Few albums are so austere as Leonard Cohen’s Songs from a Room. Cohen’s debut, Songs of Leonard Cohen, has a lushness not only in its musical arrangements, but also in its lyrics. On his second album, however, the singer eschewed the abundant, Dylanesque imagery of his earlier songs. To describe Cohen’s approach to Songs from a Room as minimalistic doesn’t quite capture its atmosphere. The word that better expresses the record’s denuded landscape feel is erasure.
As a literary technique, erasure has a few notable practitioners. Ronald Johnson, who published Radi Os, a creative expurgation of the text of Milton’s Paradise Lost, is one. Another, Damion Searl, had the intriguing idea of subtracting a condensed version of Moby Dick from Melville’s full text. The result, ; or, the Whale, consists of all the text that had been abscized from the original to make the abridged version. Songs from a Room represents a different, though related, kind of erasure than these examples, one that occurs through happenstance rather than radical intention.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on the album’s one song that Cohen did not write. “La complainte du partisan,” written by Anna Marly and later adapted into English by Hy Zaret, was originally a song of the French Resistance during World War II. According to biographies of Cohen, the singer first encountered the song as a teenager, when he came across a friend’s copy of The People’s Songbook. The anthology compiled songs of resistance from around the world, and together these formed Cohen’s introduction to folk music and its message of social change.
The politicized context of The People’s Songbook is vastly different from that in which Cohen’s version of “The Partisan” appears. The specific circumstances of the original—World War II, fascism—are almost completely absent. Stripped of historical markers, the events of the song play out on an empty stage. This displacement reveals in the song a Beckett-like atmosphere of existential dread.
Curiously, this effect owes a great deal to the differences between the original French text and the English translation. The first lines of the original introduce the historical context. The song begins, in French, “Les Allemands étaient chez moi [the Germans were at my home].” In the English version this phrase is more opaque: “When they poured across the border.” Differences continue into the next line, with the original “Ils me dirent: resigne-toi [they told me to surrender],” making use of both an active verbal construction and a direct command. The line has far more urgency than the passive construction of the translation: “I was cautioned to surrender.” Finally, in the translation, the insertion of the word “vanished” in the last line of the stanza further contributes to the more desolate atmosphere of the English text.
Similar alterations persist throughout the song. Not only do these changes serve to place the text in a more generic, rather than specifically historical, context (e.g., by changing “Allemands [Germans]” to “soldiers,” as in the fourth verse), they also serve to make the narrator’s situation seem far less hopeful. In both versions, the narrator speaks of his anonymity and the loss of his family, and in both versions, companionship tempers this hardship. In the original, however, this companionship takes the form of a triumphal declaration of camaraderie and patriotism:
J’ai changé cent fois de nom [I have changed names a hundred times]
J’ai perdu femme et enfants [I have lost wife and children]
Mais j’ai tante d‘amis [but I have so many friends]
J’ai la France entière [I have all of France]
In the translation, the narrator also speaks of having “many friends,” but there seems little solace in the line that follows: “and some of them are with me.”
Cohen presumably used the translation he was familiar with from The People’s Songbook. Hy Zaret, in leaving references to France and Germany out of his translation, was perhaps thinking of the song’s intended use as a universal hymn of resistance to power. Cohen grew up in Montreal, and has made ample use of French elsewhere in his work—he has demonstrated a good command of the language. It’s certainly possible that he recognized the differences and that they factored into his decision to cover the song. Still, one biographer, Ira B. Nadel, suggests that the decision to include French verses as well—which highlights the differences between the versions—was in fact not made by Cohen, but rather by the album’s producer, Bob Johnston. That only three of the five English verses featured are also sung in the original French suggests that their inclusion was more haphazard than deliberate.
Cohen may or may not have recognized the discrepancies between the two versions and knowingly decided to include the song based on the effect of those discrepancies. Regardless, this effect owes its impact to the context in which Cohen’s version of “The Partisan” appears. The economy of imagery throughout Songs from a Room renders every detail significant. Only a handful of figures populate its barren landscape, and these figures have a very close relationship as a result.
Characters appearing in one song often resurface later on. On the record’s first track, “Bird on the Wire,” Cohen sings:
I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch
He said to me,“You must not ask for so much”
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door
She cried to me, “Hey, why not ask for more?”
