The 4 stage road to I’m Your Man.
A flat near Chelsea circa 1968, two hippies form a lifelong and intense dislike of the ‘miserable dirge-like’ music that is on constant rotation from their (possibly clinically depressed?) housemate.
The mother of the male hippy goes to the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, specifically to see Leonard Cohen, inadvertently sees Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and Joni Mitchell along the way*.
Twenty years later the skinny long-haired child of said hippies really likes a track by a band called Concrete Blonde on the soundtrack he’s been lent to a new film he hasn’t seen.
19 March 2001, a 29 year-old man commits a staggering act of rebellion against his parents and buys his first Leonard Cohen LP**, mostly because he likes the banana picture.
Which is how I came to be the owner of I’m Your Man by Leonard Cohen and I’m pretty ambivalent about it too. Now I know good, trusted, tasteful folk who worship at the altar of Cohen, they go see him as much as they can, rave about his shows and love him unreservedly. I don’t get that, I like him better as a poet actually – although saying that out loud would make the most ball-achingly pretentious numpty on Earth, so if that’s okay by you, forget I said it.
I think my problem with I’m Your Man is the sound of it. I really like ‘First We Take Manhattan’, I really do even the daft half-assed 1965-Dylan-with-concussion line that goes ‘And I thank you for those items that you sent me / The monkey and the plywood violin’. But … BUT the anaemic synth sound almost makes me take the needle off the record before Len get’s to utter his ace opening couplet and don’t get me started on the keyboard twangs underneath the backing singers – it enrages me! The fact I like this song despite all this frippery is testament to just how good it is, I think^.
I have no such like for ‘Ain’t No Cure For Love’, I just don’t get, it’s too Goddamned corny and light. This is music without any vitamins, minerals, or dietary fibre as far as I’m concerned; doesn’t make you healthier, or keep you regular – which is the very least we should ask of our favourite artists.
Luckily with the next track up, we’re in absolute classic territory with ‘Everybody Knows’. Here the backing works a treat, especially the kick-ass oud playing^^ and Cohen’s voice is absolute perfection. Where do I start? I love this world-weary mix of resignation and cynicism, there’s a bitterness here that gets me every time. It’s usually interpreted as a comment on AIDS and its stultifying effect on sexual doo-dahs and stuff; personally I think that’s there, the ‘plague’ reference is unequivocal, but its more all-encompassing than that. With a humour as black as his faithless lover’s heart, Cohen pretty much tells us ‘love is fucked’ (I’m paraphrasing). Love needn’t take it too personally either because as ‘Everybody Knows’ lays bare, pretty much everything else is fucked too. Brilliant stuff.
The Jean-Michel Jarre gone cabaret keys don’t put me off ‘I’m Your Man’ either, again this is a playful, lusty swinging number, Lascivious Len at his best. This is a whole heap of fun, Cohen phrases like Sinatra in his prime. How could she ever resist?
If you want a boxer
I will step into the ring for you
And if you want a doctor
I’ll examine every inch of you
I have something of a soft spot for ‘Take This Waltz’ too, partly for the lyrics adapted from Lorca and mostly for the rhythm – someone someday really should invent some kind of dance to fit that time signature. Because I’m a nice person I shall refrain from commenting on ‘Jazz Police’*^ and the insubstantial country-tinged ‘I Can’t Forget’ and move right on to the clincher, ‘The Tower of Song’.
It’s a wry and heartfelt commentary on talent, inspiration, vocation. I like the way he invokes Hank Williams^* a hundred floors above him in that particular edifice and I love his reference to his own ‘golden voice’. It’s a lyrical and song writing tour de force, but again musically I can’t help thinking it should be more, it’s just a little too slick and that lessens the impact for me, that keyboard solo … man! Great though it is, I’d take ‘Everybody Knows’ every time.
So I am a bit conflicted about I’m Your Man, whether it’s representative of Cohen’s wider work, or not, I’m not qualified to say but I like the funny, poetic, bitter bits and just wish it sounded a lot less synthesized and a bit more real.
*Granny S was a wayyy cool old lady.
**take that you fascists!
^REM did a very good cover of it, so did Joe Cocker, but Jennifer Warnes & Stevie Ray Vaughan win for me:
^^I really don’t get to type that often enough.
*^not a patch on the dream police.
^*From an excellent article on him:
In 1994, Cohen said: “If you’re going to think of yourself in this game, or in this tradition, and you start getting a swelled head about it, then you’ve really got to think about who you’re talking about. You’re not just talking about Randy Newman, who’s fine, or Bob Dylan, who’s sublime, you’re talking about King David, Homer, Dante, Milton, Wordsworth, you’re talking about the embodiment of our highest possibility. So I don’t think it’s particularly modest or virtuous to think of oneself as a minor poet. I really do feel the enormous luck I’ve had in being able to make a living, and to never have had to have written one word that I didn’t want to write.
“But I don’t fool myself, I know the game I’m in. When I wrote about Hank Williams ‘A hundred floors above me in the tower of song’, it’s not some kind of inverse modesty. I know where Hank Williams stands in the history of popular song. Your Cheatin’ Heart, songs like that, are sublime, in his own tradition, and I feel myself a very minor writer. I’ve taken a certain territory, and I’ve tried to maintain it and administrate it with the very best of my capacities. And I will continue to administrate this tiny territory until I’m too weak to do it. But I understand where this territory is.”