Mark Steyn

Request of the Week

Dance Me To The End Of Love

The SteynOnline Request of the Week was a regular midweek feature at this site for 11 years until the beginning of 2012, since when it's been on hiatus. However, we do still get requests. For example, Nigel Grigg:

Hey Mark,

Love your work, especially the music reviews. But how come you don't do any on probably Canada's greatest singer-songwriter, Mr Leonard Cohen? Perhaps something from his middle aged career, such as "Tower of Song" . It's the best, especially the lyrics.

All 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
I'm just paying my rent everyday in the Tower of Song.

Then perhaps go back to his stellar early career as a sombre but uplifting singer-songwriter musician. Then check out his even earlier poet life on "Ladies & Gentlemen, Mr Leonard Cohen" where in reality he's more of a comedian. This is 30 years before Seinfeld!

Whilst I love the show tunes stories, my generation are largely too young for these, even too young for Jazz. And I'm about your age, but grew up with a Pop culture sensibility so we need reviews of the "Off Broadway" hits.

Nigel Grigg

Okay, just for you, from a few years ago here's a Leonard Cohen song I happen to like. As for our Request of the Week department, I'm not sure about bringing it back as a weekly feature, but, if you're one of the many readers around the world who've swung by the Steyn store to help prop up my end of the upcoming Mann vs Steyn trial of the century and you'd like a reprise of a favorite column, by all means drop us a line and we'll do our best to oblige.

Meanwhile, from the 1980s, here's my favorite Leonard Cohen number as I saw it a couple of FĂȘte St-Jean-Baptistes back:

Quebec isn't yet a nation, but, demonstrating its familiar priorities, it already has "national holidays". The FĂȘte St-Jean-Baptiste falls this Friday, so I thought it might be appropriate to have a song by a Quebecker. Which means it's a choice between Gilles Vigneault's accidental disco classic, or something by Montreal's most enduring songwriter. This one entered the world in 1984, when Leonard Cohen went into a New York studio and recorded the very first version of "Dance Me To The End Of Love". A little Leonard Cohen goes a very long way with me, but he is a Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec, and this song has the makings of a contemporary standard.

I'd heard it but paid no particular attention to it until a little over a decade back when I was writing a Valentine's Day column on the language of love. It made the rather obvious point that the preoccupations of romantic songs are often restrained by the limited rhymes for the word "love". In French, amour rhymes with dozens of other useful words - toujours (always), jour (day), carrefour (crossroads), tambour (drum)... So, with nary a thought, you have a zillion potentially amorous scenarios. In Portuguese, it's different. Coracao (heart) rhymes with violao (guitar) and cancao (song), which is why there are a ton of sambas and bossas about giving you my heart while I play you a song on my guitar.

The constraints of language help define our notion of romance, and in English we're more constrained than most. There are just four and a half rhymes for "love," approximately three-quarters of which offer very meagre possibilities: "above," "dove," "glove," "shove," and (the half-rhyme) "of," pronounced "uv." The last is the reason why, in English songs, "love" is a thing you spend a lot of time "dreaming uv." "Shove" is of limited application, except in ballads for spousal abusers. I think P G Wodehouse was the first to get any mileage out of it in a comedy song called "Tulip Time In Sing-Sing":

So just bob my hair and shove me
Where I know the warders love me...

Doris Fisher and Allan Roberts gave it a more general application in a hit for Billie Holiday that I've had cause to mention in recent weeks:

It's That Old Devil Called Love again
Gets behind me, keeps giving me the shove again...

When the British singer Alison Moyet had a pop hit with the song a few years back, I mentioned to Doris Fisher how much I liked that rhyme. She said she didn't think it was any big deal, and reckoned Cole Porter had pretty much wrapped it up with his marvelously debonair offhandedness:

Should I say "Thumbs down" and give it a shove?
Or is it At Long Last Love?

And that's pretty much it for "shove". So my column mused on the deficiences of the remaining three: "Glove" is annoyingly singular - as in Irving Berlin's "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm":

Off with my overcoat
Off with my glove
I need no overcoat
I'm burning with love...

- and you find yourself thinking: why's the guy only wearing one glove? The most artful deployment of the "love/glove" rhyme is a magnificently dismissive anti-romantic sentiment in Professor Henry Higgins' mysogynist masterpiece, "Let A Woman In Your Life" from My Fair Lady:

You want to talk of Keats or Milton
She only wants to talk of love
You go to see a play or ballet
And spend it searching for her glove...

As for "dove," that's the reason why so many fragrant Victorian parlor ballads spent so much time swooning over "my turtle dove." Rock'n'roll was supposed to put an end to such coy formulations, but a quick browse through the rhyming dictionary and suddenly all these wild dangerous rockers were sounding like backporch spooners circa 1902. Here's Buddy Holly in "That'll Be The Day":

You give me all your lovin'
And your turtle-dovin'...

So that pretty much leaves "above." What's "above"? Some cracked plaster and a dangling light bulb. Okay, what's above that? The moon and the stars. Hence:

Each night I ask the stars up above
Why must I be A Teenager In Love?

- and a hundred thousand other examples.

After bemoaning the cliches spawned by the four-and-a-half dread rhymes, I filed the column and forgot about it. But the next day a lady reader e-mailed to say, if I was looking for a good "glove" rhyme, I should check out Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me To The End Of Love". And the following day another couple of readers recommended the same song. So, more out of duty than hope, I dusted off the CD - Various Positions, Cohen's 1984 album - and slapped it on the Dansette. And, to my surprise, my correspondents were right. I'd never noticed it on earlier hearings, but the song is almost like a lyric-writing exercise, as if Mr Cohen had wearied of avoiding the four-and-a-half rhymes for "love" and set himself the challenge of using them in fresh but entirely natural ways. He starts with "dove":

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic till I'm gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance Me To The End Of Love...

