Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, their influences, longevity and their ‘Duende’.
Having reviewed several books recently; collectively they have made me realise that a past inclination to only stick with musical biographies and autobiographies was a mistake. Assuming that books about music were likely to be either dull, incomprehensible or both goes out of the window when along comes another volume full of information and thought-provoking insight and ideas.
David and Lucy Boucher are academics’, the former is a professor of Political Philosophy and International Relations; the latter has a PhD in creative writing and is currently researching, “The conceptions of health and fitness in the 19th and early 20th century and its relation to the modern commodification of the body”. How that led them to write a book about the work of Cohen and Dylan is not wholly clear – but thankfully it did.
I have always been a big fan of Leonard Cohen and somewhat sceptical of the true worth of Bob Dylan, who, though clearly talented, managed to be in the right place at the right time and gradually reached a point where even his most gnomic utterances were seized on and prized like a Chinese emperor’s faeces. Think Billy Connolly – funny once but somehow still getting plaudits for waving his arms around and shouting loudly in his later career. Most beneficially, what this book has done, is help me understand why I prefer Cohen to Dylan.
The book outlines the longevity of both artists, their affiliation to The Beats and their desire to achieve the kind of fame that Dylan Thomas achieved and who,
“Proved a bohemian poet could thrive outside of the academy” and who lived a life of, “Unconditional social irresponsibility”.
One of the many things I learnt was just how immensely popular Thomas was in America.
The Boucher’s argue that the longevity of Cohen and Dylan was achieved by adopting a series of different persona’s to distance them from their public selves (as with Mr Bowie and a good few others?). Inner identity was preserved by their relationships to their religions, with Frederick Garcia Lorca seen as key in terms of his adherence to the poetry of inspiration and the emotional depths of, ‘Duende’. In turn, is the influence, particularly for Dylan, of Arthur Rimbaud. The performance and the poetry or lyrics are conjoined and the passion of the delivery is inseparable from the words in the cases of both Cohen, Dylan and The Beats themselves. You may see the point about persona’s or as Greil Marcus would have it, masks,
“Few performers have made their way onto the stage of the twentieth century with a greater collection of masks than Bob Dylan”.
There seems little to argue with there, however, the points about passionate delivery and Duende seem less convincing. But let’s explore.
Initially, the distinction is made that whilst both artists have roots in folk music, Dylan more so, Cohen was much influenced by Spanish flamenco, Portuguese fado singers and the French chanteuse. Cohen’s skilful and distinctive guitar playing has always been overlooked whilst Dylan’s musical prowess is clearly limited. We are introduced to the first iteration of each singer, Cohen as the ’Godfather of Gloom’, and Dylan as the ‘Angry Young Protest Singer’. That, ‘Gloom’, appellation has always seemed misplaced. Cohen is distinctly humorous, but maybe just too subtle for some? It’s Cohen’s wry self-deprecation that has always kept him from taking himself over seriously (a constant feature of his comments throughout the book). The same quality is not apparent in Dylan who seems to have delighted in never giving a straight answer to the point where you may not care what his songs are about.
Each chapter has a summarising conclusion (which if nothing else helps the reviewer!). The first, ‘Dying to Get Back Home’, reminds us that each produced highly praised work in very recent times, ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’, in Dylan’s case and, ‘You Want it Darker’, (or, ‘Thanks for the Dance’, as the Boucher’s would have it) by Cohen. Both are seen as initially eyeing the other as potential rivals in their early days and occasionally struggling with audience indifference. One major difference was that Dylan’s quality control was often poor whereas Cohen rarely compromised on his output and that careful craftsmanship was readily apparent. ‘Death of a Ladies Man’, has always been seen as someone else’s disaster but though Spector is clearly an execrable character (a gun-waving nightmare that eventually happened) the album was not that bad.
The Second Chapter, ‘The Road Back’, focuses on the later years when both had their various challenges, lost faith in themselves and, eventually, for different reasons, decided to focus on touring. Cohen sought succour in religion on Mount Baldy ( though unfortunately, it seems his guiding light turned out to be a serial sexual predator). At the tail end of the ‘80s the release of, ’I’m Your Man’, and, ’Oh Mercy’, respectively proved significant career boosts though Cohen then succumbed to depression and came under the influence of his guru, Kyozan Joshu Sasaki (Roshi). Dylan, whose muse continued to fluctuate at times, eventually resorted to, ‘The Great American Songbook’. The award of the Nobel Prize is another story altogether.
The third chapter, ‘Redemption Men’, focuses on the pairs spiritual life. Whilst both were born into the Jewish faith each subsequently travelled a different path. Cohen explored Christianity and Buddhism, Dylan became a born again Christian. If neither ever found a destination it is the author’s belief that it was the journey that was important and both were ultimately drawn back to the faith they were born into. Cohen’s faith seems to have been great succour to him as his death approached.
Chapter four, ‘Starting Out’, argues that all these artists, Cohen, Dylan, Thomas, The Beats, sought fame which was achieved at a price – in the case of Kerouac and Thomas the price was an early death. It’s hard to think of this as unique to this particular group and if it were we might be less interested in the number 27. As much as religion was/is fundamental to both artists the Boucher’s argue that so were the Beat Generation and Dylan Thomas – in fact, Thomas, wonderfully described as the, ‘Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive’, was seen as the seminal influence for all three, illustrating that performance poetry and the dissolute, “Irreverence and unconditional irresponsibility”, that went with it were very much part of the deal – all of what went into the making of a ‘hipster’.
Cohen and Dylan sought the spotlight, shunned and ultimately avoided it by the use of the masks that have already been identified. Opening Chapter 5, ‘The Masked Crusader – Bob Dylan’, the authors reference Thomas’s poem, ‘O Make Me a Mask’, written in 1937 which asked for a,
“Mask and a wall to shut from your spies / Of the sharp, enamelled eyes and the spectacled claws”.
One disguise for Cohen, Dylan and Thomas was the complete indulgence of the senses which for the first two led to periods of regret and repentance and in Thomas’s case it led to 18 straight whiskeys as an epitaph. The authors suggest that Dylan used masks for transformation, concealment and revelation allowing him to be in the public sphere in several guises without having to answer for any of them. Interestingly whilst his bit-part in Pat Garret and Billy the Kid was seen positively, the ‘mask’ of his film-work has generally been considered to be a failure – quite badly so at times and surely he was aware of that. It would have been interesting to have some thoughts on that?
Chapter 6 dubs Cohen, ‘The Lone Ranger,’ suggesting a number of different disguises ranging from the initial literary celebrity, the Poet of Rock and Roll, Ladies Man, Suave Crooner, High Priest of the Heart, Captain Mandrax; even his sartorial conservatism (I wonder if he ever wore a pair of jeans?) is seen as a mask of sorts. What we have all observed – and are yet to see how Dylan might deal with it – is Cohen’s approach to his own death, which was acceptance, becoming his final persona, ‘ I’m ready Lord’. This seemed to be a logical conclusion to his long term spiritual quest.
The next chapter examines the links – or otherwise – between poetry and song and is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking. John Gibbens is quoted thus,
“A metrical sequence that trips over itself on the page may be perfectly apt in its musical place… an emphasis that would be clumsy and false in a poetic line … can be spot on in a song”.
This is an analysis that seems to be wholly accurate and something that this reviewer has commented on regularly when bland writing becomes transformed when sung and accompanied with skilful music. The rather contentious suggestion is that one day Dylan may be put on a par with Joyce. It would seem if that were to be true then there would be no reason why that has not happened by now? What Dylan, and Cohen, have been able to do – as is the case with the best of modern music – is make words, music and the sound of a voice into something greater than the sum of the parts. Cohen’s lyrics at their best are far more likely to stand alone.
“Their (Cohen and Dylan) music takes poetry back to its ancient oral roots and democratises the art form making it accessible and meaningful to everyone who wants to appreciate it”.
The essence of what is being said here is clear but surely it is a tautology to say that music will be accessible and meaningful if you want it to be? It would be unlikely to be the other way around?
Chapter 8 invokes, ‘The Spirit of Duende’, and in particular the name of Lorca, Spanish poet and playwright. Duende can be described as,
“A heightened state of emotion, expression and authenticity, often connected with flamenco”.
The Boucher’s with some help from Gregory Corso describe it thus,
“Duende indicates the inextricable relation between the poetry and the performance and enables us to capture the unique quality that Cohen the man invests in the public utterance, giving clear expression to what Corso recognised ….the poem, especially the lyric poem, is dependent for its full force on the personality of the poet in the act of performance”.
It is the authors’ contention that both artists bring this spirit to their work and that the meaning of the words is not always essential – the most well-known example being, ‘Whiter Shade of Pale,’ wherein the lyrics are designed not so much to make sense as capture a mood, scene or image.
The final chapter, ‘Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud’, makes the link between Dylan and Rimbaud – Rimbaud being seen as the source of so much for Thomas, Lorca, Cohen and Dylan. It all feels like a Russian doll at times – and it’s here that you might depart from the book’s conclusions as we are asked to decide what constitutes authenticity or emotion. Is it James Brown’s sweaty hyperactivity, Levi Stubbs tears, the hushed tones of Nick Cave or Iggy Pop and some peanut butter? I find Cohen’s understated intensity convincing but early in his career, he was considered something of a joke.
“Many interpreters take Dylan’s songs, or lyric poetry, to exemplify the type of self-contained, self-referential imagery that characterises the works of Rimbaud, Lorca and Thomas”.
This is a dense book and at times some of the ideas it puts forward are contentious and not always easy to grasp, though that does not necessarily dilute the interest. It is a very worthwhile read. The chronology of the chapters starts as it does with both artists most recent triumphs – a strictly chronological approach might have been more reader-friendly though it could not be said that the book, as it is, suffers greatly.
The idea of Duende is central to the authors’ argument and it’s not clear that the argument is wholly made that this is a defining characteristic for either artist. No doubt, as always, the reader will decide for themselves and agree or not; I found myself enjoying thinking ‘no way’, just as much as I did nodding in agreement and that seems exactly the response that a book of this sort should provoke.
One contentious idea the Boucher’s put forward is that few other artists have managed to better Dylan’s versions of his own work. Maybe so, but it is only in the last weeks that I have heard an AUK colleague share the view that his work is at its best when performed by others. I suppose that we might be blinded by Hendrix’s, ‘Watchtower’, but I would also offer Judy Collins, Them, The Band, Joan Baez, The Byrds and Johnny Cash as artists who have illuminated his work in their own way. Similarly the compilation, ‘I’m your Fan’, offers some convincing takes on Cohen’s work and apparently led to a resurgence of interest in his career. We all know what John Cale and Jeff Buckley did for, ‘Hallelujah’.
Of course, one reason for the longevity of the two could be the quality that so many perceive in their work – aside from any masks, multiple personas, religious convictions, past influences or Duende. A fair helping of luck also helps.
A couple of songs with masks.
‘Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen: Deaths and Entrances’ by David Boucher and Lucy Boucher was published by Bloomsbury Academic in April 2021.