If You Want A Doctor …

The 4 stage road to I’m Your Man.

Stage 1:

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.

Stage 2:

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*.

Stage 3:

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.

Stage 4:

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.

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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.

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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.

Put it away, Abe!
Put it away, Abe!

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.

Leonard Cohen Im Your Man 01

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

Leonard Cohen Im Your Man 04

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’.

Leonard Cohen Im Your Man 07Leonard Cohen Im Your Man 06

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.

657 Down.

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*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.”

30 thoughts on “If You Want A Doctor …

  1. Just watched a special RIP screening of the 2006 doco “I’m your man” which combines interviews with Cohen and a concert (at the Sydney Opera House, don’t you know) where various singers take a tune each. Some of those songs I haven’t heard in 20 years – enjoyed them and thought I’d round off the night with a revisit of this post. Jeez, I laid it on thick in the comments, didn’t I?

    BTW, get ‘Songs of Leonard Cohen’.

    1. Not at all – I loved that, the comments can be my fave part of doing all this.

      You’re the second person today to recommend that doc to me. I bet Jennifer Warnes was there.

  2. I want to chime in here to acknowledge having read and (as always) enjoyed this, your latest post. That said, I must admit that other than the name and recognition of the lofty status in which he is held by many, I know nothing of Leonard Cohen. I’ve developed a mental block against testing the waters for fear of possibly not connecting with him and his music and therefore somehow “failing.” Silly I know, but sometimes when there is so much of a sense of reverence for a talent unknown to me, I self-intimidate out of the attempt……. I just thank the heavens I started reading your stuff a while back, otherwise your current lofty tower of blog position might have proved a “Cohen barrier” for me too.

    1. I get that feeling with artists like this, too. Takes me a while to jump in and immerse myself. Worth it, though. His first three albums (Songs Of Leonard Cohen, Songs From a Room and Songs of Love and Hate) are particularly smashin’ and great places to jump in. Recent Songs is a goody also, as is pretty much everything he’s released since 2001’s Ten New Songs. In my opinion.

    2. Too kind, too kind. I can relate completely, I have a similar blocks with Jeff Buckley, Sufjan Stevens and REO Speedwagon. Well, okay so maybe not the ‘wagon. You hit the nail right on the head too, it’s the reverence people attach to them that puts me off.

  3. See, me, I LOVE this record. I am incredibly biased, of course. But look at that first side! First We Take Manhattan / Ain’t No Cure For Love / Everybody Knows / I’m Your Man? Get outta here! All four of this appear on greatest hits sets!

    And Tower Of Song… damn. And Take This Waltz! And… Yeah, I might not be the best one to ask about Leonard.

    As for the music, Leonard himself has called it “dinky toy music,” something like that. It’s the hardest part of listening, but I find it also sets up a superb juxtaposition to his voice and the weight of what he’s saying, adds levity when everything else goes heavy.

    Leonard FTW! I’d love a vinyl of this. Well done!

      1. Sorry, nope – not on this occasion. Never. Uh uh – not gonna happen. No chance. No way, jose. Think again, friend.

        … unless there’s a threat of finding myself banned, of course.

    1. I can’t follow you there I’m afraid, the good bits are good despite the, mostly, awful production to my ears. I’d love this album to be redone.

  4. “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”

    That’s me! 🙂

  5. “I like him better as a poet actually – although saying that out loud would make the most ball-achingly pretentious numpty on Earth”

    That makes two of us! Two numpties!

  6. So, a few thoughts.
    ‘Jazz Police’ is dreadful. Leonard shouldn’t have tried to do Steely Dan. ‘Take this Waltz’ is a lovely throwback to what Cohen was doing in the late 60s and early 70s. ‘I’m your Man’ is a brilliant song undermined by that brittle 80s production we so hate. ‘I can’t forget’ may be a half-decent song, but the crap arrangement and production turn it into filler. ‘Everybody Knows’ and ‘Tower of Song’ are undoubted highlights of a really amazing career. It’s surprising to have written that about the latter song, as it’s a basic 12 bar blues with shit production (again), but there you go. Songs about song-writing are killers if done well. I’m not a card-carrying Cohen-kitten either, but jeez, the guy has a way with words.

    In Germany, mid-90s, I bought a live bootleg of Cohen’s 1993 tour. Three songs from ‘I’m Your Man’ appear in the set. Sax, flute, violin add a warmth and immediacy that lifts the songs. An introduction to ‘There ain’t no cure for love’ that sets it as the realisation of Jesus on the cross provides quite a different context, but though better for it, it still doesn’t quite connect. But the live ‘First we take Manhattan’ is revelatory and fabulous. A prominent bass-line powers the song with a masculine momentum counterpointed by tight, deft female vocals. The ‘fashion business’ verse is spine-tingling.

    Thanks for inspiring a Sunday morning with Mr Cohen.

    1. Cheers Bruce – you’ve just very kindly doubled the length of my post. I like the phrase ‘masculine momentum’ and I’ll steal it accordingly.

      This is such a lesser record than it could be – it frustrates me. I love ‘Everybody Knows’, but I’m not sure if I don’t love the Concrete Blonde cover of it equally.

  7. ‘I’m Your Man’, eh? The family is out, so hang on a tick while I put the disc on so I can soundtrack your post suitably…
    Ooh, that synth-disco beat sounds dated…
    OK. Back to you 1537, and I’ll be back later.

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