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Leonard Cohen's 'I'm Your Man' Album Turns 30: Artists Reflect on the 'Dark,' 'Cheesy' Masterpiece

Leonard Cohen
Frans Schellekens/Redferns

Leonard Cohen performs at the Muziektheater in Amsterdam, Netherlands on April 18, 1988.

It was 30 years ago this Groundhog’s Day (Feb. 2, 1988) that Leonard Cohen carved out the ultimate fork in his road to creative immortality.

If you were coming of age in 1988 and were wired into MTV’s 120 Minutes or an influential, cutting edge rock radio station like WLIR/WDRE in New York or KROQ in Los Angeles, your first taste of Leonard’s music may have very well been from the singles they played from the Bard’s then-new LP I’m Your Man. And though Cohen had been experimenting with fuller arrangements for his dark folk songs preceding the album with 1977’s Phil Spector-produced Death of a Ladies’ Man and 1984’s Various Positions, the dynamic shift in the sound of Man arguably left a generation of kids under the impression the Canadian poet was a synthpop act, for his eighth studio LP marked a significant change in the approach he began taking in his songwriting after discovering the novelty of a Casio keyboard he had found. It was something he had introduced on the Various Positions highlights “Dance With Me to the End of Love.” But on I’m Your Man, he soaked his sentiments in those primitive digital tones that stood in contrast to the starkness of such early classics as Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs From A Room.

These eight songs were full of romance and humor with just a touch of evil. The most memorable song, of course, being the prophetic “Everybody Knows,” which served as the opening theme to the rogue broadcast of Christian Slater’s undercover pirate radio personality Hard Harry in 1990's Pump Up the Volume. It was a song famously covered by American alternative rock act Concrete Blonde for the movie’s soundtrack, one of several artists who have interpreted songs from I’m Your Man through the years, including R.E.M., Nick Cave, Don Henley, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Elton John, The Pixies and U2 among others. In fact, the album has the distinct honor of having two of its song titles pinched for LC tribute albums, once in 1991 for the Atlantic Records-released I’m Your Fan and then again in 1995 for the A&M issued Tower of Song: The Songs of Leonard Cohen.  

Such accolades and interpretations are a testament to the importance of I’m Your Man in the context of the Leonard Cohen canon. In honor of this anniversary, Billboard spoke with some of the album’s biggest acolytes from across the music spectrum about the way this strange and beautiful little record defined their relationship with the man behind Man.

Sylvie Simmons, author of I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen

It was a very interesting new direction. And one of the reasons he had gotten into synths actually was because he had gotten hit with a complete block for writing songs. He told me his one chop with a guitar as he put it had made him run out of ideas. And then he got this Casio where you can hit a little button and get all these different beats and rhythms on it, and that was a help to him in writing new songs. Not that there was any speed, because it was Leonard Cohen. But he was able to come up with a new sound. And I think it was much easier for a lot of people in America to get into. In Britain and Europe, people love that kind of darker music. The older civilizations dug that black humor that was in there and that melancholy; whereas the Americans loved the obvious humor of something like “Tower of Song.” It was much more upbeat in rhythm and lyrically it was more hidden than it was when he was playing his Spanish guitar.  

Eric Slick, Dr. Dog

My friend Dave Dreiwitz (Ween) played I’m Your Man for me on a long drive through New Hope, PA. I thought it sounded wild. I had never heard his earlier acoustic stuff so I just assumed he was making songs like that all along. I recently heard “Jazz Police” at a thrift store and I assumed it was a mashup of Synclavier-era Frank Zappa with Leonard Cohen singing on top. I guess I forgot what “Jazz Police” really sounded like. I chortled for the entirety of that song. What a great tune. I think Leonard Cohen is kind of like Captain Beefheart or Laurie Anderson. As artists we almost look to them to ask, “Is it okay to make a record that sounds like this?” They’re the trailblazers, they pave the way. They allow the lesser artists to potentially make safer, albeit more financially successful records. Those lesser records carry the influence and help popularize the germ of the idea. I also have a low singing voice, so Leonard gives me hope that maybe one day somebody will write a thinkpiece about how low singing is under-appreciated. I look through Leonard’s work all the time and try to pay attention to the annotated Genius lyrics. It’s good to get into the rhythm of other people’s lyrics when you’re writing. I’ve also been thinking about I’m Your Man lately, and how i’m gonna steal a lot of those cheesy production techniques for my next record. I’m also a painfully slow writer, as was Leonard. I’m also Jewish. There’s so much we have in common, except he’s a brilliant poet, and I’m some doofus writing about how much I admire him as a fanatic. Can someone tell me where he was buying his suits, though? That’s the real burning question. 

