard.

October 30, 2011 \am\31 9:45 am

Leonard Cohen’s 2009 concert at Madison Square Garden was significant for two reasons: a) it represented his ascent to the pantheon of U.S. arena acts after 42 years in the music business, and b) a 75 year-old man who began his artistic life as a poet and novelist filled the Garden.

His song “Hallelujah” has followed a parallel path. Debuting on the 1984 album Various Positions, “Hallelujah” in the ensuing 27 years has metamorphosed into an American Idol audition piece and a sure-fire audience pleaser covered by singers as varied as John Cale and Il Divo.

Cohen has a solid, if comparatively modest, body of studio albums: 11 since 1967.  Supplementing them are six live releases, half of which saw the light of day between 2009 and 2010.  The albums are rich with classics:  “Suzanne,” “Bird on the Wire,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Dance Me to the End of Love,” “Tower of Song” and the aforementioned “Hallelujah,” to name a handful. The albums additionally are residences for songs known only to the Cohen aficionado.  Here’s a look at five.

“The Butcher” (Songs from a Room, 1969).

Throughout his musical career, Cohen has adapted country, klezmer, cabaret, even Euro-disco. “The Butcher” is the closest he’s come to the blues on his official recordings.  While the song isn’t wedded to the 12-bar structure, it does employ the blues’ dominant-subdominant-tonic chord sequence at the end of each verse.

Lyrically, Cohen embraces imagery both biblical (I saw some flowers growing up / Where that lamb fell down / Was I supposed to praise my lord? / Make some kind of joyful sound? ) and Romantic (Well, I found a silver needle / I put it into my arm / It did some good / Did some harm).  He harmonizes the two at the song’s conclusion (Blood upon my body / And ice upon my soul / Lead on, my son, / It is your world).

In 2009 I staged You Know Who I Am: A Tribute to Leonard Cohen at the Cornelia Street Café inNew York. “The Butcher” played on the sound system as the actors arrived onstage (to the cast’s surprise and mine, Cohen’s sister was in the audience).

“Please Don’t Pass Me By (A Disgrace)” (Live Songs, 1973).

When Bob Dylan released “Desolation Row” in 1965, he basically granted permission to write and record epic songs, and many bands and singer-songwriters were delighted to comply.  Clocking in at 13 minutes, “Please Don’t Pass Me By (A Disgrace)” is Cohen’s contribution.  As the album title indicates, the song was recorded in concert, a format that is gracious toward lengthy numbers.

Cohen opens with a spoken recollection of walking in New York and seeing a man with a placard on his back that read, “Please don’t pass me by. I am blind, but you can see. I’ve been blinded totally. Please don’t pass me by.”  He then speaks of a school for handicapped individuals and says he sensed “the whole city was singing this.”  He launches into the chorus, which consists of the words on the man’s sign.  As the minutes tick away, Cohen delivers exhortations like a tent preacher (e.g., But I promise you, friends, that you’re going to be singing this song.  It may not be tonight, it may not be tomorrow, but one day you’ll be on your knees, and I want you to know the words when the time comes) and punctuates them with the chorus, whose intensity swells and swells.

In his review of Live Songs, Robert Christgau writes, “And eventually the sing-along becomes a yell-along, which is much better.”  I’m withBob.  As much as I admire Woody Guthrie, I’d rather yell along to “Please Don’t Pass Me By (A Disgrace)” than sing along to “This Land Is Your Land” any day.

“Leaving Greensleeves” (New Skin for the Old Ceremony, 1974).

Even people for whom “folk music” means “Dylan” know “Greensleeves.”  Purportedly written byHenryVIII, the song has transcended its folk-song status to become a standard.  It has earned the classical treatment from Ralph Vaughan Williams, the jazz treatment from John Coltrane, the easy-listening instrumental treatment from Mason Williams, the Celtic new-age treatment from Loreena McKennitt, the smoking-jacket-with-the-ermine-collar treatment from Liberace.  Allmusic.com notes 2,020 recordings.

“Leaving Greensleeves” is an act of reconstructive surgery.  Cohen strips the verses of the famous minor-key melody and recites them, not with rue and longing, but accusation and spite.  He rewrites the chorus.  Greensleeves was all my joy / Greensleaves was my delight becomes Greensleeves, you’re all alone / The leaves have fallen, the men have gone.  After the initial chorus, he submits more original lines: I sang my songs, I told my lies / To lie between your matchless thighs / And ain’t it fine, ain’t it wild / To finally end our exercise?  By time the song reaches the fade-out,Cohen isn’t singing the chorus. He’s screaming it.

