The flat white chord


by Vin Maskell

At first I thought the voice was coming through the speakers of the large, neat café, trying to be heard above the burble of lunch orders and the boiling, bubbling and steaming of the baristas at work.

Then I wondered if a busker, carried away mid-song, had strayed in to take advantage of the acoustics of the church-like high ceilings.

I looked up from my salad but just saw the usual lunch-time scene. The pretty young waitresses behind the baine-marie and the sandwich bar.  The barista blokes in their black tops. Office-workers counting the minutes. Some sport – baseball – playing silently on a television.

And still the voice sang. That Leonard Cohen song. A man in a suit paused mid-sandwich, looked about, distracted.

My hot chocolate arrived, set down on the little yellow table by one of the waitresses. She had a small tattoo on the back of her neck. A butterfly.

I nodded thanks and looked straight ahead towards the café’s La Trobe Street entrance, and heard the voice climbing into the chorus. Of that Leonard Cohen song.

One of the baristas was singing while serving. Singing about David and a secret chord. ‘It goes like this/The fourth, the fifth/The minor fall, the major lift’. Singing while whipping up a flat white.

Like so many, I have loved the song for a long time. But familiarity can breed contempt if you’re not careful. The things you love may become the things you loathe.

The much-covered songs turns up in surprising places. In a movie about a lovelorn green ogre whose best mate is a talking donkey. In a TV soap about rich kids in Orange County, California. During the 2010 Winter Olympics, not just at the opening ceremony but during those damn slower-than-slow highlights that cushion the advertisements.

And now at lunchtime on a Friday. Sung by a bearded barista who is perhaps very happy. Or very pretentious. Or both.

I watch him while I sip my hot chocolate. He is in profile, almost in silhouette, and his neck naturally stretches as reaches for notes (while his hands reach for cups and coffee and levers).

I am annoyed that I am annoyed, for it is just a man singing. And I usually like moments of unexpected music. Paul Kelly on the muzak in a supermarket. An old Paul Simon song on a radio in an office, pre the i-Pod era.  ‘Long Way to The Top’ blaring in my car radio as I turn on the ignition after paying the mechanic.

I like such surprises, such spontaneity in such a measured, regulated world.

So why did the barista’s singing irritate me?  There might have been some jealousy. I can’t sing to save myself, not that the barista’s singing was up there with Jeff Buckley. Or k.d.lang. Or the great man himself.

Maybe it was just the intrusiveness of it all. The morning, and the week leading up to it, had been busy and now I just wanted to eat my spinach and couscous salad, drink my hot chocolate and let the mind float. No emails. No phonecalls. No meetings about stakeholders. Just sit. And eat. And be.

But into that haven came the voice. And that song.

Maybe there needs to be a moratorium on Cohen’s sacred  signature tune so that it doesn’t grow weary and hackneyed as we grow weary and old. (At a choirs weekend lead by Jonathan Welch over the 2010 Anzac weekend Welch asked all the choirs, bar one, not to perform the song. Alas, there were a few versions sung over the course of the singing festival. Some people just cant’ help themselves.)

Some songs need fresh air. They need to be able to breathe again. They need to be able to float away into space and not come into our orbit for a good while.

And when they do come back – on the radio in an office, on the muzak in a supermarket, even sung by a barista in a café – they can come back without us having totally lost the magic and the wonder of first hearing them, first cherishing them, first holding onto them for dear, dear life.

Eventually the barista was summoned from the coffee machine. I couldn’t see him but I could hear him, perhaps now in the kitchen.

I finished my salad, swallowed the last of my hot drink. I gently pushed my chair back and headed outside. Hallelujah.

This story first appeared on the Rockwiz website in 2010.

About Vin Maskell

Founder and editor of Stereo Stories, a partner site of The Footy Almanac. Likes a gentle kick of the footy on a Sunday morning, when his back's not playing up. Been known to take a more than keen interest in scoreboards - the older the better.


  1. Great stuff, Vin.

    I used to quite like the supermarket musak. You’d sometimes hear a song that you hadn’t for a long long time. Sadly, these days the playlist includes ads and the supermarkets playing their own jingles. It just makes me want to get out as soon as possible. Why they need to advertise themselves to me when I’m already in their shop is beyond me.

  2. Hallelujah has a chequered past to say the least. It was released on the album, Various Positions in 1985 (if my memory serves). Hallelujah is not Cohen’s best song (not by a long shot – think Tower of Song or So Long Marianne or Dance Me To The End of Love), it’s not even the best song on the album. When Cohen appeared on Austin City Limits in 1988 (again, memory …) it was the first time he had appeared on American TV in about 10 years (track down a copy, I d/loaded it) he didn’t even perform the song. For many years through the 80s and 90s if you raised Leonard Cohen in conversation you were met with blank or indifferent stares. When J Buckley covered the song then it took on a new life. I still reckon his is a pretty crap version, placing more emphasis on the voice than the feeling. However it raised that song’s profile. To the extent that people would hardly believe it when you’d say who wrote it. Somewhere along the way, the song as an advertisement for Cohen’s music took hold and people fell in love with Cohen, in droves. In 1985 I saw Cohen at the Perth Concert Hall, a venue that seats about 3000. These days he fill 15,000 seaters. Hallelujah had something to do with that so good on it. In a different sense that you Vin, but maybe on the same page, I just wish Mr Barista Man would learn some more Cohen songs. Like ‘Night Comes On’ which is one of my faves.


