The Moral Strength of Leonard Cohen

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. 

The Hebrew language, with 22 letters, finds multiple uses for two or three-letter nouns. The word for hand, yad, can also mean forearm, might or monument, each usage adding a tangential nuance to the original. An eye (ayin) is also a spring, or fountain. Heart (lev) is at once chest organ and moral arbiter, courage and central point. 

Cohen’s lyrics hint forever at alternate meanings. His bird sits on a wire, perhaps the peaceful fence of a domestic property but also a front line, a prison camp, a place of extermination. In conditions of extreme privation and existential threat, Cohen sings of an inner liberation: “I have tried, in my way, to be free.” He described the song with customary duality as “a prayer, and an anthem”. 

In “Story of Isaac”, he is nine years old and his father is building an altar, reversing personal history in a transcendent Freudian narrative. When Suzanne “takes you down”, she is performing several acts at the same time, only one of which is sexual.

“I can’t keep track of each fallen robin,” laments Cohen after a lucky episode of oral sex in “Chelsea Hotel #2”, the robin conveying so many things a man must lose, not least his bird on the wire. In these and countless other metaphors and metonyms, he draws strength — takes a yad — from his grandfather’s teachings.

Cohen’s take on sexual liberation has a consistent ethical foundation. The erotic is explicit in Jewish texts, whether in the prophet Hosea’s ragings at his errant wife (“let her put away her whorings from her face and her adulteries from between her breasts”) or the physical duties of husband specified in the Talmudic tractate Ketubot. Cohen sees no puritan partition between sacred and profane. In “Dance Me to the End of Love”, a decorous wedding song, he prays: “Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone/Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon/Show me slowly what I only know the limits of/Dance me to the end of love.” The end of love is, in Cohen’s apparition, God’s ultimate gift to mankind.

He was first drawn to poetry through the works of Federico García Lorca. Inspired in his teens by Spanish rhythms and prohibitions, Cohen quit strumming and mastered the classical guitar. Living off a small paternal legacy, he published several volumes of poetry and a highly sexualised novel, earning some outraged reviews in Canada and a suggestion in the Boston Globe that “James Joyce is not dead: he is living in Montreal under the name of Cohen.” In the Sixties revolutions, Leonard Cohen was a fringe player, a student of human nature who dropped out on a Greek island, the better to contemplate the new age dawning from afar.

Well past 30 he met the Canadian folksinger Judy Collins and told her, “I can’t sing and I can’t play the guitar and I don’t know if this is a song.” She replied: “Well, Leonard, it is a song and I’m recording it tomorrow.”

“Suzanne” was an instant hit. Collins one night called Cohen on stage to perform with her. “I can’t do it, Judy,” he protested. “I would die from embarrassment.” He got just about as far as the “tea and oranges that come all the way from China” when he turned and fled the stage. The audience, alert to an extraordinary charisma, howled for his return. A star was born.

Leonard Cohen was right about “Suzanne”. It is not a song. It has a clear theme but no development or refrain. The subject “takes you down”, far below the stave, leaving no room for high notes. It maintains so even a tone, you could (some do) call it a drone.

Or, more accurately, a prayer. 

In 1985, Cohen astonished a Polish audience by declaring that “when I was a child I went to synagogue every Saturday morning” and quoted accurately from one of the prayers. He has told biographers that he “liked the music in the synagogue”. That statement is vindicated by some of his best-known songs. 

In his family’s Polish-Ashkenazic ritual, much of the music in the service verges on the monotonous, fostering a communion of equality between worshippers with fine voices and those who sing flat. “Suzanne” fits aptly into that bracket. Apply the tune to the Sabbath-morning prayer “El Adon” (God, master of all deeds) and the cadence is tailor-made. It is not so much song as supplication. “Suzanne” has no beginning, no end. As in “It Seems So Long Ago, Nancy”, the song places us in the present continuous, in a situation that may end badly or well or not at all. It is unresolved. Only God can decide.