A "homeward dove". Isn't that better than all those turtle doves? And the olive branch sets up the image, so that, like the best song lyrics, it has a kind of inevitability. Then Cohen moves on to "uv":

Show me slowly what I only know the limits of
Dance Me To The End Of Love...

"Limits of". Very novel after decades of "dreaming of". Then Mr Cohen gets to "above":

Dance me to the wedding now, dance me on and on
Dance me very tenderly and dance me very long
We're both of us beneath our love, we're both of us above
Dance Me To The End Of Love...

A shame in such a song to have the impure rhyme of "on"/"long", but the next couplet certainly makes a change from all those "stars above" - and, again, "beneath our love" gives "above" a lyrical inevitability. And finally, when he reaches the problematic item of digital apparel, Cohen even manages to give a rare erotic frisson to the singular finger-warmer:

Touch me with your naked hand or touch me with your glove
Dance Me To The End Of Love...

I've come to like that rather more than Alan Jay Lerner's glove in My Fair Lady. Makes you wonder why he didn't take a thwack at "shove" - or maybe he figured Cole Porter had had the last word on that. Leonard Cohen likes to say that the more particular you are, the more universal: "You don't really want to say 'the tree', you want to say 'the sycamore'," he advises about lyric-writing. "It's better to say 'watching Captain Kangaroo'. Not 'watching TV'." All very true and lots of writers would agree. But in this lyric he takes some of the most exhausted words in the songwriting lexicon and re-invigorates them.

Ever since Judy Collins did "Suzanne" four decades back, it's been a truism that other singers show off Leonard Cohen's songs far better than their author. On his own recordings, especially in recent years since his voice deepened, the instrumentation doesn't seem to connect with the singer in any way. And, as one might expect from a songwriter who's invariably billed as "the poet Leonard Cohen" rather than "the composer", it's often the case that the tune isn't very good. On "Dance Me To The End Of Love" it's good enough. It's hypnotic and repetitive, but also eerie and insinuating. A friend of mine said he must have been channeling his inner Serge Gainsbourg that day. Gainsbourg was a memorable figure who retains a certain cachet, and his lyrics often have arresting hooks. But the melodies can be very dreary. Yet, like Cohen, he occasionally hits on one that's good enough: If you listen to, say, "Ces petits riens", it's not hard to see what my pal finds Gainsbourgesque about "Dance Me To The End Of Love". And, on Cohen's original, the star and the backing vocals and the orchestration come together to a degree they don't usually.

Still and all, there was a version by Kate Gibson that you heard a lot in various Continental countries a decade or so back, and ever since then my mind hears the song in a female voice. In 2005, Madeleine Peyroux made it her signature number. Miss Peyroux is very "influenced" by Billie Holiday, and sometimes she can sound less "influenced" and more like a slick karaoke act. But with "Dance Me To The End Of Love" it all came together: It's in the spirit of Billie, rather than an impression. And a relatively obscure Leonard Cohen number becomes a great Billie Holiday song she died too young ever to get around to.

To my ears, the tune benefits from a small jazz combo, and the lyric swims out of its rock-poet allusiveness and into sharper focus. Dance as a metaphor for life, and life-long love:

Dance me to the children who are asking to be born
Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn
Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn
Dance Me To The End Of Love...

Or at least that's what I thought it was about when I first got to know the number. Indeed, a Leonard Cohen video with elderly couples dancing against giant portraits of their younger, courting selves seemed to confirm as much. But then I chanced to stumble across an interview in which Cohen talked about how "Dance Me To The End Of Love" came to be written:

It's curious how songs begin because the origin of the song, every song, has a kind of grain or seed that somebody hands you or the world hands you and that's why the process is so mysterious about writing a song. But that came from just hearing or reading or knowing that in the death camps, beside the crematoria, in certain of the death camps, a string quartet was pressed into performance while this horror was going on, those were the people whose fate was this horror also. And they would be playing classical music while their fellow prisoners were being killed and burnt.

A song inspired, if that's the word, by the Holocaust? Apparently so. Perhaps that's why Cohen, seeking poetic imagery amid barbarism, steered clear of the word "shove". To its author, the line "Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin" means "the beauty there of being the consummation of life, the end of this existence and of the passionate element in that consummation". You can get a sense of the song in the context the author created it in the recording by the Klezmer Conservatory Band, in which Cohen's 1984 album track is surrounded by rediscovered Mitteleuropean klezmer tunes from the shattered and extinct Jewish communities of the Continent. But, as Cohen noted, the more particular you are, the more universal you are - and thus "Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin" is not only the insane urgency of a beautiful soundtrack to an act of horror, but a more generalized emotional intensity: "It is the same language that we use for surrender to the beloved," says Cohen. "It's not important that anybody knows the genesis of it, because if the language comes from that passionate resource, it will be able to embrace all passionate activity." And so what started out as a pastiche foxtrot for the house musicians of genocide has become a real foxtrot played by fellows with names like the Wyndham Regency Orchestra.

Just like Irving Berlin, the Gershwins and all the rest, Cohen is a Jewish songwriter. But, as that genesis suggests, he's far more explicitly Jewish in his work. On the other hand, just like the best songs of Berlin & Co, "Dance Me To The End Of Love" is trembling on the brink of becoming a standard - a song for anyone to sing, and to bring anything you want to it, for now and till the end of love:

Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone
Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon
Show me slowly what I only know the limits of
Dance Me To The End Of Love.

from Request of the Week, August 18, 2015



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