Re-membering the Love Song: Ambivalence and Cohen's
"Take This Waltz"
by Charlene Diehl-Jones
After the opening four-measure instrumental lead of "Take This Waltz," we
hear Cohen's voice, earthy, sometimes unbeautiful, with that lingering possibility of a
Now in Vienna there's ten pretty women. There's a shoulder where
Death comes to cry. There's a lobby with nine hundred windows.
There's a tree where the doves go to die.
Add to that voice and its conspicuous hyperbole the thumping insistence
of a barrel-organ oom-pa-pa background, and you wonder what you might salvage, if there's
anything to remain after the acid has pocked the surfaces here. Still, there's something
disarmingly direct about this stylized waltz, something potent and compelling. It is, I
would say, a love song. Or perhaps more accurately a love song from the other side:
it doesn't pretend another Edenic beginning, but assumes and even advertises
the borrowed nature of the lover's position, the conventions that make a love song
possible. The necessary ambivalence, you might say, of the lover's stance in a
textual/musical world which admits to its multiple layers of inscription.
In "Take This Waltz," Cohen singer as lover
plays the potential of quotation, walks face-first into cliché, mines the written-over to
release the sweet taste of after. He re-members the love song. And that remembering,
curiously enough, is permeated and permitted by ambivalence,
ambi-valence, the lure of more than one position at the same moment. Ambivalence rather
than irony: not one thing understood to mean something else, but rather the irresolvable
tension of more than one meaning signifying simultaneously.
Susan McClary points out that "meaning is not inherent in
music, but neither is it in language; both are activities that are kept afloat only
because communities of people invest in them, agree collectively that their signs serve as
valid currency" (21). Cohen places before us, again and again, familiar currency,
linguistic and musical. He begins, for instance, with a borrowed form: even if you don't
quote a melody, you inherit certain formal specifications when you make a waltz, a
three-beat measure most obviously, but also patterns of measure clustering, bass-line
movement and chord progression. The three-beat measure is never in doubt in "Take
This Waltz"; if anything, it is exaggerated by the heavy bass-line pluck on the first
beat, the lighter chordal gestures which mark the latter two beats. But a three-beat
measure isn't the only waltz prerequisite. With its roots in the rustic Austrian ländler
(Machlis 533), you'd expect waltz measures to group by a powers-of-two logic. As Charles
Hartman points out, "four-, eight-, or sixteen-measure sections . . . are the musical
units most comfortable for Western audiences" (Hartman 102). The voice, as it enters,
emphasizes a four-measure group corresponding with the textual line, "Now in Vienna
there's ten pretty women"; ending the words on the third measure of four leaves the
last (weak) pulse unvoiced but not unmarked. This pattern three heavy pulses
bracketed at the end by an unvoiced one plays incessantly across the piece.
Both lyrics and measure clustering belie Cohen's presentation of
this song in the liner notes as a series of paragraphs (Appendix I). What we hear
are lines that group themselves into quatrains: the fourth phrase rhymes unambiguously
with the second, and the tonality cadences sturdily on the tonic major.
Now in Vienna there's ten pretty women.
There's a shoulder where Death comes to cry.
There's a lobby with nine hundred windows.
There's a tree where the doves go to die.
But the grouping after this first quatrain is harder to figure: there are six
four-measure groups, two more than anticipated, and they settle irregularly. The chord
progression might recommend an eight-measure grouping followed by a sixteen-measure
grouping not as even a distribution as the ear would anticipate, but not so awkward
either but the lyrics suggest a five line cluster, the fifth line rhyming with the
second, with an unvoiced line trailing after.
There's a piece that was torn from the morning,
and it hangs in the Gallery of Frost.
Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay.
Take this waltz, take this waltz,
take this waltz with the clamp on its jaws.
Consistently, "Take This Waltz" will suggest certain structural symmetries we
expect even without understanding what they are; it will suggest them and then wrench them
The refrain that follows
This waltz, this waltz, this waltz, this waltz.
With its very own breath of brandy and Death.
