An Illumination Of Leonard Cohen’s Thin Green Candle

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I lit a thin green candle, to make you jealous of me.
But the room just filled up with mosquitos,
they heard that my body was free.

 

Leonard Cohen

 

That thin green candle has transcended its appearance in “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong” to become an image independently invoked in reference to Leonard Cohen. It is consequently unsurprising that questions on the order of “What does the thin green candle mean?” come up with some frequency. This post summarizes explications offered in response to this query.

The “Expert in The Candle” Hypothesis

The most frequently proffered theory is based on the following anecdote, which Leonard Cohen has recounted in several interviews:

Edie Sedgwick was living a few doors down [at the Chelsea Hotel in the mid 1960s]. Through her door came all the most attractive men and women of the period, I was not among them, but I longed to be among them. There was, on the corner of 7th Avenue and 24th Street, there was a Mexican magic store, with potions, candles and powders, which could be used to draw influences into your life — to secure love affairs, or to guarantee successes. My situation was such at the time that I believed in them, so I bought a couple of candles, and a book about candles — I just read that, and the I Ching, though I couldn’t follow anything from one paragraph to another. At a certain point, through some graceful accident, I was invited into Edie Sedgwick’s room. It was filled with very beautiful young people. It was dark, and illuminated by candles, 30 to 40 candles, burning everywhere, on plates, on the stove … I had no credentials at the time, there was nothing I could say. I walked into the room of her glittering crew, and I said, ‘this display of candles is extremely dangerous.’ So, I presented myself as … an Expert in The Candle. And this did not go over well. So I left at an appropriate time. The next day, her apartment burned down, and my prestige soared.”1

According to this notion, the thin green candle was literally or representatively one of these magic candles Cohen used to advance his wooing of Nico and thus became embedded in the song inspired by her.2

The Candle-Lit Studio Theory

At the request of Leonard Cohen and with the agreement of his then-producer, John Hammond, the decor of studio in which the Songs Of Leonard Cohen album was recorded included candles, as well as incense and a mirror.

Leonard Cohen: There was this church-like atmosphere in the studio, and there were also candles. Perhaps, there was even incense burning, I don’t remember. …

John Hammond: That was in Studio E. It was a small studio we had at 49 East 52nd Street. He was alone, in the studio, and it used to be lit with incense and candles; and we had no lights on in the studio, and it had a very exotic effect. He had a hypnotizing effect on everybody.3

The popularity of this fact notwithstanding, it is difficult to derive a direct link from candles appearing in a recording studio and a thin green candle appearing in the a song recorded in that studio other than, one supposes, the physical presence of a candle might serendipitously suggesting the imagery to the Canadian singer-songwriter (heck, there may have been mosquitoes in the studio as well, which would explain the second line of the song).

Resonance With Anne Hébert’s “La Chambre De Bois”

Judith Fitzgerald observes:

Cohen leads off 1968’s “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong” (Songs Of Leonard Cohen) with an arresting and remarkably compressed ear-catcher made all the more resonant by virtue of its affinity with Quebecer Anne Hébert’s “La chambre de bois” (Le tombeau des rois, 1953): “J’aime un petit bougeoir vert,” wrote she in 1953. Cohen respectfully dibbed the concept and transformed “I love a small green candlestick” into a green-eyed monster of an altogether different stripe: “I lit a thin green candle to make you jealous of me,” confesses the representative he; but, three brief verses later, the boy with the badass blues reports the good old news: “The poor man could hardly stop shivering / his lips and fingers were blue / I suppose that he froze when the wind / took your clothes / and I guess he just never got warm / but you stand there so nice / in your blizzard of ice / oh please let me come into the storm… .”4

Leonard Cohen’s Other Green Candle

In a letter to Marianne dated April 1, 1967, Leonard Cohen writes

… I keep a candle burning all the times in my room, a tall green candle in a glass, dedicated to St. Jude Thaddeus, Patron Saint of Impossible Causes …5

While this note is rarely mentioned in discussions of “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong,” it has an intuitive appeal as the most specific of Cohen’s references. It’s a short leap from a “tall green candle” to a “thin green candle.” One can also posit that the “tall green candle in a glass, dedicated to St. Jude Thaddeus” could well have been purchased at that “Mexican magic store” located “on the corner of 7th Avenue and 24th Street” in New York. Most significantly, it adds a deliciously ironic, self-effacing twist to ” I lit a thin green candle, to make you jealous of me” if the candle is “dedicated to St. Jude Thaddeus, Patron Saint of Impossible Causes.”

The Many Candles Of Leonard Cohen

Candles, it turns out, are part of the standard tool kit issued songwriters. troubadours, and poets, especially those raised in a Jewish household within a Catholic cultural enclave such as Montreal. Consequently, it is unsurprising that Leonard Cohen has frequently dealt with candles in his prose, poems, and songs. A few examples, which may or may not have anything to do with the titular thin green candle, follow (all bolding mine):

From You Do Not Have To Love Me by Leonard Cohen
Selected Poems 1956 – 1968 (McClelland & Stewart, 1968)

I wrote all these songs for you
I burned red and black candles
shaped like a man and a woman
I married the smoke
of two pyramids of sandalwood
I prayed for you
I prayed that you would love me
and that you would not love me

[Emphasis mine]

From a description of Leonard Cohen’s purchase of his house on Hydra

A priest blessed the house, holding a burning candle above the front door and making a black cross in soot.6

From a narrative by Suzanne Verdal (the Suzanne of Leonard Cohen’s song, “Suzanne)”

By 1965 I had separated from Armand and was living with our little girl. Leonard would come over and I would serve him jasmine tea with mandarin oranges, and light a candle. It sounds like a seance, but obviously Leonard retained those images, too.7

From Takanawa Prince Hotel Bar by Leonard Cohen
Book of Longing (McClelland & Stewart, 2006)

but now finally surrendered to the Great
Resignation of Poetry
and not the kind of Wise Experience
or the false kisses of Competitive
Insight, but my own sweet dark
religion of Poetry my booby prize
my sandals and my shameful prayer
my invisible Mexican candle
my useless oils to clean the house
and remove my rival’s spell
on my girlfriend’s memory–

[Emphasis mine]

Credit Due Department: The photo of Leonard Cohen & Anjani Thomas is from Leonard Cohen Nights – Meeting with Leonard Cohen and Anjani Thomas by Kim Solez (November 2005).

 

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 July 31, 2014 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric.

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  1. The Crack In Everything Lets The Light In: Leonard Cohen In New York by Rita Houston. NPR: January 25, 2012 []
  2. Cohen’s own description of Nico in his introduction to “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong” at his 1970 Isle Of Wight Concert, is striking: “I was coming off amphetamines and pursuing a blonde lady that I met in a Nazi poster.” []
  3. The John Hammond Years – Interview with John Hammond and Leonard Cohen. BBC, September 20, 1986. Retrieved 10 July 2014 from LeonardCohenFiles. []
  4. Notes Towards A Definition Of A Masterpiece:Ten New Songs From Sharon Robinson And Leonard Cohen – LeonardCohenFiles []
  5. So Long, Marianne: A Love Story (English edition) by Kari Hesthamar. []
  6. “Leonard Cohen’s hallelujah moment” by Sylvie Simmons, The Telegraph (UK), October 26, 2012. [Emphasis mine] []
  7. Bet You Think This Song Is About You by Dave Simpson. The Guardian: 12 December 2008 [Emphasis mine] []

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