Kinky Cohen: Part 1 [NSFW]
BDSM, Erotic Humiliation, and Role-Play in the Works of Leonard Cohen

(Part Two) - (Part Two)

Our perfect porn aristocrat

So elegant and cheap

I am old, but I'm still into that

A thousand kisses deep.

— Leonard Cohen, "A Thousand Kisses Deep"

The masterful songwriting of Leonard Cohen has not gone unnoticed by music fans and critics over the years. He is widely praised for his poignant lyrics and their recurring themes of love, faith, and mortality. However there is a prominent theme to Cohen's canon that remains partially obscured and unrecognized. This is largely due to the subject matter itself being forced to exist within underground and subcultural channels. To the uninitiated, Cohen's words can float past misinterpreted, the wholeness of their meaning hidden to those unfamiliar with the actions, rituals, thoughts, and emotions of sado-masochistic and fetishistic relationships and sex.

Cohen has always been known as a songwriter who is unafraid of the graphically erotic. Where others typically stop at suggestion, he offers the explicitly sexual. "Chelsea Hotel No. 2," one of his more popular songs, is a well-known instance. Written about a tryst with Janis Joplin at the Manhattan building, Cohen wastes no time getting down to details: "I remember you well at the Chelsea Hotel/ You were talking so brave and so sweet/ Giving me head on the unmade bed/ While the limousines wait in the street." It is only one line, but its frank description of a sexual escapade signals to listeners that Cohen is unashamed of openly confronting sex in his work, in spite of the privacy and discreetness urged by society.

Lost beneath Cohen's undisguised scenes of love and intimacy, however, lies a more clandestine sexual world, unrecognized by listeners who have not walked its streets and alleys themselves. It is one thing to capture the feelings and enigmatic allure of sex in art or song, but it is another to consistently capture an entire range of sexual relations, from the familiar to the uncommon, misunderstood, and marginalized. Cohen champions this lesser-known world. He is a voice for those who can't speak to its magic themselves, due either to shame, societal constraints, or ball gag.

A close examination of Cohen's lyrics illuminates much of what lies hidden just beneath the surface. His songs disclose to the listener not only the technical and perfunctory aspects, but, more importantly, the highs, the lows, the desires, and the reasons why people practice such an incredible diversity of kinks. This is Cohen's arena to explore, and nothing will be left unsaid in his meditations.

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- Domination and Submission

Going beyond the "vanilla" world of the sexually commonplace, Cohen is similarly unafraid to examine the aspects of relations in the "kinky" world. On his first album, 1968's Songs of Leonard Cohen, "Master Song" signals subject matter of a deeper nature. As the title itself spells out, a power exchange takes place between a yielding submissive slave, or "sub," and her dominant master, or "dom." Cohen paints a classic picture of the most widely recognizable dom-sub act: kneeling.

"And now I hear your master sing, you kneel for him to come/ His body is a golden string that your body is hanging from.../ Oh now I hear your master sing/ Your shirt is all undone." This is clearly not just a case of a loose button. There is no mistaking that what's taking place is a master-slave, power-exchange relationship. The slave must kneel before her master, her shirt undone for him to see his prize — available and ready to please. The metaphorical "golden string" suspending her body is a symbol of his control over her. According to his whims, he may keep her secure or release the sting and let her fall. She is his to do with what he wishes.

The broader category in which a relationship such as this falls is referred to as BDSM, an all-purpose aggregate acronym, standing for bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sado-masochism.

From dungeon to church, the act of kneeling pervades Cohen's work. When on stage performing the spoken-word version of "A Thousand Kisses Deep," Cohen himself has fallen to his knees to deliver the lines "But you look good, you really do/ They love you on the street/ If I could move, I'd kneel for you/ A thousand kisses deep." Sometimes it is used in its religious context, but in many others the act of kneeling is used as it is above: to symbolize a dom-sub or master-slave relationship, its aspects of surrender, vulnerability, and authority, as well as the deep levels of trust and devotion contained therein.

"Lady Midnight," off Songs from a Room, depicts a male submissive kneeling in an attempt to earn his female domme's trust and prove himself worthy of her. The lyrics detail the scene:

I asked her to hold me, I said, ‘Lady, unfold me'

Well, I argued all night like so many have before,

Saying, ‘Whatever you give me, I seem to need so much more.'

Then she pointed at me where I kneeled on her floor,

She said, ‘Don't try to use me or slyly refuse me,

Just win me or lose me, it is this that the darkness is for.'

