His greatest tracks, as chosen by Robert Plant, Mark Kozelek, Antony Hegarty, Judy Collins and Cohen's bandmates and collaborators
1 SO LONG, MARIANNE
Songs Of Leonard Cohen, 1967
Cohen’s classic folk anthem – raw yet regal – honouring his ’60s muse and lover Marianne Jensen…
ADAM COHEN: I’m a bigger fan of his than almost anyone I know. The reputation he has for being the prince of darkness, or having a voice like an ashtray, or writing monotonous melodies, is scandalously inaccurate. I think my dad sings a lot better than Neil Young! A singer’s ability to convey a song is about the lie in the voice, and there’s no lie in my old man’s voice. I’ve also always loved his guitar playing, which generally goes unheralded. There’s an incredible amount of lightness, uplifting romantic writing and humour in his work. He chuckles at those remarks about him being morbid.
Because I went into the same shabby line of work, like an apprentice in the family business, I’ve always recognised what a privilege it is to have his ear, to have a master lean over my simple notebooks. Since the very beginning he’s been vetting my adjectives, prepositions, nouns, similes, metaphors and what he calls the “objective correlative” – for example, “they’re hosing down the sushi bar”. You immediately know it’s the end of the night, right? Beautiful. He does that all over his writing.
He plays me his new music, always. It’s a pleasure to talk shop with my old man and maybe suggest stuff when he’s playing demos. Sometimes he actually incorporates some of my thoughts, which is beautiful. It’s incredibly gratifying to find that I am a reliable interlocutor.
This has always been one of my favourite songs, for its soaring melodic construction, its breakaway chorus and its prototypical lyrics. “Cold as a new razor blade”; “wash my eyelids in the rain”. These are fantastic offerings. I’d urge every aspiring songwriter to play it. They will feel like a hero. They will understand the entire culture of folk songwriting and the importance of lyrics. The song has deep emotional evocations for me, but I would never do something as horrifically tedious to the old man as ask him what it meant, line by line. He finds that absolutely antithetical to the exercise of transportation that is intended by songwriting.
It’s a mark of people’s poverty if they don’t recognise him as a great. The last few years have been a triumphant return to ranks. On a personal level he’s being recognised for standing on the heap of a life’s work, which has always been incredible and is now towering. He’s on the very upper floors of the tower of song.