There is a distinct difference between poetry and lyrics. Leonard Cohen might blur the lines with his beauteous hymns, but he was always aware of the difference. Although he relished poetry, he was savoured the balms of music. When he said, “Music is the emotional life of most people,” it wasn’t just a pithy soundbite with a grain of truth, but a veracious belief that he candidly propagated throughout his career.
Music is a boon and Leonard Cohen’s work harnessed what is best about a lot of art in general: he divulged hard truths with the sort of careworn beauty that triumphantly makes sense of human tragedy while offering up solace as it does so.
Cohen dispersed this in his discography with distinct brilliance, but he was not the first and he was not the last. A while before him came a hero who kicked started the notion of introspection in music. That Stetson-hatted legend was none other than the country legend Hank Williams. As Cohen cohort Bob Dylan recalls in his memoir: “I became aware that in Hank’s recorded songs were the archetype rules of poetic songwriting,” he wrote. “The architectural forms are like marble pillars.” Cohen called ‘here, here’ to that.
This mandate of deeply grounded yet wondrously poetic tales set to simple melodic structures is one that would stay with not only the seismic force of Cohen throughout his career but the entire songwriting fraternity. Williams mastered the uncanny knack of crafting fantastical paeans that seem to have tapped into the ether without ever losing sight of the humble careworn traditions of a travelling troubadour. This alchemical act changed the world of music forever.
Cohen dropped his own hat to his hero in his epic track ‘Tower of Song’. As he croons on that ode: “I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get? Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet, But I hear him coughing all night long,Oh, a hundred floors above me in the Tower of Song.”
And that is not just a verse that fit with the melody, Cohen is far too considered for that. As he later earnestly told BBC Radio One: “When I wrote about Hank Williams ‘a hundred floors above me in the tower of song,’ I’m not trying to present some kind of inverse modesty. I know where Hank Williams stands in the history of popular song… I feel myself a very minor writer.”
The song itself is a masterpiece that Williams would’ve been proud of. It is very rare for any artist to couple solemnity with a bit of a light-hearted flourish, but ‘Tower of Song’ almost seems to exhibit a sort of meta mastery that allows for a coy wink to his forebearers in song. He places himself in good company in the lineage of music but never has such posturing seemed so utterly devoid of ego, as he studiously looks to better his craft.
Sure, Williams was good, but there’s nobody 100 floors above Cohen. In fact, they’d do well to reside in the same apartment block.