Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sincerely, L. Cohen

There's no explaining the mystery of Leonard Cohen.  He is warm brandy and he is high tea.  He is a seducer and a mensch.  A Zen student and the most dangerous man alive.  His weapons are words.  He slips them in your drink, whispers them in your ear as you sleep, tucks them in the pages of your prayer book.

Cohen turned 80 this past weekend.  Few artists can claim such a resounding third act as Leonard.  After years as a poet, novelist, and folk singer, he fell out of favor with his record company and disappeared from view for many in the 80's.  Then came "I'm Your Man" and "The Future", a one-two poetic punch that caused fans to take notice, and artists to rise up and acknowledge what a profound effect he'd had on their own lyricism.

He rode that wave, then disappeared for five years into a Zen monastery at Mt. Baldy.  When he emerged, he may have been closer to enlightenment, but he was also broke.  His manager, it seemed, had run roughshod with Leonard's bank account while he was sitting zazen.  Leonard took to the studio again, and to the road.  And while in his 70's, he amassed a following like he'd not seen since his legendary performance at the Isle of Wight Festival in the late 60's, when he seemed to singlehandedly calm an audience of 600,000 bent on rioting.

He is now rightfully ensconced near the top floor of his fabled "Tower of Song," as respected as writers like Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Paul Simon.  Mentioned in the same breath as Lorca, Rimbaud, and Rilke.  Can you blame the thousands of artists who've tried to cover his anthemic "Hallelujah"?  It may be one of the four or five greatest songs written in the modern era.  Can you blame women for melting at the sound of his atonal baritone?  It is, after all, borne of ashes, honey, and a vintage wine from centuries before.

Tom Robbins paid tribute to Leonard in the mid-90's with an essay called "The Man in the Tower." The essay served as the liner notes for a tribute album that featured Don Henley, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Willie Nelson, Bono, Aaron Neville, Tori Amos, Trisha Yearwood, and Billy Joel performing Cohen compositions.   I cannot write anything as pithy or prescient as Mr. Robbins did on his subject, so these next few paragraphs are his:


Cohen is a master of the quasi-surrealistic phrase, of the "illogical" line that speaks so directly to the unconscious that surface ambiguity is transformed into ultimate, if fleeting, comprehension: comprehension of the bewitching nuances of sex and bewildering assaults of culture. Undoubtedly, it is to his lyrical mastery that his prestigious colleagues now pay tribute. Yet, there may be something else. As various, as distinct, as rewarding as each of their expressions are, there can still be heard in their individual interpretations the distant echo of Cohen´s own voice, for it is his singing voice as well as his writing pen that has spawned these songs.

It is a voice raked by the claws of Cupid, a voice rubbed raw by the philosopher´s stone. A voice marinated in kirschwasser, sulfur, deer musk and snow; bandaged with sackcloth from a ruined monastery; warmed by the embers left down near the river after the gypsies have gone.

It is a penitent´s voice, a rabbinical voice, a crust of unleavened vocal toasts - spread with smoke and subversive wit. He has a voice like a carpet in an old hotel, like a bad itch on the hunchback of love. It is a voice meant for pronouncing the names of women - and cataloging their sometimes hazardous charms. Nobody can say the word "naked" as nakedly as Cohen. He makes us see the markings where the pantyhose have been.

Finally, the actual persona of their creator may be said to haunt these songs, although details of his private lifestyle can be only surmised. A decade ago, a teacher who called himself Shree Bhagwan Rajneesh came up with the name "Zorba the Buddha" to describe the ideal modern man: A contemplative man who maintains a strict devotional bond with cosmic energies, yet is completely at home in the physical realm. Such a man knows the value of the dharma and the value of the deutschmark, knows how much to tip a waiter in a Paris nightclub and how many times to bow in a Kyoto shrine, a man who can do business when business is necessary, allow his mind to enter a pine cone, or dance in wild abandon if moved by the tune. Refusing to shun beauty, this Zorba the Buddha finds in ripe pleasures not a contradiction but an affirmation of the spiritual self. Doesn´t he sound a lot like Leonard Cohen?

We have been led to picture Cohen spending his mornings meditating in Armani suits, his afternoons wrestling the muse, his evenings sitting in cafes were he eats, drinks and speaks soulfully but flirtatiously with the pretty larks of the street. Quite possibly this is a distorted portrait. The apocryphical, however, has a special kind of truth.


At eighty years old, I would imagine Leonard Cohen is thinking of slowing down.  And yet, on Tuesday, he releases a new album.  I doubt a world tour is in the works, but then I never fathomed I'd see him perform live, as I did in 2013 when he was a mere 78 (Or as he would say, "Just a kid with a crazy dream.")

I'm grateful for artists like Leonard, and for lyrics like these, which have stayed with me and helped shape my meager writing, as well as my personal philosophies.

Words for the struggle, from Anthem:

The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.

Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.


Words for the idealist, from Democracy:

It's coming through a hole in the air,
from those nights in Tiananmen Square.
It's coming from the feel
that this ain't exactly real,
or it's real, but it ain't exactly there.
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 U.S.A.

It's coming through a crack in the wall;
on a visionary flood of alcohol;
from the staggering account
of the Sermon on the Mount
which I don't pretend to understand at all.
It's coming from the silence
on the dock of the bay,
from the brave, the bold, the battered
heart of Chevrolet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.


Is there any greater Zen koan than the one he laid out in Tower of Song?

I said to Hank Williams, "How lonely does it get?"
Hank Williams hasn't answered yet...

And from the epic poem, set to music, Alexandra Leaving:

Suddenly the night has grown colder.
The god of love preparing to depart.
Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder,
They slip between the sentries of the heart.

Upheld by the simplicities of pleasure,
They gain the light, they formlessly entwine;
And radiant beyond your widest measure
They fall among the voices and the wine.

It's not a trick, your senses all deceiving,
A fitful dream, the morning will exhaust -
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

Even though she sleeps upon your satin;
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined;
Do not stoop to strategies like this.

As someone long prepared for this to happen,
Go firmly to the window. Drink it in.
Exquisite music. Alexandra laughing.
Your firm commitments tangible again.

And you who had the honor of her evening,
And by the honor had your own restored -
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving;
Alexandra leaving with her lord.

Even though she sleeps upon your satin;
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined;
Do not stoop to strategies like this.

As someone long prepared for the occasion;
In full command of every plan you wrecked -
Do not choose a coward's explanation
that hides behind the cause and the effect.

And you who were bewildered by a meaning;
Whose code was broken, crucifix uncrossed -
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

And then there's Bird on a Wire, First We Take Manhattan, Hallelujah, Suzanne, Chelsea Hotel, Famous Blue Raincoat.   Suffice to say, in eighty years, Leonard has carved a rightful poet's throne out of words and music.  He is, however, unlikely to rest upon it.  He'll be sitting on a humble zafu in meditation, or taking pen to notebook at one of those cafes Tom Robbins mentioned.

Too often, we celebrate our poets after we lose them.  Wouldn't we all love to have Lou Reed back for one final "thank you"?    Leonard is thankfully still here, and ever present.  , today, I'm proud to have the opportunity to say "Thank you, Mr. Cohen...and happy birthday!"

1 comment:

Mira Hirsch said...

Thanks for this beautiful tribute to a strange and wonderful lyric genius.