Leonard Cohen sobre Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan sobre Leonard Cohen
O melhor texto que você vai ler sobre Leonard Cohen hoje saiu na New Yorker no mês passado, assinado por David Remnick. O texto é inteirinho excelente, mas destaco o trecho em que ele conversa com Cohen sobre Dylan (que disse para ele: “Você é o número 1, eu sou o número 0”) e que depois leva Cohen para ser discutido pelo próprio Dylan (em inglês, se alguém se dispuser a traduzir, posta aí nos comentários que eu publico no post com os devidos créditos):
The same set of ears that first tuned in to Bob Dylan, in 1961, discovered Leonard Cohen, in 1966. This was John Hammond, a patrician related to the Vanderbilts, and by far the most perceptive scout and producer in the business. He was instrumental in the first recordings of Count Basie, Big Joe Turner, Benny Goodman, Aretha Franklin, and Billie Holiday. Tipped off by friends who were following the folk scene downtown, Hammond called Cohen and asked if he would play for him.
Cohen was thirty-two, a published poet and novelist, but, though a year older than Elvis Presley, a musical novice. He had turned to songwriting largely because he wasn’t making a living as a writer. He was staying on the fourth floor of the Chelsea Hotel, on West Twenty-third Street, and filled notebooks during the day. At night, he sang his songs in clubs and met people on the scene: Patti Smith, Lou Reed (who admired Cohen’s novel “Beautiful Losers”), Jimi Hendrix (who jammed with him on, of all things, “Suzanne”), and, if just for a night, Janis Joplin (“giving me head on the unmade bed / while the limousines wait in the street”).
After taking Cohen to lunch one day, Hammond suggested that they go to Cohen’s room, and, sitting on his bed, Cohen played “Suzanne,” “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” “The Stranger Song,” and a few others.
When Cohen finished, Hammond grinned and said, “You’ve got it.”
A few months after his audition, Cohen put on a suit and went to the Columbia recording studios in midtown to begin work on his first album. Hammond was encouraging after every take. And after one he said, “Watch out, Dylan!”
Cohen’s links to Dylan were obvious—Jewish, literary, a penchant for Biblical imagery, Hammond’s tutelage—but the work was divergent. Dylan, even on his earliest records, was moving toward more surrealist, free-associative language and the furious abandon of rock and roll. Cohen’s lyrics were no less imaginative or charged, no less ironic or self-investigating, but he was clearer, more economical and formal, more liturgical.
Over the decades, Dylan and Cohen saw each other from time to time. In the early eighties, Cohen went to see Dylan perform in Paris, and the next morning in a café they talked about their latest work. Dylan was especially interested in “Hallelujah.” Even before three hundred other performers made “Hallelujah” famous with their cover versions, long before the song was included on the soundtrack for “Shrek” and as a staple on “American Idol,” Dylan recognized the beauty of its marriage of the sacred and the profane. He asked Cohen how long it took him to write.
“Two years,” Cohen lied.
Actually, “Hallelujah” had taken him five years. He drafted dozens of verses and then it was years more before he settled on a final version. In several writing sessions, he found himself in his underwear, banging his head against a hotel-room floor.
Cohen told Dylan, “I really like ‘I and I,’ ” a song that appeared on Dylan’s album “Infidels.” “How long did it take you to write that?”
“About fifteen minutes,” Dylan said.
When I asked Cohen about that exchange, he said, “That’s just the way the cards are dealt.” As for Dylan’s comment that Cohen’s songs at the time were “like prayers,” Cohen seemed dismissive of any attempt to plumb the mysteries of creation.
“I have no idea what I am doing,” he said. “It’s hard to describe. As I approach the end of my life, I have even less and less interest in examining what have got to be very superficial evaluations or opinions about the significance of one’s life or one’s work. I was never given to it when I was healthy, and I am less given to it now.”
Although Cohen was steeped more in the country tradition, he was swept up when he heard Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” One afternoon, years later, when the two had become friendly, Dylan called him in Los Angeles and said he wanted to show him a piece of property he’d bought. Dylan did the driving.