The speaker begs the domme to hold him, needing the attention she has given him in the past. The domme then tells the kneeling sub exactly how he must treat her if he desires a relationship. She sets the terms of their interaction, saying not to "use her" or "refuse her." She is furthermore referred to in the song by the moniker "Lady Midnight," suggesting that the he refers to her only by this honorific to show his respect and subservience.

"Memories," off the Phil Spector-produced Death of a Ladies' Man, similarly shows a submissive man begging for affection: "I walked up to the tallest and the blondest girl/ I said, ‘Look, you don't know me now but very soon you will/ So won't you let me see?' / I said ‘won't you let me see?'/ I said ‘won't you let me see/ Your naked body?'" The repetition suggests the man is begging and pleading, the shameful nature of which is enjoyed by many a snickering dom. By the end of the song, the man recognizes he must pledge his faith and relinquish control in order to see what he wants: "In solemn moments such as this, I have put my trust/ And all my faith to see/ I said all my faith to see/ I said all my faith to see/ Her naked body." This illustrates the trust that must be in place between dom and sub before any genuine intimacy or true power exchange can begin.

A later Cohen track from 2001's Ten New Songs, "Boogie Street," reveals the aspects of service one would expect to see in such a relationship:

And O my love, I still recall

The pleasures that we knew;

The rivers and the waterfall,

Wherein I bathed with you.

Bewildered by your beauty there,

I'd kneel to dry your feet.

By such instructions you prepare

A man for Boogie Street.

The cleanly domme in this scene already has outlined specific acts for her sub to perform. Upon exiting from bathing together, the sub dutifully kneels to dry his domme's feet, suggesting not only master-slave service but also aspects of foot worship and foot fetishes.

The ensuing couplet reveals this to be part of the instructions she has prepared just for him. This is often referred to as "protocol" within BDSM circles, the major facets of which are agreed upon orally or via slave contract between consenting masters and slaves. (Lawyers not required.)

While "Boogie Street" displays the acts of a master and slave in love and functioning healthily, "Leaving Green Sleeves" shows the power exchange gone wrong, full of lies and abuse. The song, off the BDSM-filled New Skin for the Old Ceremony, features the lyrics "Now if you intend to show me disdain/ Don't you know it all the more enraptures me/ For even so I still remain your lover in captivity." The lady shows her lover only contempt, and in return he craves the unhealthy emotions and confinement of his freedoms. The sub later confesses his dishonesty: "I sang my songs, I told my lies/ To lie between your matchless thighs." The domme and sub in this relationship are enjoying true abuse and not abiding by the "safe, sane and consensual" code of conduct for BDSM and kinky relationships. Dishonesty is never a good idea, from saved soccer-moms in minivans, to slaves suspended from ceilings. Not that one can't be both.

Another song, "The Future," from the 1992 album of the same name, details the wild, forbidden fantasies of an out-of-control dom. While the broader scope of the song is an apocalyptic vision of the world's future, Cohen opens the song with the ramifications of the collapse on love and sex.

Give me back my broken night,

My mirrored room, my secret life.

It's lonely here, there's no one left to torture.

Give me absolute control

Over every living soul,

And lie beside me, baby, that's an order!

Give me crack and anal sex.

Take the only tree that's left

And stuff it up the hole in your culture.

The dom's focus is solely on the off-limits and the taboo. Cohen explores society's unmentionable dark side with the speaker's desire to torture and his need for absolute control over everyone. In one of Cohen's most eyebrow-raising lines, the song's protagonist plainly demands crack and anal sex, a blunt means to convey the absence of cultural stigmas and precautions that once held populace in check.

The language used also helps to convey the unhealthy sense of sadism. Cohen makes use of the command "give me" three times, the exclamation "that's an order!" carries much weight, and his use of the phrase "stuff it up the hole" brings violent sexual images to mind. There is a difference between consensual BDSM play and true maladjusted sadism. The speaker of "The Future" is not playing. The complete disregard of others' well-being does well to introduce the listener to Cohen's vision of a world gone wrong.

From the 1988 album of the same name, the popular "I'm Your Man" demonstrates that, when things are going right, a master-slave or dom-sub relationship can be both hot and healthy.

If you want a lover, I'll do anything you ask me to.

And if you want another kind of love, I'll wear a mask for you

If you want a partner, take my hand

Or if you want to strike me down in anger,

Here I stand.

