Leonard Cohen is one of the most celebrated singer songwriters in popular music.
His music career began in the sixties and along with Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and many others he led the wave which brought the songwriter especially the songwriter with a message to the forefront of popular music. The singer songwriter revolution, which as we all know had a long tradition in country and blues, brought to pop a renewed empahsis on language and poetic techniques.
Before his first album, Leonard Cohen had a successful career as a legitimate academic style poet and novelist. Before the albums, and songs, and music there were award winning books of poetry and the friendship, mentorship, and acceptance by the University community and other poets.
Since the sixties, Cohen has become a legendary figure in pop music, playing around the world with sell out shows before adoring fans, especially women, with songs such as ‘Bird on a Wire’, ‘MaryAnne’, ‘That’s no way to say Goodbye’,and ’Suzanne’,
He has been the subject of many cover versions of his songs including the acclaimed ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ by Jennifer Warnes in 1988.
As all Hank Williams fans know, Leonard Cohen famously paid tribute to Hank in a song called ‘Tower of Song’ released in 1988 on the Album ‘I’m Your Man’.
Here are the first three verses of that song.
Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on
I’m just paying my rent every day
Oh in the Tower of Song
I said to Hank Williams: how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me
In the Tower of Song
I was born like this, I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice
And twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond
They tied me to this table right here
In the Tower of Song
There are five more verses.
Its significant to note that in this song about songwriters and singers, Cohen only mentions one actual real person who is a modern singer/songwriter and that person is Hank Williams.
During a visit to the UK, Cohen was asked about the ‘Tower of Song’ and Hank Williams.
I will take some time looking at this response which I quote here in full.
“If you’re going to think of yourself in this game, or in this tradition, and you start getting a swelled head about it, then you’ve really got to think about who you’re talking about. You’re not just talking about Randy Newman, who’s fine, or Bob Dylan, who’s sublime, you’re talking about King David, Homer, Dante, Milton, Wordsworth, you’re talking about the embodiment of our highest possibility. So I don’t think it’s particularly modest or virtuous to think of oneself as a minor poet. I really do feel the enormous luck I’ve had in being able to make a living, and to never have had to have written one word that I didn’t want to write.”
“But I don’t fool myself, I know the game I’m in. When I wrote about Hank Williams ‘A hundred floors above me in the tower of song’, it’s not some kind of inverse modesty. I know where Hank Williams stands in the history of popular song. Your Cheatin’ Heart, songs like that, are sublime, in his own tradition, and I feel myself a very minor writer. I’ve taken a certain territory, and I’ve tried to maintain it and administrate it with the very best of my capacities. And I will continue to administrate this tiny territory until I’m too weak to do it. But I understand where this territory is.”
I want to talk about the curious phrase “inverse modesty” and other aspects of Cohen’s tribute to Hank which I will save until Part 2.
As mentioned earlier famed singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen paid tribute to Hank Williams in his 1988 song called ‘Tower of Song’. Then later in 1994, Cohen expanded on his reference to Hank, to talk what he was trying to say in the song and what he saw as Hank Williams’ place in history as well as his own.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the quotation is when he says he was not employing “inverse modesty” when he said Hank was “a hundred floors above me in the tower of song.” We would normally call that “false modesty”. He means, of course, he was sincere and was not trying to reflect attention back to himself from people who would say “wink wink, nudge nudge” we know you’re trying to get us to think you are really just kidding and know you are far more important than Hank Williams.
Earlier in the quote, Cohen had placed himself and by implication Hank Williams as well, in the long tradition of songwriters, and lyric poets such as Homer, Dante, and Wordsworth. In that respect he calls himself a very minor writer compared to Hank Williams.
He doesn’t force people to compare Hank or for that matter himself to the greats of literature. He says, ” I know where Hank Williams stands in the history of popular song,” but notes that the songs must be understood in, “his own tradition”. As for his own contribution, he says he understands, “I’ve taken a certain territory, and I’ve tried to maintain it and administrate it with the very best of my capacities. And I will continue to administrate this tiny territory until I’m too weak to do it. But I understand where this territory is.” And so it goes back to, “a hundred floors above me.”
I think this is one of the most profoundly deep, and moving tributes to Hank Williams I’ve ever read. It’s complex and sincere. It recognizes that poets from the ancients, to Country Music, to the folk/rock singer songwriters of the 60’s are part of the same tradition.
Now, I know there have been many famous singer songwriters who have talked glowingly about the work of Hank Williams and his standing in the world of songwriting. But what Cohen has done is to lift that praise to a new level bringing Hank into a new place as a part of the legitimate literary world. I’ve always thought the Leonard Cohen song and quotation were special because of his standing as both a songwriter, musician and in the literary world of poetry, novels, and serious literary discussion.
I hope you haven’t been too bored!