On Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

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It was at a ‘rock mass’ I attended in Kansas City in 1968, with a local group playing Jefferson Airplane songs and everyone dancing in the aisles, where I first heard the voice of the Canadian bard whom I would listen to and follow for the next half a century. At one point in the service, the band grew silent and a recording of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ was played. The non-commercial voice of the man – on occasion even ever-so-slightly off-key – touched me as no other sound has done before or since, and the simple guitar-work which accompanied it was understated but obviously fitting. I discovered why this Jewish psalmist had earned his part in Christian liturgy as I heard the following lines:

And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said “All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them”
But he himself was broken
Long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

‘Whoa!’ something in me exclaimed. Let’s just say he got my attention. That was his first song on his first album in 1967. His last album, of 2016 – a full half-century later and after twelve intervening albums, and given finishing touches as he was dying – includes lines like these:

I’ve seen you change the water into wine
I’ve seen you change it back to water, too
I sit at your table every night
I try but I just don’t get high with you
I wish there was a treaty we could sign
I do not care who takes this bloody hill
I’m angry and I’m tired all the time
I wish there was a treaty, I wish there was a treaty
Between your love and mine

Or, from another song on the album:

Seemed the better way
When first I heard him speak
But now it’s much too late
To turn the other cheek

(…) I better hold my tongue
I better take my place
Lift this glass of blood
Try to say the grace

Good poetry provokes construal, but good construal inevitably points back to poetry. More is said, and more life nourished, in suggestive verse and meter than can ever be preserved and pickled in prose; that’s why poetry exists. And Cohen was first of all a poet, and only started singing when his books did not bring in the money he needed. As would happen again in his life, such unforeseen constraints brought out the best in him. His music – and increasingly his voice – become counter-punctual enrichments and commentaries on his verse. The melancholy of the man, however – he was plagued by depression during much of his life – turned this alchemy into such an acoustic narcotic, some suggested that Leonard Cohen albums be sold with complementary razor blades. That otherworldly voice and the simple but poignant chord progressions could be too heavy for mortal ears. He wrote of death, pain, despair and longing, but also of sex, religion and hope. It’s all there, from his Jewish upbringing and the haunting tales of the Old ‘Treaty’ on to his imagination’s persistent flirtation with Christianity.

Like Dylan’s songs, Cohen’s would be unthinkable without Old Testament and Gospel references. He talked like a prophet and looked the part as well, an ever-slender gentleman in suit and fedora. As Dylan took a retreat in evangelical Christianity, Cohen sat at the feet of a Zen master for five years; they both emerged from their spiritual sabbaticals changed, if not converted. But awaiting Cohen was an exercise in detachment he had probably not envisioned in his sessions of zazen. His manager had disappeared with his life savings, and despite litigation, the money was gone. Out of sheer necessity, he tested the waters of popular culture to see if anyone would still pay to see a man, now pushing 80, try to sing his old songs. It turned out to be the beginning of a spectacularly successful four-year world tour, not only re-introducing him to old fans (like me), but gaining countless new ones as well. More significantly, perhaps, was how this brush with financial collapse, and unprogrammed suffering, inspired his songwriting, deepened his wisdom and humility, and made him, at long last, comfortable on the stage. His 2008 London concert was almost liturgical. The last three albums could well be his best: Old Ideas, Popular Problems, and his requiem testament: You Want it Darker – all meeting with overwhelming critical praise. From Old Ideas:

Show me the place, help me roll away the stone
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone
Show me the place where the word became a man
Show me the place where the suffering began

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