I learned that love is out of my control.

I’ve been on a serious Greg Dulli jag lately. New Whigs, old Whigs, Twilight Singers — doesn’t matter, I’m down for it all. I saw the Afghan Whigs in concert last October, during their triumphant march across the nation, and it was a sight to behold. They were all sober, all alive, older, more experienced, and twice as powerful as they were back in the day. I also watched them at SXSW via live webcast the other day, although I’m glad I didn’t drop the airfare to get down there. The show I saw in Minneapolis was better by far. No Usher then, just the goods.

I caught Dulli’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Paper Thin Hotel” the other day, via the Twilight Singers website, and this song knocks me dead. Tender, big-hearted, accepting, even trusting; compassionate, and yet acknowledging reality — above all, loving. Tenderness is still Dulli’s ace in the hole, his “shotgun taped under the table”, as he once described it in an interview. And Cohen’s lyrics are simple, poetic, direct, and sensual…makes me horny. Not horny, WISTFUL. That’s it, wistful…the words put us all where he’s been, even if we’ve never stood outside a hotel room with our lover inside & we weren’t there with them. We’ve all been at that point of love and acceptance of the truth (or we should be…), and that’s what makes me, um, wistful. Cohen — and Dulli for that matter — can be blunt as hell at times (remember, Dulli is the one who sang the line “ladies let me tell you about myself/ I got a dick for a brain, and my brain is going to sell my ass to you” on “Be Sweet” off Gentlemen with utter sincerity), but it’s never unwelcome. They do it in the service of the truth, as they understand it at least, and that makes it more understandable and palatable, somehow. Just makes me…wistful, is all.

For me there has only ever been one such angel as Dulli sings of here (and Lord willing there ever will be only one), so that’s part of what makes me wistful. Dulli, and Cohen through him, hot-wire the fidelity, or faithfulness, part of my brain and the horny part — no mean feat in and of itself. In fact, I would have called it damn near impossible, had a certain poker-faced Buddhist and his louche Lothario counterpart/accomplice not accomplished exactly that with this simple cover. Dulli has a genius for covering other people’s songs — the Afghan Whigs made surprising and wide-ranging cover songs one of their calling cards, and his Twilight Singers have continued that proud tradition, even releasing an entire album of covers at one point.

For my money, Dulli’s reading far outstrips Cohen’s — and I say that even acknowledging I’m probably going to piss off Leonard Cohen fans. (We can still be friends. I promise.) Part of the problem, to be fair, is not Cohen’s original version of the song per se, but rather what producer Phil Spector did to it. He didn’t make Cohen sound nearly as good as other producers or engineers have done — in fact, I’d go so far as to say that if I were to imagine the exactly wrong person to produce Leonard Cohen, he would do stuff in the studio remarkably like Phil Spector. Not to take away from Spector’s accomplishments with other groups and other songs (which of course are epoch-making), but Spector just doesn’t seem to be the right guy to produce Cohen. Cohen is too spare, understated, and in general classical or elegiac for Spector’s bombastic, wall-o-sound nonsense. Not a great fit, that. Dulli rights the wrongs with his dynamic, uplifting cover of a great song. A great cover can uncover unexpected depths in a song, re-interpreting it and bringing a fresh perspective that shows you life in a new light. This song does that.

I’d say that Dulli’s reading of this song far outstrips Cohen’s. He does a better job with Cohen’s song than Cohen did, while still paying tribute to such a master tunesmith and wordsmith as Cohen himself. But then again, I’m a Greg Dulli fan. I think that just about everything the man puts out is worth hearing, at least once — and most of it much more than that. Numbers do not go high enough to add up how many times I’ve listened to Blackberry Belle orĀ Gentlemen. However, we should acknowledge the debt to Cohen that this song really has. His lyrics give this cover the rock-solid foundation that’s required to scale the heights. (For starters, why is the narrator in the hallway outside the hotel room in the first place? I listened to the song maybe twenty or thirty times before I realized that and thought to ask myself the question. A masterful touch, and it’s so basic to the song– that’s where it starts out. A little piece of genius.)

The line about “it’s written on the walls of this hotel” is touching to me, because of the contrast between the narrator’s deeply felt, personal, intimate moment of epiphany, and the anonymous, rootless, cheerless setting of a hotel room. Hotels have an anodyne, lulling, impersonal sense to them which is the polar opposite of the transcendent moment of clarity and broad, wrenching love that the narrator experiences in this song. It’s not Dulli (I think…), it might be Cohen, but really it’s all of us — at one time or another. I have worked in a hotel and learned firsthand how comfortless and without true human cheer such places can bee — but also how they can be a setting for great love and faithfulness, as well as great treachery, duplicity, deceit, and even betrayal. That’s how people are.

The line “I heard how love is out of my control” really affects me too. That’s what’s stayed with me and affected me longer-term, and why I keep coming back to this song. That’s what gives this song its punch. Without that line, and all the human motivation and drama behind it, this song is just some guy standing in a hotel corridor, listening as his lover has sex with someone that’s not him. That’s it. With that line, this song vaults into the realm of the universal, becoming instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever loved and lost — or maybe even just loved. That line, “I heard that love is out of my control,” has enormous application. Brothers, children, loves, friends, whatever it is, it can fit in so many ways.

Out of great pain, physical or otherwise, can come clarity, even detachment and acceptance. We have seen this and, if we’re blessed or lucky, experienced it for ourselves. Yet the narrator is not entirely free from detachment as he professes. There’s a barely discernible undercurrent of vengefulness to his story. He slips up for a moment, as it were, when he says that he “can’t wait until you take my place”, meaning that he can’t wait until he’s doing to her what she did to him. People are like that too. Yet the clarity and the love that the narrator finds himself swamped in, as by a tidal wave, are there for all of us — if only we’re willing to risk letting go what we love the most. It’s a thought-provoking song.

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
A heavy burden lifted from my soul
I heard that love was out of my control

I listened to your kisses at the door
I never heard the world so clear before
You ran your bath and you began to sing
I felt so good I couldn’t feel a thing

I stood there with my ear against the wall …

And I can’t wait to tell you to your face
And I can’t wait for you to take my place
You are the naked angel in my heart
You are the woman with her legs apart
It’s written on the walls of this hotel
You go to heaven once you’ve been to hell

A heavy burden lifted from my soul
I heard that love was out of my control

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