Friday, March 11, 2005

Leonard Cohen's Tower of Song: A short interpretation

Zerzan's grievance that reification and symbolism lead away from sensual experience via projects, makes me think of Leonard Cohen's Tower of Song. In TOS the tower is a symbol of what is left when sensual experience (of love) is no longer possible, even though the artistic musical mediation of that experience is still a great success (thanks to Cohen of course). It is reminiscent of the phrase "ivory tower" which denotes an academic mindset that has insufficient connection to the oustide realities it tries to bear upon. In the song the tower is seen both as a safe haven ("they don't let a woman kill you Not in the tower of song"), a kind of protection from sensual or intimate experience of love; and a place (the only place left) of enlightenment - but only at the window, where communication is possible: "I’m standing by the window where the light is strong". A tower is also an elaborate upward construction, typical of the idea of a project, so we may say the tower symbolises a specific project - artistic and musical. But in that it is also a reminder of that overblown other tower, the Tower of Babel, it can be seen as symbolic of something larger, civilisation itself perhaps. At any rate, it is a symbol Zerzan would instantly recognise as intimate to civilisation.

Whereas I don't think LC intended this song first of all as a commentary on all civilisation, it is well to remember that many of his songs have just such a theme - on the same album, I'm Your Man, the song First We Take Manhattan (with its eerie reminder of a 9/11 still far distant at the time) goes all out. But the difference between these two songs is large - in FWTM the tone is one of slightly demented vengeance. There is a sense of satisfaction and pleasure in the songwriter's telling of the way things will pan out now as music has been abandoned for something more worthwhile:

Ah remember me, I used to live for music
Remember me, I brought your groceries in
Well it's Father's Day and everybody's wounded
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

In TOS though this sense of revolutionary destruction is nowhere to be found. Instead there is a sense of what it is like to live without the good things in life - and for this songwriter it's all about being without fulfilled love and desire:

And I'm crazy for love but I'm not coming on
I'm just paying my rent every day
Oh in the tower of song

And then, just to emphasise that it's probably going to get worse:

I said to Hank Williams: how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn't answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me
In the tower of song

On the surface it seems to be just about a man growing old and not being able to enjoy the pleasures he used to:

Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I'm crazy for love but I'm not coming on

But we are really talking about a tower, i.e. a project, of song - it is not just an individual's tower, but a collective tower with others residing, but perhaps not really 'living', in it. Hank Williams is mentioned, but since he is "a hundred floors above me", it follows that there are many many others. So this experience is of something that has grown old, but not gracefully old. It has grown more away from others in intimate and sensual experience, not closer. And so it has this in common with Zerzan's view of civilisation and symbolisation.

All through the song it is clear that it is not for not wanting intimacy. The songwriter is "crazy for love" but can't make it happen. And later he admits that he doesn't really know how things got so bad. People are divided, and there is no apparent reason why:

I see you standing on the other side
I don’t know how the river got so wide

Zerzan would say it is due to the division of labor. And he may find some agreement with this songwriter, because in the very next stanza we hear:

Now I bid you farewell, I don't know when I'll be back
They're moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track

It sounds just like offices being excavated and people resuming their work in another building. And so people become physically and otherwise removed from each other when no longer in the same immediate community of work.

Thus the tower symbolises a project that has "grown old" in the wrong direction, or even because it grew in the wrong direction. But there seems to be no turning back in this place, and yet paradoxically the past is the only place where intimacy and sensual experience can be experienced:

I loved you baby, way back when
And all the bridges are burning that we might have crossed
But I feel so close to everything that we lost
We’ll never have to lose it again

This is near the end of the song, but in the middle part of the song there is a more self-mocking tone of voice. The vocation of song is under the magnifying glass, and as if it is a "natural vocation" the songwriter mockingly justifies his vocation:

I was born like this, I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice

Now everybody knows that Leonard Cohen has anything but a good singing voice - even at its best, and at this point it was already in throwing distance of the current talking-in-a-deep-voice stage (which is nevertheless great :-). One would say he has more a silvery voice. He uses further ludicrous images to render the "natural vocation" questionable (and hence throwing the entire music project, the tower of song, into question):

And twenty-seven angels from the great beyond
They tied me to this table right here
In the tower of song

To emphasise the suspicion that Zerzan would have about societal divisions, the singer shows his discontents with the way things are:

Now you can say that I’ve grown bitter but of this you may be sure
The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor
And there’s a mighty judgement coming, but I may be wrong

The added "but I may be wrong" is perfect to indicate the essentially uncertain, cautious, almost timid mindset of the working and middle class individual when faced with the dependent relation towards the owners of production. A sort of futility and lack of control, an outside power also stated later: "They're moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track".

But in this scheme of things the songwriter has no option but to commit himself to his songs - not because he has a golden voice, but because songs are, despite their inadequacies, the only way to communicate his desire. It's a necessity, and without it there would be nothing left:

But you'll be hearing from me baby, long after I'm gone
I'll be speaking to you sweetly
From a window in the tower of song

It's a catch-22 - song is the rent he pays to keep staying in the tower of song, while at the same it's also his only connection to what he loves and desires.

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