Essay Repost: Dress Rehearsal Rag

I wrote this in 2006, during a lull in my workplace that appeared to be stretching on into infinity. It was an attempt to recapture something I’d done during my degree in 2004 (for the Poetry: Text and Performance class), analysing song lyrics as poetry. The original attempt had involved the lyrics to Ani DiFranco’s Dilate, while this uses Leonard Cohen’s Dress Rehearsal Rag; in both cases I cheated by using lyricists who were also poets by profession, and in Cohen’s case a poet long before he began writing music.


Dress Rehearsal Rag, by Leonard Cohen:

Four o’clock in the afternoon
and I didn’t feel like very much.
I said to myself, “Where are you golden boy,
where is your famous golden touch?”
I thought you knew where
all of the elephants lie down,
I thought you were the crown prince
of all the wheels in Ivory Town.
Just take a look at your body now,
there’s nothing much to save
and a bitter voice in the mirror cries,
“Hey, Prince, you need a shave.”
Now if you can manage to get
your trembling fingers to behave,
why don’t you try unwrapping
a stainless steel razor blade?
That’s right, it’s come to this,
yes it’s come to this,
and wasn’t it a long way down,
wasn’t it a strange way down?

There’s no hot water
and the cold is running thin.
Well, what do you expect from
the kind of places you’ve been living in?
Don’t drink from that cup,
it’s all caked and cracked along the rim.
That’s not the electric light, my friend,
that is your vision growing dim.
Cover up your face with soap, there,
now you’re Santa Claus.
And you’ve got a gift for anyone
who will give you his applause.
I thought you were a racing man,
ah, but you couldn’t take the pace.
That’s a funeral in the mirror
and it’s stopping at your face.
That’s right, it’s come to this,
yes it’s come to this,
and wasn’t it a long way down,
ah wasn’t it a strange way down?

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.
And you climbed the twilight mountains
and you sang about the view,
and everywhere that you wandered
love seemed to go along with you.
That’s a hard one to remember,
yes it makes you clench your fist.
And then the veins stand out like highways,
all along your wrist.
And yes it’s come to this,
it’s come to this,
and wasn’t it a long way down,
wasn’t it a strange way down?

You can still find a job,
go out and talk to a friend.
On the back of every magazine
there are those coupons you can send.
Why don’t you join the Rosicrucians,
they can give you back your hope,
you can find your love with diagrams
on a plain brown envelope.
But you’ve used up all your coupons
except the one that seems
to be written on your wrist
along with several thousand dreams.
Now Santa Claus comes forward,
that’s a razor in his mit;
and he puts on his dark glasses
and he shows you where to hit;
and then the cameras pan,
the stand in stunt man,
dress rehearsal rag,
it’s just the dress rehearsal rag,
you know this dress rehearsal rag,
it’s just a dress rehearsal rag.

Dress Rehearsal Rag less song than it is performance poem, as with much of Leonard Cohen’s work, but while it is quite pertinent to analyse it as a poem, as a text, it is worth bearing in mind the element of song, of performance in its construction, if only to balance against instances in the text where the rhythm seems to falter; these are often instances when the word or note is held/drawn out for emphasis, rather than a failing of the beat of the poem. The element of performance/song in the text also explains the repeating lines at its conclusion; the fade-out effect being employed relating back to the subject matter.

The text is almost unequivocal, even on first reading, as a piece about a failed or deliberately stalled suicide attempt, but unlike It Seems So Long Ago, Nancy and other songs about suicide by other artists, it lacks the sense of misery or remorse or even self-pity, illustrating rather the self-pity of a persona discussed in second person. The overall tone is one of disgust and contempt – this is more apparent in the performance of the piece, as Cohen’s voice lends itself well to admonition.

The metaphor upon which this theme is suspended is one of a dress rehearsal (hence the title – Cohen’s songs usually take one of the repeating lines as their name), but that does not become apparent until the crescendo, and he shows you where to hit has been reached; the remainder of the song diminishes the melodrama of the previous verses, undermining the heightened emotions in the imagery of performance, nostalgia and addiction by dismissing it all as a “dress rehearsal rag”. This bathetic ending reinforces the sense of disgust and contempt apparent in Cohen’s tone, the implication being that the protagonist of the poem is not even up to this final “performance”.

Beginning in the first person – Four o’clock in the afternoon, and I didn’t feel like very much – he introduces us to the idea that the failed sucide is himself before switching, almost immediate, to the second person in order to more effectively berate and abuse the failure with the appropriate venom. In the first instance this abuse takes the form of him speaking to himself: I said to my self, “Where are you golden boy, where is your famous golden touch?”, becoming more and more harsh and self-deprecating as he sneers to himself, “Hey, Prince, you need a shave.”. The lecture to himself meanders through some very typical Cohen themes of impending death and lost love, repeating And yes it’s come to this, it’s come to this, each time connected to the razor blade he originally intended to use for shaving – the act of presenting a better face to the world.

