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I was born with the gift of a golden voice
Leonard Cohen - 'Tower of Song' (I'm Your Man - 1988)
In 2008 I, and tens of thousands of others, had the immense privilege of seeing Leonard Cohen live at Glastonbury. One of those gigs immediately comes to mind when people ask which gigs I’m pleased I didn’t missLaughing Len was quite the showman, tipping his hat to the crowd at the end of each song as the late June sunshine faded away behind the rolling hills of Somerset. In that setlist, alongside early classics ‘So Long, Marianne and ‘Suzanne’ and a song that, via Alexandra Burke, would be the UK’s Christmas number one by the end of the year, ‘Hallelujah’ were five songs from Cohen’s 1988 album, I’m Your Man. This included the keynote closing track, ‘Tower of Song’ in which Cohen aimed to make what Ira Nadel's 1996’s Various Positions calls
…a definitive statement about the heroic enterprise of the craft [of songwriting].
'Tower of Song' is many things, but primarily it explores ageing and self-reflection. The song delves deep into Cohen's personal experiences with growing older, metaphorically expressing the aches and pains of age with lines like “I ache in the places where I used to play." which is possibly the first reference in popular music to a man in later middle-age singing about an inflamed prostate gland. He acknowledges his ageing voice with a nuanced self-awareness, a poignant testament to the passage of time. Yet despite the physical toll, Cohen continues to pay his “rent” in the tower, a symbolic commitment to his art. The 'rent' in the ‘Tower of Song’ symbolises the continual creation of music. Even amid the physical discomforts of ageing and inevitable mortality, Cohen persists in his musical endeavours. He continues to “pay his rent” to contribute to the world of song, reinforcing his commitment to his craft regardless of his challenges.
This “tower” represents the realm of songwriting, a space populated by great songsmiths past and present. Cohen’s self-deprecating humour and poetic prowess offer insightful commentary on his craft's challenges, joys, and complexities. The song exemplifies his adept skill of weaving words and melodies, paying homage to the creative process. It’s an eloquent testament to Cohen’s enduring talent and deep reverence for songwriting.
He called the work "Raise My Voice in Song" in the early eighties. His concern was with the ageing songwriter, and the "necessity to transcend one's own failure by manifesting as the singer, as the songwriter." He had abandoned the song, but one night in Montreal he finished the lyrics and called an engineer and recorded it in one take with a toy synthesizer.
Cohen also sings of the hierarchy in the tower, with Hank Williams a hundred floors above him. Williams remains unresponsive to him, exacerbating the situation when we discover that Williams was within a yodel's reach rather than dead in 1988. Far from providing solace or inspiration to Cohen, Hank Williams' cough is a stark reminder of the songwriter’s dire and deteriorating condition. That sense of loneliness and isolation, framed around a long-dead songwriter who sang ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’, is the type of humour that Cohen employs to, tongue firmly in cheek, refers to his gift of a golden voice.
Yet, this self-mockery also highlights Cohen's resilience and unshakeable dedication to his craft, even in the face of criticism. The self-mockery even extends to the backing vocals. The non-lexical vocables “Do Dum Dum Dum, De Do Dum Dum” are used throughout the song by the backing vocalists. In a 1993 interview, Cohen explained it wasn’t him that came up with it:
When Jennifer [Warnes] came up with that part, I knew we’d nailed the song … That really gave the song the perspective of real humour. Real lightness
Years later, playing the song live in 2009, Cohen provided a more profound explanation:
I’m so grateful to you because tonight it’s become clear to me, tonight, the great mysteries have unravelled, and I’ve penetrated to the very core of things. And I have stumbled on the answer, and I’m not the sort of chap who would keep this to himself.
Do you want to hear the answer? Are you truly hungry for the answer? Then you’re just the people I want to tell it to. Because it’s a rare thing to come upon this, and I’m going to let you in on it now. The answer to the mysteries: Do dum dum dum, de do dum dum.
Despite its layers of irony and critique, ‘Tower of Song’ ultimately stands as a homage to music. Cohen's depiction of the "Tower" signifies the challenges and the sacredness of the songwriting vocation. The song is a testament to music's power to transcend mundane realities, communicate ineffable truths, and offer solace amidst life's absurdities and uncertainties. It beautifully encapsulates Cohen's enduring reverence for music as a spiritual expression and connection.
Musically, ‘Tower of Song’ features a sparse arrangement, with a prominent rhythm track and minimalistic instrumentation. The focus is primarily on Cohen's trademark vocals and the engaging lyrics, allowing the listener to immerse themselves in the words and their emotions fully.
The rest of the album I'm Your Man is known for its fusion of Cohen's signature folk sound with synthesisers and electronic elements, ‘Tower of Song’ is slightly different. The stripped-down production and contemplative lyrics contrast the more experimental and electronic soundscapes on the rest of the album. It offers a moment of introspection and intimacy right at the end of a record that pushes the sonic envelope of what a Leonard Cohen song sounds like.
The reverence in which the song is held is evident; it wasn’t one of the six songs released as a single, yet it was voted in 2014 by Rolling Stone readers as his 8th best song. It has been covered many times - notably twice on not just I’m Your Fan by Robert Forster and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds but on Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man by Martha Wainwright and U2.
In 2008, Lou Reed inducted Cohen into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Cohen recited the lyrics to the song in full.
Others include watching Kate Bush in 2014, My Bloody Valentine’s comeback gigs in 2008, Björk at The Royal Albert Hall in 2015, and LCD Soundsystem at Brixton in 2007. Not because those are the best gigs I’ve ever been to, but because I felt like being there was a real privilege. They were all excellent!
Suppose you don’t like that as a double-entendre. Why not declare that conjures the distress of returning to once cherished places now overshadowed by poignant memories, transforming once joyous locations into sources of profound melancholy, instead?