Adam Franklin, Swervedriver

I knew the acoustic stuff. I liked it though and the thing is the songs - the melodies but more specifically the words - manage to transcend the sound, which wasn't exactly in line with the rest of the stuff we were getting into at the time. But in a way though it was reclaiming that '80s production because the songs were so powerful. I think he was just someone in the habit of getting his songs across by whichever means he had available at his disposal. In the late '60s it was simply an acoustic guitar; by the '80s he had gotten a hold of some more 'contemporary devices.' It was a kinda futuristic sound I guess - it sort of feels like it could be the soundtrack to a David Cronenberg movie or something. The best music of the '80s transcends the Linndrum era! There's an attitude about the dark machinations of the world in songs like “Everybody Knows” and “First We Take Manhattan,” some lines of which may have taken on more gravitas over the years: "Everybody knows the war is over / Everybody knows the good guys lost / Everybody knows the fight was fixed / The poor stay poor, the rich get rich" (and although he says that everybody knows, I feel that fewer people knew back then) - and then what about the lines "Ah you loved me as a loser, but now you're worried that I just might win / You know the way to stop me, but you don't have the discipline"?  

Daniel Brady Lynch (Bummerville)

I'm Your Man is a classic. For me, that was the first time I heard Cohen's iconic voice truly surround me in the forefront with his songs in full production. Besides being a sucker for hearing some truly juicy synth work in that atmosphere, it was the graininess of his voice that really came out in that sound. I have a crushing soft spot for “I Can't Forget."

Cindy Wilson, the B-52’s

I put on Leonard Cohen a lot, and especially I’m Your Man. He’s very satisfying, like a long drink of water. You kinda feel nervous when you listen to him. Also, as a woman, at times he makes me even swoon, y’know? He speaks to the inner longing in your soul as a woman. As an artist, it really makes me in awe of him, that effortlessness he presented in his voice and the way he conveyed himself in his lyrics. But as a regular human being, I’m just grateful we have his music and can listen to it anytime we want. He was so progressive. 

Martha Davis, The Motels

When I think of Leonard Cohen I don’t think about synths or much of anything other than that voice, those lyrics and a pure and simple melody. I realized after being asked about his use of synthesizers on I'm Your Man how much arranging took place on those records, synthesized or not.  I was kind of stunned that I hadn’t noticed.  I guess it’s because, as much as I love synthesizers, I love a good song even more. Leonard Cohen was about the song. If I’m wrong, you can report me to the Jazz Police. 

Marc Bianchi aka Her Space Holiday

What drew me to Leonard Cohen’s music was his ability to create compelling emotional landscapes in a lean way. Leonard’s approach to his early work showed me that if you had a story to tell, then you had a song to sing no matter how limited the vocal range. It was an exciting and liberating prospect. Understanding that I’m Your Man was hailed as Cohen’s “second coming” by many, it’s hard for me to decipher if the album was born from newfound musical confidence or looming insecurity about where Leonard saw his place in contemporary music at the time. It may be a matter of context from not experiencing the record until years after its release, but to me the heavy-handed production choices made the album feel unnecessarily ornate and cartoonish in spots. I like the lyrics and vocal deliveries, and I think they are among some of Cohen’s strongest and darkest. Unfortunately, I find myself having to block out what is swirling around them sonically to get to the core of the message. It’s obvious that I’m Your Man spoke to many people, alas I have yet to learn its language.

John Fryer, 4AD producer

I found the use of SYNTHS on the I'm Your Man album really took Leonard's work to a whole other worldly dimension. They seemed to add more feeling and depth even to an off Broadway vibe at times. It was a means of gifting the next generation with sound whilst taking them forward well before Leonard's final frontier. It was an exploration into delivering his emotive lyrics in a new fashion. 

Neal Morse, Spock’s Beard

With the entrance of modern keyboard sounds, at least modern for the '80s, Leonard Cohen took a quantum leap forward. This is really the main style and sound of Cohen that I recognize. The moodiness and haunting quality of his voice really work well with all the spacey keyboard sequences and hypnotic drum machine sounds. 

Pete Astor, covered “Take This Longing” from 1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony on the 1991 tribute album I’m Your Fan

I loved the way that him using synths and drum boxes on Various Positions and beyond gave the music a new tone; it got more real and more moving by not straining to be ‘natural’ or ‘sincere.'

Bill Pritchard, covered the title track to I’m Your Man on the 1991 tribute album I’m Your Fan

When I was at school in the mid to late seventies a lot of people thought I was weird listening to The Songs of Leonard Cohen album, but it was always about the songs and the great lyrics for me. Then a lo-fi sound with almost cheesy synths came along, still with great songs and great lyrics the album I’m Your Man. The simple synthetic backing for me just accentuates the true earthy lyrics and great tunes. I also found it very funny! 

Andy McCluskey, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD)

We had played a concert once in Paris, and he came to see us. And we were falling all over him, telling him how much we loved his music, and how we were honored that he came to see us play. So there was lots of mutual admiration there. But when I first heard about Leonard using the synthesizer, I was like really? It was intriguing, and something I would never have suspected. So when I went and got the album, I have to say I was rather ambivalent about it. For me, it was largely a disappointment. My feeling was I felt the use of synthesizers and programming sounded a bit dated. It was released in ’88, but it sounded a bit flat, like someone jus tasked, “What does electronic music sound like? Oh, OK, I’ll use this.” And so I found some of the sounds a bit disappointing. What’s interesting is the one where it’s so obviously a cheap and cheesy Casio accompaniment is head and shoulders the best song on the record, which is “Tower of Song.” There’s only two songs that I listen to on that album—“Tower” and “Take This Waltz.” Those two, happily, sit on a Leonard Cohen best-of playlist I have on my iTunes. Those two songs demonstrated his enduring genius to me. Could you imagine, though, how great I’m Your Man might have been had he asked Brian Eno or Vince Clarke or Martin Gore to produce it? That was a missed opportunity.

