And all the ladies go moist, and the judge has no choice,
A singer must die for the lie in his voice.
Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies’ Man is something of an accident. Some years before its release Phil Spector took a huge advance from Warner Bros. on the understanding that it would be paid off by his future work. When this work did not appear, the record label wanted its money back. The solution, brokered by Spector’s lawyer, was to put Spector together with Cohen, another of his clients, so as to pay off the debt with the album that followed. The only reason Cohen seems to have agreed to take part in the project is through personal commitment to the two men’s lawyer; certainly he had no affection for Spector, who he considered ‘the worst human being I have ever met’. And while that assessment has the ring of analytic necessity, it must have been particularly inevitable after those album sessions. Not only did Spector expedite disagreements in his favour with the help of a loaded gun, but, as Rolling Stone reported on the album’s release, once the sessions were over ‘Spector, it seems, simply took what the singer felt were tapes still in progress, kept them under lock and key, mixed them like a solitary mad genius and released the album without bothering to consult with his artist’. Perhaps predictably, Cohen was not pleased with the album. It seemed to him ‘junk’, nothing more than his lawyer’s ‘masturbation’, and he wanted the album buried. The record was, then, conceived in debt, developed at gunpoint and disowned upon delivery.
It makes sense that the pairing was only conceivable inside their world—and even then just barely—as a kind of last ditch attempt to square the books. Cohen’s last record had been New Skin for the Old Ceremony, which is no short distance in substance or style from what came next. Listening to that record you certainly wonder what artistic reason could have convinced Cohen to submit to the kind of glacial misunderstanding of innocence that characterises Spector’s productions. And it is likewise hard to believe that the man behind (within, charging through) ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ could have found much of Cohen’s erudition particularly endearing. Perhaps the financial burden forced such a distance between the men and their own settled self-understanding as to make the project at least conceivable in the abstract as simply the meeting of a producer and an artist, both of some repute. At any rate, the pressure put on the two by the weight of the situation seems to have forced them to find their way to some barely tessellating interests around which they might have hoped to sustain the mere impression of collaboration. It’s for this reason, I take it, that the album lands on and is dominated by the themes of excess and pathological male sexuality.
Not that Cohen or Spector ever reached any shared understanding of those points. In fact the record is marked by the painful dislocation of the lyrics and production. Spector’s arrangements are without exception drunken, crass and unrepentantly fanatical. They have the stench of a party that’s gone on for days with no sleep or open windows, sustained by the enthusiasm of a host who will not let anyone leave. The bearing of Spector-as-host stands in contrast, in the abstract at least, to Cohen’s exhausted lyrics. These are sketches of debauchery that stumble about with a knackered lilt. They point to desires that find no competent groove and at the heart of which we do not find a happy life. But in Spector’s hands they lose any distance from their subject, for no irony could withstand that air. As a result the words become debauched and pornographic, not so much depictions as expressions of the life that the production clearly revels in, but without which the voice would remain simply blind to itself.
Perhaps the most concise statement of Spector’s effect on Cohen is found on the album cover. Cohen stares out flanked by two beautiful women. While Cohen’s songs are often mournful of loss, regretful of weakness and seem attempts to reach out a hand which had been withdrawn, that love is absent from this photograph. It is as if with this album the pretence of kindness of, for instance, the song for Marianne is bled dry so that all that is left is distancing lust.
Without a clue, Spector told the lie in Cohen’s voice by backing it with ruined optimism, ruined, that is, by Cohen’s erudition. Any ironic distance between singer and subject is lost in Spector’s production. And so too the uncomplicated optimism for that world is poisoned at the heart. But in ruining themselves together something emerges that perhaps neither could have honestly, consciously achieved. I sense a barely conscious thought of what Cohen’s writing did to him. With each song composed, and another revered, a greater weight is placed to sink further down. It is as if Cohen had always thought of himself engaged in an attempt to dispel shadows by finding the precise words that would conjure them away. But I hear a bleary consciousness of the possibility that all that digging and all the celebration of the secrets he revealed just served to drive the him further into the dark. Perhaps he was like an explorer whose trips back home for adulation and esteem were plainly just a way of acquiring the means to drive further into the empty map. Spector’s production shows the love of that air that Cohen was well able to breathe.