Old Jews Telling Cosmic Jokes

Go ahead, read the new Leonard Cohen profile.

His gift or genius is in his connection to the music of the spheres. In the song ‘Sisters of Mercy,’ for instance, the verses are four elemental lines which change and move at predictable intervals . . . but the tune is anything but predictable. The song just comes in and states a fact. And after that anything can happen and it does, and Leonard allows it to happen. His tone is far from condescending or mocking. He is a tough-minded lover who doesn’t recognize the brush-off. Leonard’s always above it all. ‘Sisters of Mercy’ is verse after verse of four distinctive lines, in perfect meter, with no chorus, quivering with drama. The first line begins in a minor key. The second line goes from minor to major and steps up, and changes melody and variation. The third line steps up even higher than that to a different degree, and then the fourth line comes back to the beginning. This is a deceptively unusual musical theme, with or without lyrics. But it’s so subtle a listener doesn’t realize he’s been taken on a musical journey and dropped off somewhere, with or without lyrics.

— If you are someone who enjoys old Jews talking about each other you are going to be thrilled by David Remnick’s profile of Leonard Cohen in this week’s New Yorker. That quote above comes from Bob Dylan! (It also contains the classic quote from CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff, who in 1984 told Cohen, “Look, Leonard, we know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.”) If you are an old Jew yourself you may remember the New Yorker’s previous profile of Leonard Cohen, by Leon Wieseltier, which happened nearly a quarter of a century ago. If you are neither old nor a Jew, there is still plenty to enjoy, but you probably won’t feel the same stab of recognition when Cohen offers Remnick “some slices of cheese.”

Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker is out on October 21st.