Sunday, May 5, 2013

Death of a Ladies Man (excerpt from a piece on Leonard Cohen): for Sylvie Simmons

“I Left A Woman Waiting,” from Death of a Ladies Man: Leonard Cohen (and Phil Spector)----for Sylvie Simmons

After I recorded the “Famous Blue Raincoat” video for PianoVan.Com, I started revisiting the Death of a Ladies’ Man album again for the first time since I performed it with The Greg Ashley Band at Big Sur for Sylvie Simmons’ book party on Leonard Cohen’s 78th birthday. I find myself especially drawn to “I Left A Woman Waiting.”

Of all the tracks on this Cohen album, “I Left A Woman Waiting” is the closest to a gentle love song, especially a middle-aged, “mature” love between weather-beaten veterans of “the war between a man and a woman” (as a song on New Skin For The Old Ceremony puts it). While it’s not as emotionally deep as the one song on the album that makes me cry liberating tears on this record, “Paper-Thin Hotel,” it takes the idealist static constancy of “True Love Leaves No Traces” and puts it in time just enough to make it more convincing to older lovers, or at least to me.

While many of he lyrics of “True Love Leaves No Traces,” had been published as a poem in his early book, The Spice Box Of The Earth (when Cohen was still in his 20s and had not yet released any albums), an earlier version of “I Left A Woman Waiting,” had appeared in Cohen’s 1972 book, The Energy Of Slaves:

I left a woman waiting
I met her sometime later
She said, Your eyes are dead
What happened to you, lover

And since she spoke the truth to me
I tried to answer truly
Whatever happened to my eyes
Happened to your beauty

O go to sleep my faithful wife
I told her rather cruelly
Whatever happened to my eyes
Happened to your beauty

The dynamic is typically “sexist” in the sense that the male is judged on his “eyes” (his desire and lust) while the woman is judged by her “beauty” (when of course, it could go the other way as well). In the Death of A Ladies Man version, however, the third verse and its self-proclaimed cruel speaker disappear and the battle of the sexes in the first two verses becomes a nearly symmetrical tender moment of foreplay. The first verse and second verse go together like plastic surgery, Lasik Surgery, contact lenses and Viagra.

In many ways, the song is the opposite of that, and presents an alternative to plastic surgery and contact lenses (or even leaving your “faithful wife” for a younger woman). The revised third verse gets at this better:

We took ourselves to someone’s room
And there we fell together
Quick as dogs and truly dear were we
And free as running water, free as running water
Free as running water, free as you and me
That’s the way it’s got to be, lover
That’s the way it’s got to be, my lover

This does not feel like mere suspension of tensions to me, a mere brief truce in a war that will never end, but points at a way for both men and women to be honest about what happens when both the burning male (female) youthful lust & beauty fades away: for better and worse, it’s an intimacy song, the most intimate song on Death of A Ladies Man. Spector’s musical setting, with the economical contrast between the talky chorus and the pretty, almost lullaby-like chorus (the musical setting of the now absent words ‘go to sleep’) transforms the poem into a moment of transcendence that sounds like it might be much better sex than one could ever have with a younger lover.

I don’t know if Spector built the melody around the pre-existing poem, or Cohen “set” his poem to a melody Spector was looking for, but as Sylvie Simmons points out in her biography, there was an interesting symbiosis in Cohen and Spector’s collaboration during their fairly harmonious songwriting stage (before Spector went nuts in the recording studio), As Cohen himself puts it in an interview: “When it was just the two of us, it was a really agreeable time” (I’m Your Man, Simmons, pg. 308).

Whatever else one may say about this song (it’s certainly not one of Cohen’s “major compositions”), it’s not a song about loss like so many of his best ones are, and since I have enough of those—whether my own or covers---in my own repertoire, I’m looking for something different; though “Paper Thin Hotel” and “Alexandra Leaving” (with Sharon Robinson) are songs I may want to include in my solo set in the future.


