Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Leonard Cohen: The Stranger Song



Leonard Cohen performing on The Julie Felix Show in 1967. "The Stranger Song" is from Cohen's debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, which had a limited release on December 27, 1967, and a greater release in February 1968.


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The song uses the card game of poker to suggest something greater about love and relationships. In the parlance of the 1960s, a dealer was someone who viewed romantic liaisons as a game of chance, looking for temporary shelter but no long-term commitments. Today, such a man might be called a "player."

On the surface, the song speaks about the men and women who each get involved in relationships that eventually end badly, the focus elsewhere and not on the original object of desire. But it also speaks about dreams, possibilities and what means we all use to achieve such dreams. In this case, poker is a fine metaphor in that players have to decide on what (cards) to keep and what to give up. There might be serious regrets later on, with the strong and sad realization that we have given up the wrong thing, or person.

Note the tear in Leonard Cohen's eye at the song's conclusion.

The Stranger
By Leonard Cohen

It's true that all the men you knew were dealers
who said they were through with dealing
Every time you gave them shelter
I know that kind of man
It's hard to hold the hand of anyone
who is reaching for the sky just to surrender,
who is reaching for the sky just to surrender.
And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind
you find he did not leave you very much
not even laughter

Like any dealer he was watching for the card
that is so high and wild
he'll never need to deal another
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger

And then leaning on your window sill
he'll say one day you caused his will
to weaken with your love and warmth and shelter
And then taking from his wallet
an old schedule of trains, he'll say
I told you when I came I was a stranger
I told you when I came I was a stranger.

But now another stranger seems
to want you to ignore his dreams
as though they were the burden of some other
O you've seen that man before
his golden arm dispatching cards
but now it's rusted from the elbows to the finger
And he wants to trade the game he plays for shelter
Yes he wants to trade the game he knows for shelter.

Ah you hate to see another tired man
lay down his hand
like he was giving up the holy game of poker
And while he talks his dreams to sleep
you notice there's a highway
that is curling up like smoke above his shoulder.
It is curling just like smoke above his shoulder.

You tell him to come in sit down
but something makes you turn around
The door is open you can't close your shelter
You try the handle of the road
It opens do not be afraid
It's you my love, you who are the stranger
It's you my love, you who are the stranger.

Well, I've been waiting, I was sure
we'd meet between the trains we're waiting for
I think it's time to board another
Please understand, I never had a secret chart
to get me to the heart of this
or any other matter
When he talks like this
you don't know what he's after
When he speaks like this,
you don't know what he's after.

Let's meet tomorrow if you choose
upon the shore, beneath the bridge
that they are building on some endless river
Then he leaves the platform
for the sleeping car that's warm
You realize, he's only advertising one more shelter
And it comes to you, he never was a stranger
And you say ok the bridge or someplace later.

And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind ...

And leaning on your window sill ...
I told you when I came I was a stranger.

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