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Bob Dylan on the forgotten reason why Leonard Cohen was a "genius"


Bob Dylan once said that Leonard Cohen didn’t write songs, he wrote prayers. As two of the most fabled and reclusive names in American music, it’s hard to measure the depths of their relationship, but it was always clear that the pair held immense respect for one another, a respect based on a mutual appreciation for the sanctity of a well-written song. Indeed, Dylan’s appreciation for Cohen’s songwriting saw him heap more praise on the old Field Commander than anyone bar Woody Guthrie. They even recorded a particularly raucous song together, titled ‘Don’t Go Home With Your Hard On’, and when Cohen passed away in 2016, Dylan covered ‘Hallelujah’ in his honour.

However, Dylan and Cohen also had very different approaches to songwriting. Dylan, like Paul McCartney or Tom Petty, thrived on churning songs out faster than he could keep up with. This way, he never paid too close attention to the words falling from his tongue and landing on the page in front of him. Cohen, on the other hand, had spent years pursuing a career as a high-brow novelist. In contrast to Dylan, Cohen’s process required him to slowly chip away at an idea, to sand it down until it no longer seemed a product of his own mind. The pair’s differing approaches were summed up by a conversation they once shared, in which Bob asked Leonard how long it took him to write ‘Hallelujah.’ “Ten years,” he replied. Leonard asked Bob how long it took him to write ‘I and I’. “Fifteen minutes,” said Dylan.

But Dylan recognised how all that dedication had allowed Cohen to craft works of high art disguised as pop songs. Explaining the true genius of Cohen’s songwriting, Dylan noted how Cohen’s songs actually featured very complex examples of counterpoint – a complimentary melody line that also emphasises the chord progression beneath it. “When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius. Even the counterpoint lines—they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs.”

Adding: 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.”

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