11.15.2016 A Deeper Look

CC BY-NC by jbcurio


In the context of rending of many garments and gnashing of many teeth, not to mention threats to pick up and pack up and leave the entire charade behind, a reminiscence, at once loving and tongue-in-cheek, from LitHub about Leonard Cohen’s magical processing of darkness and closeness, of damage and ecstasy, in particular relation to one Donald Trump’s election, especially apropos given Cohen’s recent death, in his sleep, just after he completed his final album and Rolling Stone had polled its readers to choose his best song ever , his most masterful hit  of the past thirty years, and his best album , before proceeding to devote much of an entire issue  to remembering the Canadian genius and speaking to Cohen’s impacts on film , on other artists whom he profiled in his stanzas, on the literary world with his memoirs , and on thinkers about culture , as well as exhuming a quarter century old interview  about Cohen’s thoughts and insights in 1992, a prolix outpouring of adoration and respect that also showed up in such standard obituaries as those that appeared in the Times and The Guardian , along with more focused delving from publications far and wide, as in Brain Pickings in regard to Cohen’s political and social philosophies, as in a ‘Rest-in-Peace Anthem’ from Information Clearinghhouse about his effect as a writer and lyricist, as in a briefing from LeonardCohenForum.Com concerning his complex reading of Israel and Palestine, as in a pairing from Jewish Daily Forward in terms of his ‘mastery’ of “erotic despair” and a performance  of “Hallelujah” in Yiddish, as in New Yorker‘s having scored a final interview  with him quite recently that foresaw a likely pending demise, and finally as in another general overview  of Cohen’s artistry from LitHub: “I had left the house to go protest, but found that my phone had died and, unable to reach the friends I was meeting, decided not to go it alone.  Instead I went to buy a book and then, on my way to the bookstore, decided to buy dinner for the man with no teeth who sits on an egg crate outside the bank all day.  I asked him how he was doing, and he said he was doing okay.  He smiled with real warmth.  Leonard Cohen gets it: Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows.

CC BY by Piano Piano!

I have found myself talking about Leonard Cohen a lot lately because of Bob Dylan’s recent Nobel win.  Dylan is obviously a revolutionary and an icon when it comes to poet-songwriters, but it’s Cohen who always had my heart.  His music is brutal and tender, dirty and devotional.  His voice has the close rasp of a lover after talking all night; it has seen you naked and knows you to be beautiful.  I was introduced to his music by my first serious boyfriend.  When he died suddenly at age 27, we played it at his funeral.
…(‘letting the light in’)

I once went on a month-long Buddhist meditation retreat after a difficult year; a thing which, if you are familiar with the life of Leonard Cohen, was a very Leonard Cohen thing to do.  I’d expected all this peace and spaciousness but instead I found myself sitting on the cushion with demons all day long.  I was unprepared for the crowd of shadows that came to perch on me.  I endured them minute by minute, hour by hour, and in the mornings I went for walks up a wet hillside.  This was California, and the grass was February-green under the previous summer’s dead gray stalks.  On these walks I often found myself humming or singing under my breath what might have been a psalm were I religious, but because I’d gone to a liberal arts college was instead the heartbroken art student’s sung prayer (about ‘the Sisters of Mercy’)
… .        
Leonard Cohen was never afraid of your darkness.  He showed up to your darkness bearing gifts of sex, laughter and oranges.  Despite his sterling international reputation for sadness I have never found his music depressing.  But it doesn’t lie to you about the depth of darkness in the world.
  And speaking of darkness, Wednesday.  How, again, does the light get in?  Leonard Cohen was dead, but none of us knew that yet.  I went to the bookstore and bought a book about trees, and then went out again into the light rain and the darkening streets strewn with fallen leaves until I came to a synagogue whose side door was an open yellow rectangle.  I thought of the Bertolt Brecht quote that had been running through my head lately, like a refrain: In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will be singing. About the dark times.art light darkness
I went in and sat down in a pew.  An interfaith prayer meeting was being held.  A weeping priest was talking about violence.  He said that we would need more than non-violence to combat this deep violence in the culture we were experiencing; we would need anti-violence, although he didn’t yet know exactly what that would look like.  The wise lesbian rabbi hugged people.  A man sang and played a guitar with a rainbow strap.  A journalist wept and said that he felt his profession was culpable in the nightmare that was playing out.  People were frightened.  It was the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht.   Everyone cried.  I cried.   At the end I sat next to a woman who was feeling like I’d felt earlier in the day, which is panicked, like she was drowning.  I listened to her for a while and afterwards she asked if I was the rabbi.  It’s the most flattering mistaken-profession-question I have ever received.

        “One of his most beloved lyric lines, from the song ‘Anthem’ — a song that took Cohen a decade to write — remains what is perhaps the most meaningful message for our troubled and troubling times: ‘There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.’  It springs from a central concern of Cohen’s life and work, one which he revisited in various guises across various songs — including in ‘Suzanne,’ where he writes ‘look among the garbage and the flowers / there are heroes in the seaweed,’ and in the iconic ‘Hallelujah:’ ‘There’s a blaze of light / In every word / It doesn’t matter which you heard / The holy or the broken Hallelujah.’

