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Nico of the Velvet Underground, and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Joan of Arc’

Leonard Cohen said that his song Joan of Arc ‘came through’ Nico of the Velvet Underground. I think these lines are about her-

She said, I’m tired of the war,
I want the kind of work I had before,

Listening to Nico, I hear a tired or world weary quality in her voice – but it isn’t sentimental. Also her voice has an unusually matter of fact tone, which contrasts in the songs with Lou Reed’s strange and emotional lyrics.

Typically a wedding would be an emotional time – so Cohen draws attention to her lack of sentimentality in the lines –

A wedding dress or something white
To wear upon my swollen appetite.

suggesting that the wedding dress is a practical item to her, a covering. Her focus is on the whiteness, and not so much on the wedding or the dress. Nico said she felt very disconnected from the world – and these lyrics seem to describe that.

‘Swollen appetite’ sounds unsentimental and erotic. I think it suits her. Nico is turned on by music but she doesn’t let it alter the coolness of her voice. Her bands name ‘The Velvet Underground’ is similarly erotic and unsentimental.

Here she is carefully cutting her fringe and smiling, as captured by Andy Warhol. The song on the video is Nico’s beautiful version of ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-sKzMEQ6MUo

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If you have any ideas about how Nico inspired this great Cohen song, then I would like to hear from you. It is possible that he said that the song was about her merely as flirtation after she said he was ‘completely unnecessary’. However I like the idea that she really did inspire the initial writing of the song.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FjjDmX9Tkss – Nico singing Lou Reed’s Femme Fatale

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pPf5Ki9ygVY – Leonard Cohen’s Joan of Arc

Wikipedia supports the idea that Nico was the inspiration for the song. The encyclopedia also notes that the structure in which the song is both sung and recited on parallel tracks – most obvious in the first and last four lines was inspired by Medieval music.

Nico first met Jim Morrison when he was tripping and naked and curious about her hair. She thought he was trying to kill her. Later they became good friends and she said he was her ‘soul brother’. I think perhaps she was harsh on Leonard Cohen out of loyalty to Jim Morrison. She used to light a candle for Jim Morrison every night, although he was alive at that time.

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Leonard Cohen’s ‘Joan of Arc’ – Interviews and Introductions to the Song

Frankfurt 06/05/70
‘This is a song called ‘The Marriage of Joan Of Arc”

Stockholm 03/04/72
‘A song that I wrote for a brave woman.’

Birmingham 18/09/74
Modified Verses – ‘virgin’ instead of ‘only’

Who are you ?, she sternly spoke
To the voice beneath the smoke
And saying this she climbed inside
To be his one, to be his virgin bride

I think this change in the bride’s description is in recognition of the historical Joan of Arc’s vow to abstain from sex.

She was said to be a virgin and called herself Jeanne la Pucelle which is French for Joan the Maid. Historically a maid meant a young, unmarried girl. From Joan’s perspective this would emphasize both her femininity and her virginity.

Paris 19/10/74
Now a song about a woman that has haunted me for a long time.

Interview with Kathleen Kendal 04/12/74

I think it’s just a song about total gift, of total giving and total consummation of a spirit in that kind of experience. It takes in the whole shot to me- man and woman.

Paris 20/10/74
This song was written for a German girl* I used to know. She’s a great singer, I love her songs. I recently read an interview where she was asked about me and my work. And she said “I was completely unnecessary”. Anyhow…. I hope she’s not here. This song came through her.

* Nico

( Soho Weekly News, Vol. 1, #9. Thursday, December 5, 1974 –

Yes, and we went to a Japanese restaurant. Nico and Cindy Cale and our driver. She told me she never goes out, but she made an exception in my case, in deference to friendship. It was shortly after that she remarked to an English journalist who was asking her about various people in the music industry, when he asked her about me, she said, “Oh, he is completely unnecessary.” (laughter)

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Nico and Cohen

Paris 23/02/85
J’ai reçu un télégramme juste avant le spectacle, si je peux appeler ça comme ça. C’était une jeune fille de 6 ans et elle m’a demandé de jouer “Joan Of Arc”, et je veux la faire pour elle.’

English translation: ‘I received a telegram just before the show, if I can call it that. It was from a 6 year old girl who asked me to perform ‘Joan Of Arc’, and I want to play it for her.’

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Leonard Cohen said that Nico was the inspiration for Joan of Arc. Here is Nico talking about how she feels about her world –

 ‘Jim Morrison tells me that people are looking at the streets while I am looking at the moon. I do not feel connected enough [with the issues] to throw stones at a policeman. I want to throw stones at the whole world.’ 

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Joan of Arc, Reflection and Clarity

No moon to keep her armour bright,
No man to get her through this very smoky night.

The storyteller continues by telling us that the night is smokey and there is no moon – or at least no moon visible.

