Leonard Cohen the Godfather of great singers who can’t sing
The Return of Leonard Cohen Sunday night reminds us of a very special class of singer-songwriter for whom the art of singing is secondary to the art of songwriting.
Let’s just say that Len – like Neil Young, like Bob Dylan, like Tom Waits, like Lou Reed, like Nick Cave, name your legendary croaker – is a man whose distinctive vocals would not be improved by Auto-Tune. The thing needs an actual note to work with before it can correct the pitch.
OK, that’s unfair. Len makes good use of the gifts he has. He deploys his desiccated, basso whisper artfully, his voice as much a trademark as any of his most well-known songs. You can’t recall a line like “I have seen the future, baby, and it is murder” without hearing in your head the voice that wrote it. Cohen fans obviously wouldn’t have it any other way. Just watch their reaction when he plays Sunday at Rexall Place, where the 78-year-old legend is expected to be greeted as the Coptic Pope and the Dalia Lama rolled into one. The same goes for all his pitchy peers whenever they come to town. Dylan was just here, and it was murder, baby.
How did these guys get so famous? Great songs, obviously. Many of our esteemed caterwaulers also had help from great singers who recognized great songs when they heard them. The American public at large was alerted to the genius of Leonard Cohen when Jennifer Warnes released her pitch-perfect tribute to him, Famous Blue Raincoat, in 1987. Her version of “Bird on a Wire” was a bigger hit than Len’s, which didn’t even chart. Similarly, the public seems to prefer k.d. lang singing “Hallelujah” than the song’s creator. That particular tune has been covered by any good singer you’d care to name, and a few bad ones, including Bob Dylan.
Speak of the devil, many people would also rather hear anyone but Dylan sing Dylan songs. He’s probably the most covered artist of the bunch. Holly Cole, meanwhile, had some of her best success with an entire album of Tom Waits songs, and fans of Neil Young will remember “Borrowed Tunes,” a double album jam packed with hot (at the time) Canadian acts outsinging the very man they were paying tribute to. One of the hallmarks of the Great Brayers is the number of other singers who practically fall all over themselves to record their work, which also has the beneficial effect of maintaining careers with publishing royalties. These people are all millionaires not because of their singing voices. Just imagine how many bags of money are regularly delivered to the door of Randy Bachman – whose three note range has served him well.
Getting older only helps. Like everything else with the human body, the singing voice sags and wrinkles with age. The older these tracheonomically-challenged poets get, the more distinctive their voices become.
Sadly, however, these Lords of Dysphonia may be a dying breed. Gord Downie from the Tragically Hip is a good contender to fill some big raspy shoes, and Jack White is doing some great work in the field of cacophonous yelping, but there aren’t many recent examples. It’s hard to imagine singer-songwriters who can’t sing having any luck getting famous if they came along today. There are famous bad rock singers from famous rock bands. Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers is no Pavarotti, but he is not known as a “singer-songwriter” – a genre unto itself that transcends all others and is the qualifier to become a true Duke of Dissonance.
The bar for acceptable vocal quality, like beauty, is set higher among women; Stevie Nicks may be the closest we get to a distaff Dylan. Throw Patti Smith in there, too. Most of famous female singer-songwriters – Joni, Janis Ian, Joan Baez, and those are just the Js, – sing beautifully. If only Sarah McLachlan sang like PJ Harvey.
There are a number of younger female pop singers whose fame has not been hampered one bit by the fact they can’t hold a tune in a bucket – Britney Spears comes to mind – but they are disqualified because they can’t write good songs, either. Macy Gray was hot there for a while, but we haven’t heard much from her lately. As for Bjork, like Tom Waits, her legendary status is more of a cult phenomenon.
The neo-folk world shows promise in giving us a successor to the Throne of Aphonia, riding the same trend that gave Leonard Cohen a recent career boost in the sunset of his career, and helped by the Grandfather Phenomenon that made counterculture heroes of croaking country singers like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. The new scene offers stars like Dan Mangan, a two-time Juno winner who possesses hoarse potential. Given time and more great songs – and maybe cigarettes and whiskey – I think the kid has a shot. Of course he needs some angelic female singer to cover his songs, score No. 1 hits and propel him to the stratosphere.
Let’s just go ahead and blame American Idol for setting such high standards when it comes to accepted vocal technique. Studio technology must share the blame, of course, as Auto-Tune has taken a terrible toll on popular music. As the practice of covering songs for hit potential, nowadays we have bands like IllScarlett covering Maroon 5 – a case of a so-so rock singer copying a good soul singer – or top-40 hits with Bryan Adams and Toto songs. This is not a positive sign. Imagine how far a guy who sings like Leonard Cohen would get on America’s Got Talent. He wouldn’t even make the first round.
It is hoped that there will be a backlash against the processed, perfectionist direction that pop music has taken, on both record and in live concerts where pre-recorded backing tracks have turned the concert industry into Vegas karaoke. You can almost sense a mass craving for something real, for something human, for warts, blemishes and flaws. Say what you want about Leonard Cohen’s deathly voice, but in a land of fakes, he’s as real as it gets.