Bob wins a Prize – What About Leonard?

Just last week Bob Dylan was awarded a Nobel prize for literature. That was the prompt for dinner conversations about the extent that music and literature can cross over. And then if Bob can win why wasn’t Leonard Cohen also in the frame?

Bob has made 37 studio albums and the first 7 of those created almost impossible expectations for the later ones with a few exceptions. Fifty four years of songwriting and performing as well as often quite dramatic re-interpretations of his own work means that most of us have a favourite song or two of his.

Leonard Cohen very much started as a poet in the mid 1950’s while a student with his first collection published in 1961 – Spicebox of Earth in 1961. Cohen has won more than a few awards including a number for literature.

Since both Cohen and Dylan have crossed paths before over the past 50ish years I wondered what a conversation between them would be like. The New Yorker published an extraordinary long read story by David Remmick on Oct 17 – LEONARD COHEN MAKES IT DARKER that answers some of those questions.

‘The same set of ears that first tuned in to Bob Dylan, in 1961, discovered Leonard Cohen, in 1966. This was John Hammond, a patrician related to the Vanderbilts, and by far the most perceptive scout and producer in the business.’


“Cohen’s links to Dylan were obvious—Jewish, literary, a penchant for Biblical imagery, Hammond’s tutelage—but the work was divergent. Dylan, even on his earliest records, was moving toward more surrealist, free-associative language and the furious abandon of rock and roll. Cohen’s lyrics were no less imaginative or charged, no less ironic or self-investigating, but he was clearer, more economical and formal, more liturgical.


Over the decades, Dylan and Cohen saw each other from time to time. In the early eighties, Cohen went to see Dylan perform in Paris, and the next morning in a café they talked about their latest work. Dylan was especially interested in “Hallelujah.” Even before three hundred other performers made “Hallelujah” famous with their cover versions, long before the song was included on the soundtrack for “Shrek” and as a staple on “American Idol,” Dylan recognized the beauty of its marriage of the sacred and the profane. He asked Cohen how long it took him to write.


“Two years,” Cohen lied.

Actually, “Hallelujah” had taken him five years. He drafted dozens of verses and then it was years more before he settled on a final version. In several writing sessions, he found himself in his underwear, banging his head against a hotel-room floor.


Cohen told Dylan, “I really like ‘I and I,’ ” a song that appeared on Dylan’s album “Infidels.” “How long did it take you to write that?” “About fifteen minutes,” Dylan said.


When I asked Cohen about that exchange, he said, “That’s just the way the cards are dealt.” As for Dylan’s comment that Cohen’s songs at the time were “like prayers,” Cohen seemed dismissive of any attempt to plumb the mysteries of creation.”


After a while, he told Cohen that a famous songwriter of the day had told him, “O.K., Bob, you’re Number 1, but I’m Number 2.”


Cohen smiled. “Then Dylan says to me, ‘As far as I’m concerned, Leonard, you’reNumber 1. I’m Number Zero.’ Meaning, as I understood it at the time—and I was not ready to dispute it—that his work was beyond measure and my work was pretty good.”


Dylan, who is seventy-five, doesn’t often play the role of music critic, but he proved eager to discuss Leonard Cohen. I put a series of questions to him about Number 1, and he answered in a detailed, critical way—nothing cryptic or elusive.


“When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius,” Dylan said. “Even the counterpoint lines—they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs. As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music.


Leonard Cohen with Cat

Leonard Cohen at home, Los Angeles, September, 2016.

Leonard Cohen gave his thoughts on Dylan’s award. “To me,” he said, “[the award] is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.”

In the same story:

Cohen returned to the subject of Dylan when talking about the way he writes songs. “I think that Bob Dylan knows this more than all of us: you don’t write the songs anyhow,” he said. “So if you’re lucky, you can keep the vehicle healthy and responsive over the years. If you’re lucky, your own intentions have very little to do with this. You can keep the body as well-oiled and receptive as possible, but whether you’re actually going to be able to go for the long haul is really not your own choice.”
His own songs come slowly, he says: “It comes kind of by dribbles and drops. Some people are graced with a flow; some people are graced with something less than a flow. I’m one of those.” He added: “The fact that my songs take a long time to write is no guarantee of their excellence.”

There has been some debate about whether Bob will turn up for the Nobel prize ceremony. I’m hoping he does and I’m sure he would have a great speech to go with it.

Here is Greil Marcus talking about Bob’s contributions to music, art and literature.

And just today there are some reviews of the new Leonard Cohen album – You Want it Darker.

“Meanwhile, the lyrics are as fascinating and conflicted as ever. The title track flips from anger to resigned acceptance and back again, its fluctuations decorated with beautiful lines: “I struggled with some demons, they were middle-class and tame.” God fades in and out of view throughout the album, sometimes there, sometimes a figment of the imagination.”

So that question about whether Dylan or Cohen should be getting an award is a bit of a diversion. Both of them have contributed extraordinary work whether they are songs; poems set to music or literature doesn’t take anything away from the power of their writing.

P.S – My pick off the new album

Note: Found this little gem on my twitter feed. Bob. I have some of those bad songs…