“One of his songs came on the radio,” Cohen recalled. “I think it was ‘Just Like a Woman’ or something like that. It came to the bridge of the song, and he said, ‘A lot of eighteen-wheelers crossed that bridge.’ Meaning it was a powerful bridge.”
Dylan went on driving. After a while, he told Cohen that a famous songwriter of the day had told him, “O.K., Bob, you’re Number 1, but I’m Number 2.”
Cohen smiled. “Then Dylan says to me, ‘As far as I’m concerned, Leonard, you’re Number 1. I’m Number Zero.’ Meaning, as I understood it at the time—and I was not ready to dispute it—that his work was beyond measure and my work was pretty good.”
Dylan, who is seventy-five, doesn’t often play the role of music critic, but he proved eager to discuss Leonard Cohen. I put a series of questions to him about Number 1, and he answered in a detailed, critical way—nothing cryptic or elusive.
“When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius,” Dylan said. “Even the counterpoint lines—they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs. As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music. Even the simplest song, like ‘The Law,’ which is structured on two fundamental chords, has counterpoint lines that are essential, and anybody who even thinks about doing this song and loves the lyrics would have to build around the counterpoint lines.
“His gift or genius is in his connection to the music of the spheres,” Dylan went on. “In the song ‘Sisters of Mercy,’ for instance, the verses are four elemental lines which change and move at predictable intervals . . . but the tune is anything but predictable. The song just comes in and states a fact. And after that anything can happen and it does, and Leonard allows it to happen. His tone is far from condescending or mocking. He is a tough-minded lover who doesn’t recognize the brush-off. Leonard’s always above it all. ‘Sisters of Mercy’ is verse after verse of four distinctive lines, in perfect meter, with no chorus, quivering with drama. The first line begins in a minor key. The second line goes from minor to major and steps up, and changes melody and variation. The third line steps up even higher than that to a different degree, and then the fourth line comes back to the beginning. This is a deceptively unusual musical theme, with or without lyrics. But it’s so subtle a listener doesn’t realize he’s been taken on a musical journey and dropped off somewhere, with or without lyrics.”
In the late eighties, Dylan performed “Hallelujah” on the road as a roughshod blues with a sly, ascending chorus. His version sounds less like the prettified Jeff Buckley version than like a work by John Lee Hooker. “That song ‘Hallelujah’ has resonance for me,” Dylan said. “There again, it’s a beautifully constructed melody that steps up, evolves, and slips back, all in quick time. But this song has a connective chorus, which when it comes in has a power all of its own. The ‘secret chord’ and the point-blank I-know-you-better-than-you-know-yourself aspect of the song has plenty of resonance for me.”
I asked Dylan whether he preferred Cohen’s later work, so colored with intimations of the end. “I like all of Leonard’s songs, early or late,” he said. “ ‘Going Home,’ ‘Show Me the Place,’ ‘The Darkness.’ These are all great songs, deep and truthful as ever and multidimensional, surprisingly melodic, and they make you think and feel. I like some of his later songs even better than his early ones. Yet there’s a simplicity to his early ones that I like, too.”
Dylan defended Cohen against the familiar critical reproach that his is music to slit your wrists by. He compared him to the Russian Jewish immigrant who wrote “Easter Parade.” “I see no disenchantment in Leonard’s lyrics at all,” Dylan said. “There’s always a direct sentiment, as if he’s holding a conversation and telling you something, him doing all the talking, but the listener keeps listening. He’s very much a descendant of Irving Berlin, maybe the only songwriter in modern history that Leonard can be directly related to. Berlin’s songs did the same thing. Berlin was also connected to some kind of celestial sphere. And, like Leonard, he probably had no classical-music training, either. Both of them just hear melodies that most of us can only strive for. Berlin’s lyrics also fell into place and consisted of half lines, full lines at surprising intervals, using simple elongated words. Both Leonard and Berlin are incredibly crafty. Leonard particularly uses chord progressions that seem classical in shape. He is a much more savvy musician than you’d think.”