Ryley Walker Listens to Leonard Cohen for the First Time: "Fuck This Guy"
Leonard Cohen is one of the most universally admired songwriters ever and his 1971 third album is a fan and critic favorite. We played it for Ryley Walker.
Welcome to Blind Spots, in which we force some of our favorite artists to finally check out the most famous albums they've never heard.
Leonard Cohen wrote some of the most affecting songs in popular music history over a career that lasted nearly a half century. Across 14 albums filled with writerly meditations on love, mortality, and faith, he influenced artists like Patti Smith, Nick Cave, and Kurt Cobain. U2’s Bono even heralded his work in a 2006 documentary saying, “This is our Shelley, this is our Byron.”
Though most people first heard Cohen’s music through his 1984 song “Hallelujah,” which has been popularized through covers by John Cale, Jeff Buckley, and countless others, his catalog was full of transcendent songs even until his death in 2016. His excellent final album You Want It Darker, which was released weeks before his passing, ended with a song that had Cohen’s smoky baritone singing, “It's over now, the water and the wine/We were broken then but now we're borderline.” That line capped nearly a half century of Cohen’s muses: depression, the Bible, and romance.
There are many excellent gateways into Leonard Cohen’s style of songwriting like his 1967 debut Songs of Leonard Cohen, which showcased the way he gave Biblical stakes to love songs like on “Suzanne” where he juxtaposed Jesus walking on water with his lover’s touch. But arguably Cohen’s most acclaimed full-length is his third, 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate. Featuring some of Cohen’s career-defining songs like “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Last Year’s Man,” and more, the album’s often dour lyrical themes were proof of why Cohen earned the nickname the “Godfather of Gloom” over his career.
Rolling Stone ranked it as one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and it’s a perfect introduction to the charms and sadness that permeated throughout Cohen’s masterful writing. Because of Cohen’s esteemed career, it’s easy to assume that Ryley Walker is a big fan or has least checked him out. The 29-year-old Chicago songwriter proved his expansive and eclectic through albums that blended 60s inspired folk with 90s experimental rock, which culminated in this year’s stellar Deafman Glance. Judging from his hilarious Twitter feed, he’s a record nerd who’s as big into Bob Dylan as he is ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead or even Switchfoot. But in June, Noisey saw him tweet, “Never heard a Leonard Cohen song. And I’m never gonna! Genesis is better!”
Because of this, Noisey sat down with Walker at Chicago’s Gman Tavern to make him listen to Songs of Love and Hate for the first time ever. Walker explains, “I know my friends love him, idolize him, and have all his records. It seems like he’s almost unimpeachable or you’re not allowed to not like him. I feel like I know a bit about him but I’ve never heard his music.” He adds, “My brain only the capacity for so many musical heroes and I think I’ve heard all I want to hear. I feel like I have no room for new idols.” Read his song-by-song reaction below and watch out for a new collection of songs from Walker out this fall.
Noisey: You mentioned that you know a bit about Leonard Cohen already. What do you know?
Ryley Walker: I know he’s Canadian because my Canadian friends are always like, “He’s Canadian, like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.” Like, OK, you got three, Canada.
He also started his music career at 33. He was a poet and a novelist before that.
See? I already don’t like it: “Oh, I was a poet and a novelist before I made music.” So, where does this album fit into his discography?
It’s his third record. I was debating showing you his debut Songs of Leonard Cohen but this one is pretty widely considered his best and his darkest collection of songs.
Oh, so this is the big one, I get it. So far, he’s got a pretty cool right hand. I like the guitar playing.
Do you listen to Nick Cave? He covers this song on From Her To Eternity.
Some. I’ll put him on occasionally but I don’t know that one. I’m already so skeptical. This guy, I’m sure he’s great, but he’s set up the idea that he definitely has a typewriter. These days, having a typewriter is like having a katana sword in your bedroom.
Come on, that’s literally how people wrote things.
I know. He’s set up this image of himself throughout his career. All he needs is the really attractive French girlfriend by his side while he’s smoking and he’s set.
You’re actually describing an image in the booklet of this CD copy of Songs of Love and Hate.
See, there you go. That’s my prejudice going in. Does this guy ever fart or take a dump or is he just on all the time?