Dragging its tail in the sea.
is different again: a three-line grouping, for one thing. And the unvoiced
punctuating pulse at the phrase-end that we've come to anticipate is absent here; the
first two sentences of text completely fill out the four-pulse structure of the measure
grouping. As well, the conspicuous internal rhyme in the second line "With its
very own breath of brandy and Death" threatens to divide our
dependable four-pulse line into two two-pulse lines. And oddly enough, the breath/death
rhyme is the only rhyme in this three-line text, which means that text gives over
responsibility for closure to a somewhat less than substantial cadence on the tonic at the
end of the third line. After this, we are presented with an abbreviated preparatory
passage only two measures to open the next two verses. The refrain, then, in
certain ways repeats more conspicuously the structural ambivalence of the verse: fourteen
measures which should have been sixteen, an abbreviated closure, promise of predictability
that won't quite play itself out.
The structural ambivalence is echoed by the more immediately
perceptible tonal ambivalence: "Take This Waltz" can hardly resist the lure of
its own relative minor, and constantly swings between major and minor modes. The
introductory four measures are securely positioned in the major, and though the voice
enters in that key, by midway through the first line it is sketching the possibilities of
the relative minor (Figure 1). (I have, for ease of reading, transposed these passages up
a semitone, and sketched in the bass-line movement; for clarification of labelling
techniques, and concepts of tonality and chord function, see especially Piston, 47-63.)
second phrase repeats the pattern, but strengthens the movement toward the minor sixth
degree by suggesting its dominant function chord in the bass-line movement. The third and
fourth lines of the first quatrain stubbornly banish any trace of the relative minor and
stick to the unambiguous subdominant, dominant, and tonic chords. We enter the five-line
patch of text, the first structural curiosity, securely in the minor, the first two
phrases here both prolonging our exposure to the minor and solidifying it by exploring its
subdominant function region (Figure 2)1. The
shift to the
subdominant of the major key at "Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay" is sudden and perhaps
not altogether convincing; that line and the following wander through an odd progression
that finally closes rather limply on a deceptive cadence to the subdominant. After this,
we hear four measures unsubtly asserting the dominant of the major key in preparation for
the second verse.
The refrain sits almost entirely in the minor. Almost entirely: the
last line of text the third group of measures opens with a diminished chord
which we hear as a member of the minor chordal family but is resolved to the major,
however abruptly (Figure 3). Ten measures,
then, in the minor, are followed by two in the major, and then by that two-measure tail
that sketches the major tonic and dominant in preparation for the next set of verses.
An odd affair, really, this incessant hovering between major and
minor, these links between patches of text which assert rather than derive a
tonality. Cohen knows exactly what he's doing with "this waltz with the clamp on its
jaws": he takes on a whole series of musical decisions that precede the making of his
waltz, plays hard with and against the conventions which make our listening possible. If,
for instance, we didn't find Vienna in the first line of the song, we would still
recognize the Viennese heritage here, Strauss waltzes and the tradition of the lover's
dance. And Cohen scores in the wheeze of the accordion, the pluck of the mandolin,
conjuring the charm of another time, another place. The setting, I would argue, is
critical to the functioning of "Take This Waltz": it positions the piece,
acknowledges an ancestry. One of this song's delights is its directness of copy, the
blatant waltz rhythm which refuses either decoration or disguise, the unapologetic
instrumentation which recovers another tradition of folk-art music.
Directness of copy, simulation, borrowing. At what point does a
borrowing either disappear into parrotry or transform itself into parody? Cohen, I think,
conjures the old-world magic but doesn't assume its availability; he preserves the
ambiguity of his musical choosing. "Take This Waltz" is not a homage, then, or
not exactly. It is, rather, a recycling of other musical decisions. Quotation, and we hear
not only the spectre of a calliope here; Cohen draws, in this piece, on musical stylings
ranging from jazz to blues to gospel, gypsy to pop. This illustrates Barthes' notion of
inter-text as "a circular memory" which asserts "the impossibility
of living outside the infinite text" (The Pleasure of the Text 36). But
circular memory is also not confined by where it's been, not destined to trace the same
path over and over. So Cohen appropriates rather than effaces the conventions that name
this territory. He doesn't skate across the three-beat structuring, for instance, or
rescore the waltz in the uncharacteristic timbres of, say, the marimba or the trombone.
Instead, he exaggerates, advertises his proximity to cliché. But he repeats without
repeating: his instrumentation, for instance, carries the subtle trace of the synthetic,
and his musical quotations are positioned in a way that makes them audible again, flexes
their emotional muscle. Cohen understands the nature of the field he enters: Derrida
describes it as play. The possibility of origin has vanished, and any gesture, any
movement in such a field, is "the movement of supplementarity" (289).
