I want to talk about what the song has meant to me, as well as what I now think it means.
In ‘Last Year’s Man’ he says ‘the wilderness is gathering all its children back again.’
I had the idea that he emerges from this song, like a man out of the wilderness.
He has neglected his appearance for too long, and it is time to make a change and update his look.
As a child, I could hear the song mentions shaving, and also feel the drama and tension of it. So I came to the idea it was about dramatic shaving! His face is obscured with his long scraggly beard and hair – and he is going to cut it all off!
When he looks at his face again, he remembers what he looks like. He reflects on everything that he has been though, and the strangeness of it. He is gaining energy and purpose to reconstruct normality. This is his new obsession.
Whenever I go through a big life change I like to cut my hair short. Hair takes a long time to grow, and so cutting it feels like a fresh start, and letting go of the past.
As we let go of the past, we also reflect on it. So I thought the song was about him cutting his hair, and shaving off his beard, and also thinking about everything that had happened to him whilst it had been growing.
Emma Watson played Hermione Granger for a very long time. When she had finished, she wanted to reflect on it all. She wasn’t able to do that whilst she was still focused on acting the part. She cut her hair to liberate herself from the burden of her previous image.
‘and wasn’t it a long way down,
wasn’t it a strange way down?’
Today I read interpretations of the song for the first time. I was annoyed that people would say it was about suicide. I thought it was because people jump to conclusions as soon as they hear a trigger word like ‘razor’.
There is a tendency for young people to write sensationalized poetry with aims for shock factor. I thought that these people were reading Cohen’s lyrics, and applying a sort of wishful thinking that he would try to do the same thing. That he would join their razor blade poem club. I noticed there were a troubling number of these misguided interpretations!
I continued with my day, but I was unsatisfied with both my old interpretation of the song, and also what I had heard other people write about it. I decided to investigate further. I now think the song is about contemplating suicide, and it is the slashing of wrists kind.
‘Dress Rehearsal Rag’ is not a song that children can easily access, but this is not a criticism of it! However I came to my ideas about the song a long time ago, and stuck rigidly with them.
I think, also many years ago, I argued with my brother about this song. He thought it was about suicide and I didn’t.
Veins appearing on his arm, seemed to me to be a natural result of clenching his fist.
Clenching a fist is just something people do when they feel very tense. He was just observing his veins as evidence of his tension, I said. I now think that he closes his fist deliberately to see where the veins are, because he wants to feel that suicide is something he is capable of carrying out. It is reassuring to him that he can imagine exactly where he would make the incision.
We have noticed his veins, and now he introduced the imagery of ivory. Carved tusk looks almost identical to carved bone. It is suggestive that he won’t just cut his wrists, in his mania he imagines cutting much deeper than that, right into his bone. He feels he has hurt other people as violently as this.
There is a guilt associated with ivory. It was once acceptable to have ornaments made of ivory. Now people are very aware of the cruelty of obtaining it. Elephants are shot just for their tusks. This means that even antique ivory carries with it a curious sinfulness, where once it was simple – pure luxury and an exotic style statement.
‘I thought you were the crown prince
of all the wheels in Ivory Town.’
He suggests that it was his pride and ego which kept the sinful trade in motion. Wheels suggest vehicles which suggest that it was not just one elephant that suffered, but many herds of the gentle creatures. His guilt mixes with his mania, and creates an intense image of himself as the king of cruelty. With this self image hot in his mind, he is fueled up to focus on the method of ending his life. At this point he feels that it is the only way that he can feel better about himself.
He arranges things so that he is only a few actions away from ending his life. He feels better about himself then. He can think ‘Yes, I did murder all the elephants in Africa and left them on the plains to die. Yes, I carted many waggons of ivory back – but at least, I have one redeeming feature, now I see I am bad. I will make sure no more elephants suffer because of me.’
Whilst he is still alive, he knows is it very likely that his extreme moods will continue to hurt others. He still gets pleasure from things, and he doesn’t wish to die. He just wants to feel that he is the kind of man, who would kill himself – and this is how he is able to think he isn’t entirely bad.
I am also interested in this part of the song –
Once there was a path
and a girl with chestnut hair,
and you passed the summers
picking all of the berries that grew there;
there were times she was a woman,
oh, there were times she was just a child,
and you held her in the shadows
where the raspberries grow wild.
He reflects back on his romantic life, and the things he has most enjoyed. The red berries delicious taste instantly rewards the lovers over and over again. This contrasts with the singular focus and challenge of his current task, which will instantly give him intense pain. Red can symbolise passion – which includes anger and romantic love. The two images are linked with the idea of the red blood, and red berry juice.
The colour red also appears in his mocking image of himself as Santa Claus. In his mania, he still thinks he is very important, but he also mocks himself for this. If it’s Christmas, and he is the most important person – then he must be Santa! This is the dance of some very dark humour, and it is difficult to express without the depth of Cohen’s voice. The song was covered by Judy Collins but she wasn’t pleased with her version. She had just met Leonard Cohen, and he had just written the song. They connected, and the cover is a result of that. However it is very hard to listen to and not in a good way!
Suicide rates are higher at Christmas. The Samaritans are aware of this, and say on their website ‘If Christmas starts to hurt, we’ll be here.’ In the UK they received 240,000 calls from people at Christmastime.
At this time of year the days are short and the weather is cold, and yet there is an expectation that people will be cheerful and united. All these things can trigger suicidal thoughts. Here is a link to their site –
Here is Judy Collins 10 years after meeting Leonard Cohen. They sing ‘Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’ together.