He’s known to be hilarious in person. He’s notoriously good at stage banter and some of his songs have some dry jokes in it. The CD also has lyrics in the booklet and Leonard Cohen is definitely a words-first artist. It’s tough to take it all in when we’re talking over it.
Alright, the guy can write words. He’s a fine writer but I hate that I have to read along to it. I feel like I need a thesaurus. I appreciate good lyricism but I don’t relate to this shit. I don’t relate to being a Parisian in 1965 and eating a baguette.
"Does this guy ever fart or take a dump or is he just on all the time?"
Is the music you have gravitated towards typically more riff-heavy?
Yeah, I guess so. I’m not saying Less Than Jake writes better lyrics or whatever. I just think I’m not going to be able to get into it except for the guitar playing, which actually works well with this song.
Did you ever have trouble getting into someone like Bob Dylan?
No, I love Dylan. He seems human to me whereas Leonard Cohen doesn’t. I don’t know. It sounds nice so far.
Bob Johnston produced this record, actually.
Ah, he did Blonde on Blonde.
2."Last Year's Man”
Yeah, Bob Johnston also produced a few other Dylan LPs like John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, Self-Portrait, and New Morning.
I actually met Bob Johnston about five years ago. He lived in Northern California and a friend of mine knows him. We were driving on I-5 through Mount Shasta and went to his house. He was at the end of his life but I just remember smoking a huge fattie with him. I got so paranoid at his house and he was so animated and loud and talking about all the famous musicians who owe him money.
Wow, just from this and reading your Twitter, you’ve met a lot of iconic artists and producers.
Yeah, I’ve always butted my way into people’s business. It’s not like Dr. John or anyone has ever wanted to meet me. I’m just pretty good at getting by security. One of my favorite hobbies is when I play festivals is to steal beer from the biggest acts I can. I'm always on the smallest font on the lineup poster but so far, I’ve stolen booze from Coldplay and Arctic Monkeys. I almost got to the Rolling Stones’ but they had security guards on horses guarding them. They didn’t have a green room, it felt like they had an estate. A cop stopped me. It was a bummer.
Since I do this interview series in green rooms before shows, I’ll only take a beer if they offer me one but I don’t know if I could ever get the courage to just take one from someone I don’t know.
It’s a Robin Hood thing, man. You’ll take some from your friends or whatever but you’ll never steal from the little guys who get the green room for an hour and then have to clear out. You go for the big acts. I recently stole a block of cheese from Diplo: That kind of thing. You bring it back to your band like, “I have Chris Martin’s whiskey!”
What does he drink?
It was Woodford Reserve. I’m not entirely sure it was his but I just remember coming back to our trailer screaming at the top of my lungs, “This is Coldplay’s!” and my band started cheering.
You’re a hero. Before we get too off track, what do you think of this song? It’s called “Last Year’s Man.” This is the only song off this record he’s never played live.
Whoa, you’re a fan.
I am but I only found this specific fact when I was researching for this interview.
What’s he even like live? Is it just quiet and dismal like this?
"I just feel like this guy would be reading a book and I would be doing a line of blow. We’re just two different people."
I never got a chance to see him live but there’s usually always a full band with strings and backing vocalists whenever I see a live video of him.
I hate to shit on the guy, especially since he’s Canadian and he recently died. It’s brainy and beautiful in the wrong way for me. Dylan like fucks up all the time and this guy just sounds like he just chain smoked the perfect amount of cigarettes.
Yeah, it’s definitely a dark record. His last album, 1969’s Songs From The Room , was panned by the critics and Cohen’s been on record on how it was a tough time for him.
I just feel like this guy would be reading a book and I would be doing a line of blow. We’re just two different people.
Well this doesn’t bode well for how you’re going to like the rest of the LP. It pretty much keeps the same tone throughout.
It doesn’t pick up?
It kind of does on a song called “Diamonds In The Mine” but it’s not a chipper song lyrically by any means.
Is the world just some fucked up Sylvia Plath shit? Does he really view the world this way? The music does sound nice though.
Man, typically artists who agree to this interview are too scared to say something too negative about the artist.
Oh, I’m going down for this hard. I’m ready to be ratioed. I don’t give a fuck. Fuck this guy. It’s the same thing with Tom Waits. I’ve maybe heard like five songs and it’s just garbage.
