September 21: Leonard Cohen

Songs of Leonard CohenPeople often point to Bob Dylan as the poet laureate of rock and roll, but for my money that title really belongs to Leonard Cohen, who was born on this day in 1934. According to several reports, Cohen is the most covered songwriter of all time, and although he does not possess a traditional “singer’s” voice, his is one of the greatest voices in popular song. Cohen’s voice is dark, deep and raspy, the kind of voice that when he sings in “The Future” that he’s “the little Jew who wrote the Bible,” you almost believe that his might in fact be the voice of God.

Cohen’s works deal with the classic themes of love, religion, sex, depression and mortality; you know the basic building blocks of the human condition. Although his subject matter is heavy, Cohen always manages to lightly pepper his songs with wit: Take for instance, his song “Famous Blue Raincoat,” which takes the form of a dispassionate letter to the man that the narrator’s wife is having an affair with. Although Cohen sings the lyrics like a threat, it also sounds as if he is fine with the affair and glad to be relieved of his wife’s troubles.

When Cohen plays the lover, sometimes he wants to “see you naked in your body and your soul” like in his song “Ain’t No Cure For Love,” or as the opening verse of “I’m Your Man” says, with just a touch of sleaze:

If you want a lover
I’ll do anything you ask me to
And if you want another kind of love
I’ll wear a mask for you
If you want a partner
Take my hand
Or if you want to strike me down in anger
Here I stand
I’m your man

Alternately, Cohen can sound like a prophet of doom, like in his 1986 song, “First We Take Manhattan,” in which he turns Lorenz Hart’s charming vow to “take Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, too” into a Cold War era threat, or his promise that “I’ve seen the future, brother: It is murder.”

Of course, most people are aware of Cohen, thanks to his 1984 song “Hallelujah,” a song which has been covered by just about everyone. Rumor has it that Cohen wrote over eighty verses to the song, but eventually narrowed it down to seven, only five of which are typically performed. Now “Hallelujah” is a beautiful, brilliant song: A complex meditation on biblical themes, loss and desire, touched with bitterness and set against a gorgeous and simple hymnal melody. What it most definitely is not, no matter what you might think otherwise, is a love song. Remember, this is a song in which Cohen writes, “Love is not a victory march/It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”

In 2009, James Rodewald of Gourmet Magazine created the King Cohen as a tribute to Cohen’s 75th birthday. It’s a smokey and bitter tribute to Cohen, based on the King Cole Cocktail featured in The Savoy Cocktail Book.

King Cohen

  • 2 ounce blended Scotch
  • 1/2 teaspoon simple syrup
  • 1 teaspoon Fernet Branca

Combine with ice in a rocks glass, stir well and garnish with orange and pineapple slices.

Tomorrow: Happy French New Year! (I’ll explain.)

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