Wall of Crazy
Phil Spector and Leonard Cohen’s incredible album, released 35 years ago, is a time capsule of American pop music
II: The Grocer of Despair
The same psycho-cultural predicament had, for different reasons, captured Leonard Cohen. By 1977, Cohen was 43; having started out as a poet and a novelist, he came to music late in life and was a decade or so older than most of his peers on the scene. He had released four albums since his debut a decade prior; none were very well received, at least not in the United States.
The problem was not in his songs but in his self. Sung by others, most notably Judy Collins, Cohen compositions such as “Suzanne” and “Sisters of Mercy” became smash hits, but his own versions were too spare and, most agreed, too depressing. And he seemed to be getting worse: Whereas his first two albums were merely melancholic, the third, 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate, was downright grim. By the time the fourth rolled in, in 1974, Cohen could refer to himself in song as the “grocer of despair,” knowing well that despair wasn’t something that Americans, perpetually cheery, were eager to buy.
And yet despair, of a particularly maudlin variety, was what most listeners believed that Cohen was selling. His humor, his depth, and his subtlety were lost on the majority of his audience. His songs were deeply intimate—he had frequently referred to them as diary entries set to guitar music—and rich with allusions that far transcended the simple and stentorian vocabulary popularized by Spector and the other captains of the music industry. As one critic remarked, after visiting Cohen’s room at the Chelsea Hotel, “the drapes are as florid as his verse.”
Simply put, while Spector was a priest, cultivating the rituals of a new religion he had helped to create, a religion of rock ’n’ roll, Cohen was a prophet, an artist who sought new ways to speak ancient truths. On his fourth album, for example, he reworked the Unetaneh Tokef, a Jewish liturgical poem that is recited on Yom Kippur, into “Who by Fire,” paraphrasing the prayer’s list of the various ways in which those who have displeased the Lord might find their end—avalanche, barbiturate, hunger—and then adding the line “And who shall I say is calling?” The prayer concludes differently: After counting the ways in which the Almighty may smite his subjects, it comforts by reminding us mortals that “repentance, prayer, and charity avert the severe decree.” Cohen, however, remained defiant. Rather than prostrate himself before the Lord, Cohen coolly reacted to the divine decrees as if they were nothing more than a phone call from a stranger, meriting distance and a hint of suspicion. Before he succumbed to any grim fate, the singer wanted to know just who was doing the judging.
It was a much more radical approach, not only to art but also to Judaism, and it frequently incurred the wrath of Cohen’s family and friends. Early on in his career, while still only a young Canadian poet, he spoke at a Montreal Jewish event and chided the community—his own—as having lost sight of the religion’s true meaning and instead becoming obsessed with building institutions, endowing buildings, and other markers of worldly power and wealth.
III: Death of a Ladies’ Man
Leonard Cohen didn’t know Phil Spector when he gave his Montreal talk, but he may as well have been talking about him when he chided his fellow Jews for becoming obsessed with wealth and power. Wealth and power were what Spector was about: not strictly for their own sake—that would be crass—but as means to enacting a highly personal power-tripping aesthetic vision that could turn an asthmatic, diabetic, scrawny kid into the center of the coolest scene in the world. Cohen, on the other hand, was the anti-Spector, the teenager who was always well-liked yet never felt quite at home, the scion of the prominent Jewish family who nonetheless felt the whole community was built on a sham. Instead of trying to take over the world, he struggled to make sense of it, to see it in all its splendid and tragic nuance—an effort that placed him perennially on the outside of whatever inside there was.
And yet, when Cohen’s manager suggested cutting an album with Spector, the singer was intrigued. On the surface, the idea sounded like a disaster: Cohen had so reviled previous producers’ attempts to enrich his monastic sound that he took over the tapes and finished the mix himself, condemning all previous instrumentations to the background and refusing even rock staples such as drums. But other factors triumphed. There were obvious biographical similarities: Both men were born to upper-middle-class Jewish families; at age 9 both had lost their fathers (Cohen’s died of an illness); and both were fond of their immigrant grandfathers, with their strange accents and old-world religion. Both found solace in music, communicating better in song than they did in any other way, and both approached their craft in an intensely personal way, channeling all their hurt and hope and lust into chord changes and refrains. Cohen was stronger with the lyrics, Spector with the tunes; the manager they shared, Martin Machat, suggested that they get together and see if they could collaborate on an album. Both clients, Machat realized, badly needed a hit.
The collaboration got off to a rocky start. When Spector first invited Cohen and his wife for dinner at his house, he flew into a rage when the couple, tired after a long meal, got up to leave, and ordered his servants to lock them inside. The Cohens remained seated, surrounded by Spector’s armed guards. They were freed only in the morning, but Cohen was unfazed. Spector was a lunatic, Cohen seemed to understand, but he was the right kind of lunatic. Unlike Bob Dylan, he didn’t dismiss songs as commodities, not too different from brooms or brushes, objects to be repackaged and resold. Songs, to Spector, were sacramental, and they were that for Cohen as well, which is why the singer found himself, a few days after that first disastrous dinner, once again knocking on Spector’s door. This time around, the two clicked, spending the entire night talking about the songs they’d heard on the radio as children.
“He really is a magnificent eccentric,” Cohen said of his collaborator in an interview, years later. “And to work with him just by himself is a real delight. We wrote some songs for an album over a space of a few months. When I visited him we’d have really good times and work till late in the morning. But when he got into the studio he moved into a different gear, he became very exhibitionist and very mad.”
His madness was evident at first sight. As Cohen entered the studio in January of 1977 to begin recording the new album, he saw, in his biographer’s words, “a room crammed with people, instruments and microphone stands. There was barely space to move. He counted forty musicians, including two drummers, assorted percussionists, half a dozen guitarists, a horn section, a handful of female backing singers, and a flock of keyboard players.”
The D-student translator behind the Chinese winner of the Nobel Prize in literature