Leonard Cohen: One Year On

I was introduced to the music of Leonard Cohen by my friend’s older sister. I don’t quite know what it is about the music of this man, but it seems people are always turned onto him by someone’s older sibling. Maybe it says something about the maturity of his work — its dark content, the complexity of its themes, the haunting texture of his voice and of his spoken word.

My friend’s sister lent me one of her CDs, which was a ‘best of’ collection of his greatest hits. I don’t remember being particularly moved or captivated by his music, though I did develop a keen interest in a handful of his earlier songs. I loved his words. I didn’t pretend to understand all of it — much of it was biblical, much of it was about the intensity of romance and love. But his words struck a chord with me. Much like the music of Bob Dylan, Cohen had a knack for rhyme — and not just straightforward, predictable, pop song sort of rhyme. He had a way of assembling complex syllables and words and grouping them with other words that ordinarily wouldn’t quite fit — the rhyme is slightly off, but they marry together beautifully.

Suzanne takes you down

to her place near the river

you can hear the boats go by

you can spend the night beside her

 

And just when you mean to tell her

that you have no love to give her

she gets you on her wavelength

and she lets the river answer

that you’ve always been her lover

 

 Now Suzanne takes your hand

and she leads you to the river

she is wearing rags and feathers

from Salvation Army counters

 

 And the sun pours down like honey

on our lady of the harbour

And she shows you where to look

among the garbage and the flowers

 It also has to do with the stunning manner in which his voice speaks these words, the timing of his phrases — sometimes sped up and sometimes delayed, always colouring and texturing our understanding of the lyrics and their immediacy (or lack of). His delivery resists convention, his tempo tearing away the lyric from its expected metre, his voice constantly reminding us that there are so many ways to sing. Speaking. Howling. Moaning. Growling. Pleading.

He fashioned his songs on his terms, and it’s this above all else, I think, that gives his work its distinctive charm.

What impacted me most about the work of Leonard Cohen was the inherent Jewishness of so many of his songs. Their universality, yes — the themes and fascinations that he translated into song are universal. Human. But they possess a distinctiveness, a particularity. It seems Cohen’s Jewishness informed so much of his understanding of all that is so central and so human, which in turn added depth to my own understanding of the human condition and informed my own understanding and appreciation of the Jewish condition. The two are inextricably tied up, perhaps more so than we think. Indeed, the role art plays in elucidating facts such as these is one of art’s most compelling and enduring features.

What makes Cohen’s lyrics so intriguing and so seductive is the mystery that he imbued each song with. No verse is naked — everything is layered. Multifaceted. In so many of his songs, he employs language in such a way that it is marvellously unclear whom the song is being addressed to. To a lover? To God Himself? It’s impossible to know.

But I swear by this song

and by all that I have done wrong

I will make it all up to thee.

Bird On the Wire speaks to us about how careless and thoughtless we can be when it comes to those we love. So often we cut down those who reach out to us. So often in times of trial, it’s those who care for us most that we shut out from our orbits and messy lives. The song’s closing verse, which reads almost like a prayer, is a vow that by this song alone, he who sings this song will endeavour, simply and inexhaustibly, to be better. But who is Cohen speaking to… a lover? A friend? A family member? The God of forgiveness? The language is elusive and the peculiar choice of words imply there’s more here than simply a love song.

In the well known biblical account (Parashat Vayera) where Abraham sees three wayfaring strangers appear at his tent unannounced, upon noticing them, he greets the passers-by and invites them in:

He (Abraham) saw and he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent, and bowed toward the ground. And he said, “My lords, if it please you that I find favour in your eyes… (Gen 18:2-4)

 In reference to this pasuk (verse), Rashi elucidates:

And he said, “My lords, if it please you, etc.” He addressed the principal one among them and called them all “lords.” But to the principal one alone he said, “Please pass not,” and once he would not pass, his companions would stop with him. According to this interpretation, the term ‘lord’ is not sacred — i.e., it does not refer to God. (Rashi Genesis 18:3)

If Rashi’s interpretation is correct — that while Avraham addresses his visitors as ‘lords’, he isn’t necessarily addressing God but is in fact speaking to the passers-by directly, then the ambiguity of the language employed is simply trivial. Either that, or we’re being encouraged to look deeper into the implications and conventions of the words.

With this consideration in mind, our understanding of Cohen’s subject/muse is challenged. It could be a song addressed to a friend or lover who has been wronged, or it may be a Mizmor l’Leonard –– a song of Leonard, who like King David in his great psalms, is offering a song directly to the Lord of Song:

If it be Your will

that I speak no more

and my voice be still

as it was before

I will speak no more

I shall abide until

I am spoken for

If it be your will

 This song’s title is a loose translation of the liturgical phrase Ken Yehi Ratzon, the opening of a prayer directed to God. While it may at first glance be just another love song, albeit fashioned with an intensely poignant and wistful command of the English language, the song includes evoking imagery from the Kabbalat Shabbat service — imagery, it seems, borrowed indiscreetly and unashamedly, which speaks not only of fulfilling God’s will, but also of nature itself rejoicing:

If it be your will

if there is a choice

let the rivers fill

let the hills rejoice.

