WHAT IT YEARNS
Interview with Leonard Cohen presented by John McKenna
RTE Ireland, May 9 & 12, 1988
Transcribed by Martin Godwyn
JM: The unmistakable Leonard Cohen. To begin with lets be positive and demolish some of the mythology. The mythology of the razorblade; the eternal pessimist; the man who's total vista scans one side of a bedsit to the other. Of course Leonard Cohen is introspective - anyone who thinks has got to be, but a pessimist he's not. I've only met him twice, but on each occasion I found him pleasant, entertaining, amusing. That's the man. It's the writer I'll be talking to and about this week and next in How the Heart Approaches What it Yearns: the writer and his songs. You can categorise a writer and his work into all kind of regimented lines and groupings. But I've always thought there were two distinct but compatible groups about whom Leonard Cohen writes - the heroes and those of us on the street corners. Tonight it's the heroes and heroines: Isaac, Jesus, George Washington, Adam, Franklin Roosevelt, Bernadette Soubirous, King David, Joan of Arc. Next week its you and me. But let get back to basics - right back to Genesis.
Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering, loaded it on Isaac, and carried in his own hands the fire and the knife. Then the two of them set out together. Isaac spoke to his father Abraham 'Father' he said. 'Yes, my son' he replied. 'Look,' he said, 'here are the fire and the wood, but where's the lamb for the burnt offering?' Abraham answered: 'My son, God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.' Then the two of them went on together. When they arrived at the place God had pointed out to him, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood. Then, he bound his son Isaac and put him on the altar on top of the wood. Abraham stretched out his hand and seized the knife to kill his son, but the angel of Yahweh called to him from heaven. 'Abraham, Abraham' he said. 'I am here,' he replied. 'Do not raise your hand against the boy,' the angel said. 'Do not harm him, for now I know you fear god. You have not refused me your son - your only son.' From that passage Leonard Cohen has woven a song - Story of Isaac. A lyric that's true to the original and true to humanity. The original is seen in Cohen's song through the eyes of the nine year old Isaac. From the point when the door opens slowly, surrepticiously even, and Abraham comes in, the boy remembers every detail. His father tall above him, his blue eyes shining, the coldness of his voice. And Abraham is burning with the fire of the believer. He's had a vision, he's strong and holy, he must do what he believes. And going up the mountain to his possible death, Isaac is aware of details too: I was running, he was walking, the trees were getting smaller, the lake was like a lady's mirror, that hovering eagle might have been a vulture. But the song is more than a simple story, more than a simple statement.
LC: I was careful in that song to try and put it beyond the pure, beyond the simple, anti-war protest, that it also is. Because it says at the end there the man of war the man of peace, the peacock spreads his deadly fan. In other words it isn't necessarily for war that we're willing to sacrifice each other. We'll get some idea - some magnificent idea - that we're willing to sacrifice each other for; it doesn't necessarily have to involve an opponent or an ideology, but human beings being what they are we're always going to set up people to die for some absurd situation that we define as important.
JM: Later in the song there's a plea to stop this altar building - this sacrificial orgy. As Leonard Cohen writes a scheme is not a vision. But we're all susceptible to visionaries or schemers.
LC: I'm very suspicious of charismatic holy men and compelling oratories, and yes, shining statesmen - very suspicious - but I mean my heart goes out to them too because if I didn't recognise my own vulnerability to that charm I wouldn't be talking about it at all.
[Story of Isaac: Live Songs]
Leonard Cohen was born into a Jewish family in Montreal in 1935 [actually, 1934]. Yet his influences come also from the Catholic and Protestant communities of that city. And perhaps its that cosmopolitan background that gives him an intriguing angle, particularly on biblical history. In the song Hallelujah, he draws on a wonderfully and subversively passionate passage in the second book of Samuel. It happened towards evening when David had risen from his couch and was strolling on the palace roof that he saw from the roof a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful. David made enquiries about this woman and was told 'why that is Bethsheba, Allion's daughter, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.' Then David sent messengers and had her brought. She came to him and he slept with her. Now she had just purified herself from her courses. She then went home again. The woman conceived and sent word to David - 'I am with child'.
In the song there's the baffled king, David, and there's the baffled singer, Leonard Cohen, in search of the lost chord that certainly pleased the lord and might possibly please the woman. And there's the original story too, reduced now to the domestic and physical situation that it was and always is. Bethsheba may have broken the throne, but she also tied David to a kitchen chair. Delilah did something similar. There's more to be learned from the bible than God's dealing with the human race. There's also the dealings of women with men. There's the hard fact that nothing can be reconciled - at least not here.
