“We Have the Music…”

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I have always been filled with respect and awe for Leonard Cohen. No other modern poet, in my view, has the same almost effortless way to make me laugh and think and weep, all at once. His turns of phrase and evocative images are without peer. When he sings his poetry, it takes on even greater resonance, as he seems at once absorbed by the words, and a trifle embarrassed by them.

I recently came across a study of one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs, Chelsea Hotel #2, which for me always perfectly sums up a time and a place and an entire philosophy in just a few verses. I simply had to share this with you all, my dear readers…both the essay, and the song.

The following is reposted from The Smart Set.

Music Therapy

Leonard Cohen’s "Chelsea Hotel #2."

Never has a blowjob sounded so sad. But Leonard Cohen is the sort of man who could read Mother Goose aloud and make it sound like Swinburne. The blowjob in question is rumored to have come from the lips of Janis Joplin, an extraordinary thing to ponder in the first place. The song, of course, is “Chelsea Hotel #2.” The lines in question go:

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
you were talking so brave and so sweet,
giving me head on the unmade bed,
while the limousines wait in the street.

Cohen once said, "My voice just happens to be monotonous, I’m somewhat whiney, so they are called sad songs. But you could sing them joyfully too. It’s a completely biological accident that my songs sound melancholy when I sing them." Well, I think that’s bullshit. Leonard Cohen is great because he captured the sound of sadness. Real sadness. Meaningful sadness. Meaningful sadness is just to this side of stupid, pointless. That’s because real sadness comes from the realization that nothing really matters, that the world is simply too big to be grasped, metaphorically or otherwise. We go back into the world anyway, sometimes with gusto, but we’re changed by having stared for a moment at that mute truth. Cohen was able to put this feeling, this terrible insight, into a specific sound.

It sounds like “Chelsea Hotel #2.” The middle part of the song is a moment of defiance, a don’t-go-gentle-into-that-good-night. Cohen sings:

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
you were famous, your heart was a legend.
You told me again you preferred handsome men
but for me you would make an exception.
And clenching your fist for the ones like us
who are oppressed by the figures of beauty,
you fixed yourself, you said, “Well never mind,
we are ugly but we have the music.”

That’s an anthem right there, a manifesto: We are ugly, but we have the music. Still, the battle between disappointing corporeality (ugliness) and moments of transcendence (the music) is a wearying one. Cohen made his peace with it. More importantly, he’s making his peace with this song. Janis Joplin let herself fly free of it all, the beautiful soul. "You got away, didn’t you babe," Cohen sings.

It is a tribute to her, but it is a reproach at the same time. I think, maybe, that in “Chelsea Hotel #2” Leonard Cohen wants to say we have the music partly because we are ugly, not in spite of it. Facing the ugly, standing up close to the infinite dumbness of matter, is the condition for creating anything of worth. Joplin wanted it all; she lamented the limitations. More power to her. But getting it all is only for the angels. And so she left us, she got away.

Cohen stayed right here, amidst the ugly. Here’s another thing he said: "My life seems empty. I’m not saying this in any sense of despair. I mean the quality is empty. It doesn’t have many events, so the song has to come out of some other place. It’s not an event and it’s not a message, it’s another kind of color." He calls it “color,” I call it a specific sound. Metaphysically it is the space just between matter and form. Audibly, it is the beautiful song called “Hotel Chelsea #2.”

I don’t mean to suggest that I loved you the best,
I can’t keep track of each fallen robin.
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
that’s all, I don’t even think of you that often.

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1 Comment

  1. The first song that made me fall in love with Leonard Cohen was “First We Take Manhattan”.

    “Now, you love me as a loser/But now you’re worried that I just might win…”

    But I was distracted by Depeche Mode, Peter Murphy, and Peter Gabriel, and it took a few years for me to circle back. When I did, I heard “Everybody Knows”, which was–at least in my mind–soon followed by “Red Right Hand” by Nick Cave, and I fell in love with both voices; the quiet resignation of Cohen paired, I still think quite nicely, with the dark designs shimmering through Cave’s intoned chords.

    “Everybody knows the war is over/Everybody knows the good guys lost…”

    He sings truth, even if he doesn’t always speak it. I often think of him as the voice of fate. We can’t escape it, we can just learn to embrace it. And enjoy the bright spots when they come, like high-hat shimmer beats behind him.


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