The Moral Strength of Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen: The hat has its own page on Facebook (credit: Wire Image)
There's a moment near the end of Bird on a Wire, the documentary of his 1972 tour, when Leonard Cohen, exhausted from months on the road and the emotion he has expended in performance, is unable to go out and face another ovation. He's in tears backstage and his tour managers are in despair, fearful that fans might take the place apart if Cohen does not offer them a few words of consolation.
The moment, filmed by Tony Palmer, exposes the unspoken tension between art and the artist, performer and public. There's a Biblical quotation favoured by Gustav Mahler — "I will not let you go until you bless me" — that captures the ultimate limit of the transaction, when only external validation will allow the music to play on. In this frame we watch Leonard Cohen, a late developer at 38 years old, wrestle with destiny, and reluctantly embrace it. This, or some event close to it, is the moment when the Canadian troubadour emerged from his chrysalis as poet and balladeer and accepted the mantle of prophet and icon.
Leonard Cohen will turn 80 on September 21. He is still on the road in his battered trilby (the hat has its own page on Facebook), singing the old songs as new, yielding nothing to shifts in taste or fashion. There is some question as to whether the hat is a trilby or a fedora. Jews have no doubt on the matter. They recognise it as a "shul hat", the once-obligatory headgear worn by men on their Sabbath-morning walk to synagogue.
Cohen has no difficulty acknowledging his identity. "I am a Jew," he has stated, time after time when confronted with philosophical speculations. "My father and mother of blessed memory," he wrote to a newspaper in 1993, "would have been disturbed by the [Hollywood] Reporter's description of me as a Buddhist. I am a Jew."
Consider that word "disturbed". Hear it as Cohen would pronounce it, the vowels blurred by a Francophone Montreal inflection, the whole imbued with Talmudic irony. There, in a word, you have the essence of Cohen.
"Are you a practising Jew?" he was asked in Jerusalem by an impertinent journalist. "I'm always practising," said Cohen. "Sometimes I feel the fear of God . . . it's part of the Jewish chain to sensitise yourself to that direction."
His commitment to one faith has been so frank and natural throughout his life that, as he enters what the Jewish sages call his heroic years, it is worth exploring Cohen's work — his words, music and ideas — through a prism of the heritage he so robustly professes.
Cohen manifests a moral strength rare among the butterflies of ephemeral fame. No musician has maintained a more assured equilibrium through good times and bad, riding the swings and roundabouts of outrageous fortune and misfortune without falling prey to the temptation of an easy fix. Cohen's strength has an obvious source. Orphaned of his father at nine years old, the boy Leonard drew close to his learned grandfather, author of a Lexicon of Hebrew Homonyms — words that look and sound the same but have completely different meanings and etymologies.
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