I'm your man.

These opening lines display the slave's willingness and desire to please his mistress and subject himself to anything she asks of him. He submits if her wish is for an equal partnership, and he submits if her wish is to physically punish him. Either way, he stands ready for her. He is the mistress's property, as the possessive and de-personalized refrain "I'm your man" suggests. The nature of the relationship is revealed more explicitly in the song's bridge:

Ah, the moon's too bright, the chain's too tight

The beast won't go to sleep

I've been running through these promises to you

That I made and I could not keep

Ah but a man never got a woman back

Not by begging on his knees

Or I'd crawl to you baby and I'd fall at your feet

And I'd howl at your beauty like a dog in heat

And I'd claw at your heart and I'd tear at your sheet

I'd say please.

I'm your man.

These lines can be interpreted in a number of ways, but through the BDSM lens, they involve not only domination and submission, but physical bondage. The slave lies awake at night, bound with a chain, thinking about things he has done to displease his mistress. He then runs through all the things he would do if they could make up for his disobedience. The slave would subject himself to shamelessly begging and pleading, kneeling, crawling, foot worship, and even the dehumanization of playing her loyal dog or pet. At the end, the possessive, de-personalized refrain again reminds the listener of the willing selflessness, devotion, and ownership present in the power-exchange relationship.

Many misperceive the slave as being the recipient of all a dom-sub arrangement has to offer; however, a master finds just as much pleasure in giving and manipulating as a slave does in receiving. The frenzy of the slave's desire in "I'm Your Man" is matched with the feelings of exaltedness mourned by the mistress in the New Skin song "Why Don't You Try."

Why don't you try to do without him?

Why don't you try to live alone?

Do you really need his hands for your passion?

Do you really need his heart for your throne?

Do you need to hold a leash to be a lady?

Just as the slave relies on his mistress to inspire the feelings of servitude and submission he craves, the mistress also relies on her slave to inspire the feelings of power and supremacy she craves. This mistress pines for the partner who made her feel passionate, like a queen on her throne. The control she wielded with the metaphorical, or perhaps literal, "leash" is essential to her identity. If taken literally, the theme of bondage arises again. The mistress might derive pleasure and power from ordering her slave to crawl as she leads him by collar and leash. Regardless of the interpretation, what remains is the devastation from losing the outlet for her desires for power and control. She ceases "to be a lady" without it.

Master and slave are bound not just with rope and handcuffs; the intense emotional connection and complete devotion to one another unites the two in ways that supersede simple romantic love. Indeed, as "Why Don't You Try" demonstrates: without each other, master and slave are both are equally despondent and lost.

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- Humiliation and Cuckolding

A not-uncommon fetish both inside and outside of the BDSM community involves humiliation — being put-down or degraded during, or for the purposes of, erotic play. A man might get off on a woman telling him that his dick is puny and pathetic, even if it's 9-inches long. A woman, meanwhile, might get off on being called whore, bitch, slut or cunt, when in everyday life she'd rip someone's head off for calling her such names.

In both cases, one would be wise to ask first.

Cuckolding takes this principle a step further. A cuckold takes pleasure in knowing or watching their partner have sex with someone else. Often, they enjoy having it rubbed in their face by their partner afterward. Figuratively, that is. Well, okay, sometimes literally, too.

Just as the New Skin song "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" offers only a quick glimpse at the graphic with the sole line "Giving me head on the unmade bed," it similarly suggests a fetish for humiliation and cuckolding. The speaker recounts, "I remember you well at the Chelsea Hotel/ You were famous, your heart was a legend/ You told me again you preferred handsome men/ But for me you would make an exception." This is not something most people would enjoy hearing during sex. Clearly, there's something else going on; if the woman was not attracted to the speaker or didn't think he could satisfy her, she wouldn't be sucking his cock. She insults his looks and tells him of all the "handsome men" that please her because belittling his appearance and abilities is enjoyable for him.

Cuckolding surfaces repeatedly in Cohen's songs throughout the years. His album Death of a Ladies' Man was noted for its brazen sexuality and voyeurism, but the larger scope of the exploits described was lost in the shock of the audacious manner in which they are presented. "Paper Thin Hotel" spares no detail when recounting what the cuckold hears through his wall:

The walls of this hotel are paper-thin.

Last night I heard you making love to him.

The struggle mouth-to-mouth and limb-to-limb,

The grunt of unity when he came in.