My interest in Death of A Ladies Man was always more in the companion book, Death of a Lady’s Man—which is even more of a lost classic than the album. For Greg (Ashley), it was the image of “Dirty Old (or at least middle-aged) Man,” that attracted him to this Leonard Cohen album in particular; for me, it was the structured confusion of the book---but maybe the two aren’t all that different. It occurred to me that the horror I feel on seeing my “Famous Blue Raincoat” video (even though I’m happy with the audio performance, as a tribute to Philly band Ruin’s cover of the song) and being aware that to some I am perceived as the “dirty old man,” or hippy or punk (compounded by my homelessness) may not be all that different from the horror that Cohen himself felt almost immediately after recording Death Of A Ladies Man. In fact, that’s one of the reasons he scrambled to rewrite the book---to save him from the album whose image he had let get away from him.

As Cohen puts it, “I think it’s too loud, too aggressive. The arrangements got in my way. I wasn’t able to convey the meaning of the songs” (Simmons, 307). And, more tellingly, “It was just one of those periods where my chops were impaired and I wasn’t in the right kind of condition to resist Phil’s very strong influence on the record and eventual takeover of the record. I’d lost control of my family, of my work and life, and it was a very, very, dark period. I was flipped out at the time and [Spector] was certainly flipped out.” (Simmons, 303). Of course, this may also be the reason why one of the best songs on the album is about learning that “love was beyond [his] control,” and even why the album has become a favorite among many.
As Steven Machat says, “The record was two drunks being no different than any other boys, making an album about picking up girls and getting laid. It was the most honest album Leonard Cohen has ever made.”

Ultimately, it was this feeling of self-loathing that spurred Cohen on more than Phil Spector’s disrespect to him as a person and artist. Cohen knew he really had no one to blame for letting his image get away from his own carefully guarded (some would say, “control freak”) artistic tendencies. He, too, was going through a time in his life where he felt he lost everything, and the book Death of a Lady’s Man tried to bring some of this back. While I find the book a tremendous success, and maybe his best book, it certainly, like the album, didn’t win over new fans at the time.

He took certain tendencies that had been in the early work as far as they could go for him in the book and album, and maybe that’s the only consolation. That’s certainly the only consolation I can take from my “Famous Blue Raincoat” video; creating the record of that moment may allow me to never do it again. That might be the main point of “keeping some kind of record anyway,”—to exteriorize something, and hate (or even love) what you see, and move on.

It’s no excuse that in Leonard Cohen’s next book, Book Of Mercy, he moves beyond what David Berman would call “the lawless rooms where you finally lost your health,” to a desperate confessional collection of prayers and devotions to a God who is one with the Law. While I wouldn’t call Book Of Mercy nearly the aesthetic triumph Death of a Lady’s Man is, and at times even the speaker doesn’t seem convinced that the Law he is praying devotions to is really anything more than an “empty signifier,” at least it allows him to still his mind a little, and out of this came perhaps his most celebrated song, “Hallelujah.”

As for me, I still haven’t entirely given up on the idea of recording and performing a “psychedelic swirly-edgy funk punk dance trance” musical setting (VU, Neu, Flipper, Fall, for instance) to the “prose poem” pieces in Leonard Cohen’s book. This idea occurred before Greg told me he wanted to record the album, and I thought it would be a perfect complement to it, as well my “Leonard Cohen As Moshpit” chapter—but it’s not the burning priority it was when I was rehearsing these pieces with a band featuring bassist Rachel Thoele (Flipper, Frightwig) that could pull this stuff off in 2009/2010.

In the meantime, here’s some videos of Cohen covers:

“Don’t Go Home With Your Hard On,”
Greg Ashley Band @ Big Sur, September 21, 2012

“Iodine” & “Paper-Thin Hotel,” (excerpts)
Greg Ashley & Chris Stroffolino @ Hotel Utah; July 7, 2012:

 “Famous Blue Raincoat”
Chris Stroffolino/Piano Van @ Griffith Park, LA (March 2013):

Chris Stroffolino

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