Cohen's gestures in "Take This Waltz," then, both draw on and comment on the
infinite source texts that infiltrate this specific (musical and textual) event.
All of this is critical to the functioning of the song because the
structure and setting are as engaged in the production of meaning as the text and the
voice which delivers it. As Hartman argues,
in any song that uses the relation between words and notes to
control the semantic and tonal development of meaning, the musical setting has an
obviously dramatic function. It is an agent of voice: It characterizes the singer. (107)
An agent of voice. This is one of the ways a song differs radically from a poem:
its voice is both implicit and explicit, both implied by the text and sounded by a body.
Most song lyrics, especially popular song lyrics, relax the tension provoked by textual
complexity and rely on the dramatic function of the music to provide energy and momentum.
Because a text set to music is addressing the ear, it is likely to lean heavily on what
the ear processes easily (rhyme and clear stanza form), making printed song lyrics seem
"formally ponderous or naive" (Hartman 98).
But the lyrics of "Take This Waltz" are neither formally
ponderous nor naive, and this is worth noting, especially since its source form, the
waltz, is itself regular, folkish, even decorous. In Cohen's waltz, quatrains (disguised
for the eye as paragraphs) spill over into quintets or abbreviate themselves into
triplets, and rhymes frost/jaws, wrist/is often
live on a slant. Cohen's lyrics "go well beyond the requirement that a song's words
be ordered clearly enough for us to hear their orderliness" (Hartman 98). For one
thing, they wield the expressive potential of the highly poeticized image: "a bed
where the moon has been sweating," for instance, or "a garland of freshly-cut
tears" are more richly evocative than you would anticipate from popular song lyrics.
And at a couple of junctures, the surface meaning is further textured by pun (this is,
after all, the ear's domain): we hear an equivocation hovering around piece in
"There's a piece that was torn from the morning," and again around waist
in "take this waltz, take its broken waist in your hand."
Textured language: "Take This Waltz" is unabashedly
poetic, gorgeous and subtle. The careful attention to nuance, the obvious pleasure in
evocative texting, introduces another layer of ambivalence into the complex of "Take
This Waltz": the singer of this song is not simple, not simply a singer. Apparently a
writer ghosts this singer, a manifestation of lover at some remove from the Orphic
chanteur who moves mountains by the power of his voice. After all, a song doesn't need
such careful crafting: a voice alone might be adequate to rouse the pity of the
underworld, the fury of the bacchae. But the language of "Take This Waltz" is
far from extraneous. On the contrary, it introduces another active element into the
cluster the ambivalent cluster which materializes, however tentatively, as
the singing lover.
It's important to remember that "Take This Waltz" is a
sung thing. Despite its poeticism, it never collapses into sentimentality or awkward
over-earnestness, and this is largely because Cohen sings it. The song needs the grind of
this voice, its earthy rawness, its edge of ironic intelligence. He sets the piece low in
his register, which we decode as an expression of intimacy with perhaps a trace of
resignation the ambivalence again. He delivers many of the words with that
characteristic fall-off that collapses song into speech. Cohen's stubbornly vernacular
pronunciation consistently collides with recontextualizes the poetic diction
of "Take This Waltz." He sings, "where the doves go ta die,"
"Ah'll never forgetcha, y'know." Or he sings as he speaks, speaks as he sings,
for this piece remains at once a song and a poem: a song that won't be beautifully sung
and a poem that refuses to be beautifully spoken. It is language with body attached. And
this is part of the wonderful gratuity that song can insist on: Barthes writes that
"as soon as it is musical, speech . . . is no longer linguistic but corporeal" (The
Responsibility of Forms 306); a body intrudes into the delicately poetic textual
world, creating the possibility for passion.