Is it his voice?
It’s not even his voice. It’s just the way people hang on to his words like it’s some brilliant shit. It does nothing for me.
3."Dress Rehearsal Rag"
I call this “Red Wine Rock.” I like “Dollar Beer Rock.” This is, “‘Can I see what champagne you have?’ Rock.” I also take it back, he’s a horrible guitar player. At least with Bob Dylan, the whole world is funny to him.
There is a mood for this album.
It’s songwriting with a capital-S.
"Oh, I’m going down for this hard. I’m ready to be ratioed. I don’t give a fuck. Fuck this guy. It’s the same thing with Tom Waits. I’ve maybe heard like five songs and it’s just garbage."
Speaking of that, this is one of his most dour songs.
Oh sweet. Again, I just want to reiterate for people who will read this just how stupid of a person I am. I am not claiming to be smarter than Leonard Cohen. I am a dumbass and I don’t know anything. I’ve just always been turned off by art that comes off as bougie to me. There was so much cooler shit from this time that I would love to listen to instead. I don’t hate the guy. I don’t wish ill on his family or anything it’s just that every song so far sounds the same.
Do you recognize any of the songs so far?
The only thing I can legitimately say I’ve heard is “Hallelujah.”
I think if you’re going to like a song here it’s the next one “Diamonds In The Mine.” It’s a full band track with an arrangement that lets loose a bit. Plus his voice does a few more interesting things.
Oh, is fun allowed in this band? I didn’t know. I don’t even hate downer shit. I’m a huge Nick Drake and John Martyn fan—any of those sad fuckers. But for some reason, Leonard Cohen seems like the guy at a party who just talks about his shit to you to the point where you’re like, “I don’t know, man. I just want to grab another beer. I don’t want to talk about the socio-political state of the world.”
It’s safe to say you’re not going to write a love song where you quote the Bible extensively?
Yeah, I may have tried that years ago but it just doesn’t work for me. Leonard Cohen is self-loathing in a “I went to college” way and I’m self-loathing in a “I skipped school and broke windows” way. I appreciate his honesty and overtness in how dour this song is though. God damn.
4."Diamonds in the Mine"
I think you’ll like this one.
Ehh, so far this sounds like Lou Reed and I’m sorry to say, I never liked Lou Reed. I like John Cale way more. John Cale is actually funny.
Even Coney Island Baby or Transformer? I love those records.
I’ve heard those two a lot. I like his guitar playing. Those two have never done it for me. I love New York but there’s something about New York 60s guys that rub me the wrong way. Yeah, I fucking hate this. The background vocals sound kind of cool. It has a cool Island Records-dub sort of feel. The big thing with this guy is obviously his lyrics and I’m just not into it.
Are you a music-first, lyrics-second listener?
Not necessarily. I love lyrics. As far as music goes, I used to love Bukowski and beat poetry when I was a kid but the older I get the more I get away from it. I really like Cass McCombs right now. He’s funny and probably my favorite contemporary lyricist. I like astute observations about the small, minute shit in the world. Bill Callahan’s a good example of that too. I like minutiae instead of these grand scale, “Man vs. Love, Man vs. God, Man Vs. The World” shit like this Leonard Cohen album. I want to hear “Man vs. The Toilet That Won’t Flush.”
5."Love Calls You by Your Name"
Not every Leonard Cohen album sounds like this. Death of a Ladies Man , his fifth record, is much more maximalist with Phil Spector producing, and his later one I’m Your Man is one of my favorites and utilized synths.
That could be cool. I’ve heard of I’m Your Man because it was also a documentary. I remember I was really into U2 and I was watching them play at the United Center and Bono just said, “Leonard Cohen. I’m Your Man.” He was promoting it and I think that was the first time I had heard of him.
Yeah, U2 was featured in and performed that concert film.
Also, did you notice that there’s too much like crushed velvet in photos of him? He’s also using a cigarette holder? I don’t know, man. Was he married or did he date the woman who sounds like him?
He actually never married but has been romantically linked with a lot of people. Who are you talking about?
That big German folk singer…
Oh, Nico? Funny you say that, there’s a song here called “Joan of Arc” that’s allegedly about her.
