Expanding Scope By Narrowing Content: Leonard Cohen’s Disciplined Revision Of A Singer Must Die

A Verse Rewritten From The Studio To The Stage


Leonard Cohen released A Singer Must Die as the second track on the New Skin For The Old Ceremony album published August 1974, and he sang the studio version at concerts in 1974. By 1975, he had completely rewritten the last verse of the song, creating the version he has since sung onstage.1

Of course, Leonard Cohen revising the lyrics of his songs is hardly an exceptional event; rather, it is integral to his songwriting methodology, an extension of his habit of writing many, many polished verses and then discarding all except the pristine lines that precisely convey his message before presenting his work to the public. Cohen has expounded this strategy, often in quasi-apologetic tones, in several interviews. A sampling follows:

  • I have about fifty verses of “Democracy” that I discarded.2
  • [Leonard Cohen] showed me the bookshelves crammed with volumes of notebooks, each packed not only with the famous finished versions of his songs, but also with the countless revisions of these songs, and all the discarded verses he labored over and ultimately excised from his songs. “The thing is,” he explained, “before I can discard the verse, I have to write it. The bad verses take as long as the good verses to write. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines. You can’t see that in the raw.” He writes and rewrites his songs for as long as it takes3
  • Cohen explained that he had never stopped writing, and that he produced work slowly because of his painful perfectionism, a trait that led him to originally write 80 verses for Hallelujah. “My trouble is that before I can discard a verse I have to polish it first. It takes a long time.I never feel like I’ve stopped working. It might look to the marketplace that nothing is happening but the workshop has never shut down.”4

Further, Leonard does not consider the lyrics (or the musical arrangement) of a song locked in by its appearance on the playlist of a series of concerts or by its release on a recording.

Consequently, this post is focused not on the supposed rarity or novelty of Cohen’s alteration in the lyrics of the final verse of A Singer Must Die but on the insight into Cohen’s goals as a songwriter proffered by a simple comparison between the two versions.

Lyrics of Final Verse of Studio Version of A Singer Must Die: New Skin For The Old Ceremony

I am so afraid that I listen to you,
your sun glassed protectors they do that to you.
It’s their ways to detain, their ways to disgrace,
their knee in your balls and their fist in your face.
Yes and long live the state by whoever it’s made,
sir, I didn’t see nothing, I was just getting home late.

 

Leonard Cohen – A Singer Must Die
Performed With Studio Version Final Verse

Berlin: September 24, 1974
Video from ALB123Videos

 

Lyrics of Final Verse of (Representative) Concert Version of A Singer Must Die: Sligo, July 31, 2010

And save me a place in a twelve dollar grave
With those who took money for the pleasure they gave
With those always ready, with those who undress
So you could lie down with your head on somebody’s warm breast
And the ladies go moist, and the judge has no choice,
A singer must die for the lie in his voice

 

Leonard Cohen – A Singer Must Die
Performed With A Concert Version Of Final Verse
Sligo: July 31, 2010
Video from albertnoonan

Now Online: Leonard Cohen’s Studio To Stage Revision Of A Singer Must Die: Methodology & Significance

Leonard Cohen’s Studio To Stage Revision Of A Singer Must Die: Methodology & Significance focuses on the means by which this revision was accomplished and its implications.

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 June 26, 2016.
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  1. There have actually been many versions of the final verse performed in concert, most varying by only a few words. The Sligo performance, the video of which is embedded in this post, is representative. The French LeonardCohenSite offers over a dozen differing versions of the last verse from various post-1974 concerts. []
  2. Leonard Cohen’s The Future Interview by Bob Mackowitz, a radio special produced by Interviews Unlimited for Sony Music, 1992. []
  3. Leonard Cohen by Paul Zollo. Boulevard Magazine []
  4. Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas Album: New Gems From An Old Master by Bernadette McNulty. The Telegraph: Jan 19, 2012 []

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