The Hunt for Hank Williams: Leonard Cohen and “Untold Tales of PunisherMAX”

I’m Your Man, the 1988 album by Leonard Cohen, is a strange but secretly vital offering. It’s an experiment in the blues that reads almost as a “What If…?”; What If blues could be gotten at by way of electro-synthpop. And the question it poses: are there legitimate means those two very different genres could have a meaningful conversation? It might have been hard to understand the full impact in 1988, but just two years on, with the album being rereleased on CD, the moment it represented became a little more clear.

Back in 1988 already, I’m Your Man seemed to tilt on the cusp of ushering a new age of music, one that would rely more heavily on technological evolution. It’s a story that would take a more-or-less upward swing from the early 90s, through Napster, and eventually end in iTunes. Even if the story does wend a way through inconveniencing the Music Biz by simply nullifying it. But at a conceptual level, I’m Your Man closes off the ’80s of Living in a Box and REO Speedwagon and Kraftwerk. And in wedding together the sensibilities of such bands with the older experiments of blues, I’m Your Man offers a way to think about synthpop as not simply frivolous and largely irrelevant.

“Tower of Song” provides a natural coda to the album, both literally and thematically. It is a track dripping with a disillusion and a paranoia of being hunted down by grand, dark forces that only Robert Johnson could properly muster. But the thematic unfurls beautifully as Cohen (or his analog and protagonist in the song), begins a hunt for Hank Williams.

The track plays out a little like this: Music is a Dark and Paranoid Mistress and has, despite her bestowing Cohen with gifts, Rapunzeled him in her Tower. Cohen in the song becomes a powerful image for someone brought to ruin by success and talent. And then the denouement; “I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get/ Hank Williams hasn’t answered me yet/ But I hear him coughing all night, in the Tower of Song.”

Cohen offers a savage parallel between his own project in I’m Your Man and Williams’ with simultaneously modernizing country music and epitomizing lived reality in a way great filmmakers like Ozu or De Sica later would. But the sad and final truth? Both Cohen and Williams are locked away from that ordinary world they hope to describe, locked away in the Tower of Song.

Being brought low by the very talents that should prove to be your vehicle for success, talents that would normally liberate you from the ordinary, is a theme that lies at the heart of each of the five stories in Untold Tales of PunisherMAX. Take Mel for example in Megan Abbott’s “Ribbon”, who is lured onto a bus and onwards into the woods by a girl who is ‘older than you think’. Or Jimmy the body shop guy in Jason Starr’s “Jimmy’s Collision”, who’s likable enough, but has a gambling problem and spiraling out from that, the unluckiest car crash ever. Or Wang in Nathan Edmondson’s “Manhunt” who petitions the Punisher to seek out his human-trafficked daughter. Each seem to be their own kind of ‘just folk’, and by the end, each are found out by time and by just and by Punishment.

Beginning in January of 2004 and running for 66 issues subsequent, writer Garth Ennis gave us arguably the cleanest, purest inflection of the Punisher to date. In his mass murder of mobsters who dealt drugs and ran whores, Punisher targeted an entire culture of crime and permissiveness with a war that would not end. Ennis’ powerful insight, that came at a time when America faced a seemingly interminable war against Terror, was to turn the Punisher outward, and have him affect geopolitical and military-industrial shifts with a similarly laser-focused war.

Would we ever see that kind of Punisher again?

What if the Punisher didn’t have to be? In Untold Tales of PunisherMAX, five unique and gifted writers find themselves taking the Leonard Cohen option. These writers present stories of people on the edge, trapped by their own talents, in Towers where the everyday of emotional honesty remains tantalizingly out of reach. In each of these tales, the Punisher is little more than a cipher, a death-dealing deus ex machina that arrives like a necessary judgment. If there’s any reason these Tales are Untold, it’s because they’re hardly the Punisher’s tales at all. These tales belong to the world he stalks his prey through, a world that Leonard Cohen mistakenly understood to be the one Hank Williams’ songs aspired to.

In very short, very pithy, very Tennessee (but maybe also Hank) Williams style, these stories tell of entire worlds, whole lives that are called to judgment. And more than anything, they speak to the enduring power of innovation that lies latent in a character like the Punisher. This series comes with stern praise; it should be read and wondered at and then forgotten. At that point you should live your life where judgment and bedlam cannot find you out.

RATING 7 / 10