Just as Cohen frequently borrows from Jewish liturgy, so too he frequently borrows from Jewish theology and elements of traditional Jewish religious customs. In his fourteenth and final studio album, the harrowing and at times even humorous You Want It Darker (released a mere nineteen days before his death), Cohen sings in the songs Treaty and String Reprise/Treaty of what seems to be an imaginary contract between two lovers, though it could in be a longed for contract between man and his Creator.

 I wish there was a treaty we could sign

it’s over now, the water and the wine

we were broken then, but now we’re borderline

I wish there was a treaty, I wish there was a treaty

between your love and mine

Before husband and wife marry, the talmudic sages mandated an engagement period first, for though engagement has no legal significance, the tna’im (agreements) formalise their commitment to each other. The tna’im are written up in a contract known as the shtar tna’im. The document used is usually a standard printed form with blank spaces for the names of the bride, groom, guarantors and witnesses. The song’s references to a treaty signed by two consenting parties in agreement on something is, I think, reminiscent of Judaism’s appreciation of the formalities of agreements, treaties and vows. Indeed, as with Bird On the Wire, the subject/muse of the song is, as always, challenged. Is this a treaty between two people, or is it perhaps something deeper, abstract, more profound — a treaty between man and God? Given that the above lyrics are from the closing track of the album — Cohen’s growly, sombre voice accompanied only by strings, it seems fitting — perhaps even likely, that Cohen is bidding farewell to this weird and wonderful world of indifference by making it known to God and listener alike: We did our best. It was magic, it was real. In the face of all the chaos and darkness, we played out our parts as best we could. Sometimes it was enough, other times not. Things have been damaged and fractured — at times we’ve both strayed, but never did we entirely abandon one other. And now it’s over — the water and the wine, the mayim chaim (the waters of life) and the blood in our bodies. It’s just us now, back where we started — because so often, as the poet Charles Wright noted, “What lasts is what you start with.”

As the sun set on Cohen’s long and eventful life, it’s difficult to view his return ‘home’ as anything but marvellous and moving. In his thirteenth and second last studio album, Popular Problems, it seemed that Cohen had come to some sort of amicable terms with his failing body and the inevitability of decay and expiration. Many years of flirtation with Buddhism and other spiritual practices seemed to somehow pave the way home for Cohen — perhaps not in a strictly religious sense, but it was a return home nonetheless. Real. Authentic.

I was born in chains

but I was taken out of Egypt

I was bound to a burden

but the burden it was raised

Lord, I can no longer keep this secret

Blessed is the Name

the Name be praised.

Baruch Hu Uvaruch Shemo. May the Name be praised. One of the Pesach seder’s most basic directives is to view ourselves as if we were slaves in Egypt, freed personally by the hand of the Almighty. In viewing ourselves as having been freed from bondage, the seder night becomes less of a purely historical account and more a collective narrative that we see ourselves as being part of through our attachment to the narrative itself. Here, Cohen himself was born in chains and taken out of Egypt, God Himself raising the burden of oppression and servitude, for which the Name must be praised. The music is sombre and the singer is drained, but there are stubborn signs of life — a recognition of how long and blessed the journey has been, which will not be reduced or decayed by illness or age.

You got me singing

Even tho’ the world is gone

You got me thinking

I’d like to carry on

 You got me singing

Even tho’ it all looks grim

You got me singing

The Hallelujah hymn

By the time You Want It Darker was released, Cohen had truly reached the terminal end of his life. The work was particularly dark. Particularly grim. Particularly bereft of any redeeming elements. But even the utter desolation and destituteness of the work wasn’t able to entirely eradicate Cohen’s sharp, deprecating humour.

 I’m travelling light

it’s au revoir

my once so bright

my fallen star

it’s getting late

they’ll close the bar

I used to play 

one mean guitar

He still found within himself the ability to see the humour is his circumstances. As cancer was melting away his once firm muscles, he was still able to view mortality’s encroaching shadows as being like a bar running low on booze and subsequently about to shut its doors. Still, he was able to poke fun at his ‘mean guitar’ skills, surely a joke at the expense of the music producer Jon Landau, who somewhat prophetically once said, “I have seen the future of rock ’n roll, and it isn’t Leonard Cohen.” Often criticised for lacking the most basic of musical talents, Cohen responded by incorporating into his work jokes and quick asides that made fun of that very fact, as if to say: ‘This is all I’ve got, folks. I can’t pretend to be any more or any less than what I am’.