“Fingerprints” (Death of a Ladies’ Man, 1977).

Death of a Ladies’ Man was long regarded as the leper of Cohen’s recordings.  He co-wrote the album’s eight songs with Phil Spector, who produced it.  If the pairing of the gentlemanly Cohen and the megalomaniacal Spector wasn’t bizarre enough, the project was cursed right after it left the starting gate.  Cohen has said he didn’t realize until he was in the studio that Spector was unstable. The producer pulled out a gun during the sessions, held it to Cohen’s neck and said, “Leonard, I love you.”  Cohen replied, “I hope you do, Phil.” Spector confiscated the tapes, wouldn’t let Cohen re-record his guide vocals and ran the songs through his trademark Wall-of-Sound washing machine.  Death of a Ladies’ Man remains the strangest and most uncharacteristic entry in the Cohen catalogue, the very qualities that make it a fascinating listening experience; think of it largely as Leonard Cohen Meets the Ronettes.  At the time,Cohen declared the album a “catastrophe,” but now reports that it has achieved a fan base among the punk crowd. His daughter likes it, too.

The lyrics of “Fingerprints” are a 1966 poem, “Give Me Back My Fingerprints,” which appeared first in the collection Parasites of Heaven and later in Selected Poems: 1956 – 1968.  Spector composed and arranged the music as a country tune complete with fiddle and pedal steel, but he doesn’t have an affinity for the style. “Fingerprints” sounds like a Hollywood parody of the kind of music you’d expect to hear at a Saturday-night hoedown.  Cohen, who is naturally disposed to country, nevertheless barks lines that are decidedly not Hank Williams: I called my fingerprints all night / But they don’t seem to care / The last time that I saw them / They were leafing through your hair.

“Don’t Go Home with Your Hard-On” (Death of a Ladies’ Man).

Did this title really come from the man who wrote Yes, you who must leave everything that you cannot control / It begins with your family, but soon it comes round to your soul?  Well, it was the ‘70s, a free-for-all decade of wife-swapping, perms for men and Studio 54, andCohen was living inLos Angeles.

The instrumentation is everything absolutely no one associates with a Leonard Cohen record: an electric guitar processed through a phase shifter, a rambunctious piano and a brass section that charges like a herd of pachyderms.  Cohen seems to regard the instruments as competition rather than complement, sounding as if he’s a couple of steps away from shouting himself hoarse.

The song isn’t as salacious as the title would suggest. The verses aren’t explicitly about sex.  Actually, they don’t appear to be explicitly about anything.  I was born in a beauty salon / My father was a dresser of hair / My mother was a girl you could call on / When you called she was always there.

 Still, the song, as messy as that unmade bed in the Chelsea Hotel, is fun because it presents Cohen in a very un-Cohen context.  Ironically, it’s on this track that Cohen truly bridges the two worlds he inhabits, those of music and poetry.  His background vocalists are Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg.

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2 Comments
  1. October 30, 2011 \pm\31 4:36 pm 4:36 pm

    It’s difficult to fault this listing of infrequently heard Leonard Cohen songs, but I would respectfully submit at least two more songs Cohen wrote and sung for consideration:
    1. “Do I Have To Dance All Night” was performed by Cohen many times in concerts but was never released in the US. I have a modest preference for the semi-funky 1976 version (with Laura Branigan singing backup) but the 1980 more gypsy, less disco version also has its merits.
    2. Chelsea Hotel #1 By Leonard Cohen is the earliest version (played in concert) of the song Leonard Cohen would later revise into “Chelsea Hotel #2.” The original rendition of this song is more elegiac than Chelsea Hotel #2, focusing on the loss of Janis Joplin, whose liaison with Cohen at the Chelsea Hotel led to the creation of the song.

  2. October 30, 2011 \pm\31 9:30 pm 9:30 pm

    I had thought of including “Do I Have to Dance All Night?”, but as you alluded, it was available only as a European 45. I haven’t heard the 1980 version. I’ll have to check it out on YouTube.

    I decided to stick with songs that are on his U.S. albums. “Live Songs” for a long time was available only as a European CD, but is now part of the new U.S. boxed set of all his albums.

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