The voice of the admondisher alternates between mockingly encouraging the protagonist through his ritual of shaving and encouraging him, or enticing him, into slashing his wrists. It could reasonably be concluded that this “bitter voice” neither wants him to go through with the act nor to refrain from it, but merely wishes to deride the protagonist’s emotional state. It is also worth noting at this juncture that there are a great many allusory references throughout the song which may well have a deeper meaner in the context of the poet’s personal life, but that the essayist is currently without access to a biography and can therefore draw no definite conclusions at this point.

It appears, in the final verse, that the voice of mockery briefly takes a turn for the sympathetic, urging the protagonist to take solice in his friends or to essentially buck up his ideas and get on with his life, but this is dispelled in performance by the continued sarcasm and derision in Cohen’s tone, swiftly followed by the sneering you can find your love with diagrams on a plain brown envelope, which undermines the nostalgic view of romance evinced in the previous verse, and once again belittles the protagonist’s emotional state. The final verse serves to undermine previous themes several times, including ones expressed within itself; the “coupons” on the back of magazines are revealed as having been used up. Given their textual proximity to the act of talking to a friend it could be suggested that the coupons represent second chances, forgiveness in the eyes of others. That they are all used up would imply that the protagonist has pushed too hard too many times against the forgiveness of his friends.

The third verse has as its central theme one of Cohen’s most frequently occurring themes – lost love. The “bitter voice” reminds the protagonist of his previous love affair, with the implication that it is over long since, and that the memory of it (and possibly the end of the affair) is to prove a catalyst to the suicide attempt: That’s a hard one to remember, yes it makes you clench your fist. The description of the affair is typically Cohen; he speaks of the colour of her hair, makes an allusion to something sensual (in this case, fruit), and blurs the lines between acceptable adult romance and a more paternal feeling: there were times she was a woman, oh, there were times she was just a child, while also giving the affair an already darker edge, speaking of shadows. The word “highways” is particularly noteable here not just for the idea of taking a journey out of life by slitting the veins that “stand out like highways”, but in the wider context – “highways” are a a regular visitor to Cohen’s texts, in pieces such as The Stranger Song, or as roads (Stories of the Street). The idea of journeys, be they curtailed, about to begin or nervously avoided, is ever-prevalent.

The third verse serves as a brief, misleading diversion into happier memories after the blistering description of the present in its predecessor. The physical situation seems as bleak as the emotional one, expanding upon the obversation in the first verse: Just take a look at your body now, there’s nothing much to save to take in the room in which the protagonist stands to shave, the kind of places you’ve been living in. The picture Cohen paints is all the more disenheartening and overwhelming for being incomplete – we are invited to draw our own conclusions, our own outlines, from details such as there’s no hot water and the cold is running thin. This also stands as a pathetic fallacy, an outward illustration of the protagonist’s emotional state; he has run dry of emotions (hot water) and now tires even of the basic survivalist thought (cold). The state of his cup again hammers home the message – it’s all caked and cracked along the rim – standing in place of his heart. The light is dimming, both the metaphorical light of his will to continue and the physical light of his unpleasant habitation, and as act of lathering up his face begins with another mocking observation the mood darkens again.

The base rhyme of the text is alternating lines, ABCB, but it is not strict – often assonance1 is used instead of a complete rhyme, and at the end of each verse he abandons the ABCB structure in order to repeat the phrases “it’s come to this” and “way down”, emphasising the descent by breaking the scheme and also strengthening the cohesion of the poem as a whole. In the final verse the rhyme structure is subverted at the moment that we are shown the “fake” nature of the situation. Following the final “B” line, he employs an AA rhyme, followed by a repeating refrain of the title, which helpfully has an assonanical relationship2 with the preceding couplet.

However, the balance of sounds – both rhyme and dissonance – in poetry is rarely limited to the ends of lines, andDress Rehearsal Ragdemonstrates this masterfully. In the second verse, in addition to the “pace/face” rhyme, there is a lead-in of “racing man”, the repetition of both the assonance and the sibilant helping again to bind the observation together, the silibant in particular lending an element of threat to the verse, and connecting it to the closing refrain. Connections like this appear throughout the text: child/wild resonates withtwilight on the next line in the third verse, and the fist/wrist pairing echoes again the final verse with written on your wrist; in the first verse shave/behave has an assonancial relationship with razorblade.

The relationship of sounds binding the song is consistent and insidious: in the second verse soap and growing balance each other with long “oh” sounds, the near-homonyms of passed and path at the opening of the third draw the reader/listener further down along the path in question. Even allowing for the lyrical repetition of phrase employed throughout (lending a nursery-rhyme air rather perversely to the subject and allowing for mnemonic longeivity – for the phrase to get stuck in one’s head), there are any number of repeated vowel sounds coming in close proximity: in the final verse, they can give hangs in a pair with you can find, both in sense and in sound.


1. Vowel-rhyme
2. Not sure this is actually a word

There was going to be more, and a conclusion. But I suck.

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