Leonard Cohen the sage, better than ever (and Dylan) at 75 

There's an old saying that trying to talk about music is like "dancing about architecture." It's not always a graceful dance. One night, in the blurry hours that come after one loses track of how many beers, exactly, have transpired, and the noise of the bar and all the overly loud talking, and the music from the jukebox with its garish little LCD screen, all become a single, amorphous roar, I got into a discussion with a friend about Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. The word "discussion" here might make it sound more articulate than it was—my side of the argument came out something like, Dylan is fine and all, sure, don't get me wrong, he's great, really, and important, too—obviously, I mean, I get that—but I don't know...he's just never meant as much to me as Leonard Cohen. I'm pretty sure my argument was forceful and brilliant, so it's too bad I don't really remember it. Let's just say that if this had been a dance of any kind, I probably would have broken my head open on the corner of the bar.

Perhaps, in his droll way, Cohen is riffing on this whole "dancing about architecture" notion in "Tower of Song," the bluesy, stutter-stepping shuffle on I'm Your Man, which envisions the pantheon of songwriters as a high-rise full of insomniacs: "I said to Hank Williams, 'How lonely does it get?' / Hank Williams hasn't answered yet / But I hear him coughing all night long / A hundred floors above me / In the Tower of Song." A humble sizing-up of his own stature, for sure, though Cohen never mentions how many floors up (or down) Bob Dylan lives.

Cohen and Dylan—mutual admirers—first met in New York, where Cohen soon fell in with the local folk scene, eventually securing a record deal with Columbia by way of John Hammond, who had also signed Dylan. (Cohen was on his way to Nashville, but got sidetracked by the goings-on in Greenwich Village. He would later move to the Nashville area for a time in the 1970s.) Nearly 20 years later, as the story goes, the two get to talking backstage at a Dylan show, and eventually land on the subject of their respective songwriting processes. Cohen asks Dylan how long it took him to write "Highway 61," a song Cohen says he admires. Dylan responds, a little sheepishly, "I wrote it one afternoon—took me maybe 15 minutes." Laughing, Dylan asks in return, "How long did 'Hallelujah' take you?" "That," Cohen replies, "took me the best part of two years."

It's a funny story, and one I referenced at some point in my bar stool tirade. (It may or may not be apocryphal.) Dylan's talent has always seemed effortless, second nature—as if lightning had struck a tree, and he had fashioned his guitar from the wood, then set out across the land. The story of Bob Dylan is the story of an American authenticity being channeled through one man who never had to try too hard to conjure his version of the world, even if the whole time he was feverishly writing his own mythology in the wings. Cohen, on the other hand, has always sounded measured and professorial. His songs sound like works of great labor, and even as a relatively young man, he sang in a voice that was knowing and a little forlorn—an old soul trying to get laid and figure out who God is at the same time. So it's no surprise that he's aged better than Dylan has.

Sure, the knock on Cohen has always been that his oeuvre is one-dimensional. There are only so many shades of darkness, the criticism goes, and how many albums full of that do you really need? Well, if truth is beauty and beauty truth, then let there be as many Leonard Cohen albums as he has time to compose. "Hallelujah" was certainly worth the wait, whether it took two years to write or two days. While Dylan has been off making Victoria's Secret commercials, inexplicable Christmas albums and enemies of his fans, Cohen has emerged sounding more wise and masterful than ever.

On the subject of "Hallelujah": It has also been covered something like 170 times, but most singers are no match for it, interpreting it as a simple ballad or trying too hard to find it more uplifting than it really is. (Jeff Buckley's version, probably the most widely referenced, is at once too delicate and too blunt.) The odd, unfathomable popularity of "Hallelujah"—not the likeliest American Idol number for sure—that, along with Cohen's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last March, has given him perhaps the biggest audience of his career at age 75. He might not be listening to Hank Williams' cough through his floorboards any time soon, but he is without question the greatest Jewish Zen monk songwriter to ever come out of Canada—or anywhere—and we're lucky to get the chance to see him as he keeps working his way up, story by story, in the Tower of Song.

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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