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Leonard Cohen’s Life of Poetry and Song

When Leonard Cohen, as a student at McGill University in 1950s Montreal, was put in charge of public debates, his first act was to say there should not be any public debates. He would never become an overtly political voice, but he did address political issues, as he sung in his 1992 release “Democracy”:

It’s coming to America first

The cradle of the best and of the worst

It’s here they got the range

And the machinery for change

I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean

I love the country but I can’t stand the scene

And I’m neither left or right

I’m just staying home tonight

Getting lost in that hopeless little screen

At the hour of his death the hopeless little screens were full of the U.S. presidential election and hysteria surrounding Mr. Trump’s victory. Combining the two events, many flocked to social media to opine that Cohen had given up. In the following days we learned he had died before the election result, at a time when most assumed the coronation of Hillary Clinton. He also died not of disappointment but of mundane human frailty; a fall down the stairs by an 82-year-old man suffering from cancer.

Cohen left us much more than the transient and worldly sentiment of politics. His gaze was fixed on a farther star, that of the human spirit and the transcendent relationship. If there is any lyric that condenses his work it is, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” This was his theology: there is a crack in the human spirit, in political life, in love, and in the life of the heart.

For much of his career, Cohen was dismissed as a “Godfather of gloom” or a “bedsit bard,” followed by an army of fans only just on this side of suicide. Such portrayals ignored what his fans saw, a poet who spoke from and of the heart, with the occasional drop of self-mockery and humor. As a teenager in 1975, I was listening to Cohen in my bedroom when my father stormed in and demanded to know what dirge I was playing so loudly and who had died. What I, and those like me, found was not gloom but a deep spiritual search.

Cohen was born into a wealthy Jewish family in the well-heeled area of Westmount, Montreal, and his father was in the fashion business, ensuring that apart from following his religious tradition Cohen would dress well. He was a poet and novelist of some note in Canada before visiting London and then leaving for the Greek island of Hydra on the recommendation of a sun-tanned bank teller in that rainy city. There he met Marianne, his muse to whom he would later sing, “So, long.”

Among his travels in what he termed the “doom decade” of the 1960s, Cohen took a trip to Cuba just as the Bay of Pigs crisis erupted, quickly becoming aware that a young Jewish boy from Montreal looked somewhat out of place. He was summoned to the Canadian Embassy, only to be given a message from his mother inquiring about his safety. One night walking on the beach he was detained by military police as a “suspicious” foreigner. The arrest inspired him to head home and write a poem of political irony about Canada entitled The Last Tourist in Havana Turns His Thoughts Homeward. It appeared in  his poetry volume, Flowers for Hitler, dedicated to Marianne and featuring an admonition to “let us threaten to join the U.S.A., and pull out at the last moment.”

Taking to the stage was a painful process for Cohen, which came about when Judy Collins, who had recorded “Suzanne” with great success, invited him to perform at a concert against the Vietnam War in 1967. Petrified, he told his lawyer he couldn’t sing, but his friend shot back that “none of you guys can sing, if I wanna hear singing I’ll go to the Metropolitan Opera!” He agreed to perform but stopped singing halfway through the first verse of “Suzanne” and left the stage. When cajoled by Collins to return, he did—and the rest is history. In later years when he sang the line in “Tower of Song,” “I was born like this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice,” the ladies present, including my good wife, would whoop and applaud with delight.

Not that everyone welcomed the birth of this new star. Cohen wryly recalled in an interview that a Rolling Stone reviewer had written after his Isle of Wight concert, in which Cohen had followed Jimi Hendrix, “Leonard Cohen is a boring old drone, and he’s overpaid, and he should fuck off back to Canada.” Problem was that Canada didn’t particularly want him in those days, far removed from more recent times when even Maclean’s magazine declared him a national treasure and Prime Minister Trudeau tweeted about Cohen’s death. In an early television appearance on a Sunday-morning program on Canada’s CBC, one viewer asked why they were “letting this cancer loose.” When I first visited Canada in 1990, where I met my wife, I expected pretty much everyone to have heard of Cohen, but found him largely unknown or ignored.

Neither did Cohen exactly advertise Canada’s charms. He once suggested that Canadians can’t accept that anything good can come out of their neighbors’ houses. He believed that everyone in Canada was alienated from everyone else, and so they were unhappy—and, if not unhappy, then dull. He concluded with an ironic twist that this made it a wonderful place for writing. Toward the end of his career, when respectable Canadians stood to applaud him receiving a lifetime-achievement award, there was irony in his voice when he said, “Thank you so much for standing up for me.”

His career had gone somewhat quiet by the time I first heard Cohen in 1974, but it flared back up in a blaze of controversy over his collaboration in 1977 with Phil Spector on the Death of a Ladies’ Man album. The collaboration ended bizarrely in Spector completing production without Cohen’s cooperation. Then his career limped along again until he attracted a whole new audience with his song “Hallelujah,” which was covered by Jeff Buckley in 1994, then used in Shrek and made fully mainstream by the X Factor talent show. “Hallelujah” had been released originally in 1984 on his Various Positions album, but with only lukewarm support from his record label, CBS. Years later, when Cohen accepted an award, he thanked CBS with trademark irony for “the modesty of their interest” in his work.

His few overt political acts centered mostly on Israel—and once generated something of a public spectacle. In Tel Aviv in 2009, he gave “A Concert for Reconciliation, Tolerance and Peace” and donated the proceeds to groups working for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. When a protest movement emerged he offered to perform in Ramallah on the West Bank, but it was dismissed by protesters as a PR gesture, and the show was canceled. A Palestinian boycott group stated, “Ramallah will not receive Cohen as long as he is intent on whitewashing Israel’s colonial apartheid regime by performing in Israel.”

