Yesterday’s post, Expanding Scope By Narrowing Content: Leonard Cohen’s Disciplined Revision Of A Singer Must Die, outlined the changes Leonard Cohen made to A Singer Must Die between its release on the 1974 New Skin For The Old Ceremony album and the version he began performing in his 1975 concerts. Today’s entry focuses on the methodology employed in that revision and its significance.
The Introductions & The Critics
One commentator appears obsessed with the notion that the song has to do with critics and singers. That commentator would be Mr Leonard Cohen. The following quotations are among his introductions to concert performances of A Singer Must Die.1
- This song is for my critics and for my judges and for those who give marks to us everywhere, who evaluate our performance whether it is in the courtroom or the cloakroom or the bedroom. This is for the judges. [Frankfurt June 10, 1974]
- In this next song I wrote from the feeling of being on trial – everyone’s on trial -. In every living-room there’s a trial going on, in every bedroom there’s a trial going on, not just in the courtrooms, not just in the jails, but in the most private places of our lives, yeah we subject each other to judgement and to trial. [Hanover November 11, 1979]
- I’ve always been attached to those songs that you sing when you don’t feel like singing. I’ve read some reviews of my concerts, over the past several months, and I’m very happy that my suit is so well observed. Sometimes my suit whispers to me from the closet “Do not forget me” it whispers throughout the song and here, I crucify on this hanger (..) suit. [San Francisco June 8, 1985]
- The critics have begun to be very kind to me. I am reminded of that aphorisms articulated by the great cinema master who is now in disgrace, Woody Allen. “Most of life is just showin’ up.” [Boston July 16, 1993]
Leonard Cohen Talks To John McKenna About A Singer Must Die & McKenna Talks Back
At least one interviewer directly addressed the fact that the lyrics of this specific song had been rewritten. This excerpt is from How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns, a radio interview with Leonard Cohen by John McKenna2 [bolding mine]:
JM: I’ve always thought A Singer Must Die to be one of Leonard Cohen’s most overtly political songs, but I wouldn’t have classed the bulk of his other songs as political. He disagrees.
LC: I think all my songs are political in a certain way but that one especially in the recorded version where the last verse is really very strong against a certain kind of authority.
JM: But, A Singer Must Die is specifically about politics. About the struggle of the singer to keep the truth in the face of lies. Listening to it the ghost of Victor Harrer[?] is in the air. So where did the song come from?
LC: I guess that’s some kind of basic view I hold about the thing, that it doesn’t really matter what the singer is speaking of, it doesn’t really matter what the song is. There’s something I listen for in a singer’s voice and that’s some kind of truth. It may even be truth of deception, it may even be the truth of the scam, the truth of the hustle in the singers own presentation, but something is coming across that is true, and if that isn’t there the song dies. And the singer deserves to die too, and will, in time, die. So the thing that I listen for is that note of something big manifested that is beyond the singer’s control.
JM: Cohen has rewritten the song significantly, moving it out of the specifically political realm and widening its relevance. Making the issues more mundane and thus, more universal. Bringing the war down to a struggle between individuals. Save me a place in the ten dollar grave with those who took money for the pleasure they gave. With those always ready, with those who undressed so you could lay down with their head on your breast. A struggle between men and women.
LC: Well I think that’s in there and me, I just happen to go through those conventional approaches to love. It is a very subversive position. Subversive is not quite the word – it’s a radical position in that song that is beyond left and right. It talks about a reaction, an organic reaction, a convulsive reaction, that’s not even a strategy or a plan of action, it just – you just can’t tolerate the way things are. You can’t lay the responsibility to the police or to the critics or to anything – but the whole song says there’s a lie and because there’s a lie it’s going to die.
JM: He has never recorded the re-written version, though it’s the one he sings in concert. It’s the one which appears on Jennifer Warnes album Famous Blue Raincoat.
Yeah, What He Said, Except …
Agreeing with an analysis by someone else is a disconcerting experience for a blogger. My most relished task is pointing out how the established critics, self-designated experts, journalists, biographers, and other grownups got it wrong about Leonard Cohen.
Alas, in this case, I fear Mr McKenna has quite neatly summarized the effect of the rewritten lyrics as “moving it [the song] out of the specifically political realm and widening its relevance.”