Nowhere is this interplay of darkness and light more nuanced, nor more prescient, than in Cohen’s song ‘Democracy.’ After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Western world was ablaze with the euphoria of a blind faith that democracy was coming to the East.  I was there — that’s not what happened.  Cohen, too, saw things differently.  Ever the enchanter of nuance, he foresaw the complexity and darkness that this reach for light would unravel, and he captured it in this iconic and astonishingly timely song.

        From the wars against disorder
From the sirens night and day
From the fires of the homeless
From the ashes of the gay
Democracy is coming to the USA
It’s coming through a crack in the wall…

In his 1991 conversation with journalist Paul Zollo, found in Songwriters on Songwriting (public library) — the source of Cohen’s wisdom on inspiration and work ethic, and his most illuminating interview — Cohen pulls back the curtain on his creative process and discusses the nature of democracy, how he wrote the song, and why he chose to leave out certain verses, even though he considered them lyrically good.  Today, as the world’s greatest superpower elects a bigoted bully with fascist tendencies for president, many of the lines Cohen left out pierce with their pertinence — lines like ‘Concentration camp behind a smile’ and ‘Who really gets to profit and who really gets to pay? / Who really rides the slavery ship right into Charleston Bay?’

Cohen speaks to our time with astonishing prescience — for any great artist is at bottom a seer in dialogue with eternal human problems — and tells Zollo: ‘I think the irony of America is transcendent in the song.   It’s not an ironic song.  It’s a song of deep intimacy and affirmation of the experiment of democracy in this country.  That this is really where the experiment is unfolding.  This is really where the races confront one another, where the classes, where the genders, where even the sexual orientations confront one another.  This is the real laboratory of democracy.  So I wanted to have that feeling in the song, too.community eat dinner
Using songwriting itself as a laboratory for democratic discourse, Cohen wrote several verses he chose to leave out of the final song. He gives as an example a verse in which he explored the relationship between black and Jewish people:
First we killed the Lord and then we stole the blues.
This gutter people always in the news,
But who really gets to laugh behind the black man’s back
When he makes his little crack about the Jews?
Who really gets to profit and who really gets to pay?
Who really rides the slavery ship right into Charleston Bay?
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.”—Brain Pickings

“The Montreal-born poet, novelist, and folk-rock singer-songwriter is widely regarded as one of an elite few songwriters whose work transcends all the rest; in the wake of Bob Dylan’s recent Nobel Prize for Literature, Cohen’s name was most frequently mentioned as another perhaps deserving of the prize, along with Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon.  Cohen came to songwriting relatively late.  He first made his mark as a poet and novelist in Canada in the early 1960s, with poetry volumes titled ‘The Spice-Box of Earth,’ a reference to the ritual spice-box for the end of the Sabbath, the Havdala besamim, and ‘Flowers for Hitler,’ which in poetry did for Adolf Eichmann what Hannah Arendt’s ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ did in prose — made the Nazi official out to be a pathetic but ultimately banal cog in the wheel of destruction.

Frustrated by his lack of an audience beyond the Canadian literati, however, and inspired by the example of Dylan, Cohen saw a more efficient way to get his work across, and so he picked up his guitar and set his poems to music.  One of his very first songs, ‘Suzanne,’ was recorded by Judy Collins and included on an album of songs by Dylan, the Beatles and Randy Newman.  In short order, Cohen found himself near the top of the rock-songwriter pecking order.

(Family and culture imbued his work).  Cohen’s priestly name offers merely a hint of his yikhes — on both sides of his family he is descended from rabbinic scholars, and his ancestors were integral to the founding of Montreal’s modern Jewish community.  Like Dylan, Cohen grew up at the very center of his town’s Jewish communal life, with a strong Jewish home life that included a grandfather who studied Talmud every day and who, in Cohen’s case, quizzed him on the Book of Isaiah.  Those lessons stuck with the budding poet, and the legacy of that youthful education in the Bible and the prophets infused his work, giving it the extra power and gravitas that comes from being immersed in the prophetic.Gutenberg_Bible middle ages medieval calligraphy
Cohen told an interviewer in the mid-1980s, ‘I think that I was touched as a child by the music and the kind of charged speech that I heard in the synagogue, where everything was important.  The absence of the casual has always attracted me.’  The ‘absence of the casual’ may well be one of the singular characteristics setting Cohen’s work apart from his so-called contemporaries.  There was, for example, no teenage petting or casual sex in his songs; there was only coupling of intense longing, amour, or betrayal.

Cohen was a restless seeker of that spiritual chord (about which he sang, most pertinently, in his glorious ‘Hallelujah’), and his journey included five years on a California mountaintop Zen retreat, where was ordained as a Buddhist monk.  He also is said to have flirted with Scientology.  According to the New Yorker, he once said, ‘Anything, Roman Catholicism, Buddhism, LSD, I’m for anything that works.’  Just a few weeks ago, Cohen released ‘You Want It Darker,’ which in hindsight will undoubtedly be paired with the late David Bowie’s final album, ‘Blackstar,’ which came out just two days before the rock star died last January.  Bowie’s recording was a prescient if not planned meditation on imminent death and the afterlife; Cohen’s now seems to have been recorded in the same spirit.”—Jewish Daily Forward