Leonard Cohen and His Fellow Slowpoke Songwriters

mmatos | July 5, 2007 2:45 am

Leonard Cohen is on the cover of the current issue of The Word, and inside he discusses songwriting:

Cohen: When young songwriters ask me if I have any advice, this is the only advice I give them. It is: if you stick with a song long enough it will yield. But long enough is way beyond any reasonable duration. It’s not a week or two. It’s not a month or two. It’s not necessarily a year or two. If a song is to yield, you may have to stay with it for years and years.

Interviewer: That’s fascinating. What’s the longest gestation period for one of your songs?

Cohen: “Hallelujah” was at least five years. I have about 80 verses for it.

Even non-songwriters can feel Cohen on this point–this post alone took at least six months to cook up. But there are endless numbers of songs that took at least as long to gestate. For example:

A Tribe Called Quest, “Description of a Fool” It took Q-Tip ten weeks to find a fool to describe, and approximately 26 more months to come up with an actual description of him.

Paul Simon, “The Boy in the Bubble” Simon is on record as having taken three months to write this song, but what he conveniently leaves out is the amount of time it took to have the bubble constructed and then find the right boy to observe in it for those three months. Total time elapsed: two years on the nose.

Alice Cooper, “School’s Out” Took them 224 days to come up with “We can’t even think of a word that rhymes.”

The Rivingtons, “Papa Oom Mow Mow” Fifteen solid months of going to an office every day, sitting around a table with acoustic guitars, yellow notebooks, and music sheets, and struggling, straining, banging heads against tables, shouting matches, several near-breakups, one songwriter sleeping with another’s wife, a suicide attempt, copious blow, an unreasonable tab at the tavern near the office (paid for by the Rivingtons’ manager, who later sued), an immigration scare, and an unfortunate incident with a rogue paperweight led Carl White, Al Frazier, Sonny Harris, and Turner Wilson Jr. to pen this masterpiece. The studio sessions were as epic as the writing, with Harris constructing a tile box to record his vocals in while White began talking to the studio console in Lingala. He was later institutionalized, recording a cracked solo acoustic album titled Frog with production help from his former bandmates; it became a cult classic and inspired a tribute album on the C/Z label in 1994.

The Beatles, “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” Three years, seven months. Don’t ask.