Playing the Indian Card

Monday, February 15, 2016

Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen

Three truly great songwriters emerged from the Baby Boom generation: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell. Among these three. it is hard to choose who is the best. Dylan is the most prolific, but also wrote a lot of junk. Cohen is the best lyricist and most consistently good, but weaker on melody. Mitchell is not quite as good as the other two on lyrics at lyrics, but most innovative musically. In any case, compared to these three, everyone else is in a lesser league. A few great songs, but not the consistency of output.

Both Cohen and Mitchell are Canadian, which gives me a special bond with them. But more than that; something uncanny. Cohen went to the same high school I did, Westmount High School, and took largely the same route home from school. He is full of local Montreal references that resonate very strongly with me. And Mitchell reminds me terribly much of my own grandmother, also a longterm Westmounter: her voice, her mouth, her eyes, even to some extent her apparent personality.

I was surprised reading the recent (2012) Cohen biography by Sylvie Simmons, I'm Your Man, to discover that Cohen and Mitchell had a love affair in 1967, when they were both starting out in the pop music business in New York.

I should not have been. Listen to the lyrics of Mitchell's song "Rainy Night House" (Ladies of the Canyon album, 1970). Anyone who has read Cohen's first, autobiographical novel, The Favourite Game (1963), will have no trouble identifying the house in question as his chiildhood home at 599 Belmont Avenue, Westmount.

It was a rainy night
We took a taxi to your mother's home
She went to Florida and left you
With your father's gun alone
(The gun, which Cohen's father Nathan kept from his service in World War I, figures prominently in Cohen's imagination. He admired his father for being a soldier, When his father dies slowly of a diseased heart when Cohen is age nine, he wishes the senior Cohen, pitifully weak, would take command of his own destiny and use the gun to commit suicide.)

Upon her small white bed
I fell into a dream
You sat up all the night and watched me
To see who in the world I might be,
(Staying up all night to watch a lover sleep was, on the evidence of The Favourite Game, a tendency of Cohen's.)

I am from the Sunday school
I sing soprano in the upstairs choir
(Mitchell, a soprano, started her singing in the local church choir in Saskatoon. Here she contrasts her Irish-Scandinavian roots with Cohen's very different Russian Jewish background. Mitchell is as Aryan-looking as they come.)

You are a holy man
On the F.M. radio
I sat up all the night and watched thee
To see who in the world you might be. 
You called me beautiful
You called your mother, she was very tanned
So you packed your tent and you went
To live out in the Arizona sand. 
You are a refugee
From a wealthy family
You gave up all the golden factories
To see who in the world you might be
(The "golden factories" are/were factories for making brass faucets, owned by the Cohen family. Cohen gave up the life his family had planned for him, in the family businesses, to become a poet.)

Even more indicative of the Cohen influence is Mitchell's never-recorded "The Wizard of Is," which is quite simply a straight imitation of Cohen's "Suzanne," complete with the same tune. When they met, Mitchell was an unknown, 23, Cohen nine years older, 32, and already an established poet and novelist. He was obviously the mentor, she the acolyte.

Mitchell. "The Wizard of Is":

He's a little like the sunlight
(Cohen: "and the sun pours down like honey... Compare also Mitchell's "Chelsea morning, Änd the sun pours down like butterscotch..")

As he walks into your kitchen
Kinda golden like the morning
As he asks you what you're fixin'
So you set the table pretty
With the flower that he brings you
("And she shows you where to look/ Among the garbage and the flowers...")

And you flutter like a robin
When it's found a friend to sing to
And you think you maybe love him
("And you think maybe you'll trust her;...")

For he speaks to you in riddles
About little men and kings
As he holds you like a wizard
And you watch the sunlight scatter from his ring. 
And the Wizard is your moon now
Your enchanted silver jester
And he fills the dark with moonbirds
While you smile to think that yesterday
You watched him from the shadows
Like a thief who'd come to steal him
With a ladder on a mountain
And you thought you'd never reach him
For he seems too high above you
And he speaks to you in riddles
Saying I am but a mirror
("While Suzanne holds the mirror ...")

For reflection of your fables
And the happy ending stories that you hear.

Several other Mitchell songs are supposed to refer to Cohen: "The Gallery" (Clouds, 1969), "That Song About the Midway," (Clouds) and "Case of You" (Blue, 1971). The depth of Cohen's influence shows in the fact that part of him is admittedly pouring out of her as late as 1971. Mitchell had many other romantic liaisons, but none seems to appear as often in her lyrics as Cohen.

"That Song about the Midway":

I met you on a midway at a fair last year.
(The fair was apparently the Newport folk festival, at which Cohen and Mitchell first met)

And you stood out like a ruby in a black man's ear.
You were playing on the horses, you were playing on the guitar strings
You were playing like a devil wearing wings, wearing wings
You looked so grand wearing wings
Do you tape them to your shoulders just to sing
(This appears to be a reference to the 1966 NFB short, "Ängel," in whih Cohen appears wearing wings.)

Can you fly
I heard you can! Can you fly
Like an eagle doin' your hunting from the sky
I followed with the sideshows to another town
And I found you in a trailer on the camping grounds
You were betting on some lover, you were shaking up the dice
And I thought I saw you cheating once or twice, once or twice
I heard your bid once or twice
Were you wondering was the gamble worth the price
Pack it in
I heard you did! Pack it in
Was it hard to fold a hand you knew could win?
("Ït's true that all the men you knew were dealers... /Ah, you hate to see another tired man lay down his hand/ Like he was giving up the holy game of poker..." "The Stranger Song," Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1967.)

