Number One and The Zero. Cohen, Dylan and the Art of Conflict

I remember reading in the New Yorker, David Remnick recounting Cohen telling him a story about a drive Cohen took with Dylan to see a piece of property His Bobness had just purchased, and how Dylan had told him that an unnamed popular songwriter of the day (my money is on Neil Young) that Dylan was the number one songwriter, but he (Young?) was number two. According to Cohen, Dylan told Cohen that ‘number two’ was incorrect, and that Cohen was in fact number one, the unnamed egotistic singer-songwriter who started this mess, was number two, and that he, Dylan was in fact zero. Zero – putting himself out of the game entirely, above the race, sitting alone, isolated, pristine, mystical. Cohen went on, telling Remnick that he took Dylan as meaning that his own work was ‘beyond measure’ while Cohen’s was merely ‘pretty good’.

Re-reading the interview recently, I threw some Leonard Cohen song list onto youtube to see if I could give Cohen a fair hearing against Dylan’s work. I live in hope that one day it will be more a case of pulling some vinyl off the shelf and onto my record player, but for now the music hisses through headphones of my laptop, and is channeled in between adverts for various things nobody is interested in or wants to be reminded of when what they really want to do is listen to some Leonard Cohen. Suzanne came through the foam first. As Leonard sings of the gap between wanting to leave her and then going on to declare to Suzanne that he ‘has no love to give her’, of his push to her pulling back, using her psychic and intellectual wiles to get the hapless Leonard on ‘her wavelength’, it becomes apparent that when the best of Cohen is compared to the best of Dylan, Cohen can pull his weight.

Listening Cohen weave this push and pull between ‘tea and oranges’, rivers and boats, and Suzanne’s ‘perfect body’ which he touches with his mind, not the flesh that he is uncertain that he has ‘any love to give her’ with, the listener becomes embroiled in desire and conflict writ large, between wanting to travel, but having to do so looking through Cohen’s blinded eyes. What raises this song above this conflict of 1 and 0..(and even two…though that would be Joni Mitchell, not Neil Young) is Leonards’s lifting Suzanne from the merely sublime to the Godly. Cohen takes the second verse into biblical territory and raises the ghost of Jesus on a fishing boat. It is this element of conflict between his Jewish identity and the messiah of Christianity, which takes Suzanne from a story of appreciation and lust, to something more universal. By putting Jesus into the same subset of travelers – that group which he has already put Suzanne and himself into in the first verse and chorus, Cohen thus raises himself and Suzanne to equals to the Christ figure, in a way both accepting and rejecting Christ – and Suzanne – using both all his suave and debonaire powers of flattery and poet’s incisiveness. Jesus is one of them, another sailor on that river, and not only that Suzanne in Salvation Army rags has them both in her thrall. Cohen the polite iconoclast! Leonard the lover…and the hopeless sap who is reduced to a puddle by a woman again.

Yet what hope did Leonard ever have when even Jesus too ‘sank beneath (Suzanne’s) wisdom like a stone.’ This might not be the prettiest pedestal a woman has ever been put upon in a rock song, but it might well be most perfect and powerful. No one, no man, no God, no messiah can compete ‘while Suzanne holds the mirror’, not while Suzanne has reached out with her mind and body through time, to tell our hapless hero that he has always been her lover. Leonard is on his metaphorical knees in this song, both in his worship of Suzanne, and his probing of the river, of religion, and the profane salvation which he seeks between the thighs of Suzanne, Marianne and those other sisters of small mercies kindly given.

There is a case to be made for Leonard Cohen being our dirty winged poetic Angel. The true zero, at least upon occasion. We find him down grubbing down with us, grappling with the demons of lust and self-doubt, leading to him staring in a mirror, in Dress Rehearsal Rag, with a face full of Santa Claus foam and a razorblade wondering about giving himself a very deep shave in a tumbling cascade of picked notes and suicidal thoughts, leaving the rest of us a little concerned that admitting to liking Leonard through such tirades, is like admitting you are an incorrigible depressive, or else similarly emotionally hobbled – a little embarrassing really, even though it should never be an embarrassment to admit humanity, empathy, pain and sensitivity, that the chattering folks in the cheap seats find it addictively shameful to watch in on and tut as the passion play and subsequent tragedies unfold.

