When I first met Leonard Cohen, he was telling a good friend of mine that his mother was seriously ill. My friend, whose father had recently died, was so moved by Cohen’s mesmerizing familial compassion that she quietly began to cry. Seeing this, Cohen jumped up, left the room and quickly returned with his famous blue raincoat. “Please cry on this,” he said. “It soaks up the tears.” And you wonder why I like Leonard Cohen.
Unfortunately, the tales surrounding Cohen’s seventh album, Death of a Ladies’ Man, produced by the once-famous but lately infamous Phil Spector, are neither poetic nor kind, and the LP probably has fewer admirers than buyers. Cohen himself, though he feels the songs are unusually strong, has expressed severe dissatisfaction with the record. Spector, it seems, simply took what the singer felt were tapes still in progress, kept them under lock and key, mixed them like a solitary mad genius and released the album without bothering to consult with his artist. Not everyone likes a surprise, but Cohen has both dealt out and dealt with enough superromantic irony in his lifetime to walk through it as if it were a fine spring rain.
With such a history, it’s fitting that Death of a Ladies’ Man more than lives up to its notoriety. It’s either greatly flawed or great and flawed — and I’m betting on the latter. Though too much of the record sounds like the world’s most flamboyant extrovert producing and arranging the world’s most fatalistic introvert, such assumptions can be deceiving. To me, both men would seem to belong to that select club of lone-wolf poets, Cohen haunted by new skin and old ceremonies and Spector by the reverse. While the latter apparently begs to differ with most of the contemporary world, the former has been known to defer to amatory begging to gain all the experience he possibly can from the sisterly sea around us. Both these guys know what fame and longing are.
But it’s silly to take sides about this LP because so much of it is first-rate. Contrary to popular opinion, Leonard Cohen’s lyrics, arguably the best in rock & roll, are easily decipherable through the calliopean claustrophobia of Phil Spector’s sometimes-padded wall of sound. Actually, except for the very minor “Don’t Go Home with Your Hard-On” (a rather pointless wallow in raunch) and “Fingerprints” (wrongheaded country music), Spector displays a good deal of sensitivity toward a type of material (chansons, for want of a better word) with which he’s never worked. Though his rock & roll hits were often delicate and deliberate mixtures of the simple and the grandiose, it was usually the music that was grandiose, not the words. With Cohen, everything’s the other way around.
A self-taught singer, Leonard Cohen can get by with six strings and a homemade melody if he has to, but his words are so moody and complex you can’t tell up from down, implosion from explosion. Yet Spector’s melodies, arrangements and production generally swim rather than sink, and though he provides an unusually dense aural fog (some thirty musicians and seventeen backup singers) for Cohen’s inner storms, no one gets run over here because of lack of vision. (Who knows, “Death of a Ladies’ Man” might turn up someday on an album of Phil Spector’s greatest hits.)
While Spector’s contributions to Death of a Ladies’ Man are anything but lethal (“Memories” is an effective doo-wop nightmare), Cohen’s are still the kiss to build the dream on — if you can get to sleep at all after hearing “Iodine” and “Paper-Thin Hotel.” The latter is one of his double-edged, liberation-and-revenge songs about infidelity and a cheated lover’s claim of lack of jealousy (“A heavy burden lifted from my soul/I learned that love was out of my control”). Then, as the vocal begins to turn murderous (“I felt so good I couldn’t feel a thing”), you realize the lover hasn’t been telling the truth. Then you realize he has been. It’s like thinking back to the beginning of one’s great failed romance or thinking ahead toward the inevitable finish of what is now sublime: after a while, you don’t want to, but what else is there? (“What happened to you, lover?” someone asks the singer on “I Left a Woman Waiting.” “What happened to my eyes/Happened to your beauty,” he answers. “What happened to your beauty/Happened to me.”)
“Death of a Ladies’ Man,” one of Cohen’s finest songs, is a seriocomic marvel that leaves you either anticipating great adventure or wondering if you’ve just had it. A man and a woman fall in love, and eventually the more realistic woman completely trashes the poor, romantic man, taking everything, including his sexual identity. (“The last time that I saw him/He was trying hard to get/A woman’s education/But he’s not a woman yet.”) The song’s incredible last verse manages to be terrifying, funny and philosophically awesome, all at the same time. It’s about life and love and could serve as an epitaph for most of us sharing this planet:
So the great affair is over
But whoever would have guessed
It would leave us all so vacant
And so deeply unimpressed
It’s like our visit to the moon
Or to that other star
I guess you go for nothing
If you really want to go that far.