With the release of Peter Jackson’s new documentary The Beatles: Get Back this past weekend, the Fab Four is on everyone’s minds and tongues… and, as is usually the case, the acclaim is essentially universal. Having perhaps the most influential and consequential legacy in music history, they’ve been the subjects of that kind of adoration for decades.
Yet, Beatlemania hasn’t always been a sweeping force—in fact, over the years, quite a few folks have gone against the currents and voiced a bit of distaste for the Liverpool quartet… including one of the other greatest songwriters in music history: Leonard Cohen.
“I’m interested in things that contribute to my survival,” Cohen told The New Yorker in 2016, setting the scene for his controversial statement. “I had girlfriends who really irritated me by their devotion to the Beatles. I didn’t begrudge them their interest—and there were songs like ‘Hey Jude’ that I could appreciate—but they didn’t seem to be essential to the kind of nourishment that I craved.”
At first glance, Cohen’s comments might seem a little disagreeable… but with deeper consideration, the stance of the “Hallelujah” writer actually makes some sense. For starters, Cohen has always been vocal about his commitment to intensely intricate and meaningful lyrics—he was known to spend years, even decades, on a single song, trying to achieve a set of words that rang with the utmost urgency. With that in mind, it would make sense that the majority of The Beatles’ tunes (which tended to be more “pop” than “deeply meaningful poetry”) would be lost on him.
Furthermore, Cohen had an entirely different background than most of his contemporaries in the ‘60s music scene—by the time The Beatles solidified their lineup in 1962, he had already published two books of poetry to wide critical acclaim, earning minor celebrity status as a well-respected figure among poet circles. Just check out the final verse of a poem entitled “For Wilf and His House” from his 1956 book, Let Us Compare Mythologies, in which he ponders the story of the crucifixion of Christ (you can listen to him read the full version HERE):
Raging and weeping are left on the early road.
Now each in his holy hill
the glittering and hurting days are almost done.
Then let us compare mythologies.
I have learned my elaborate lie
of soaring crosses and poisoned thorns
and how my fathers nailed him
like a bat against a barn
to greet the autumn and late hungry ravens
as a hollow yellow sign.
Considering the fact that Cohen wrote this the same year Elvis made his very first debut on the charts (for “Heartbreak Hotel”), it’s no surprise that he wasn’t very compelled when The Beatles came out with lyrics like “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah/ She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah/ She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah” a full eight years later.
Still, Cohen was not without some appreciation for The Beatles—speaking on a 1967 CBC radio program entitled How The Beatles Changed The World, he noted that there were some songs of theirs that he genuinely enjoyed… though, not enough to remember their titles.
“I find [The Beatles’ songs] speak to a part of me that seems very perishable… and sometimes I think it has perished, and what they’re speaking to is an elegy,” he said. “I listen to my transistor radio and I hear what is on from time to time (I don’t generally have a record player). I’ll go to somebody’s house and listen to their albums, and I like everything they do. There’s nothing I don’t like.”
This is certainly a different tune than the one he proverbially sang 49 years later when speaking with The New Yorker. Nonetheless, when directly asked in ‘67 if he considered The Beatles poets, Cohen responded: “Oh yeah—or whatever we mean by ‘poets.’ If we mean, by that, that they are dealing with some essence, and handling it in a state of grace, then certainly, they are ‘poets.’”
So, like all things in Leonard Cohen’s universe, when it comes to his opinion of The Beatles, there’s no black or white, just a nuanced shade of grey. The Beatles may not have been “for” him, but he certainly could see the value in the zeitgeist defining work they were producing… and, in total, there’s a powerful beauty in that.
Photo by Matt Kent/Redferns