I personally find Abba leaves me reaching for both the sharpened steel and cheap synthetic relief from their barrage of happy wholesome bop. Abba upon my system, while I am in the pit of a depressive downswing, is guaranteed to send me howling. Even the first few twinkly bars of Fernando send anyone who knows me running to the dial before I can start to scream and jibber and fall upon my s(words) crying retribution for such audible cruelty, and trying to wipe away the bad taste of glitter and unreasonable happiness by playing wall to wall Cohen for the next five hours. Nobody likes to see that. Makes them more nervous than it makes me.

In You Want It Darker? Leonard called his demons “middle class and tame” yet they were demonic all the same with the same barbs and traps and lingering whispering voices. Cohen was searching for sex and female attention and peace from the desire that tortured him from the Marble Arch to the Tower of Song and back around again. The Jewish Cohen has seen love’s colors proclaiming victory over him, celebrating his ultimate supplication and destruction under Venus’s sharp boot heel; Titus’s colors hanging from the Victory Arch in Rome, proclaiming victory over the Jews in that authoritarian demand for his supplication and destruction. Hallelujah! Love wins, even when love winning means Leonard loses.

This all said and done, I am convinced that no one has ever made great art out of being happy and content, nor by achieving the mansion on the hill of zen balanced empty harmony. Name me one great artist that never suffered, that started life on top of the hill looking out over all the little people with their little lights and little lives, king of the heap, comfortable and satiated with no conflict, no inner demons to drive them, no mountain to climb, nothing to resolve. When Cohen is producing real Zero stuff, his Hallelujah, his Want It Darker, his Suzanne, his almost medieval madrigal beauty of Bird on A Wire, he is unimpeachable, holy, mystical, the temporary holder of the keys and ruler of the airwaves.

The fact is songs stand individually. Is Hallelujah better than Dylan’s Country Pie? Is Suzanne able to hold her own with Queen Jane Approximately? Is she better than the dully mean spirited and whiny Dylan song about the fawn, Rotolo and her ‘parasite sister’ of Ballad in Plain D? Leonard might not have felt able to argue his case back then in that car with Dylan (Zero is so much cooler than one. One is the high school quarterback. Zero is James Dean), but I feel able to call it as I see it for him now. Sometimes Leonard is zero, sometimes he is one. Dylan is zero more often than Cohen, but that is no surprise. In the case of the heavy hitting Dylan albums, Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, heck, Ill give him John Wesley Harding and The Basement Tapes too, Dylan is so far ahead of the rest of the field, surely a little hubris is to be expected, however, Dylan must share this rarified air now and again. Others do reach those lofty heights upon occasion and I don’t have to put my feet into Steve Earle’s cowboy boots or desecrate Dylan’s coffee table to make my point, that Cohen, Mitchell, Townes Van Zandt, Young (begrudgingly) and a few others write important songs too.

That all said, there always remains something about Dylan which keeps drawing me back, and after turning off Leonard and turning onto Bringing It All Back Home, in my opinion the most important album of all time, returning back to those tracks I always reach back into for inspiration or comfort or simply to marvel at genius at work, The struggle is less pronounced and sexual in Dylan’s songs. Dylan is more rounded, has a wider worldview, and is more concerned with humanity, struggle, the road and a wider range of human experience, than Leonard and his women. “I used to care,” declares Dylan….’but things have changed.’ I believe him. I believed Dylan used to care far too much about what people, especially the critics, thought of him and his work, to the point of coming to a disregard of his fans, their experience of his music and bordering on downright hostility towards his listeners at some points – particularly his Christian period where we would rail sermons at honest show-going music fans, the inexplicable obsession with Sinatra and the fact that back in the 90s, the only time I ever saw Dylan live, Dylan proceeded to massacre every single song, change the tunes to the point of Like A Rolling Stone being unrecognizable, and putting on such a disdainful performance of lackluster carelessness that I was heartbroken.

