by Glenn Fairman 12/3/16
The Bible tells us in the Gospel of Matthew about a merchant, who having found a pearl of great price, sold all that he had to buy it. As a seventeen-year boy coming of age in the mid-1970s, I was that merchant, and the late poet-songwriter Leonard Cohen was my treasure. At the cusp of my manhood, he was my connection to the profundity that words can bring. His tone was: as dark as any Goth, as enchanted as William Blake, and as visceral as a punch in the solar plexus. Last month, when my wife informed me that he had passed on November 7th at the age of 82, it was as if I was ripped through a tear in that great space-time continuum. Once again, I remembered that seeker who poured over “Songs of Love and Hate” for the augury concerning the future the lay before me. Cohen came to you most fully when you were empty and broken, but like all prophets and mystics will tell you: “that’s how the light gets in.”
Like all devotions, we begin with a psalm:
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
They say that if one has the courage to endure to the end, all that is worthy will be revealed. It is now a full generation later, as reckoned by the Old Testament, and only at the terminus has Cohen found that redemption denied him during his largely subterranean career – from an American culture obsessed with “all those lousy little poets tryin’ to sound like Charlie Manson.” And whether or not he would consider the string of gushing eulogies from American Idol saturated millennials as satisfying – Leonard Cohen: as set apart as Hank Williams in that lofty Tower of Song, “hasn’t answered yet.”
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 shall 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.
It was with these verses that I began my lifelong love affair with Cohen’s art. The song “Suzanne” was delivered by Judy Collins and when I first heard it all the lights flickered on inside me. Cohen could write like an Isaiah: weaving personal and religious themes like dual layers of prophecy. Ever so frequently, his love songs soared to amazing heights, and his lyrics were buoyed by a Judeo-Christian imagery combining both the sacred and profane with the artist’s sublime economy. In a recent post-mortem, Joe Heschmeyer, writing for First Things, baptized him as “Christ-Haunted.” And who, upon listening to the early albums, could disagree?
In “The Story of Isaac” Cohen braids the Genesis story with a simple anti-war message – all through the perspective of the young man’s eyes. Beginning with his trek to Mt. Moriah to fulfill Abraham’s excruciating task, Cohen breaks off from the tale into a larger reverie that binds both themes together with these unforgettable lines:
Now, you who build the altars to sacrifice these children,
You must not do it anymore
You see a scheme is not a vision, and you never have been tempted
By a demon or a god
And you who stand above them now, your hatchets blunt and bloody,
You were not there before
When I lay upon a mountain, and my father’s hand was trembling
With the beauty of the Word.
Like any songwriter-poet who has one brooding ear to the culture and the other to the heavens, Cohen waded in the darker, less travelled regions of soul. He intimately understood the moral implications of democracy towards an insipid homogeneity where the labels of good and evil had lost their coherency. The Judaism of his youth in Montreal had filled his worldview with rich opposing archetypes, and he was adept in playing one off another for literary effect. Cohen chose strong symbols laden with meaning that could be enjoyed at multiple levels. With his sensitivity as a seer, he could foretell where the West was heading. In his 1992 masterpiece, “The Future,” the singer was not afraid to warn those with an ear left to listen:
Give me back the Berlin wall
Give me Stalin and St Paul
Give me Christ
or give me Hiroshima
Destroy another fetus now
We don’t like children anyhow
I’ve seen the future, baby:
it is murder…
Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won’t be nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned
the order of the soul
When they said REPENT, REPENT
I wonder what they meant?
But despite his clear channel to wisdom, Cohen was not without his demons. Indeed, few can embrace the gypsy life of the troubadour (and the exuberances of wine and women that accompany fame) and remain unscathed. To free himself from those excesses, Leonard Cohen spent a good part of the 90’s at a Buddhist monastery in the San Gabriel Mountains to clear his eye and renew his art through the rigor of Zen asceticism – even going so far as to take ordination as a monk and assume the name “Jikan.” However, at the end of the century, “The Silent One” left Mt. Baldy and his master Roshi for the recording studio and a collaboration with singer-songwriter Sharon Robinson that would re-launch his career. With the album “Ten New Songs,” Cohen stripped himself down to a melodic simplicity and penned some of his most introspective and beautiful lyrics about love and being. The hypnotic “By The Rivers Dark” stands out as the most poetically enigmatic:
By the rivers dark, I wandered on.
I lived my life in Babylon.
And I did forget my holy song
And I had no strength in Babylon…
And he cut my lip, and he cut my heart.
So I could not drink from the river dark
By the rivers dark where I could not see
Who was waiting there, who was hunting me.
Having re-invented himself in the new millennium, Cohen the septuagenarian revived his vision, took his place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and put his energy in producing what was known as “The Grand Tour.” His 2008 DVD “Live in London” is the best chronicle of this period – one in which the Master finally filled the massive shoes of his own potential. These string of performances exuded both the gratitude and grace that accompanies the artisan at the peak of his mature craft. Half blessing and half prayer, the performances showed the world what Cohen had to offer, as he was given his proper esteem in the Tower of Song. And in Cohen’s twilight years, every folkie in a pretentious coffee house could count on its resident minstrel having this anthem in their repertoire:
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
With the passing of Cohen, the world of words and images grows a bit dimmer. There will be new artists to interpret the songs, but there will never be another singularity with quite the gravitas. As the music industry continues on its path to utter banality and we are left to contemplate the apocalypse accompanied by the wretched dark juju of rap music, Leonard Cohen’s music will find its proper equilibrium in the poetic pantheon. The aesthetic themes that lend romance to the soundtracks of our lives need not be reduced to that of one set of glands calling out to another. Indeed, this bard “with the gift of the golden voice” has shown us that they can be ever so much more:
The rain falls down on Last Year’s Man,
An hour has gone by
And He has not moved His hand.
But everything will happen if He only gives the word;
The lovers will rise up
And the mountains touch the ground.
But the skylight is like skin, for a drum I’ll never mend
And all the rain falls down, Amen
On the works of Last Year’s Man.
Glenn Fairman returns from the wilderness and writes from Highland, Ca.
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