This simplifies the stage and makes the two elements stronger. It suggests that the only light she has are from the fire which will destroy her. An awareness of death gives clarity to what life is. Before Joan of Arc and Fire start conversing, her armour is dull.

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As well as the dark, the night is also smokey. Humanity never knows what is going to happen next. Both the past and future are smokey and unclear.

However the storyteller is able to see her, and the smokeyness – which suggests there is illumination from the flames.

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Normally the sun reflects onto the moon. Before fire introduces himself properly- Joan of Arc is like a solitary moon, only dimly illuminated by his distant presence. Joan of Arc was a French girl and the French word for love is – amour. It is pronounced similarly to the English word armour.

Traditionally the lone damsel would be rescued by a knight in shining armour – but Joan of Arc is a mythical woman and embodies both the knight and damsel in one entity. This is similar to the way that the moons light is not of itself, but of the other – the Sun. She appears more masculine than she is.

So although the night is dark and smokey, the following fire reflects off her armour – but not brightly at this point in the story. I think these lines are about reflection. This theme is introduced with two strong ideas –

The Moon – which is normally made visible by reflecting the Sun.
Her Armour – which is of a reflective nature, but lacks sufficient light to shine brightly.

Joan of Arc is without her opposing element to illuminate her.

We learn that she is single on her journey – which represents life.

These lines suggest that the following flames, have illuminated her enough to make her reflect on her solitary nature. At the least, the storyteller is made aware of her solitude, and sounds sympathetic.

The storyteller is in the awkward position of watching her, and seeing her solitude. We might expect a woman alone in the dark to be vulnerable – especially with the dangerous element of fire pursuing her. This makes her boldness, pride and fearlessness more dramatic when we hear of it.

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The moon is normally the queen of the night, so by editting the moon out of the scene, it is clear that it is Joan of Arc who is Queen – although she is alone (apart from distance fire, and the watching storyteller) so what exactly she is ruling is unclear.

Her metal armour is also symbolic of clarity. In this mythical set up, there is little light near her, and her armour is not bright. This suggests that she is in a state of innocence or unknowing.

She lacks the clarity she finds when she meets her counterpart – Fire or Death personified so brilliantly later on in this song.

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The Opening Lines of Joan of Arc by Leonard Cohen

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I think that the album ‘Songs of Love and Hate’ is a philosophical journey through life and it’s polarities. Leonard Cohen introduces the theme of ‘Love and Hate’ with Avalanche. In the song a man tries to control a woman, but is unable to perfect it, because she is inherently powerful. He finds her desirable but himself ugly. Cohen introduces the theme of polarities with attraction to the other and repulsion of the self.  Like a yin yang, all opposites contain some of the other. Nothing is absolute.

He concludes the album with ‘Jon of Arc’. I think it is about another element between love and hate, the connection of life and death. The emotional landscape of all humans is affected by our mortality. People keep falling off the edge of the world, and we don’t know where they go. What song can help us with this? The old songs have grown bitter. People want a new story. Our favourite stories are about heroic individuals.

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Anyone who has read a history book knows that stories go on for a long time. If death was absolute then the stories would end with the people, but they do not. However Leonard Cohen bridges the gap between life and death even further. This is a heroic story of an individual meeting her end, but also has a strong mythical element – it is about how life and death are wedded together in the hearts of every man, up until their death and beyond it.

‘Now the flames they followed Joan of Arc
as she came riding through the dark;’

This sentence is exciting because the storyteller observed from a distance. He tells us that he saw Joan of Arc riding, and the flames followed her. Joan of Arc is on horseback and travelling. This represents life itself – journeying forward alone though the darkness. Well almost alone – life has a stalker. The stalker is death! Cohen uses mythical imagery to tell us that wherever life is, death is not far behind. Once it gets going Fire moves around and flames reach upwards. This means it is of the masculine principle. It has visible outward effects on other objects. It behaves like death.

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She has some control, but is carried by her horse.

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She is of the feminine principle, but in her intensity she is travelling on horseback and propelled forward.

The fire represents death. It actively follows her. Death doesn’t need to be carried on a horse – it has it’s own energy. Perhaps she knows the fire is there, perhaps not. Either way she is focused on her goals, and propelled towards them.

Cohen decided to personify the fire, and give a voice to death itself. This is a very exciting element of the song. What is it like to speak to death? Perhaps it is just like being wedded to death, which is every mans experience anyway. Joan of Arc keeps her cool.

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Perhaps it is unfair to call Death a stalker. In the song Cohen doesn’t say that Death hates Joan of Arc. Actually Death is full of admiration for her, especially when he sees how boldly she meets him. Death isn’t good or evil. It is only the opposite of life. It is an element, and it has a way of behaving, but it has no bad intentions towards us. The Fire of the song is not a nasty reaper. He is wedded to life and a likable character.

Joan of Arc is both a historical and a mythical woman. The song is an inspirational story about what it means to be human, and confronting mortality.