Elephants reference in Cohen's Dress Rehearsal Rag

In Dress Rehearsal Rag Leonard cohen includes the lines ,“I thought you knew where / all of the elephants lie down.”

Having tried Google the only thing reminiscent of an explanation was something to the effect of “there are myths about elephants going to a secret holy place to die.” Which didn’t seem to me a satisfying answer.

So I turn to the Dopers. Is this a specific reference to a real or mythical phenomenon or is it just a throw-away type line that Cohen thought sounded cool?

If it is an actual reference then details and cites (for my own edification not because I doubt your veracity) would be muchly appreciated.

Thanks in advance;


The secret elephants’ graveyard is a very old and well-established story, and it’s no surprise that it’s one more way for Cohen to say that he thought he had his shit together.

Thank you very much! I had figured he meant “I thought you had your shit together / I thought you were a hoopy frood” but I couldn’t pin down the reference to be sure.

I appreciate you clearing that up for me :slight_smile:

Cohen doesn’t really do ‘throw-away’ lines.

There’s a story about him and Dylan comparing how long it takes them to write a song. Dylan said ‘about half an hour’, Cohen said ‘6 - 8 years’. Different types of geniuses!

Oh yes he does! Don’t get me wrong, I’m one of Field Commander Cohen’s most loyal and devoted grunts but every writer has throwaway bits and he is no different.

“Like a worm on a hook / like a knight from some old fashionned book / I’ve saved all my ribbons for thee” Bird on a Wire I’d say that the worm line - as it makes no sense in the context of the rest of the stanza - is a throwaway

I could dig up others but that’s the one that sprang to mind.

I liked the story about Dylan and Cohen. Thanks for that.

Nope! It has a direct link to ‘I have torn everyone who reached out for me’ in the next verse. Not a throwaway at all.

Nooooo, the line that links to “torn everyone who reached out for me” is, “like a baby stillborn / like a beast with his horn” Nothing at all to do with the worm.

And, really, if the worm line tied to the torn line wouldn’t it be, “I’ve been torn by everyone…” since worms - especially hooked ones - seldom tear anyone.

Sorry Petrobey old trout.

But just for the sake of it I may as well ask, how do you figure “like a worm on a hook” links to “I have torn…”?

It can link to both - no rule against that.

If you take a bite at a worm on a hook you get torn.


  • a ‘worm’ normally equates to a good thing for a fish, but if it has a hook in it, and you ‘reach out for it’, then it surely does ‘tear’ you.
  • a ‘baby’ is normally a good thing as well, but a stillborn one tears you both literally and figuratively.
  • the ‘beast with his horn’ is surely a unicorn reference; a symbol of all that is beautiful, but again with a violent subtext.

More of a halibut, myself.

I believe that’s from a conversation they had in the eighties when Dylan – as so many others – was impressed by *Halleluja * (1984) and asked him how long it took him to write. (The song actually has about thirty verses, by the way, though he never sings them all.) “Eight years” (?), Cohen answered, which surprised Dylan a lot, himself being a person who never lingers with a song or a sound, it seems.
Cohen, on his part, was found of the recently published (1983) I and I by Dylan, and asked him in return how long it took him to write it. “Fifteen minutes”, he answered, which of course surprised Cohen.

I have no cites on this one.

This chimes with my memory as well. I was trying to think of the two songs and had ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Jokerman’ in my head, so this sounds about right.

I will give you that the worm / torn connection (if one existed) likely refers to the fish biting the hook and being “torn” I’ll concede that and give you a nod. However…

The structure of the song is not such that the 1st line of one stanza ties into the last line of the next stanza. Nowhere in the song does that happen. Each stanza is essentialy a stand alone. So, while I grant that a worm on a hook could be said to tear a fish the song is not set up in such a way the two stanzas link.

Somewhat of an aside, I don’t believe that the beast with his horn refers anymore to a unicorn than it does to the devil (not at all). It is, I believe, a line that can be taken at face value with no added interpretation being needed or, truly, desirable.

Have a great day :slight_smile:

A sign of great literature is that varying interpretations can be made of it, none of them necessarily any more valid than the others.

You too.

I hope this thread isn’t too stale to be brought up again. (Also, isn’t it more fitting for Café Society?)

Lately, I’ve been finding myself often listening to this song. (I just had a birthday and somehow it’s resonated with me fairly hard.) To me, it’s fairly obvious the song is about an aging has-been actor facing the end both in terms of his career and his life. However, does anybody else have an alternate interpretation?

I always assumed it was about Len himself, getting depressed about life on the road as a touring musician, and afraid his creativity was running out.

An aspect of the Elephants Graveyard myth that has not been mentioned, but that seems relevant, is that if you knew the secret location of the graveyard, you would be able to go there, collect all the ivory, and get rich. The song continues: “I thought you were the crown prince / of all the wheels in Ivory Town.” Thus, it is saying that the protagonist once had the secret of success and riches (although I suspect it is more spiritual, or perhaps sexual, success and riches, rather than just money), but has now lost, or feels himself to be losing, it.

I could see that too even though Cohen was only in his early 30s when he wrote the song. Maybe he was projecting himself 20+ years down the line when he’d be in his 50s and burnt out going from one pissant gig to another (not that it actually turned out that way).

The reason I thought it was more about an aging actor was the title, “Dress Rehearsal Rag.” Dress rehearsal is something you associate more with theater than with someone performing music live.

(And this thread still belongs in Café Society.)