I stood there with my ear against the wall,

I was not seized by jealousy at all.

In fact, a burden lifted from my soul.

I heard that love was out of my control.

The dynamics of a regular, vanilla relationship would send the speaker into fits of rage, jealousy, depression, or denial upon hearing these things. Instead, the cuckold delights in the actions going on next door. He listens to them kiss and wrestle on the bed; he listens to the moans of the unknown man penetrating his beloved and climaxing inside her. For the vanilla, this would be quite a traumatic experience, but the speaker tells us this doesn't make him jealous or angry; it instead sets him free. For him, listening in on the betrayal provides the same cathartic release experienced by the two actually engaged in sex. The old saying holds true: Voyeurism is participation.

A later track on the same album, "Don't Go Home With Your Hard-on," deals solely with humiliation. The lyrics in the first stanza imply the speaker's mother was a prostitute, "My mother was a girl you could call on/ When you called she was always there." They continue to demean the speaker further in the song by showing his submission to women through the familiar themes of begging and kneeling: "I've looked behind all of the faces/ That smile you down to you knees/ And the lips that say, ‘Come on, taste us/ And when you try to they make you say please." After belittling him and his mother, the song moves on to his marriage: "Here comes your bride with her veil on/ Approach her, you wretch, if you dare/ Approach her, you ape with your tail on/ Once you have her she'll always be there." The speaker continues to be demeaned and dehumanized as his wife falls into the world's oldest profession, just as his mother did.

A brief scene of erotic humiliation arises again, this time combined with bondage, in Cohen's nihilistic "The Future." While taking us through the nightmarish, carnal apocalypse, Cohen writes that "You'll see a woman hanging upside-down/ Her features covered by her fallen gown." The woman is bound in a position that allows passersby to view her genitals, while her face is blinded to her surroundings by her upturned dress. The humiliation of exhibitionism is an exciting prospect for many, though others enjoy it for the chance to show off and be the center of everyone's focus, giving fun new meaning to the term "attention whore."

"Everybody Knows," one of Cohen's more well-known songs off I'm Your Man, also displays instances of humiliation and cuckolding. The speaker talks of his private relationship with his woman becoming public knowledge and all the actions of infidelity aired for the world to see.

Everybody knows that you love me baby,

Everybody knows that you really do.

Everybody knows that you've been faithful,

Give or take a night or two.

Everybody knows you've been discreet,

But there were so many people you just had to meet

Without your clothes.

And everybody knows.

The constant refrain of the song celebrates the fact that "everybody knows" of this promiscuity. Cohen goes so far as portray the couple tallying the woman's betrayals in an update of the traditional notches on the bedpost. "Everybody knows the scene is dead/ But there's gonna be a meter on your bed/ That will disclose/ What everybody knows." The act of pride usually performed by frat boys is turned on its head, as the cuckold and his partner relish the rising number and display it for all to see.

The aforementioned "Master Song" contains elements of cuckolding as well in its tale of a BDSM love triangle. While a woman's master lies ill, she submits to another man.

I believe that you heard your master sing

When I was sick in bed.

I suppose that he told you everything

I must keep locked away in my head.

You met him at some temple, where

they take your clothes at the door.

Then he touches your lips now so suddenly bare

of all the kisses we put on some time before.

I loved your master perfectly

I taught him all that he knew.

The speaker here knows the other man and, in fact, purports to have mentored him. While he is incapacitated, he pictures the two together. He not only pictures sexual and submissive acts of his lover, but also the betrayal of his pupil divulging what he "must keep locked away in [his] head." Cohen has therefore made him a cuckold twice over: romantically and platonically. And unlike the sexual thrill that is present in other songs like "Paper Thin Hotel," the tone of this piece is noticeably melancholy. One gets the sense that the speaker has been betrayed against his will. Repeatedly referring to himself as a "prisoner" is a sign of the lack of his consent. He furthermore expresses his worry and desire for his slave to return to his control: "I think you're playing far too rough/ For a lady who's been to the moon.../ And your thighs are a ruin, you want too much/ Let's say you came back sometime too soon."

The cuckold doesn't seem to be delighting in his partner's actions as other Cohen songs depict. Instead, he is concerned for her safety and hoping she will return to him. Cohen shows us not only the consensual and enjoyable side to BDSM, humiliation, and cuckolding play, but in "Master Song" he dives into the dark side of the kinky relationship gone wrong.

(Part Two) - (Part Two)