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36 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Anyone seriously interested in Cohen will be reading this book, 21 Nov. 2009
This review is from: Leonard Cohen: Hallelujah (Paperback)
Footman has created an excellent account of Cohen's music, poetry and personal life from his family's Lithuanian-Jewish roots to his recent bout of world touring. The young Cohen is defined by a combination of his father's death in 1944, his distance from the rest of Montreal's Jewish society and his nigh-on simultaneous discovery of the guitar and the Spanish poet, Lorca. Footman takes us through Cohen's failure to really penetrate the Manhattan counter-culture. Personally, I rather like this aspect of him - he feels too outside the mainstream to even feel fully comfortable with its self-defined antithesis. Instead, he found himself in London, gritting his teeth against the weather in that famous blue raincoat, hanging out at semi-legal parties held amongst the Caribbean immigrant community.

We are told how the first album was prettied up with strings and extra vocals. Nevertheless, I personally think that it has stood the test of time exceptionally well and I actually quite like the fact that the artwork - in common with almost every other Cohen album - is abysmal. The exception, of course, is the cover of `New Skin for the Old Ceremony' and here, I think, Footman implies that there are only two versions of the cover (unless I have missed something - easily done reading on a commuter journey): the one on the UK release and a completely different one for the US audience. Actually I think there are at least 4 versions with varying degrees of censorship of the image derived from the Rosarium philosophorum - which, by the way, is mis-spelled in the sleeve notes to the CD. Nonetheless, it is a powerful image and, for me, fits well with what I find inspiring about Cohen. The book actually got me thinking: `Why do I actually like Cohen?', particularly given that I don't have much in common with him. But I think that that is just it: there is a kind of alchemy which transfigures his religious imagery, sexual wanderings, sardonic, self-referential wit and, sometimes, plain misery into something else. Footman speaks of the `difficult' (and not always exactly joyous) third album as though a tendency towards the depressing is something new in Cohen which rather misses the fact that songs on the second such as Bird on a Wire have lyrics about stillborn babies and the like. I found the discussion of Death of a Ladies' Man very interesting as it is an album to which I have never taken in spite of the fact that it was the only Cohen album to which I was exposed in childhood.

Moving on to the `relatively cheerful' phase, Footman is right to say both that I'm Your Man reinvigorated a career that seemed to have fallen to pieces and that, in comparison, The Future is rather disappointing. I am not sure that `gratuitously nasty' really describes the `jaunty' title track; I would prefer to describe it as a mixture of irony and scepticism - a statement of preference for familiarity over uncertainty, which I think is broadly what Footman is saying as well. Actually, I think there are moments when 10 New Songs - after too many releases without the word `song' in the title - is amongst the most depressing of all. For example,' Here it is ...your cardboard and piss' is not a lyric ideally suited to being a background at a dinner party.

There are plenty of references and comparisons to other recording artists, producers, poets etc. but these tend not to get in the way of the main thrust of the text, although clearly Footman is exceptionally knowledgeable about them. Coverage of the poetry - about which I know very little - also seemed to be very thorough and well researched. Also well documented here are some trips based on political sympathies at the time: Castro's Cuba (which ended with Cohen rejecting Castro as yet another oppressive dictator) and his trip to Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Footman's comments are sometimes rather perceptive as well as witty: `how his music, then at its bleakest and most morbid, might conceivably aid the morale of the embattled soldiers has never really been explained'. Good point.

Footman probably realised that any attempt at a `top 10' songs would result in lively discussion. I wrote a quick list of songs that `had to be' in mine and soon found that I have exceeded 15 without even thinking too hard. In short, for me, the sum of his work is greater than the constituent parts as the listener becomes increasingly familiar with a `pre-existing story of Leonard Cohen'. Anyway, for what it's worth, here's an alternative `top 10' with either Suzanne or Bird on a Wire - not because they shouldn't be there but rather because everyone would expect them to be there. Of course, you could easily say the same of Hallelujah these days.

1) Dance me to the end of love
2) Take this longing
3) Famous blue raincoat
4) The stranger song
5) Who by fire?
6) Joan of Arc
7) Leaving Greensleeves
8) Avalanche
9) Hallelujah
10) Waiting for the miracle

On the subject of Various Positions, I had never actually realised that it was a bad album; I have always thought that it had some great songs on it and I actually quite like the `sound' of it.

As well as a kind of `essay' on Cohen and Dylan and a heap of extra material on Hallelujah, there is a comprehensive list of studio albums, live albums, selected bootlegs, compilations (minus the revamped Greatest Hits which appears to be on sale?), singles and cover versions. Footman makes a point of giving us the `stories' behind the songs - which is very interesting. But, in the end, for me, whether Take this longing was written for / about Nico or not, doesn't change how I feel about the song. So, does that mean that Leonard Cohen has to be experienced rather than explained? Whatever, anyone serious about Cohen needs to read this.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 28 Nov 2009 11:41:16 GMT
A detailed an interesting review.

Just one point - why would someone used to the weather in Montreal be gritting his teeth in the the face of a London winter?

Posted on 1 Dec 2009 19:36:52 GMT
Kreaky says:
Nice Top 10, but what about "Anthem"? I agree about "Dance Me", but "Anthem" must be in the Top 3?

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Feb 2011 10:21:40 GMT
M says:
I've stayed in London once and it's not something i would want to repeat, no matter what the weather.
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Location: Sevenoaks Kent UK

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