A writer ghosts this singer, a singer ghosts this writer. Or perhaps
more accurately, singers and writers ghost one another in "Take This Waltz." For
the startlingly poetic material in the song is and isn't his: Cohen re-interprets Federico
Lorca's "Little Viennese Waltz" (Appendix II). In Cohen's hands, Lorca's words
shift and reconfigure: "There is a death for piano / that paints the little boys
blue" becomes "There's a bar where the boys have stopped talking. They've been
sentenced to death by the blues." A writer ghosts the writer who ghosts the singer of
the love song here, for Cohen leans heavily on Lorca's text. But he isn't effecting a
translation, a resetting of words across language gradients: Cohen's song, in a sense,
understands every act of texting as a relational borrowing, a mining enterprise, a
transformative press. "Take This Waltz" is Cohen's writing, in much the same way
as "Little Viennese Waltz" (or, more precisely, "Pequeño vals
vienés") is Lorca's: to write at all is to acknowledge the tradition into which one
enters by that very gesture, the pre-written field. The failure of origin. The ambivalent
" 'Voice,' " Don Bialostosky writes, "is not so much
a matter of how my language relates to me as it is a matter of how my language relates to
your language and to the language of others you and I have heard address our topic"
(Hartman 47). An authentic voice, then, "would be one that vitally and
productively engaged those voices. It would be authentically situated"
(Hartman 47). In "Take This Waltz," Cohen listens to Lorca, engages his
language, the rarified textures of sorrow and irony and passion that inform his poem. He
is not intent on effacing a prior speaker, on rewriting another's words into inaudibility.
Where voice crosses the trackings of language, though, this is what is so compelling about
"Take This Waltz": Cohen's voice is situated, to press Bialostosky's
word, situated in a corporeal body which commits itself, however ambivalently, to the
performative possibilities that hover here. Cohen adds an edge that haunts the song.
Because this singer's voice is delivering the praise that has long since been fossilized
There's a concert hall in Vienna where your mouth had a thousand
reviews. There's a bar where the boys have stopped talking.
They've been sentenced to death by the blues. Ah, but who is it
climbs to your picture with a garland of freshly cut tears?
We could be in the world of the Petrarchan sonnet here, abject praise of the beloved,
the lover's perpetual distance and grief. Still, there's more muscle in this lover
(however layered, linguistically), more ironic distance: "And I'll see what you've
chained to your sorrow, all your sheep and your lillies [sic] of snow." Not quite
abjection, no, especially when rubbed by the growl of this voice. A growl that caresses,
in its own whiskered way, an exquisite and somewhat broken Vienna, an exquisite and
somewhat broken love.
But "Take This Waltz" doesn't simply repeat with
more earthy inflections the love song tradition it inherits: "Take This
Waltz" is also about itself, in a reflexive way, about its own metatextual
(metamusical?) awareness. It's intriguing how "this waltz" assumes a body, a
rather monstrous body, in the course of the song. It has a "clamp on its jaws,"
a "broken waist," "it's been dying for years." The refrain sketches
out the metaphor most conspicuously:
This waltz, this waltz, this waltz, this waltz. With its very own
breath of brandy and Death. Dragging its tail in the sea.
The waltz doesn't simply repeat the dream of a magical Vienna, the dream of a beautiful
beloved; it understands its own role in the making of the dream. Each verse, then, each
excursion into the territory already mapped by the conventions of love poetry (borrowed
and reconstrued by Lorca, by Cohen), is interrupted by an increasingly defined expression
of the thing it is. This waltz. Take this waltz. This waltz "with its very own
breath of brandy and Death" is not always beautiful, is sometimes ungainly. It
has quatrains which aren't, it has lurchingly abbreviated links. And still, it is itself,
an embodied thing, a sung gift.
The second refrain is followed by an extended verse, not a quatrain
and a quintet as the earlier verse structures have been, but two quatrains and a quintet:
this section, it seems to me, names what is possible when the writer/singer has admitted
the necessary ambivalence of the whole project:
And I'll dance with you in Vienna. I'll be wearing a river's
disguise. The hyacinth wild on my shoulder, my mouth on the dew
of your thighs. And I'll bury my soul in a scrapbook, with the
photographs there and the moss. And I'll kneel to the flood of
your beauty, my cheap violin and my cross. And you'll carry me
down on your dancing to the pools that you lift on your wrist.
Nothing conditional about this passage: it's situated in hope and decision, and both
characters are positioned as lovers, engaged and corporeal. The "Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay"
of the other verses is swallowed into a splendidly unguarded "O my love, o my
love." And the gift, "this waltz," the gift is sung, is given: "Take
this waltz, take this waltz. It's yours now. It's all that there is." This is not to
suggest that somehow a blind and passionate love triumphs, but rather that the song,
through its layers of singer/writer/lover, has fulfilled its own project, has made itself
and given itself away with a free admission painful and celebratory
"it's all that there is."