  3. John Butler says

    Love it Vin.

    Overkill is the natural predator of music.

    But what songs do we suggest as alternatives?

    The Dead Kennedys’ Too Drunk To [email protected]#k is only suitable for certain occasions.

  4. I had a similar discussion whilst on holiday with a few mates as we sat under a cool tree sinking cold ones. We developed a list. Those on the list were music artists we all agreed were crap (Billy Idol, Olivia Newton John, John Farnham, Billy Joel, Motley Crew, Bon Jovi, et al). We then developed a “pre” and “post” list – ie bands/singers that we good at the start and turned into crap (Jimmy Barnes, Queen, Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Black Sabbath et al).

    Then there were the songs that made us hate bands because they get played too much – Khe Sanh was the king of this list.

    We spent hours doing it, such fun. ,

  5. There is a music shop in Geelong where I bought a guitar. There is a sign in that says, “Please, no Stairway to Heaven.”

    A pub I I had a drink at in Darwin a few years ago had banned Khe Sanh as a request.

    Suzanne is my partner’s favourite Cohen song because her name is Suzanne. In all honesty, I don’t get Cohen or his music, and his voice is average but after hearing Bono say Cohen had a massive influence on him, I revisited Cohen’s music to see what I was missing. I like Hallelujah, but all in all, I’m still struugling.

  6. Damo Balassone says

    Nice post again Vin. To me, when Cohen sings the song it’s almost like a chant – he almost spits out those rhymes and chorus, where as Buckley’s version is all about the angelic voice. A different song altogether.

    I think you are correct in saying familiarity breeds contempt. But you have to be careful …I know some people who will not give time of day to Roy Orbison’s haunting, stunning version of “Danny Boy” because they are sick to death of this overplayed song and don’t believe any version of it could possibly move them. They are missing out.

  7. “Some songs need fresh air. They need to be able to breathe again. They need to be able to float away into space and not come into our orbit for a good while.”

    this is it in a nutshell.

    i was watching a popular swedish program called “så ska det låta” last weekend – it’s a music program in which 2 teams are given clues to various songs and have to guess the song and then perform it.

    the band played the intro to bruce springsteen’s ‘thunder road’ – one of my all time favourite songs. i used to play it 50 times a day. i know it so well, my response is molecular.

    i hadn’t heard it for a good while though, and when i did, i was immediately transported back to that time. it was wonderful. like a drug.

  8. Haiku Bob,

    I doubt I would ever get sick of Thunder Road. It always sounds fresh, alive, energetic. What a song.

  9. Yes of course songs can be played to death. The entire Beatles and Stones 60s catalogue were best left alone during the 70s and then sounded good again in the 80s after a decade break.

    But the thing that most destroys iconic songs is advertising. The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations was one of the great pop songs of the 60s – equal to the best of the Beatles, Stones, Who and the Kinks. Thanks to a certain shonky, cut rate electrical products store I can no longer hear the song.

    As far as Leonard Cohen is concerned I am pleased with what Hallelujah did for Leonard’s career but, like Rick, there are many Leonard Cohen songs that I prefer to it. The only versions of Hallelujah that I like are Leonard’s and k d lang.

    The first Leonard Cohen song I heard was Suzanne. First at a coffee house by Melbourne singer (and later school teacher) Gail Williams. Then I heard the Judy Collins recording that Gail learned her version from, and then I heard Cohen’s own version. My girlfriend at the time was not named Suzanne but I loved the song. Judy Collins does better covers of Leonard Cohen than anyone else. In 2004 she released an album of Cohen’s songs, including an excellent version of Democracy.

  10. On the website there is an article saying Springsteen will perform at 2012 AFL GF … Thunder Road indeed!

  11. that would amount to a radical change in policy if true rick.
    thought the afl had mastered the art of selecting shonky b-grade washed up has beens so as to make sure the pre-game entertainment doesn’t upstage the main event.
    dangerous move imo.

  12. Damo Balassone says

    Like a vision Demetriou dances across the porch as the radio plays…

  13. What the world needs now is not love, sweet love, or baristas singing Hallejuah but more Supernaut.

    Supernauit for the 2012 AFL GF; I’m petitioning Andy.

  14. Lovely piece, Vin. Though, for the first few lines, you had me convinced it was one of many LC songs.

Leave a Comment