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Tom Waits’ favourite Leonard Cohen album


I’m not sure why, but Tom Waits’ favourite Leonard Cohen album is a headline that instantly summons thoughts of two wise gentlemen in jaunty hats sharing a drink in some candlelit establishment. With voices that hark back through eternities, the poetic pair could be sat in the same waiting room to audition for the universal position of Father Time to boot.

Their styles might be differing in a musicological sense, but fitting to the aforementioned descriptions, they both undoubtedly have a songwriting similarity of utter timelessness. Drawing influences from the sphere around them in every sense is a central tenet to the grand mausoleum of song that both artists gifted the world and continue to do so in Waits’ case. 

Timelessness, however, was not a word that rested easily amid the gaudy synth-sedation of the 1980s. In the opulence of the era, if it didn’t have a flashing light then it was considered old hat. Despite this, the mastery of Waits and Cohen not only survived but thrived. And in Cohen’s case, one of his finest works pitted his scything lyrics with the overture of synths, factory formed basslines and a studio wattage a million miles away from his former Amish-adjacent standards.

I’m Your Man is a towering album. In 1988 it squeezed a twist of lemon into the sacred recipe of Cohen’s back catalogue without ever ruining the stew. As Waits put it in his unique fashion while championing it as his favourite Cohen record in a Guardian interview: “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.”

The album is emblematic of the scale of Cohen’s poetry, in fact, he delves into it in a meta sense. 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. 

With this in mind, on I’m Your Man, he offers up an examination of the self-effacing poets that have gone before. Poets that he likens in his own caustic way to terrorists. “There’s something about terrorism that I’ve always admired,” he once boldly said. Before going on to explain: “The fact that there are no alibis or no compromises. That position is always very attractive. I don’t like it when it’s manifested on the physical plane – I don’t really enjoy the terrorist activities – but Psychic Terrorism.”

He continued: “I remember there was a great poem by Irving Layton that I once read.” He then paraphrases: “Well, you guys blow up an occasional airline and kill a few children here and there. But our terrorists, Jesus, Freud, Marx, Einstein. The whole world is still quaking.” In actual fact, the poem ‘Terrorists’ from The Pole-Vaulter is far different, only the conclusion is similar.

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It reads: “Uselessly you bruise yourselves, squirming / against civilization’s whipping post; Black September wolfcubs / terrify only themselves / The Jewish terrorists, ah: Maimonides, Spinoza, Freud, Marx / The whole world is still quaking.” All the same, the notion of acquiescing to peaceful protest is one that resides and one that Waits cherishes on the wholly singular I’m Your Man

As it happens, the feelings flowed both ways between the pair. “Tom Waits’ whole personage is incredibly classy and chic,” Cohen once opined, “much more so than anybody around.” In fact, Cohen even once penned a poem about him. The initial stanza of ‘Dream Brighton’ reads: “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”.

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