Dylan really didn’t seem to care for a while (Rough and Rowdy Ways is a triumph and return to form, apart from one stinky track that sounds like a tourist advert for Key West), and who could blame him for not liking us enough to care! It is this conflict between Dylan and his fans, which came to a head after 1966 and that ‘motorcycle accident’ that he spun out on before taking his ‘cure’ under the ‘Methodist bells’, and entering into spiritual warfare with those who looked to him to provide enlightenment when all he wanted to do was entertain, be that ‘simple song and dance man’ he declared himself to be. These freaks who would tear Dylan apart, that expected things of him, were led by the King of Dylanology, the disturbing A.J. Webermann, who published his tract first tract on Dylan in 1969, and dissected every Dylan’s every look, word, comment and lyrical hook, then when they had ripped apart that flower, looked for the keys to the universe in Dylan’s trash. Surely, thought these unwanted acolytes, Dylan has thrown away more wisdom with the diapers and the milk cartons, than the rest of us were ever privy to, leading Dylan to retreat. They may have taken it all a little too far. I couldn’t care less what Dylan had to eat for lunch, it is more what he dreamt for the 116th time that floats my boat, and figure if Zero wants to tell us, he will release it when the time is right. Like The Basement Tapes, that wait can be frustrating, but what makes Dylan great is it is generally, though not always, worth it.

The Webermanian battle cry of wanting to ‘save Dylan from himself’ (I feel dirty even typing that…sorry Bob..hah as if Bob would ever read this..but still…) seems to have fuelled a lot of Dylan’s output post “motorcycle accident”. I attribute the actions of these vultures for the Lewis Carollian expression of exuberance of The Basement Tapes output, released in 1975. Dylan begging Please Mrs. Henry was giving his critics what they wanted – entry to the club, behind the doors, into the mind of the man who wrote Highway 61 Revisited. If the freaks want to sift through his trash, here he is, musical warts and all, raw, wild and unguarded, studio asides intact, no barrier between Dylan and the legions of dead-on-the-inside critics and fanboys and girls wooed by his wild mercury looks in the mid 60s, who all demanded nothing less than total access to his psyche. They wanted to climb inside Dylan and drive his output, and man, was it a sick scene. However, with no conflict, there would also be no Basement Tapes. There would have been no glorious hunt for the bootleg, no sweaty palmed pressing play on the hissing tape deck only to hear that what was really going on inside Dylan’s head was pure wheels of fire. These diamonds in the rough were not formed from lack of heat or pressure, rather than the crucible of creation that was Dylan’s fame.

If the first part of Dylan’s career was partly fueled by sappy puppy love (and who am I to complain, Love is the law, love under will, and not to mention the love that made the sublime Girl From The North Country) , the rest was created out of rage, social justice, Rimbaud and smack, and channeled through the electricity of his genius both in phrase, music and subject matter. Dylan’s words stand alongside the music. Something is lost when they are divorced from the sound, some meaning is reduced and belittled. Dylan is a poet of the class Troubadour, and his guitar and ear for arrangements of traditional sounds (I can hear the ghost of Dave Van Ronk shouting that the arrangement for House Of The Rising Sun was his, damnit. Get over it Ronk. You should have written more songs. Hang me oh hang me was great, but when that is all the original output you create, you haven’t even got out of the starting gate, let alone headed down the stretch in the race for 0) are as much a tool as his ability to look at the ridiculous and write the sublime. A rope in a hotel with a tiny man and a soldier declaring love as the entire island goes down. Pearls amphetamines and heads of mules, Dylan is always slightly left of center, a little off the beaten track.

Leonard was the more sympathetic figure, the consummate professional showman, and of course he could write and made it through the finishing line, it is just that Dylan had a new pony, and man could it lope.