The liturgical allusions of some Cohen songs stand in vivid contra-distinction to the poet-performer with whom Cohen is most compared. Bob Dylan, however, is numb to the numinous. Dylan is first political, then personal. Cohen is first personal, then mystical. On the same subject, they stand back to back. Compare Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe” to Cohen’s break-up song “So Long Marianne”. With Dylan the breach is harsh and irrevocable: “Go away from my window.” With Cohen, the door is always open to possibility and renewal: “It’s time that we began . . .”

Cohen had two golden decades on stage and on record before he ran into a brick wall. In 1984, as he reached 50, CBS Records refused — to his uncomprehending dismay — to release a hard-worked new album, Various Positions. In a reversal of Judy Collins’s liberating endorsement, the CBS boss Walter Yetnikoff announced, “Leonard, we know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.” His verdict echoed a wider critical confusion about Cohen’s status and the music industry kicked him into limbo.

Cohen issued Various Positions on a fringe label, where it sold in dribs and drabs. Reputationally, he was on the skids, reduced to appearing in the TV cop series Miami Vice. Dylan admired one of his new songs and ground it out on tour, but “Hallelujah” went virtually unacknowledged until first John Cale, then Jeff Buckley, interpreted the song on record, secularising the message, taking it far from Cohen’s Biblical-erotic fantasy to a steelier, mass-marketed utility. Buckley’s early death endowed “Hallelujah” with tragic grandeur. DreamWorks soundtracked it on Shrek. It was warbled on television talent shows. In one generation, “Hallelujah” went from oblivion to the most covered lyric of modern times, yet Cohen’s purpose went undetected.

He worked on this song harder than on any other, running through more than 80 drafts, literally banging his head on the floor of a hotel room when the words would not come. “Hallelujah” traces a Freudian line of guilt between the psalmist King David and his sin with Bathsheba, whose husband he sent off to be killed. The questions that run beneath the song are whether great invention can stem from terrible transgression, whether forgiveness is ever granted by achievement. Cohen calls “Hallelujah” “a desire to affirm my faith in life”. It cuts very close to the source of creation and it restored Cohen to a place in the pantheon.

Until, once more, he was beset by disaster. Early in the new century, he discovered that his bookkeeper and part-time lover had been quietly stripping him of his assets, leaving him to face a penniless old age. Cohen sued her (he never got a dollar back but she was eventually jailed for harassing him) and, in his seventies, he went back on the road with “Hallelujah”. 

Whispering into a close-lipped microphone, he confronted each audience with its own questions, offering by way of consolation a rough truth bred of tough experience. Into the “Hallelujah” lyrics at every station he interjected the line, “I didn’t come to Helsinki (Hamburg, wherever) to fool you,” and the public bowed its head as if to a blessing.

After the 9/11 attacks Cohen warned that “in the Jewish tradition, one is cautioned against trying to comfort the comfortless”. In “Going Home”, the signature song of Old Ideas, released in January 2012, “He wants to write a love song/An anthem of forgiving/A manual for living with defeat . . .” No one knows better the limits of human life.

He has hardly enough voice left to rise above sotto, or end a line without drawing breath, but the consistency of purpose is astonishing and the fundamental faith is unchanged. He wears the hat and the suit of a regular shul-goer. He is a Jew, first and last, a traveller, a seeker, eternally homeless. “I just move from hotel to hotel and by the grace of the One above sometimes a song comes,” he said.

At 80, Leonard Cohen stands above his generation as a seer of lasting things, of values received and passed on. Other musicians have emerged richer, more famous. Some still twist and shout on stage, escorting their mob of semi-retired fans into a seventh age of twilight care. Cohen stands up there unchanged, addressing his audience with unfailing courtesy and curiosity, with a sense of continued discovery. At that desperate end-of-tour concert in 1972, having wept into the shoulder of every member of his entourage, he blew his nose, wiped his eyes and walked guitarless out onto the dark stage. “I just want to tell you, thank you and good night,” he said. Along with all that he had said and sung, it sounded like a blessing.

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