Sunday, May 26, 2013

Song Spot: Leonard Cohen's The Stranger Song


A bit wordy today, sorry. 

My wife, Kate, is a great fan of Leonard Cohen, always has been. Even my son loves him and went to some of his concerts when he was in Oz on his last world tour, the one where he was wearing a hat. These days he is so popular, including with young people, that he no longer seems to be characterised as Music to Slash Your Wrists/Stick Your Head in the Oven By. Though his lyrics may be hard to fathom, as with Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel et al, nonetheless we know that they must mean something deep and profound if we could only understand them.  We also know that they are often moody, dark and depressive. According to Cohen “I don’t consider myself a pessimist. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain and I feel soaked to the skin.”

Kate asked me to do a Bytes some time ago on Cohen’s The Stranger Song, which is awash with symbols, imagery, paradoxes, associations and inscrutable lyrics, not in the same sense as American Pie (Asked once what "American Pie" meant, McLean replied, "It means I never have to work again.") which has always seemed a bit too neat and glib for me.  Where McLean constructs a puzzle for us to work out, listening to Cohen is the equivalent of peering through a keyhole into his dark and morose mind. One reviewer describes the music of the Stranger Song as evoking “ that ‘sitting-in-a-dark-room-alone’ feeling better than any of the countless albums that have followed in its wake.”

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Lyrics:

The Stranger Song

It's true that all the men you knew were dealers
who said they were through with dealing
Every time you gave them shelter
I know that kind of man
It's hard to hold the hand of anyone
who is reaching for the sky just to surrender
who is reaching for the sky just to surrender.

And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind
you find he did not leave you very much not even laughter
Like any dealer he was watching for the card
that is so high and wild
he'll never need to deal another
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger.

And then leaning on your window sill
he'll say one day you caused his will
to weaken with your love and warmth and shelter
And then taking from his wallet
an old schedule of trains, he'll say
I told you when I came I was a stranger
I told you when I came I was a stranger.

But now another stranger seems
to want you to ignore his dreams
as though they were the burden of some other
O you've seen that man before
his golden arm dispatching cards
but now it's rusted from the elbows to the finger
And he wants to trade the game he plays for shelter
Yes he wants to trade the game he knows for shelter.

Ah you hate to watch another tired man
lay down his hand
like he was giving up the holy game of poker
And while he talks his dreams to sleep
you notice there's a highway
that is curling up like smoke above his shoulder
and suddenly you feel a little older

You tell him to come in sit down
but something makes you turn around
The door is open you can't close your shelter
You try the handle of the road
It opens do not be afraid
It's you my love, you who are the stranger
It's you my love, you who are the stranger.

Well, I've been waiting, I was sure
we'd meet between the trains we're waiting for
I think it's time to board another
Please understand, I never had a secret chart
to get me to the heart of this
or any other matter
When he talks like this
you don't know what he's after
When he speaks like this,
you don't know what he's after.

Let's meet tomorrow if you choose
upon the shore, beneath the bridge
that they are building on some endless river
Then he leaves the platform
for the sleeping car that's warm
You realize, he's only advertising one more shelter
And it comes to you, he never was a stranger
And you say ok the bridge or someplace later.

And leaning on your window sill ...

I told you when I came I was a stranger.

**********

Link:

See and hear a younger Leonard Cohen perform The Stranger Song at:

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Background:

The Stranger Song is one of the tracks on Cohen’s 1967 debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen, which included So Long Marianne, Sisters of Mercy and Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye. Three of the album's songs - Winter Lady, The Stranger Song and Sisters of Mercy - were used in the 1971 Robert Altman film McCabe and Mrs Miller.


**********

About the lyrics:

The lyrics are carefully crafted with haunting images (“reaching for the sky just to surrender”, “He was just some Joseph looking for a manger”) but as with any analysis, whether it be Shakespeare, the Bible or Cohen’s poetic lyrics, there is always a danger of reading more into the words than is actually there.

