Leonard Cohen – the Canadian Dylan?

I saw Leonard Cohen for the first time last week, at London’s O2 Arena. It was a magnificent gig.

So thanks to Anne Ritchie for her timely article on Leonard and Dylan:

“Just as Ira B Nadel’s book, Various Positions – A Life Of Leonard Cohen, was turning a little tedious, with its microscopic examination of the (French) Canadian (Jewish) literary scene and references to authors I’d never heard of (and was unlikely to ever want to discover), my interest was reawakened in the middle chapter (Chapter 7), when Bob Dylan appeared for the first time.

“We had arrived at 1966, when Cohen, aged 31, was about to embark on his singing career. At an all-day poetry get-together, none of his fellow poets had heard of this Dylan who Cohen was raving about. One of his friends went out immediately to buy Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, but when they were played they had little impact. Only Cohen was impressed, declaring he would become the Canadian Dylan: music seemed more lucrative than literature.

“En route to Nashville, Cohen stopped off in New York, where he stayed, on and off, for two years. There he was introduced to fellow Canadian Mary Martin, an assistant to Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman. It was Martin who arranged for fellow Canadians the Hawks, later known as The Band, to back Dylan. (She also managed Van Morrison for a time.)

“With Martin as his manager, Cohen established himself in the New York music scene. John Hammond, who had also discovered Dylan, signed him to Columbia Records.

“At this point in Various Positions, we see various members of Dylan’s circle from Cohen’s perspective: arguments with Joan Baez over drugs, his infatuation with Nico… .

“It was not until autumn 1969 that Cohen and Dylan met for the first time. Dylan heard that Cohen was at another Village folk club and summoned him to the Kettle of Fish. Their mutual admiration is no secret. Cohen has described Dylan as a Picasso – exuberant, wide-ranging, and assimilating the history of music. Dylan is reported to have gone backstage at several Cohen concerts, and even called in to the recording studios with Allen Ginsberg to sing back-up on Don’t Go Home With Your Hard On, a notorious track on the Phil Spector-produced album, Death of A Ladies’ Man.

“As author Nadel remarks, Cohen and Dylan share some qualities in their song-writing, notably sophisticated lyrics and elegant melodies. They both draw heavily from The Bible. Nadel adds that neither had much of a voice.

“I’d agree that early Lennie can sometimes embarrass with flat notes, but his speaking voice is rich and sonorous and his singing improved with confidence. Dylan could always sing. Listening to his early songs, forty five years down the line, I am often surprised by the force of his singing, the phrasing and the way he holds onto notes. And though his singing voice has seen better days, his speaking voice continues to charm.

“Cohen’s trademark is the most felicitous turn of phrase, both in speech and song. Phrases in his songs impress me with their beauty even when I struggle to comprehend them. Often described as hypnotic, his melodies can draw you in to an intimate world. Only in later songs, as in those in The Future, does Cohen seem to break out from his enclosed world – though his two most recent albums, Ten New Songs, and Dear Heather, see him once again retreating into Planet Leonard.

“Various Positions gives a detailed, informative picture of Leonard Cohen the man and consequently many insights into his (relatively limited) musical output.

“By comparison, Dylan’s vast and varied output reflects a boundless curiosity. It reveals a man looking outwards as well as inwards.”

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