Earlier, at the start of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, he headed for Israel to perform for Israeli soldiers. Following this experience, Cohen released Who By Fire in 1974. The title, theme, and repetition drew from the “Un’taneh Tokef,” a centerpiece of the High Holy Days liturgy. It is written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur who will live and who will die, who by fire, who by water, who by earthquake, who by plague—and so the litany goes on, as it also does in modified form in Cohen’s song. Cohen followed classic liturgical poetical practice by using biblical and rabbinic allusions entwined with Hebrew wordplay and alliteration.

Given the spiritual and deep theological tenor of his work, it is perhaps surprising he became such a star, and had it not been for “Hallelujah” he may have remained an acquired taste. His work was genuinely and deeply rooted in being a Jew and in the traditional Jewish texts, Psalms, mysticism, and practice, and he directly employed biblical texts. “Hallelujah” is a prime example, where his lyrics juxtapose the texts of 1 and 2 Samuel and Judges 16, while the refrain of Hallelujah rings out:

Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord that David played, and it pleased the Lord —David

The baffled king composing Hallelujah —Saul

Your faith was strong but you needed proof, you saw her bathing on the roof —Bathsheba

She tied you to a kitchen chair, she broke your throne, and she cut your hair, and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah —Samson and Delilah

He also explored Christianity, Sufism, Hinduism, Scientology, and Buddhism, and over decades he spent time and in and out of a Zen monastery on Mount Baldy, Los Angeles. He became a vegetarian, but said he stopped because he decided he was getting too arrogant about it.  Though eventually ordained a monk, the attraction of Zen for Cohen was as a discipline not a belief system. When asked about his Buddhism before a performance of his Book of Longing collaboration with Philip Glass in London, he responded with words from his Zen teacher who had said to Cohen: “You’re not Jewish, I’m not Buddhist.” Despite his spiritual investigations into other traditions, Cohen said he was not looking for a new religion and was “quite happy with the old one, with Judaism,” confirming in his Book of Longing:

Anyone who says

I’m not a Jew

is not a Jew

I’m very sorry

but this is final

However, he didn’t want to be identified narrowly with Jewish thought. He explained that he had been deeply conditioned by Judaism. The themes of Kabbalistic thought gave Jewish activity a thrust toward repairing the broken relationship with God because God had been dispersed making creation a catastrophe. Hence the specific task of the Jew is one of repairing the face of God, and the role of prayer is to remind God of a once harmonious unity.

The biblical references in his work also featured the Christ story. Cohen said the figure of Jesus had touched him, and he wrote later that Jesus was “nailed to a human predicament, summoning the heart to comprehend its own suffering by dissolving itself in a radical confession of hospitality.” The hospitality of Suzanne serving tea and oranges from China is followed in the third verse by:

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

In his last public appearance Cohen explained he didn’t consider himself a religious person but made use of the frames of reference of his upbringing. This echoed a New York Times interview in 1968, in which he said, “Our natural vocabulary is Judeo-Christian. That is our blood-myth. We have to rediscover law from inside our own heritage, and we have to rediscover the crucifixion. The crucifixion will again be understood as a universal symbol, not as an experiment in sadism or masochism or arrogance. It will have to be rediscovered because that’s where man is at. On the cross.” This was his credo.

His final album, You Want it Darker, reveals a man preparing for his end. On the title track, Cohen sings “Hineni, Hineni, I’m ready, my Lord.” This is taken from the story of the Binding of Isaac, and also features in the story of Moses and in Isaiah 53, a chapter central to the Christian idea of Isaiah as the “fifth gospel,” attesting to the suffering servant. He also used the Kaddish prayer, “Magnified and sanctified be Thy holy name.” In his final interview, Cohen said he was still hearing the voice of God, but now it was different. He said it was no longer the judging God of his youth, “that voice that says, ‘You’re fucking up.’” This was a compassionate God, giving a tremendous blessing. He said, “I’m ready to die, I hope it’s not uncomfortable,” and he spent his last days putting his house in order.

Three weeks before Cohen’s death it was announced that Bob Dylan would receive a Nobel Prize for Literature, the second time the prize had gone to a songwriter; the first was the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, in 1913. It might be argued Cohen was a more likely candidate. When he discussed his work with Dylan, the difference in approach was clear; where Cohen took years to write a song, Dylan often took just 15 minutes. The difference was that Dylan was a songwriter, while Cohen started as a poet and novelist—though in a 1961 interview Cohen contested the term “poet”; he said he was a writer, and the exalted term “poet” should only be applied at the end of a writer’s work, as a verdict on his life. I believe we can now safely deliver that verdict.

I last saw Leonard Cohen perform in Paris and Lyon, France, on his 2008 tour. I thought to myself then I would not see him again, though surprisingly he continued to tour until 2013. The Lyon concert, held in a Roman amphitheater, ended with the audience cheerfully throwing seat cushions onto the stage in appreciation, much to Cohen’s delight. He had said frequently on that 2008 tour that he had studied deeply the philosophies and the religions, “but cheerfulness kept breaking through.” Seeing his concerts in 2008, I saw Cohen cheerful, the fear of public performance long gone, a generous performer who showed us there is a crack in everything and his light is one that still shines through for those of us he has left behind.

David Cowan is the author of Frank H. Knight: Prophet of Freedom.

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