I do, however, have a possibly useful observation to add that makes for a more nuanced understanding of Leonard Cohen’s songwriting tactics.
Leonard, to paraphrase McKenna’s explanation, does indeed widen the relevance of the song – but he does not forcibly inflict a universal theme. He does not, for example, poetically limn the proposition that the principles addressed herein are hereby held to pertain to love, war, court trials, business conflicts, tumult within relationships, critics judging artists, athletic contests, religious controversies… .
I don’t know what it is. It becomes your work, one of the few things you know how to do, especially as you get older. The premise, when I examine it – and I don’t examine it too often – I’ve always felt that the more personal you get, the more universal the application, rather than the other way around.3
Instead, he accomplishes this relevance-widening efficaciously and lyrically by courageously eliminating his painstakingly produced final verse, one he seems to himself admire (“… especially in the recorded version where the last verse is really very strong against a certain kind of authority”) and replacing it with – well, nothing much that’s new to the song.
Of the revised final verse’s six lines, the last two are, in fact, identical to the last two lines of the first verse, the only repeated lines in the song:
And the ladies go moist, and the judge has no choice,
A singer must die for the lie in his voice
The four new lines follow:
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
Make no mistake – these lines are not empty placeholders. This section clarifies, deepens, and enhances the notion that “A singer must die for the lie in his voice.” The imagery of a prostitute’s “twelve dollar grave” (it’s a three dollar grave in some versions; perhaps because of market fluctuations) is powerful. But the key is that the central theme, “A singer must die for the lie in his voice,” has already been introduced. The last verse is enrichment of a motif, not new data.
The important change is the elimination of the angry, anti-authoritarian rebuke to the state. “Their knee in your balls and their fist in your face. / Yes and long live the state by whoever it’s made.” Indeed.
There is no indication that Cohen retracted this sentiment because he repented this stance and become a supporter of fascist governments.
Instead, he has honored, as few can, the longstanding editing dictate that writers must ruthlessly revise. Stephen King’s presentation of this principle is pertinent if a tad over-dramatic:
Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings
Cohen trusts his own skill and judgement to prune distractions from his central message regardless of how much effort he expended on creating those beguilements and how dazzling they might be – and he trusts his audience to get the joke without exhaustive explanations. Cohen himself provides a fitting close to this post in this final excerpt:
He [Leonard Cohen] isn’t the type who feels songs should spill out in one inspirational rush, and is always ready to delete an idea if it doesn’t seem to work. “I’m tempted to remove everything,” he said. “At any time I’ve got a kind of alcoholic courage. Most people are reluctant to remove things. My sin is on the other side. I’m ready to discard the whole song at any time and start over.”4
The Inevitable Disclaimer
A consideration of the reasons Leonard Cohen chose the original, now abandoned lyrics of final verse of A Singer Must Die and, especially, the means by which Leonard Cohen weaves this musical tapestry is beyond the decidedly non-universal scope of this post.5
Jugurtha Harchaoui has pointed out, for example, that “the singer (or flute player, or poet, or cantor) that must be eliminated because he is seen as subversive is a very old theme in literature.”6 An exploration of this idea alone would would have engorged an already lengthy post to Brobdingnagian proportions. And as for factoring in the single report that Leonard Cohen wrote A Singer Must Die “at least partially in response to his having learned that he was on President Nixon’s ‘Enemies List,'”7 well, I have a blog to write.
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 Feb 5, 2014 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com.
- All quotes are from Diamonds In The Lines [↩]
- How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns, an interview with Leonard Cohen presented by John McKenna. RTE Ireland, May 9 & 12, 1988. Transcribed by Martin Godwyn. Found at LeonardCohenFiles [↩]
- From Cohen Down The Road By Karl Dallas, Melody Maker, May 22, 1976. [↩]
- Leonard Cohen by Paul Zollo. Boulevard Magazine [↩]
- I’m quite taken with this “beyond the scope of this piece” thing. For an essayist, it’s like a Get Out Of Jail Free card. [↩]
- Personal communication [↩]
- It Seems So Long Ago: Random Memories & Vignettes of Leonard In Person by David Whiteis. Retrieved 04 February 2014 from Speaking Cohen – no longer online [↩]