Leonard Cohen should have got Bob Dylan’s nobel prize

On this blog I give my opinion on many subjects I am not really qualified to be talking about. However, I’m particularly bad person to be commenting on who should win the nobel prize for literature because, well, I don’t read a massive amount of literature. I suppose I’d be even more lost discussing the physics or medicine prize. But it’s a pretty marginal difference.

However, I will say that if the prize committee was set on giving the prize to an elderly North American singer who can’t sing but nonetheless became a cultural icon in the 1960s, I really feel they picked the wrong one.

I don’t hate Dylan a much as some people do. I quite like the Hurricane. And other better performers manage to elevate some of his songs. Of course, there’s Hendrix’s All along the Watchtower  but I’d especially commend Tracy Chapman and Nina Simone’s version of the Times They Are a A-Changin’.  But when Dylan is singing and writing, my emotional response is the kind of irritation I might feel if I was trying to do work in a cafe, while at the next table two mediocre humanities students discuss how people need to understand that protest is like actually a kind of music.

If by contrast, the prize had gone to Leonard Cohen then I would have been excited. To my ears, his songs have far greater power than Dylan’s. While both men have pretty severe vocal limitations, Cohen’s work in his favour. Dylan speaks – I use that verb deliberately – with a rather grating nasal whine but Cohen intones with echoing and edgy voice.

Now the Nobel prize for literature is an award for writing rather than performing, so this does not necessarily need to matter. But it seems that the literal voices of these two men influenced their authorial voices. Both write in cryptic couplets but I feel no urgency in deciphering Dylan’s. As I’ve already said they seem like pretentious coffee shop twaddle. But Cohen makes it seem like your life depends on getting to the bottom of lyrics like:

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin
I’m guided by a signal in the heavens
I’m guided by this birthmark on my skin
I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

I have only the faintest idea what that might mean but its menace and mystery is both enticing and repulsive. Throughout his career Cohen retained what looked like a connection to this elemental darkness. On his penultimate album, released when he was 77, Cohen even includes a song called Darkness. It is one of the things I can point to as truly giving someone who’s been fortunate enough never to suffer depression, a sense of the insidiousness and relentless nature of the condition.

This kind brutality is present in his writing even when it’s at its most apparently mainstream. Hallelujah has been covered by everyone from Jeff Buckley to X-Factor winners. But all these versions feel inadequate next to Cohen’s because they make it a love song. They make biblical allusions into metaphors. But in Cohen’s voice the song does sound like an emanation from inhuman realm. This allows it to embrace both romantic and religious sensibilities, to reflect that faith can be as intoxicating as love, and that feeling an intense connection to another human can be as strange as sharing one with an unseen deity, and to express how bereft one can be if you loose either.

Like so much of Cohen’s work it is apparently baffling yet conjures something very direct and powerful. It is beautiful whilst be disturbing. It is otherworldly but also very human. It doesn’t need validation from any prize committee but it would have been nice to see it get it.

7 thoughts on “Leonard Cohen should have got Bob Dylan’s nobel prize

  1. I have been thinking the same so I Googled “Leonard Cohen Nobel Prize for Literature” and find that I’m not only in having this opinion. Maybe next year….

  2. I have been thinking the same so I Googled “Leonard Cohen Nobel Prize for Literature” and find that I’m not only in having this opinion. Maybe next year….

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more. Leonard Cohen is the real deal. In a way, I am almost glad that his name is not going to be on that Nobel List because of the company he would be keeping.

  4. Same for me. I do like Dylan, but was surprised that a Nobel which goes to a singer was not for Cohen. (Or Georges Brassens, but he was singing in French, so not many people can appreciate it, and anyway, he isn’t alive anymore.)

  5. Pingback: He understood the darkness: on Leonard Cohen and depression | Matter Of Facts
  6. Pingback: My #10 most viewed posts of 2016 | Matter Of Facts

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