A good summary of the song’s lyrics appears in The Album: A Guide to Pop Music’s Most Provocative, Influential and Most Important Creations by James a Perone. He writes:

Cohen returns to the theme of co-dependent relationships in the “Stranger Song”. Here, he addresses a woman who has found that every man with whom she has been emotionally involved ultimately is a “stranger” and a “dealer” who claims that he has changed his ways. Using a variety of references, including the near addiction that the card dealer has with playing the winning hand to the need that the New Testament Joseph had with finding a manger for Jesus’s birth, Cohen paints the single minded need of the stranger to control

The song is ostensibly about a woman who has had a succession of failed relationships with men wanting respite but unable to leave gambling behind and settle down. She seeks what they cannot give; they cannot give what she seeks. Cohen uses a number of images as metaphors to develop his theme of mutual dependency, failure, longing and self awareness: addiction to gambling prevents commitment, “shelter” is the temporary respite as well as the ideal that is sought, “dealing” implies control, “stranger” is the true nature of the person.

It may well be that the gambler, the stranger, is Cohen himself and that the song is autobiographical.

It's true that all the men you knew were dealers
who said they were through with dealing
Every time you gave them shelter
The speaker/singer is a man talking to a woman who has had previous relationships with men who have all been “dealers”. Although the word may have a drug connotation, in the present context it is clear that this is a reference to dealing cards. It becomes clearer further into the lyrics that the card playing is an addiction in itself and that being the dealer carries with it a connotation of control and domination. 
The woman, on the other hand, is the repeated provider of shelter, the suggestion being that she is kind and giving but taken advantage of. It becomes clear,, however, that she is also flawed in her seeking out flawed men.
From another perspective, substitute “junkie” for “dealer”, substitute drugs for for gambling and the song makes a whole lot of equivalent sense as well – the addict seeking shelter and someone to look after them, the woman who keeps entering into relationships with needy and unsuitable males who seek to depend on her, meanwhile the addiction remains the third person in the relationship.
I know that kind of man
It's hard to hold the hand of anyone
who is reaching for the sky just to surrender
who is reaching for the sky just to surrender.
The speaker says that he knows also that it is hard to trust and believe those promises, the promises of those who are reaching for the sky but in truth are simply surrendering to deeper addiction.
The men – the dealers – are always looking for something out of their reach, the win, the big pot, but in trying to get that win, they are simply becoming more addicted to the cards on a downward spiral. Gambling addiction can drag down as much as drugs, reaching for the sky may just be more losing.

And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind
Picking up the pieces after he has left.  The jokers are useless in gambling, they are 'nothing' cards, of no value.
you find he did not leave you very much not even laughter
The men with whom she has been involved have only taken, not given, not leaving even laughter or some memories of good times shared.
Like any dealer he was watching for the card
that is so high and wild
he'll never need to deal another
Always looking for the big win, not realising that even if there is a big win, the addiction is inside like a cancer. It is the game that counts, the buzz from playing, which is why gamblers who win big often lose it just as quickly. As Shakespeare has Caesar put it, the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves, even if the dealer does believe that he will never gamble again once he has the big win.
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger.
The card player’s striving to win is as important to him as the search for accommodation for the birth of the Son of God was to Joseph. 

And then leaning on your window sill
he'll say one day you caused his will
to weaken with your love and warmth and shelter
When the man wants to move on, having had the woman’s warmth, love and shelter for a spell, he does so by telling her that it is in fact her fault, that she caused him to weaken by being good to him, by making things comfortable.
And then taking from his wallet
an old schedule of trains, he'll say
I told you when I came I was a stranger
I told you when I came I was a stranger.
“You knew what I was when we started, I told you I was a player."

