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Music

Read Leonard Cohen's poem about Tom Waits

The term “great minds think alike” often seems to carry a lot of sense; in reality, great minds often don’t think alike. That said, the proverb fits the shared poetic genius of Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. While their artistic styles might differ in a musical sense, they shared a poetic approach to songwriting and a unique eye for capturing complex emotion with almost visible imagery. 

As some fans will know and others will not, the pair greatly admired each other’s work. When speaking to The Guardian about Cohen’s towering back-catalogue, Waits singled out I’m Your Man, Cohen’s 1988 eighth studio album, as one of his favourites. He described it as “Euro, klezmer, chansons, apocalyptic, revelations, with that mellifluous voice. A shipwrecked Aznovar, washed up on shore. Important songs, meditative, authoritative, and Leonard is a poet, an Extra Large one.”

In the concluding statement, Waits was not wrong. Cohen was, after all, a poet first and a musician second. He had spent the 1950s and early ‘60s in pursuit of a career in literature, having been an esteemed poet and writer in his years at school and university, where he won the Chester MacNaghten Literary Competition for his poetry entry in 1951. 

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This early success and passion for writing led Cohen to pursue this difficult career path, and throughout his early 20s, he worked hard to publish several poetry books that were met with varying levels of critical enthusiasm. With an aching wallet, Cohen decided to leave his hometown of Montreal, Canada in search of a life as a troubadour in New York

While Cohen found fame and fortune in singing his poetic verse, his passion for literature never waned. Over his five decades as a recording musician, the late musician kept up a healthy output of poetry alongside, and often serving as, his lyrics. 

One of Cohen’s later dives into poetry was inspired by a Tom Waits concert he had seen. His words tell of a deep and burning admiration for his peer that almost spills into envy. The poem, named Dream Brighton, can be read below. 

Cohen once said of his friend: “‘Tom Waits’ whole personage is incredibly classy and chic,” Cohen once mused, “much more so than anybody around.”

Dream Brighton:

Tom Waits singing – I hear him
I’m in a theatre – I’ve given
a show to a large audience
My show went well – I can’t 
see him – I’m in my dressing 
room – but I can hear him –
his music begin – it is so
beautiful and original and
sophisticated – so much better
than mine – some mélange
of harshness and sweetness – 
modern and sentimental all
at once – even Kitsch used 
so skillfully – I wish I 
could do that – then he
starts to sing – so great – 
I go down to hear him – 
expecting a great 
adoring crowd – but 
he’s singing in a half-full 
small theatre – a kind 
of afterthought of a
theatre – we leave together
he puts his arm around
my shoulder – he looks
good – a bit beat up – 
a bit older – but in full
possession of himself