The problem a writer (a singer, a lover) faces, finally, is a
problem of sincerity: how to speak all over again what has been written or sung or spoken
to death. By building in the tension of ambivalence, Cohen establishes a degree of
reflexivity irony, parody, subtlety, extravagance that can give credibility
to the what of what's spoken. Not mindless repetition, but intentional, considered
reaching into territories already charted, already written by named and nameless
individuals who participate in the accretion of convention. Cohen isn't shy to engage what
is already there; he has abandoned the dream of the first speaking. His cagey construction
of a proclaiming self as an ambivalent nexus of singer and speaker, person and tradition,
reconfigures the supplementarity of what's proclaimed as a celebration of unspoken
Song has much to teach us about reading text, because song insists,
song demonstrates, that meaning doesn't inhere ultimately in text, but in the
interplay of the spoken and the speaking, text and tone. Cohen re-members the love song,
the love song, by performing the ambivalence of its multiple voicings, its
polyphonic traces of supplementarity, by reading contingency with his body.
Leonard Cohen, "Take This Waltz"
Now in Vienna there are [there's] ten pretty women. There's a
shoulder where Death comes to cry. There's a lobby with nine hundred windows. There's a
tree where the doves go to die. There's a piece that was torn from the morning, and it
hangs in the Gallery of Frost. Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay. Take this waltz, take this waltz,
take this waltz with the clamp on its jaws.
I want you, I want you, I want you on a chair with a dead magazine. In the cave at the tip
of the lilly [sic], in some hallway where love's never been. On a bed where the moon has
been sweating, in a cry filled with footsteps and sand. Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay. Take this
waltz, take this waltz, take its broken waist in your hand.
This waltz, this waltz, this waltz, this waltz. With its very own breath of brandy and
Death. Dragging its tail in the sea.
There's a concert hall in Vienna where your mouth had a thousand reviews. There's a bar
where the boys have stopped talking. They've been sentenced to death by the blues. Ah, but
who is it climbs to your picture with a garland of freshly cut tears? Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay.
Take this waltz, take this waltz, take this waltz, it's been dying for years.
There's an attic where children are playing, where I've got to lie down with you soon, in
a dream of Hungarian lanterns, in the mist of some sweet afternoon. And I'll see what
you've chained to your sorrow, all your sheep and your lillies [sic] of snow. Ay, Ay,
Ay, Ay. Take this waltz. Take this waltz with its "I'll never forget you, you
And I'll dance with you in Vienna. I'll be wearing a river's disguise. The hyacinth wild
on my shoulder, my mouth on the dew of your thighs. And I'll bury my soul in a scrapbook,
with the photographs there, and the moss. And I'll yield to the flood of your beauty, my
cheap violin and my cross. And you'll carry me down on your dancing to the pools that you
lift on your wrist. O my love, o my love. Take this waltz, take this waltz. It's yours
now. It's all that there is.
Federico García Lorca, "Little Viennese Waltz"
a shoulder for death to cry on,
In Vienna there are ten little girls,
and a forest of dried pigeons.
There is a fragment of tomorrow
in the museum of winter frost.
There is a thousand-windowed dance hall.
Ay, ay, ay, ay!
Take this close-mouthed waltz.
Little waltz, little waltz, little waltz,
of itself, of death, and of brandy
that dips its tail in the sea.
I love you, I love you, I love you,
with the armchair and the book of death,
down the melancholy hallway,
in the iris's darkened garret,
in our bed that was once the moon's bed,
and in that dance the turtle dreamed of.
Ay, ay, ay, ay!
Take this broken-waisted waltz.
In Vienna there are four mirrors
in which your mouth and the echoes play.
There is a death for piano
that paints the little boys blue.
There are beggars on the roof.
There are fresh garlands of tears.
Aye [sic], ay, ay, ay!
Take this waltz that dies in my arms.
Because I love you, I love you, my love,
in the attic where the children play,
dreaming ancient lights of Hungary
through the noise, the balmy afternoon,
seeing sheep and irises of snow
through the dark silence of your forehead.
Ay, ay, ay, ay!
Take this "I will always love you" waltz.
In Vienna I will dance with you
in a costume with
a river's head.
See how the hyacinths line my banks!
I will leave my mouth between your legs,
my soul in photographs and lilies,
and in the dark wake of your footsteps,
my love, my love, I will have to leave
violin and grave, the waltzing ribbons.
Two corrections to the scores illustrated here could not be incorporated into the
figures as printed: in Figure 2, "c: VI" should read "C: IV" and in
Figure 3, "a: V" should read "a: V6".[back]
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