“We’ll give you everything we got” has been a promise Leonard Cohen has consistently made at 2012 and 2013 concerts and sporadically proffered at shows dating back to 2009 [Note: This entry was originally posted Apr 25, 2013]. Grammar bowdlerizers in the print and online press (including that newspaper of record, The New York Times), however, have routinely reported that pledge as “We’ll give you everything we’ve got.”
First, let’s confirm what it is that Leonard Cohen says. This video from the April 13, 2013 Halifax show begins 30 seconds before Cohen issues his signature promise to the audience: “We’ll give you everything we got.”
Indeed, I cannot find a single video or audio recording of Leonard Cohen assuring the audience that “We’ll give you everything we’ve got.”1
The Power Of Elegantly Employed Vernacular
Simply put, Leonard Cohen promises “We’ll give you everything we got” rather than “We’ll give you everything we’ve got” because the former is more arresting and more earnest.
It’s safe to dismiss the hypothesis that Leonard is simply being spontaneous, speaking in colloquial terms. Anyone who has listened to his songs or read his poetry will grasp his comment on songwriting
[I see myself] like a geologist, like someone writing for the National Geographic rather than for Rolling Stone. … Precision is very very important – to get exactly the right language to describe the situation in which I find myself. …. there is no inside, no outside. To report from that position involves a kind of surrender… It means … burning away a lot of voices whispering in your ear because you start off with a slogan … psychic propaganda … You want to impose a solution on the song. … All those voices have to be not silenced but eliminated. until you get to a position where you can defend every word, and that seems to take a lot of trouble and a lot of work.2
Moreover, he was meticulous in developing and practicing his stage routines at rehearsals and soundchecks. There was nothing unintentional about his performance.
In his essay, Slang in America, Walt Whitman, accounted slang3 “the lawless germinal element, below all words and sentences, and behind all poetry.” He goes on to describe it as
an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably, which in highest walks produces poets and poems, and doubtless in pre-historic times gave the start to, and perfected, the whole immense tangle of the old mythologies.
And no other songwriter – and few poets – match Cohen’s ability to install precisely selected, unavoidably recognizable chunks of vernacular into his lyrics and his spoken word that powerfully impact the audience, enhancing and sometimes serving as the primary carrier of his message without disrupting the sense or the flow of the song or speech. Consider his explanation for the phrase in The Future, ““I have seen the future, brother, it is murder!”
Well, you know that’s also a very common expression in English, like saying “I got stuck in traffic, it’s murder” … or “I missed my ‘plane, it’s murder…” it can have a much lighter sense. But the difference between this expression and the description of something, I don’t know… the way I work is that when I’m talking in conversation I don’t have a lot of ideas, ideas about what’s going on, when you’re in the midst of your work, when you’re writing things, writing verse, your antennae are very sensitive and somehow you pick up things, answers which you don’t normally access in ordinary thought so my songs come out of that. That way of working. It’s something true and it rings true at the time when I’m writing it but I don’t feel that I have to defend all the ideas, all the nuances…4
And clearly Cohen is aware of the nature of the notably American language he chooses.
I like singing in the United States because my language comes out of this language and people can follow the real meaning of the songs. I use the cadences and rhythms of the American language.5
Rather than construct a dissertation on the literary mechanics involved in this feat (no one wants that), I can muster, I submit, a strong argument by presenting a few examples of Cohen’s use of the vernacular. Consider which instance of the following pairs is more compelling:
- Ain’t No Cure For Love6
[There] Isn’t A Cure For Love
- and the Holy Spirit’s crying, ‘Where’s the beef?’7
and the Holy Spirit’s crying, ‘Where’s the substance?’
- from the brave, the bold, the battered
heart of Chevrolet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A. 8
from the brave, the bold, the battered
heart of America’s middle class:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
Thus it is, at least to my ear, that Leonard Cohen promising “We’ll give you everything we got” is grittier and more determined, more aligned with Cohen’s self-professed working stiff persona, and altogether more convincing than the more grammatical “We’ll give you everything we’ve got.”
The efficacy of opting for “we” instead of “we’ve” in that line, whether as a result of instinct or a calculated decision, is a prime example of Leonard Cohen’s capacity to both sculpt masterpieces of language and connect with his audience.
I am republishing selected posts from my former Leonard Cohen site, Cohencentric, here on AllanShowalter.com (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen). This entry was originally posted Apr 25, 2013 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com.
- Occasionally, “you” comes out as “ya,” but for now, let’s focus on we/we’ve. Besides, the you/ya discussion is still being played out in the Hallelujah debate re “But you don’t really care for music, do you?” Vs “But you don’t really care for music, do ya?”
- Leonard Cohen Interview with Serge Simonart (1992)
- In this context, slang is a close approximation of, if not a synonym for the vernacular.
- Interview With Leonard Cohen. France-Inter: October 6, 1997.Transcription of the radio program Synergie With Jean-Luc Esse And Leonard Cohen. Translated from French by Nick Halliwell, UK. Accessed at LeonardCohenFiles.
- From Stolen Moments: Leonard Cohen by Tom Schnabel. Acrobat Books, 1988.
- From Ain’t No Cure For Love
- From Closing Time by Leonard Cohen
- From Democracy by Leonard Cohen