Nicole Atkins

I was 10 years old when I first heard Leonard Cohen, so I didn’t realize who I was listening to at the time. I remember Pump Up The Volume was always on cable back then, and I’d watch it all the time after school. And I remember when “Everybody Knows” came on, it was one of those songs that made the air in the room change. It’s like a landscape song; everything became icy and dark. And I almost kinda hated it, but was so drawn to it at the same time. Then I saw him at Radio City in 2008 and he played it, and I just melted. It was so cool. I cried. Hearing “Everybody Knows” and then being older and picking up his first record and hearing “Suzanne,” I was like, “This is the same person? Whoa!” There’s artists like him and Mark Lanegan and Tom Waits where you can hear them grow into their changing voices. My voice is kinda like that, too, so it makes me hopeful. 

Johnette Napolitano, Concrete Blonde 

The production was annoying and distracted me, but I can appreciate it now. The scariest thing on that record is "First We Take Manhattan." Which Metallica should cover. Truly, though, it was an honor to have been offered the opportunity to cover “Everybody Knows” for the film Pump Up The Volume. Leonard sent me yellow roses when I was in France with a note that said, "Thank you for covering [me] the best." 

Davey Ray Moor, CousteauX

I was living in Australia when "First We Take Manhattan" began to receive radio play on the continent. It struck me as a shiny nihilist manifesto. At the time I was luxuriating in his first two 1960s albums and was doing my best to avoid the music of the 1980s. Leonard had tried synth elements before on Various Positions, but they had sounded jarring to this lover of his music. I was more happy to hear nylon-string guitars and the truth. But I'm Your Man sounded as though it was the first time that the '80s Linn drum and Fairlight/Synclavier had learned how to purr with dark intent. I'm Your Man's textures now scaled Cohen up to a cinematic height.

But the real 'new thing' was that Leonard was prepared to play not-so-sweet, but instead screwed-up Leonard in songs like "First We Take Manhattan," "I'm Your Man" and "Jazz Police." Sure, he had previously inhabited deserters, philanderers and unreliable types, but now he had formed a new detached, arch perspective. It was as though he had found a way to amuse himself and divert the more fragrant pursuits of his earlier songs. Also, his voice had found its basement and a way to sing baritone with gently accurate technique. His earlier light baritone sound, straining at times to be a tenor, was long gone and had now settled into what sounds like an audio version of brandy and strong cigarettes.

A Lorca poem was transformed into mid-European dystopian torch song in "Take This Waltz," and "Tower of Song" closed the album with a playful reminder that Leonard, as a fan of song, was happy to be back in the zeitgeist. The album was everywhere in Europe in the final days of the Cold War. It's a Cold War album and it felt like a Milan Kundera novel. Even its cover made it clear that the razorblades guy had found his mojo again, and that he was thoroughly enjoying post-modernism.

I like baritone voices and I love it when the profane and the sacred meet in song. This album turned a light on for me and CousteauX. 

Michigan Rattlers

Leonard flirted with the use of synths on his album Various Positions, but I’m Your Man took it to a whole other level. Songs like “First We Take Manhattan” and “Jazz Police” combined deep percussive backdrops with heavy synth sounds. The arc of his career shows that he was never shy about exploring new ways to sound like himself. Lyrically, he was consistently ahead of everybody and by combining his lyrical content with the modern sounds of synthesizers, he was able to create some of the greatest and most interesting songs in rock music.

Vanessa Daou

I'm Your Man struck me as a kind of Declaration of Independence, with Cohen freeing himself from my/his audience’s expectations, as well as from the tyranny of his own style, which he was still governed by, yet not ruled by. I think at some point in the life of every great artist, there is that moment when they choose to take a leap into the dark. Not knowing where they’ll land, but knowing that it’s a leap they have to make in order to break free of their own creative chains, not simply to tantalize their audience, but themselves. I think, on this album, Cohen was having fun grappling with gigantic dragons, while all the while, metaphorically, wearing a suit and eating a banana as he sang.

I learned so much from I'm Your Man. I learned that the life and experience of an artist is expressed in the degree of depth, nuance, and egoless honesty of the voice. I learned that a life that is not truly lived cannot write, sing, or pretend to have lived fully, with such raw and brutal Truth. I learned that we need to grow alongside our artists, who become our friends, our peers, our guides through this great maze of life. I learned that it is the artists who do not play by the rules, who have cut their own paths and come to their own singular conclusions. Artists who have learned how to live, poetically, gracefully — to sing with a wink, and a tear.