I can't claim to be able to authoritatively interpret the title of Leonard Cohen's 1974 album, "New Skin for the Old Ceremony", but the album itself feels cleaner, tighter, sharper and in many other ways better than his previous work. To the untrained ear, perhaps, it sounds like more of the same. Perhaps. There are, to be sure, noteworthy changes. Perhaps it is indeed a new skin for an old ceremony. He seems less introverted and at the same time, less reserved. More honest, more forthcoming, and, as we see with many great talents, more conscious of his fame.
Superficially speaking, this is the first album which doesn't contain the word "songs" in its title (including the semi-official 1973 release of live concert tracks entitled Live Songs). And now the cover of the album does not bear the artist's face, but instead bears an old woodcut image of two angels copulating in midair. Maybe it is hyperanalytical to presume that Cohen himself chose this image as the album's figurehead as some sort of symbolic semaphore for us to interpret. May I posit: perhaps it is Cohen asking us for a little latitude. Even such great beings as angels want to "do it".
But what is the "old ceremony"? What is the "new skin"?
The album begins with the obliquely personal "Is This What You Wanted", a lovely collection of point-counterpoint couplets which are both clever and amusing and yet, voiced in one of Cohen's typical modes, a dull, languishing and wry kind of pain. I hesitate to say (and yet I must) that there is something Jewish about this kind of humor: the wry acknowledgment of dysfunction, especially about relationships. I hesitate probably only because it feels *so* true. This first song is the classic satire; it is "joking seriously". Maybe there is something about the Jewish experience that allows for that when the subject matter is as close to home as sex and relationships, q.v. Woody Allen.
The second track here, "Chelsea Hotel No. 2", is one of the more talked-about Cohen songs, probably because, little-by-little, it became known that the song was written to and about Janis Joplin. Much of what I have said about the previous track applies here and given the extensive amount of time and footage devoted to this song, I must say that I think it is not a strong enough song to stand on its own without that gossip that supports it. I think much of the wistful sentiment about the music profession is romantic but ingenuous. Perhaps it is also the fellatio that lends this song such renown. I think, of all its strong points, its strongest is the one least likely to have realistically lent it its fame. These lines:
And clenching your fist for the ones like us who are oppressed by the figures of beauty
You fixed yourself, you said, "Well, never mind; we are ugly but we have the music."
If Janis did really say this, well, perhaps their congress deserves all the attention. Moving on.
Now, I like "Lover Lover Lover" as movie music or background music and I kind of get into his delivery of the lyrics, but I really think this song is the weak point of the album. What it means to say, it says vaguely or not at all. I don't really wish it ill, but I don't have much more to say about it than that, especially because, if this album is listened to in sequence, it stands between me and "Field Commander Cohen".
That's right, "Field Commander Cohen". I just love this song. In fact, it is probably this song that is the driving force for this series of write-ups. It is the most apt of the handful of Cohen's songs which, to me, define Cohen's primary struggle as an artist, a person, as a monk, as a Jew. Most superficially, here, the conflict is between our protagonist's civilization-saving missions (tikkun olam) and, shall we say, good lovin'. I imagine that many people, when confronted with such a dilemma, would say, "It's simple, Leonard. These things aren't mutually exclusive," Aren't they, though?
The song is sung by Cohen to himself. Most of the song is sung by Cohen in the voice of (I'm indulging myself here, please indulge me) the prophet Nathan. We'll come back to Nathan in greater depth with Cohen's 1985 album Various Positions, but suffice it to say (if you're not already up on your Hebrew Bible) that Nathan is the unassuming little boy who "calls out" King David for his treachery, his impropriety, his decadence and more than anything, forgetting his people. Here, Cohen is acting as a sort of meek accuser, accusing himself. Here is the heart of the matter:
"I never asked but I heard you cast your lot along with the poor
But then I overheard your prayer
That you be this and nothing more
Than just some grateful faithful woman's favourite singing millionaire
The patron saint of envy and the grocer of despair
Working for the Yankee Dollar"
A little rickety, but it stands. In fact, it stands just beautifully. So, you say you are this great man, Cohen? So you say you follow the teaching, "Justice, justice, shall you pursue." And yet, this is not the deepest prayer of your heart: You'd much rather just crawl into a beautiful woman's lap, wouldn't you?
Are they mutually exclusive? The hypothesis here is that they are not, and this conflict seems to play out time and time again in Cohen's life. The argument seems to go like this:
- Truest love requires a woman who is the object of genuine and supreme affection
- Without a woman of great beauty, genuine and supreme affection is difficult to maintain
- A woman of great beauty is difficult to keep if one cannot draw her in (in this case, as an artist of great renown)
- The dilemma is, that by maintaining the role of the artist of great renown, one:
- Neglects one's duties as a soldier of truth
- Perpetuates envy by maintaining a lifestyle of privilege (both by having a woman of great beauty and all the things that go along with the role of an artist of great renown)
- Thereby not only neglects one's duties, but counteracts one's aims
I will revisit this theme when dealing with later songs, but it's worth noting that in recent years' concert performances, Cohen has taken to breaking out of this song and into the old (1960s) melody of "Rum and Coca-Cola", using the line "working for the yankee dollar" as segue. The original line and the segue into "Rum and Coca-Cola" could not be a more obvious reference to prostitution. Here, I assume it is in the figurative sense.
The album contains two more songs that voice similar frustrations with this dilemma and the profession in general. They are not as succinct, nor as poignant, I think. "There is a War", of course, is a slightly heavy-handed piece (again, I think, written to himself) about the call to justice I wrote about a few paragraphs ago. I find it interesting that he includes, "Why don't you come on back to the war, you can still get married".
Second of these pieces (which seem to lie somewhere between love song and political song) is the satirical "A Singer Must Die", which, amid all of its raging against the establishment, censorship and, uh, law-enforcement, comes this:
"Oh the night it is thick, my defences are hid
In the clothes of a woman I would like to forgive
In the rings of her silk, in the hinge of her thighs
Where I have to go begging in beauty's disguise
Oh goodnight, goodnight, my night after night
My night after night, after night, after night, after night"
Is this really the bed where the lonely soldier goes for his moment's respite, or is it the reason he's fighting? "After all," I say, "Leonard, if we had peace and justice throughout the world, couldn't we all just go home and make love?" This point is academic, I suppose, but I guess it's something to hope for, too.
I'll try stop short of leaving nothing on this album for you to discover for yourself, but I must at least mention "Who By Fire", which, in a way, redeems all of the guilt and self-doubt of the dilemma I outline above. This piece is, in a way, a departure for Cohen in that it is totally unconscious of its author. It seems to be based on some passages from the Jewish liturgy and certainly at least borrows its voice from these meditations. For me, both in performance and in authorship, it is a transcendent piece that never fails to leave me silent and reverent after being flooded with a peculiar mental montage of still photographs. In a way, as I say, it is a redemption and a reminder that even Cohen's favorite themes of love and justice can be transcended.
← Previous album: Songs of Love and Hate (1971)