Leonard Cohen and Neil Diamond: separated at birth?
By Kevin Chong
The songs of Leonard Cohen,which include such classics as Suzanne, Who By Fire and Hallelujah; are widely cherished and celebrated, his lyrics justly praised for their sardonic wit and finely wrought scenes of ecstasy and torment. At a ceremony in Toronto on Feb. 5, the 71-year-old artist will be inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. To understand his staying power as a songwriter (rather than as a poet or novelist), one must compare Cohen to that of another iconic singer-songwriter of Jewish background who came to prominence in the 1960s and is currently experiencing a critical renaissance.
No, I dont mean Bob Dylan. And not Lou Reed. I’m talking about Neil Diamond.
Each has written songs that routinely appear on movie soundtracks. Each has been widely and eclectically covered. (According to one splendid Cohen fan site, Diamond recorded one of the estimated 124 versions of Cohen’s Suzanne. So far, Cohen has yet to return the favour.) Each has legions of devoted fans that are mostly- though not exclusively- female. Cohen may be the legendary ladies man, but Diamond’s fans are an equally formidable, ardent group. (While giving birth, the wife of a good friend of mine insisted on listening to her five-disc set of live Diamond recordings in the delivery room.) Plus, each has inspired a film: Diamond was a major plot point (and made an appearance) in the 2001 comedy Saving Silverman, while Cohen was the muse for the Canadian feature Looking for Leonard (2002).
Reviewing a Diamond concert for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2001, music writer A.D. Amorosi suggested that Diamond was the anti-Leonard Cohen, a master of boldfaced ? not bleak or wry ? emotion.By assigning them to opposing teams, Amorosi actually highlighted their common appeal. In terms of emotion, Cohen and Diamond arent so much opposites as two sides ? indeed, boldfaced versus bleak and wry ? of the same grandiose coin.
The reason these two are so rarely compared is that in terms of tone and persona, they seem to inhabit different planets. Cohen is wry, erudite, cultured. His arrangements are spare, his songs are sung with a smoky, lugubrious growl and his lyrics are sprinkled with aphorisms. “There is a crack in everything”, he sings in Anthem. “Thats how the light gets in”. More important, Cohen is an ironist, often undercutting the doomed romances he chronicles: “But you stand there so nice”, he says in One of Us Cannot Be Wrong,”In your blizzard of ice / O please let me come into the storm”. By tempering his come-ons with a pithy self-awareness, he manages to flatter both himself and the object of his seduction- the listener.
In contrast, Diamond is routinely dismissed as a sequined schmaltzateer whose stadium-sized anthems and emotive baritone convey no irony; the song Heartlight was reportedly inspired by the extraterrestrials glowing chest (a sign of platonic love) in Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (Sample lyric: “Gonna take a ride across the moon / You and me”). In other songs, Diamond strives for poetic lyricism and ends up with kitschy metaphor:”I am the sun, you are the moon”, he sings in Play Me, “you are the words / I am the tune, play me”.
Released late last year, the album 12 Songs recasts Diamond as a pensive troubadour. Producer Rick Rubin, who also made Johnny Cash hipster-friendly, removed the production gloss of Diamond’s recent work and pushed him to play his own guitar. From the opening track, Oh Mary, Diamond showcases himself not as a performer, but as a songwriter whose solid melodies and knack for catchy refrains have an intelligence and integrity that exist outside the gaudy spectacle of his concerts.
Accompanied softly by an acoustic guitar, Diamond sings with youthful ardour about amour (Talking about love / No, I dont want nothing in between) before alluding to his mortality (I’ve been around and I know what happens / And I’m too old to pretend). What this song has in common with Cohen’s is a solemn, religious vision of romantic love. Both Diamond and Cohen write about sex as though it were a temple- albeit a very sexy one.
The grandson of a rabbi, Cohen loaded his songs with Judeo-Christian imagery from the start. In the middle verse of his first big hit, Suzanne, he likens Jesus to a sailor (i.e., because he walked on water). Bob Dylan once described Cohen’s songs as prayers.
In interviews, Cohen frequently speaks of songwriting and women in religious terms. “If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition”,he told author Paul Zollo in his book Songwriters on Songwriting.It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun. Youre married to a mystery”.Interviewed in 1997 by French radio at the L.A. monastery where he was living at the time, Cohen joked: “For me, marriage is the real monastery” (Cohen, who’s never been married, hints in his music that matrimony might be a sacred calling that requires more sacrifice than he can offer.)
Diamond spoke about the origins of his seemingly secular music in a 2001 interview with the New York Times Magazine. “My dad was an amateur performer who lip-synched a lot of Yiddish records. They’re almost operatic. The sense of melody I have is based on that. So many of the Jewish songwriters of the 20th century have come from that same place. There wasn’t much popular music hundreds of years ago. The religious music was what the writers based their songs on.
Romance-as-religion first appears in his song I’m a Believer (recorded by the Monkees and Diamond’s first big hit). A one-time choirboy, Diamond would inflect later hits like Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show and Holly Holy with a gospel flavour. (Like Cohen, Diamond frequently evokes Judeo-Christian imagery-he put out two Christmas albums.) For the soundtrack to The Jazz Singer (1980), Diamond recorded a version of the Kol Nidre, a prayer typically recited on Yom Kippur.
Obviously, neither Diamond nor Cohen name-drop God to advertise religion. Rather, they use Biblical imagery and rhetoric to elevate romantic love to a form of religious communion. The unions described in their songs are momentous and transformative. What’s more, they are delivered with a level of drama that their respective audiences have come to crave.
On 12 Songs, Diamond lays out his theology of song in Man of God: I’m a man of God / Though I never learned to pray / Walked the pathways of a heart / Found them there along the way. It is song, not prayer, that brings Diamond’s salvation. Over four decades, Diamond’s bold-faced emoting has attracted hockey-rink-sized crowds and provided secular uplift at weddings and karaoke nights, places where irony is considered to be in poor taste.
While Cohen’s sentiments are strained with bemusement, his irony is not a means of deflecting emotion. Rather, it’s a way of highlighting the often inscrutable motivations of the human heart.
The union of sex and spirituality approaches perfection in Cohen’s 1984 song Hallelujah. Performed like a hymn, Cohen inhabits the persona of David, the King of Israel and the traditional writer of the Psalms. The song’s second verse refers to David’s fall from grace namely, his affair with Bathsheba, the wife of a soldier whom he sends to war in order to facilitate his seduction. Your faith was strong but you needed proof / You saw her bathing on the roof / Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew her. In a verse that appears on a 1988 live rendition, Cohen switches perspective to the first person and the plaintive lament of a spurned lover: There was a time you let me know / What’s really going on below, / Ah, but now you never show it to me, do you?
As in a sermon, Cohen conflates the Biblical and the personal superimposing his own frailty on David’s. If Diamond’s songs are answered prayers full of unwavering affirmations, Cohen searches for the cracks before coming to the light.
(Kevin Chong is a Vancouver writer. His book, Neil Young Nation, is published by Douglas & McIntyre)