But now another stranger a new man seems
to want you to ignore his dreams
as though they were the burden of some other
But he is no different from the last man. He wants her to ignore his lifestyle and card playing ways, his weaknesses and dreams of winning, think of that as belonging to someone else.
O you've seen that man before She realises that he is the same as the others.
his golden arm dispatching cards
but now it's rusted from the elbows to the finger
He’s been playing the game so long that his golden dealing arm is now rusted. 
And he wants to trade the game he plays for shelter
Yes he wants to trade the game he knows for shelter.
He wants to give up the game and settle down with her, have a home. A temporary refuge because he is depressed or a permanent one? Buffeted by the world where he needs a place to rest and heal?  

Ah you hate to watch another tired man
lay down his hand
like he was giving up the holy game of poker
It’s hard for her to see another man, a tired man, promise to give up gambling, something that is equivalent to being holy for the players.
And while he talks his dreams to sleep
you notice there's a highway
that is curling up like smoke above his shoulder
and suddenly you feel a little older
Even when he is making his promises she knows that they are not real, she sees over his shouler the road that will beckon him once he is healed.

You tell him to come in sit down
but something makes you turn around
The door is open you can't close your shelter
The previous patterns reassert, she offers “shelter” once again, offers her heart again, but this time something is different. 
You try the handle of the road
This time she is skeptical, realises that she should not trust the promises and assurances, or her own need, that she should walk away from the relationship.
It opens do not be afraid The narrator tells her not to be afraid of doing so.
It's you my love, you who are the stranger
It's you my love, you who are the stranger.
A difficult part but in some ways the crux of the song. In the past she has been the one giving, the men taking. There is a pattern, just as there is in abusive domestic relationships where patterns of abuser/victim are often repeated in successive relationships. In the context of the song she has been the person giving and searching for stability – home, warmth, sex, shelter – whilst the men in her life have been takers, taking temporary shelter until either the call of gambling or recuperation have lured them away again. They may have even believed that they wanted to stay with her and, in so doing, have become part of her life and world, no matter how alien to them. The narrator tells her that she is not that much different to the men with whom she has been, that each in the relationship has been co-dependent on the other. 

Well, I've been waiting, I was sure
we'd meet between the trains we're waiting for
This is the man talking, not the narrator. They are each heading on, moving on, and he had hoped to meet her again before they boarded trains to go their own ways.
I think it's time to board another
Please understand, I never had a secret chart
to get me to the heart of this
or any other matter
He explains to her that he never had a secret chart to explain or understand his actions, to make sense of it all. He seems to be indicating that he still has no sense of what he wants from life, or from her. 
When he talks like this
you don't know what he's after
When he speaks like this,
you don't know what he's after.
For her part, she understands that he still has no insight into himself but she doesn’t know what it is that he wants from her.

Let's meet tomorrow if you choose
upon the shore, beneath the bridge
that they are building on some endless river
He suggests that they meet again at some undetermined time and place in the future
Then he leaves the platform
for the sleeping car that's warm
You realize, he's only advertising one more shelter
And it comes to you, he never was a stranger
And you say ok the bridge or someplace later.
She realises that the failure of the relationships is also attributable to her, in seeking relationships with unsuitable men who have surrendered to her and depended on her. In her way she has been a “stranger” as much as the men. The reunion may or may not happen, probably not, she is alone but now she has an awareness of her flaw.

And leaning on your window sill ...

I told you when I came I was a stranger.
He repeats that she knew what he was like when they began. 

So there it is, Kate.  One of Leonard Cohen's best imho.





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  31. It's all about drugs and the dealers who deal them. Methinks you 'think' to much and too hard, you must allow poetry of th9is quality to just drift into the mind, no intellectual examination, that just leads to confusion as illustrated here. You remind me of Dylan's Ballad of a Thin Man, you know something is happening,but you don't know what it is, do you Mr Jones?
    For anyone who doesn't immediately 'get' Cohen's or Dylan's lyrics, I suggest you give up trying; you're probably just the wrong generation, really, you had to encounter these songs as a young person in 1967. Then you'd get it.

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