Leonard Cohen’s favoured poetic themes have always resonated strongly with me - political and social justice (The Future, Democracy), love and companionship (Suzanne, So Long Marianne), religion & mortality (You Want It Darker, Who By Fire). Sometimes, he’s able to fuse together seemingly incompatible themes and make them work in harmony. One day I might write a piece on how Hallelujah's blend of God, sex and death still make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. But that’s another blog for another day!
Tower of Song elegantly discusses the art of songwriting itself. The question of what does it mean to be a writer, to be creative? The narrator recognises his own place in the lineage of music, he also acknowledges those who have gone before him. He understands the grind and the rewards. It has all the attributes that make a great Leonard Cohen song, the themes mentioned above are all present, while the verses are delivered with a wink and a nod. I smile to myself every time I think of the self deprecating humour in the line: “I was born like this I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice”.
Alongside Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, and Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen can be said to have been part of the generation that intellectualised rock music. With their work they showed it was possible to aim higher than previously thought, to reveal the literary potential in the form. Tower of Song is Leonard telling us he understands the weight of this responsibility, and that he accepts it as his duty. He owes it to the music itself, to write and rewrite, to do the best job he possibly can. It’s Michalangelo chipping away at the marble in search of David. It’s Stanley Kubrick’s 35th take. He realises that all those who follow the beckoning muse are beautifully condemned to be consumed by her. Prisoners in the Tower of Song.
As a songwriter myself, in the enviable position of being able to look back and take inspiration from this generation of musical icons, I find myself still in search of the perfect chord progression, the perfect rhyming couplet. I know of course that the perfect song doesn’t exist, but every time I hear Both Sides Now, Tangled Up In Blue or Hallelujah I’m reminded that some people got pretty damn close. So I'll keep shooting for it anyway.
Here’s to you Leonard, up there, a hundred floors above me.