Damn. Did he really say, “Shouldering your loneliness / Like a gun that you will not learn to aim.” Oh stop. This playboy New York City boy thing turns me off like, “Oh, let’s give each other chlamydia in the Chelsea Hotel.” He lived in New York right?
"I just assumed he’d write this from his crushed velvet couch or something."
He definitely did. He’s from Montreal but lived in New York.
There it is. I know some Montreal to New York transplants and it’s definitely a vibe. This music is just like digging into a novel. Maybe I just don’t like his face. If you walked to his apartment, I feel like his bookshelf will fall over and kill me.
6."Famous Blue Raincoat"
This is my favorite song on the record. It’s a pretty heavy song. The narrator is writing to the man who his lover is cheating on him with.
Damn, dog. You know what else works? Just going over and talking to them and having a conversation. See, I think he’s a fine writer. I can’t write this good. But I just assumed he’d write this from his crushed velvet couch or something.
There’s also a line in here about Scientology.
Oh, I just heard it. “Did you ever go clear?” I love people who have dabbled in Scientology. He gets one check up from me for dabbling in Scientology. He does have great lines. I see here he signs off the song with “Sincerely, L. Cohen.” God, shut up man. I should’ve listened to this at 19 when I was more impressionable. If I’m feeling that kinda way like I need a good cry or something, I’ll just go on Reddit instead of listening to a record. I like big emotional stakes in records but this guy should just take a Zoloft.
We only have two songs left.
I will say that I like how the guitar is recorded. It’s a nice sounding record.
7."Sing Another Song, Boys"
This one was recorded at the Isle of Wight Festival.
Ah, a live thing. I like when that happens. The Who did a live record from there and it’s one of my favorites of all time. I like when bands add a live song to the studio albums though. This Heat did it and my favorite band of all time …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead did it too. They’re the only band I’ve loved since 7th grade that I still love. I see them all the time still and I’m like front row. Now, I almost meet them and I get scared.
"He gets one check up from me for dabbling in Scientology."
So has anything caught your ear so far?
I would never put this on, at home or in the car. If someone put this on in the tour van which is where I listen to most music, I would ask them to put something else on.
What are the go-to tour van albums?
Recently, I’ve been listening to stupid-ass noise records and jazz records and Built To Spill. I just got Apple Music and I don’t even use to find new music ever. I just use it whenever I think, “Damn, I haven’t heard Skankin’ Pickle in a while. Now I can check it out whenever I want.” Same with shit like DC Talk and even Switchfoot. That band rules. I don’t remember my mom’s birthday but I do remember who the lead singer of Switchfoot was. They have like, four great records and cool guitar tones. I can’t believe I’ve spent the last 40 minutes shitting on Leonard Cohen and now I’m saying how great Switchfoot is.
Now that I’m getting older I’m softening up to all the music I loved as a kid and was embarrassed by in college.
I’ve tried to be a music snob for years and now I just have to admit that I love DC Talk and Relient K. You reach an age where you just don’t care like you did when you were 22.
8."Joan of Arc"
Here’s the last one.
This is the big one. The closer, which is always the most important part of a record. Yeah, he just said “Joan of Arc.”
This is the one that’s supposedly about Nico.
Wasn’t she like a racist or a homophobe or something?
Wait, I think you might be right. I knew about Moe Tucker being a Tea Party activist but now that you mention it I do remember reading that Nico was kind of awful.
Yeah, she was a racist. Fuck Nico.
Looking it up, she apparently attacked a woman at the Chelsea Hotel with a smashed wine glass, stuck it near her eye, and said, "I hate black people."
Oh shit, yeah. I hope her and Leonard went dutch on those dates. Jesus.
Yeah, if that happened, which according to Danny Fields it did, that’s pretty unambiguously awful.
Also this song might be my least favorite one so far.
Damn. I’m sorry man.
This guy’s a good writer. He makes beautiful words. I just feel absolutely nothing with it. This is like people’s Saturday Night self-loathing records and I got different self-loathing records like Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind from 1997. It’s obviously late-era Dylan but it’s gorgeous. It has bare bones production like this but his vocals in there are more observant of minutiae instead of making some grand argument that goes nowhere. Dylan, to me, knows intrinsically how to solve his shit or go through it somehow. This music feels like hitting a wall. This album was exactly what I expected. Nothing surprised me.