Leonard Cohen’s “Heart With No Companion” – Love The Music & Lyrics But Oh Those Dancing Girls

Heart With No Companion – The Lyrics

Leonard Cohen’s “Heart With No Companion” has much to recommend it: it’s uplifting, it offers hope, it is, with the exception of “Sisters Of Mercy,” Cohen’s most direct, least ambivalent affirmation of his belief in the power of love, however flawed, to sustain us through an arduous life:1

I greet you from the other side
Of sorrow and despair
With a love so vast and shattered
It will reach you everywhere

In “Heart With No Companion,” unlike “The Future,” Cohen doesn’t find it necessary to counter defiant slogans like “love’s the only engine of survival” with visions of apocalyptic terror. Desperation and fear play no role in “Heart With No Companion;” it is, instead, a hymn to individual resolution, dignity, and decency, an existentialist paean to personal integrity as the key to confronting the inequities and entropy of life.

Tho’ your promise count for nothing
You must keep it nonetheless

Note: For an extraordinarily perceptive discussion of the significance of this song, see Leonard Cohen’s Heart With No Companion: A Manual For Living With Defeat By Emma Philbin Bowman.

But, while redemptive motifs and such are all well and good, they aren’t the aspect of the live performance that grabs me.

Heart With No Companion – The Music

Musically, “Heart With No Companion,” at least the recent Leonard Cohen Tour iteration, has taken on a distinctly country-western flair, especially compared to the version released on the Various Positions album.

Bob Metzger’s pedal steel guitar solo is impressively reminiscent of the music I listened to on radio programs like the Grand Ole Opry and The Porter Wagoner Show and I heard played live by local bands in a bar or two in the Ozarks.

And, Leonard Cohen, accompanying himself on the guitar, seems to metamorphose into a grown-up version of the adolescent Leonard Cohen who played in the Buckskin Boys.2

Again, that’s nice, but it’s not the high point of the song for me.

For that, we have to …

Bring On The Dancing Girls

Yep, the current production of “Heart With No Companion” features a dance routine performed by Sharon Robinson and The Webb Sisters that cracks me up every time. (Note: The fancy stepping is hardly unprecedented. Before becoming a backup singer for Leonard Cohen, Sharon Robinson was part of the Ann-Margaret Revue. while the Webb Sisters became known for turning cartwheels during the “white man dancingline of of The Future.)

This video from what I like to call “The Grand Odense Opry” should automatically start just before the pertinent part of the performance.

Leonard Cohen – Heart With No Companion
Odense: Aug 14, 2010
Video from FrostbiteZ1

Now, this is a rather sedate version of the backup singers dancing, choreography I suspect was originally inserted to stylishly move the singers, usually stationed directly in front of Neil Larsen, aside to unveil the usually (and lamentably) hidden keyboardist.

And speaking of Neil Larsen, I particularly like the video of the same portion of the song from the 2009 Weybridge concert, because it not only shows the Webb Sisters and Sharon Robinson dancing with arms linked (perhaps in hopes of preventing them from being blown away by the gale force winds that day) but also displays Neil Larsen’s artistry and adaptability as he performs his solo with his hands beneath a tarp protecting the instrument – but not the musician – from the weather.

Leonard Cohen – Heart with No Companion
Weybridge: July 11, 2009
Video from albertnoonan

 

One gets the feeling that this ain’t Neil Larsen’s first rodeo.

The Marseille Hoedown Showdown

The Marseille show featured a special effort by the Webb Sisters, who were performing without Sharon Robinson, who was absent because of illness.

Leonard Cohen – Heart With No Companion
Marseille: Sept 21, 2010
Video from tigrib55

 

As Hattie Webb later explained to me,

Yes the hoedown took us at that moment. It was a hoedown showdown…!

Thanks (To Maarten) For This Dance

To grasp the full potential however, of this dance sequence, and foresee what may be awaiting the Kiwis this week or the audiences at those final US shows, one has to be privy to the goings on at the soundchecks. While access of that sort is not typically available to the public, Maarten Massa has generously allowed me to post his unlisted video of the August 21, 2010 Ghent soundcheck (which also includes a notable hand whistle solo by Leonard Cohen).

Leonard Cohen – Heart With No Companion
Ghent soundcheck: Aug 21, 2010
Video from MaartenLC

There’s No Business Like Stage Business

Why make a fuss over the brief dance exhibition during “Heart With No Companion?” Well…

The prototypical, hard core Cohenite believes that Cohen’s music should stand on its own and that embellishments such as dance steps, gymnastics, fancy cover art for albums, unusual names for songs, etc are at best distractions.

As the astute ongoing reader is likely to have long ago recognized — I’m not that guy. I need a bit of movement, a few shiny objects, a little song, a little dance… and I’d love to see a little seltzer in the pants incorporated into, say, the final performance of “The Future.”

I’m a guy who likes the dancing.

Besides, I agree with with Mark Twain:

On with the dance, let joy be unconfined, is my motto; whether there’s any dance to dance or any joy to unconfine.

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 Oct 27, 2010 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric.

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  1. Yes, I know some critics have characterized “Heart With No Companion” as gloomy; my explanatory hypothesis is that those critics actually listened to a different song (perhaps “Death Rehearsal Rag”) only to be victimized by a malicious prankster who deliberately misidentified the number as “Heart With No Companion.” []
  2. The Buckskin Boys, a country-western trio Leonard Cohen organized during his teenage years that played for parties and square dances and was his first venture as a professional musician. []

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