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When Leonard Cohen said that Nick Cave “butchered" his song ‘Avalanche’


Nick Cave once described the track ‘Avalanche’ as a “hidden song”. He elucidated this point further in his Red Hand Files, by writing: “Leonard Cohen will sing, and the boy will suddenly breathe as if for the first time, and fall inside the laughing man’s voice and hide.”

Adding: “The boy will grow older, and over time there will be other songs – not many – ten or maybe twenty in a lifespan, that stand apart from the rest of the music he will discover. He will realise that not only are these songs sacred, they are ‘hiding songs’ that deal exclusively in darkness, obfuscation, concealment and secrecy. He will realise that for him the purpose of these songs was to shut off the sun, to draw a long shadow down and protect him from the corrosive glare of the world.”

‘Avalanche’ is a brooding song, one of darkness and mourning, but also comfort by way of opposites, in that it depicts by proxy the light beyond the avalanche’s passing. Ultimately, this is just about as moody as music can get. In the darkness of the melody, it becomes clear why Cohen was championed as the voice of the divine. And what’s more, it becomes clear the kinship that both Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen share as songwriters. 

Thus, when Cave chose to tackle ‘Avalanche’ for a cover, it was a bold and daring move that exhibited a great deal of courage on his part. He dared to risk derision for laying his hands on something that he not only liked but cherished. Of course, most covers are embarked upon from a place of admiration, but often the artist has a view of ‘making it their own’ or ‘adding a new spin’, Cave was coming at his cover from a position of unrivalled reverence. 

The cover was part of a session with the Starz pirate show Black Sails. Sat behind the piano and alongside Warren Ellis’ haunting violin in the background, Cave braved the choppy seas of ‘Avalanche’ with gutsy bravura.

When Cohen heard the track he said that Cave had butchered it, but fear not fellow Cave fans, far from being a scathing criticism he actually meant it as a compliment. As he told Steven Blush at the time when asked which covers of his songs he has liked and which have been butchering’s: “There have probably been some who have butchered it, but I’ve generally liked the job that people have done with it. I guess you could say Nick Cave butchered my song, ‘Avalanche,’ and if that’s the case, let there be more butchers like that.”

Perhaps the reason Cave’s cover was so different from the original is best described in his eulogy to Cohen upon his passing in 2016: “For many of us Leonard Cohen was the greatest songwriter of them all.”

He added: “Utterly unique and impossible to imitate no matter how hard we tried. He will be deeply missed by so many.”

You can take a listen to the Cave’s version, which could haunt an empty house, below.