These two figures reappear, in slightly different guise, in “The Old Revolution.” Addressing a number of groups in such a way that the listener as well feels implicated, the speaker’s pronouncement that “the hand of your beggar is burdened down with money / The hand of your lover is clay” seems to illuminate the mystery of the earlier lines. The beggar has asked for worldly things and received more than his fill. The woman, on the other hand, longs for something distinct from the worldly realm, evoked by the word “clay.” It is to that different kind of longing that the “pretty woman” of “Bird on the Wire” refers.
Yet another discrepancy between the two versions of “The Partisan” illustrates just how precise Cohen is in his use of language. The partisan and his companions receive help in the form of shelter. In the original, it is an old man, “un vieil homme,” who provides the shelter; in the translation, it is an old woman. Whatever the reasoning behind the change of such a seemingly small detail, the English version is more in line with the roles men and women play on the album. Elder men evoke both the cruelty and omnipotence of the Old Testament God, most explicitly on “The Story of Isaac” and “The Butcher.” There is no place on the album for the beneficent, grandfatherly figure that appears in the original French text.
Anthony DeCurtis, in the liner notes to the recently reissued version of Songs from a Room, speaks of the context in which the album appeared when it was first released in 1969. He mentions the influence that living in the United States had on Cohen. He mentions Vietnam. For DeCurtis, “The Partisan” evokes World War II as a rebuke to the warmongers of the day. The song’s central figure fights for a cause that is morally unambiguous. The United States’ military leaders could hardly make such a claim about Vietnam.
But the differing versions of “The Partisan” undermine its efficacy as a piece of anti-Vietnam propaganda. Nor is it simply a question of the English version being a poor translation. In venturing somewhat afield from the literal text, Zaret is not being untrue to the original—his version merely serves to highlight themes already present, if in less articulated form. Zaret unmasks the tension lurking beneath the surface of the song, the angst that seems too large for any one specific situation. The protagonist suffering is not historical, but rather human.
This dilemma is similar to that faced by the protagonists of the album’s two most overtly religious songs, “The Story of Isaac” and “The Butcher.” Both protagonists struggle with a violent God, the stern father figure of the Old Testament. This figure’s actions are unjust, but as he himself embodies a system of belief to which there is no alternative, all accusations of injustice are in vain. The protagonists teeter back and forth between awe and disillusionment. The narrator, Isaac, speaks of his father’s hand (poised to commit the violent act of sacrifice) “trembling / with the beauty of the word.” And yet this picture of Abraham differs greatly from the uncouth figure of the song’s early verses, a man who timorously claims that “I must do what I’ve been told”; who shatters a bottle of wine once he’s finished with it. The ambiguity is summed up in Isaac’s line, “I thought I saw an eagle / but it might have been a vulture.”
“The Butcher” provides the analog to the different kinds of struggle that dominate each version of “The Partisan.” The original offers a clear enemy and a hero who, though he suffers greatly, does so for a just cause. The English version removes the enemy from the equation, and as the hero’s suffering comes to the fore, his cause seems more and more futile. When the protagonist of “The Butcher” confronts the figure of the title, a stand-in for God, with the injustice of his actions, the answer he receives is paralyzing: “Listen to me, child / I am what I am / and you, you are my only son.” Here, as in the altered text of “The Partisan,” the idea of a clear enemy has been removed. The accused not only denies guilt; his rebuttal is so powerful that the accuser himself feels implicated.
The empty space is palpable on Songs from a Room. The smallest note resonates against the backdrop of what isn’t there. The album sounds remarkably complete, each note in each song falling at precisely the right moment, the songs balanced perfectly against one another. Using the term “erasure” in reference to the album isn’t meant to suggest that Cohen deliberately left anything out, or that the album was carved out of some more full-bodied earlier version. It’s just that no other term can quite express the “reduced” quality of the recording. There is, again, that sense of emptiness which is itself a presence, which brushes against the music’s perfection in such a way as to both emphasize it and render it insignificant. The songs on the record are propped up against a wall of silence in both defiance and awe. Though the songs are complete in themselves, that silence suggests a mystery that is unfathomable. The album’s main struggle, and that of its songs’ protagonists, is the struggle of deciding, in the face of such mystery, whether to stand upright or to be cowed.