I was born like this

I had no choice

I was born with the gift

of a golden voice.

But just as Cohen always retained his humour, he also retained his ability to tell it like it is. Illness and dying wasn’t glorified, but nor was it embellished to appear overly sentimental of heartbreakingly tragic. It was what it was — it is what it is.

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 was there was a treaty, I wish there was a treaty

between your love and mine

Desolate. Destitute. A world that no longer makes sense. A world that no longer offers ways out. A world bereft of any additional chances at love. A world where even the libido won’t just lie down and die. Things still tick, the bucket hasn’t quite been kicked, although pretty soon they’ll close the bar. 

 Everybody knows the dice are loaded

Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed

Everybody knows the war is over

Everybody knows the good guys lost

 

Everybody knows the fight was fixed

The poor stay poor, the rich get rich

That’s how it goes

Everybody knows.

 Nothing more to conquer, it seems. No more battles to be lost or won — or at least none of great consequence. While Cohen may have strayed from the Jewish path, he never wholly rejected it. He never found complete peace of mind and clarity throughout his Buddhist ventures. He was always the wandering Jew. The restless Jew. The Jew of the Haggadah — never quite settled, never quite content. His music always reflected that, and there’s a lifetime of music to stand testament to it.

You bring a lot with you when you come into a faith. What moves you and offers comfort to you isn’t just the works of the great rabbis and the isolated study of the great Jewish texts. Cohen’s music offered me humbling and haunting glimpses into the human psyche, his words revealing and so very revelational. His music made me feel grown up — I felt as if I was in on something truly special, as if I had been granted exclusive access into this hidden and at times harrowing world. His narratives gave depth and texture to the tales and accounts contained within Tanakh, his lyrics imbuing them with an energy and a vigour often akin to midrashic commentary, which for me was at times needed in order for me to make sense of things. His music transcended the boundaries and constraints of what I understood songwriting to be, allowing me to make sense of the dark knights of the soul. Poverty. Decay. Depression. Darkness. Longing. The enduring struggle between man and his Maker. His words were powerfully illustrative and dense, but rarely unnecessarily so. He was masterfully linguistic and stunningly descriptive, but he wrote deliberately and purposefully, the music cutting straight to the bone and marrow, whilst not diminishing the essentialness and dignity of detail. He taught me how to say Hineni to my God — how to forgive the world for not being better, and at times how to even forgive God for not having made a better world.

I lift my glass to the awful truth

which you can’t reveal to ears of youth

except to say it isn’t worth a dime.

The vast body of music he created seemed to me to be the culmination of a lifetime of struggle — not strictly in the literal sense, but in the existential sense. The struggle to maintain a fascination with people and with human relationships. To always hold on to the memory of how a particular lost love made you feel. To speak candidly and without embellishment about what was and is, and to lament what could have been. To be able to see suffering as at times redemptive. To be humbled by the crack where the light gets in.

The morning of his death, I listened to the You Want It Darker album from start to finish before leaving for work. It wasn’t planned, of course — it was purely by chance that as I arrived at work having listened to the album in full only an hour or so earlier, I heard the news of his death. I didn’t grieve. He wasn’t a family member or a personal friend. But he was a companion of sorts. His music was the soundtrack to so much of my built up teenage angst, and he was the author of songs and poems alike which could both at times be bold affirmations of life and amazingly also epitaphs suitable for a tombstone. After hearing his farewell album in full, I got the impression he was ready for the Great Unknown. You could hear it. You could feel it. It consumed the music. He was prepared for his death and was at peace with his mortality and his soon to be non-existence altogether.

Hineni, Hineni

I’m ready, my Lord.

And his confrontation of that brutal fact was brave and honest and at times even defiant. He maintained his humour, his ability to ridicule his circumstances — and above all, he showed with marvellous strength and charm that he was once more able — for the last time, to paint the world as it truly is. Weird and wonderful. Last things have rights of their own, as we know, not because they need us but because our need for them makes more real that sense of finality.

So I bid you farewell

I don’t know when I’ll be back

they’re moving us tomorrow

to that tower down the track

but you’ll be hearing from me, baby

long after I’m gone

I’ll be talking to you sweetly

from my window in the

Tower of Song

And with that, as he told The New Yorker shortly before moving to that tower down the track,

“I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable.”

Photo 30-10-2017, 12 25 33 PM

About the Author
Ike Curtis is twenty-two years old and lives in Melbourne, Australia. In June 2017, he completed a five year process of orthodox conversion to Judaism through the Melbourne Beth Din. He is currently undergoing a Bachelor of Arts degree at Monash University.
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