So lately you've been hiding, it was somewhere in the news
And I'm still at these races with my ticket stubs and my blues.
And a voice calls out the numbers, and it sometimes mentions mine
And I feel like I've been working overtime, overtime
I've lost my fire overtime
Always playin' one more hand for one more dime
Slowin' down
I'm gettin' tired! Slowin' down
And I envy you the valley that you've found
'Cause I'm midway down the midway
Slowin' down, down, down, down.
As one might expect of the more mature artist, the mentor -- Cohen gave Mitchell, at her request, a reading list of great books to allow her, a high school dropout, to self-educate) there are fewer apparent references to Mitchell in Cohen's songs. It looks at though "The Stranger Song" may be adressed to her; or she may just have been rifffing on a pre-existent Cohan song as she did with "Suzanne." There is also "Winter Lady," from the same album. Mitchell had already written a different song to the same title, making Cohen's version seem like a response.

Mitchell's lyrics:

Winter Lady, where you going
With your hair all soft and loose like snowing
Winter girl, December child
Don't run away
Winter Lady, walking sadly,
Does your lover treat you badly
Do you dream or wish on stars
To hear him say:
I won't cheat you, I won't desert you
Winter Lady you need loving
I need loving too
I need loving you" 
Staring out your winter window
At a silver sky you know you've been to
In a kiss, upon a day
Before a spring 
Winter Lady, cry those crystal tears
He won't know what he's missing
Love's too late, you've changed your mind
And it's my turn to sing, 
Oh Winter Lady I won't hurt you
I won't cheat you, I won't desert you
Winter Lady you need loving
I need loving too
I need loving you.

Cohen's lyrics:

Traveling lady, stay awhile
Until the night is over
I'm just a station on your way
I know I'm not your lover. 
Well I lived with a child of snow
When I was a soldier
And I fought every man for her
Until the nights grew colder

She used to wear her hair like you
Except when she was sleeping
And then she'd weave it on a loom
Of smoke and gold and breathing

And why are you so quiet now
Standing there in the doorway?
You chose your journey long before
You came upon this highway.
Reading between the lines, we can see why the affair did not last. Marriage and monogamy does not work well for artists. They are married to their muse, and a muse is a jealous lover. Both must move on in time to preserve their independence. This may be harder for the female artist, but it seems to be true of both. At least, so Cohen claims,

Mitchell, though, seems a little bitter, and as if she blames Cohen for the breakup. "A Case of You":

Just before our love got lost you said
"I am as constant as a northern star"
And I said "Constantly in the darkness
Where's that at?
If you want me I'll be in the bar"

On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada
Oh Canada
With your face sketched on it twice. 
Oh you're in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet.
Oh I could drink a case of you darling;
Still I'd be on my feet
Oh I would still be on my feet

Oh I am a lonely painter.
I live in a box of paints.
I'm frightened by the devil
And I'm drawn to those ones that ain't afraid. 
I remember that time you told me you said
"Love is touching souls"
Surely you touched mine.
'Cause part of you pours out of me
In these lines from time to time. 
Oh, you're in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet.
Oh I could drink a case of you darling
And I would still be on my feet
I would still be on my feet.

I met a woman,
She had a mouth like yours;
She knew your life,
She knew your devils and your deeds;
And she said
"Go to him, stay with him if you can,
But be prepared to bleed"

Oh but you are in my blood
You're my holy wine
You're so bitter, bitter and so sweet.

Oh, I could drink a case of you darling
Still I'd be on my feet
I would still be on my feet.

In 1971, I warrant, Mitchell was still in love with Cohen, Cohen had moved on.

"The Gallery" also seems to blame Cohen:

When I first saw your gallery
I liked the ones of ladies
Then you began to hang up me
You studied to portray me
In ice and greens
And old blue jeans
And naked in the roses
Then you got into funny scenes
That all your work discloses

"Lady, don't love me now I am dead
I am a saint, turn down your bed
I have no heart," that's what you said
You said, "I can be cruel
But let me be gentle with you"

Somewhere in a magazine
I found a page about you
I see that now it's Josephine
Who cannot be without you
I keep your house in fit repair
I dust the portraits daily
Your mail comes here from everywhere
The writing looks like ladies'

"Lady, please love me now, I am dead
I am a saint, turn down your bed
I have no heart," that's what you said
You said, "I can be cruel
But let me be gentle with you"

I gave you all my pretty years
Then we began to weather
And I was left to winter here
While you went west for pleasure
And now you're flying back this way
Like some lost homing pigeon
They've monitored your brain, you say
And changed you with religion

"Lady, please love me now I was dead
I am no saint, turn down your bed
Lady, have you no heart," that's what you said
Well, I can be cruel
But let me be gentle with you

When I first saw your gallery
I liked the ones of ladies
But now their faces follow me
And all their eyes look shady
In introducing the song, Mitchell says it is an inevitable problem with falling in love with an artist. Artists are wholly committed to beauty, and so they will move on when a new beauty appears.

But Mitchell is unfair if she blames only Cohen here. Mitchell is also an artist, and, more than Cohan, a visual artist, She is at least as vulnerable to new beauty as he, and her life and many brief love affairs show it.

In later interviews, Mitchell is not kind to her great influence, claiming he "had copped his writerly stand from Camus and Lorca."

This is rich coming from the author/"composer" of "The Wizard of Is. " Presumably Mitchell feels vulnerable because of her deep debt to Cohen, and wants to accuse him of the same thing to exonerate herself.

No comments: