Rocker and Verse
Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen, and why all poet-rockers are not created equal
Published: November 28, 2012
In her new, superbly written biography, I’m Your Man: the Life of Leonard Cohen (HarperCollins), Sylvie Simmons reminds us that Cohen’s first album release was not the legendary Songs of Leonard Cohen, released in 1967 by Columbia, but Six Montreal Poets, released in 1957 by Folkways. This earlier title was a spoken-word record that features a 22-year-old Cohen reading eight of his poems along with works by five of his elders. Simmons says that though Cohen always played guitar and even led a hillbilly band called the Buckskin Boys for a while, for a long time music was a sideline to his literary career, which yielded two novels and four books of poetry before Songs of Leonard Cohen.
We often hear pop songwriters—from “Hillbilly Shakespeare” Hank Williams to “Rock and Roll Rimbaud” Bob Dylan—described as “poets.” Usually that’s merely a pretentious way of saying they’re very good lyricists, which is really something else entirely. Cohen, however, is one of a handful of singer-songwriters who actually had an active poetry career before taking up music. Also in this handful are Patti Smith, who brings her new album Banga to Rams Head Live Saturday, and John Doe and Exene Cervenka of the band X, who bring their first album as a duo, Singing and Playing, to Baltimore Soundstage Wednesday.
How this quartet of writers made the transition from publishing and reciting poems to singing and performing songs tells us a lot about the difference between these two activities. Poetry, like fiction, painting, and instrumental music, is a “pure art,” where the impact depends on a sole source of stimulation: words on paper, oils on canvas, notes in the air. Song, like theater or cinema, is a “hybrid art,” where the impact depends on multiple sources: text with music, text with physical movement, text with moving photography. The pure arts don’t have to worry about balancing and integrating multiple media; the hybrid arts do. I would argue that Doe and Cervenka mastered the hybridized balance of song to a degree that Cohen and Smith never did.
Simmons, a mainstay at MOJO magazine, deserves the praise she’s getting for her Cohen biography. Her research was prodigious—it’s as if she interviewed every woman Cohen slept with and every man he got high with—and her writing is evocative. She’s especially good at conjuring up settings, whether it’s Cohen’s writing retreat on the Greek island of Hydra or the scummy hotels he inhabited in lower Manhattan. Much of the early chapters takes place in late-’50s Montreal, a bilingual city, half-European and half-North American, where poets traded manuscripts, theories, and lovers in classrooms, cafés, and bars, trying to create a Canadian literature separate from England and the U.S. It was in these years that Cohen forged his artistic identity, determined to become the Canadian W.H. Auden or Robert Lowell.
In later chapters, as Cohen seeks his fortune in New York City, Simmons describes how he crosses paths with Smith, Lou Reed, and Allen Ginsberg. But while Cohen was quite willing to include sex, drugs, and surrealism into his poems, he wasn’t willing to adopt the plain vernacular of the Beats, preferring to hold onto the symbology and elevated language of the Montreal literary scene. Simmons admires Cohen’s early poems and fiction, but I’ve always found them a bit stilted, more clever than moving. I do agree with her that the songs, for better or worse, are a natural outgrowth of the poems. Simmons points out that texts such as “Suzanne,” “Master Song,” and “Fingerprints” were poems before they were songs. In adapting these pieces to music or creating new lyrics, Cohen never carved out sufficient space for the rhythm and melody to do part of the work; they always seemed extraneous appendages. Of course, it didn’t help that he couldn’t sing.
Smith had similar difficulties making the transition. She had published three books of poetry before her first album, 1975’s Horses, came out, but the words of her songs never felt comfortable with the music. Though she did adopt the vernacular diction of the Beats, she was no less immune to a certain portentousness than Cohen, and she too had a hit-or-miss relationship with pitch. Even on this year’s Banga, her 11th album, she struggles the with integration of text and sound, often talking or sing-songing with only a loose connection to the talented musicians (Lenny Kaye, Tom Verlaine) behind her. Like Cohen, she has a tendency to use references to religious rituals and exotic locales more as if they were tourist postcards from an experience rather than the experience itself. There’s nothing here as powerful as the detailed, lived-in prose of her 2010 memoir, Just Kids.
Simmons’ descriptions of the Montreal poetry scene will remind local readers of the similar scene in mid-’70s Baltimore, when readings were seemingly everywhere and small magazines and chapbooks were popping up like mushrooms. Doe, known as John Duchac when he went to high school and college in Maryland, was a prominent figure on that scene (and so was Chris Mason, co-leader of the Baltimore band the Tinklers). But even as he was writing down-to-earth vernacular poetry, Duchac was equally serious about music, co-leading a folk-rock band called Strump. So when he moved to Los Angeles and met Cervenka at the Venice Poetry Workshop, it was already second nature for him to combine words and music. When the two lovers founded a band called X, they were able to integrate their inventive language into convincing rock ’n’ roll. Of course, it helped that Doe is a terrific singer who found a way to use Cervenka’s unusual soprano as a real asset in counterpoint.
Even after they married in 1980 and divorced in 1985, Doe and Cervenka continued to collaborate, serving as role models for all ex-spouses. This year they released their first album as a duo, Singing and Playing, reprising two X songs and revamping two songs from Doe’s solo albums and three more from Cervenka’s solo albums. Even when accompanied by nothing more than Doe’s guitar, there’s still something about the combination of those two voices that either’s voice alone can’t quite match. For example, the opening track, “It Just Dawned on Me,” a co-write that appeared on Doe’s 2009 Country Club album, is the story of a longtime couple who has checked out of the relationship long before realizing it. Hearing the song as a duet gives it a whole new dimension.
The album climaxes with successive studio and live versions of “See How We Are,” the title track from the 1987 X album and the duo’s greatest song. On the verses, Doe offers a dystopian view of modern America, full of funny and horrifying details, but when Cervenka comes in on the anthemic chorus, she lends a stubborn, redeeming hopefulness. They’ve never stopped tinkering with this tune, and Doe elaborates on the original lyrics in both versions. It’s great writing, but it’s too musical, too conversational, too hybridized to ever be considered a poem. It’s a song.
Patti Smith plays Rams Head Live Saturday, Dec. 1. X plays Baltimore Soundstage Wednesday, Dec. 5.
> Email Geoffrey Himes