Outside The Tower of Song: Everybody Knows

A new series about the songs of Leonard Cohen begins with the song that introduced me to him...
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My introduction to Leonard Cohen is likely atypical to of that of his other ardent fans but I'm certain I'm not the only Gen X'er whose first encounter came courtesy of the 1990 film Pump Up The Volume starring Christian Slater. I'd never heard anything like "Everybody Knows." High school for me was mostly hair metal and the emerging underground grunge scene. My ears were accustomed to squalling guitars and shrieking vocals, piercing voices singing about decadence or men howling about alienation. Pulsing synth and oud flourishes (hell, I didn't know what an oud was!) could hardly have been more out of place for that version of me.

Cohen's voice didn't seem real to me. I watched Christian Slater's character play the song on his turntable and I wondered if he was playing the record at the wrong speed because the synths had an eerie, woozy quality and no one sang like that, if you could even call this singing. His voice rumbled and rhymed with a detached coolness that felt just short of menacing and carried the weight of a prophet, chronicling a world in decline and hinting at an indifference towards it because it was plain enough for everyone to see. I felt very much the outsider at that time and it was easy to identify with words describing a world where deception is rewarded and the good guy gets the shaft.

I'm Your Man) and yet its themes feel no less current or relevant. Cohen spoke of an "inevitable defeat" awaiting us all in an interview and "Everybody Knows" is the soundtrack of it. The dice are loaded, the captain lies, the good guys lose, and the rich and poor are going to stay that way in perpetuity. That sums up the attitude of many towards the 1980s in their rear view mirror and I'm not sure they'd assess things much differently in the present tense. 

I listen to the song and still remember my astonishment at how brilliant those verses were and how radical the music seemed at the time but hear so much more now. I marvel at the way he changes his field of vision from the politics of cultural decay to the politics of a romantic relationship. I hear the humor in the darkness, something frequently missed in Cohen's work by those who dismiss it as oppressively bleak. There's a barely audible smile in the vocal as he sardonically describes infidelity as a series of business meetings that just so happened to be held without the benefit of clothes and the voyeuristic intrusiveness into our private lives as a meter above our beds, spilling secrets that aren't. 

"Everybody Knows" was my introduction to his Tower of Song but my fandom wasn't immediate. I didn't buy my first Leonard Cohen album or book until college and even then it wasn't full immersion. His command of language and its capacity to explore the depth of the human psyche captivated me and over years would have an increasingly profound influence on me the more time I spent reading and listening. I started spending so much time listening to him that it worried people and I've discussed his work ad infinitum, frequently against the will and over the strong objections of friends and family alike. I've listened to some of these songs untold hundreds of times and yet I still feel like I haven't scratched the surface of the gifts and mysteries contained within them and that is one of the many reasons I keep coming back.