I have never been able to find anything that looks into it, but it appears that Stranger Song, for Cohen was written for Dylan, and that whole situation. Dylan is that dealer who is looking for the card so high and wild he never needs to deal another, and who leaves Leonard without anything at all not even shelter or laughter. There is much discussion of Leonard taking years to write songs, Hallelujah took him five years, and Dylan taking 15 minutes to write I and I. The sheer burden of being Dylan with his live wire seemingly connected to the heavens, and the slog of being Leonard Cohen, not quite being Dylan, not almost reaching those peaks of connectedness to both the world-pain psyche and to the Angels themselves makes being in the race look like an unappealing prospect. When he talks like this, you don’t know what he’s after sings Leonard. In the interview with David Remnick, Cohen adds to the zero, one, two Songwriter Derby line up story:

“One of his songs came on the radio I think it was ‘Just Like a Woman’ or something like that. It came to the bridge of the song, and he said, ‘A lot of eighteen-wheelers crossed that bridge.’ Meaning it was a powerful bridge.”

In Stranger Song we hear:

Let’s meet tomorrow if you choose
Upon the shore, beneath the bridge
That they are building on some endless river
Then he leaves the platform
For the sleeping car that’s warm
You realize, he’s only advertising one more shelter
And it comes to you, he never was a stranger
And you say, “OK, the bridge or some place later.”

Dylan and Cohen meeting on the bridge of Just Like a Woman, on the shores of Suzanne’s endless river, pitting pen and string against pen and string, Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, deciding the final toll, laying out the odds, and the finishing positions, dividing up the spoil of art, is just one other conflict. But Cohen has a barb to throw out before he gives up the crown. Dylan and his train tracks, his boxcar blues, his Woody Guthrie ambitions, and his fake ‘I hopped trains like a hobo’ jive, alongside the other bums of the great beat revolution are fake. Dylan didn’t live that life, he was not Camus’ Le’Etranger. Dylan’s train accommodation was a warm sleeping car, and Dylan was no tortured real Stranger. The shelter Dylan provided him was not real, just another plateau on the road. Leonard and his existentialist nightmare of existence was the real thing, he suffered the disaffection that Dylan could only mimic. However, real or the phony that Joni Mitchell declares Dylan to be, it doesn’t matter: the words stand up.

Stranger Song is full of these clever little lines, calling Dylan ‘the man with the Golden Arm’ and suggesting this ‘golden arm’ dealt cards – or helped him write songs in the stream of consciousness free flowing beauty of junk-dissociated thought and imagery so beautiful it shimmers from the airwaves – in a sly dig at Dylan’s heroin problem, that Dylan didn’t cop to until years later, balanced with Cohen’s self effacing declarations that he ‘cannot close (his) shelter’ and he was left empty and without weapons to defend himself against the machinations of this man he loves who comes on as if he is Camus’ Stranger, but proves to not be a stranger at all, even though the highway ‘curls up like smoke above his shoulder’.

The Stranger who isn’t a stranger at all, claims to not have they key to any matter, yet is fathering songs of such beauty, Leonard describes him as ‘just some Joseph looking for a manger’, comes and goes in a blur of trains and games he plays for shelter from this storm or other.

The Zero Bob, might take zero, but Leonard will not let him take the title of The Stranger, Leonard in all his fragile masculine glory takes his ‘card’ for himself, and plays the role all the way to the end of the rivers he rides with this woman or that, past war, disappointment and battles with Death.

The Stranger might not have Dylan’s Basement Tape abandon, but as always Cohen is brutally honest, if restrained and polite in his obscuring of the truth.

We all bought Dylan’s ‘shelter’, his mansion on the hill, it glitters and shines in the distance, but that man, the one standing outside with Neil Young on his coattails, that Stranger is Cohen. There is no point to the Castle if there remains no attacker to try and penetrate it’s walls. He did tell you when he came, he was a stranger.

Leave a Reply