LC: Finally there's no conflict between things, finally everything is reconciled but not where we live. This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled but there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system and reconcile and embrace the whole mess and that's what I mean by Hallelujah. That regardless of what the impossibility of the situation is, there is a moment when you open your mouth and you throw open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say 'Hallelujah! Blessed is the name.' And you can't reconcile it in any other way except in that position of total surrender, total affirmation.
JM: For those who'd label Leonard Cohen a blind pessimist, there's the answer in the song Hallelujah. The blaze of light in every word - which word is unimportant. The belief that it doesn't matter if it all went wrong because he still can stand before the lord of song. The acceptance that in being able to change nothing we reach an understanding and can, like David, say 'Hallelujah!'
LC : That's what it's all about. It says that none of this - you're not going to be able to work this thing out - you're not going to be able to set - this realm does not admit to revolution - there's no solution to this mess. The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say 'Look, I don't understand a fucking thing at all - Hallelujah! That's the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.
JM: Leonard Cohen rarely records other people's songs - he's done so only twice. One of the two is Richard Blakeslee's Passing Thru. The song's full of heroic figures. There's Jesus on the cross talking of love not hate, with things to do because it's getting late. There's Adam leaving the garden praying for rain planning to raise a little Cain. There's George Washington at the Valley Forge, vowing that men will die for what is right. And there's Franklin D., reckoning that world unity must come out of WW2. And all these people, all of us , are just only passing through. We run into each other, grab some pleasure, suffer pain, and go on our way.
LC : I like to hear anybody's story. The people whose stories I like to hear are - yeah - people who have gone right down the line for it in some way.
The song Chelsea Hotel is about a heroine of a different kind - a woman dissatisfied in the rock world. Janis Joplin was friend of Leonard Cohen's. She died in 1970 at the Landmark Hotel in Hollywood, apparently of a drug overdose. Cohen's song about her is set in the New York hotel, The Chelsea, which was home to hundreds of singers and musicians. While the song is mainly about Janis Joplin, it's also about those who find fulfilment in art but not in life. I've always felt there was a gap in the argument about people suffering for their art, suffering more deeply than anyone else who struggled. But Leonard Cohen wasn't about to let me off that particular hook.
LC : well I don't think anybody beats the rap in this world, you know, I mean there are people far more powerful, far more successful than me, and you know that as a human being living the life on the front line of your own life as everybody lives their life, there's no free ride everybody understands that, everybody understands that every single thing you get you pay for, especially the things like love, especially the things like artistic success. There's nobody who beats the rap in this game.
JM: Fair enough. But then, there's the association between beauty and oppression. The idea that beauty oppresses. Yet beauty is what we're all looking for in art or music or literature or people.
Leonard Cohen : I think there are people that make their work beautiful in a way that they can never make their lives or their bodies beautiful. I mean I know Janis Joplin, you know, she was that classic pop star, as embodied by the rose in that movie, she really would sing to 20 or 30 thousand people who were drooling at her feet and you know, I'd see her wandering around the Chelsea Hotel at 3 in the morning trying to find you know somebody to have a cup of coffee with. So how do you reconcile those things? I don't know. She stood for something beautiful and nervous and high, and surrendered completely, and yet she couldn't have those things, she couldn't manifest simple things, simple beautiful things in her own life, that's really what I mean.
JM: The pervading feeling in Chelsea Hotel is of uncertainty. There's no question of love, just what's called love. Cohen remarks that he never heard Janis say I need you or I don't need you. That kind of talk is dismissed as jiving around. And then, there's the anti-romantic closing. I don't mean to suggest that I loved you the best, I can't keep track of each fallen robin. Now where have I heard that line before - or one close to it?
[Chelsea Hotel #2]
You'd search a long time to find two people more unalike than Janis Joplin and Bernadette Soubiroux - Bernadette of Lourdes. Yet she too inhabits the world of Cohen's lyrics. The idea for the song of Bernadette came from Cohen's long time backing singer, Jennifer Warnes.
LC : Jennifer was brought up as a Catholic girl and we were on tour together and she was talking about Bernadette all the time and I always was fascinated by the figure too, and she said I really want you to write me a song about Bernadette, here's like a couple of lines of a tune, here's my idea. So the song came out it was a real collaboration we really worked together on the thing.
JM: Song of Bernadette works on several levels. There the young visionary of February and March 1858 with that apparition in her soul. A vision no-one believed. And, there are the rest of us with our own visions and dreams, which no-one, least of all ourselves, can believe in. Once we realise that visions don't last - they disappear - and we end up running and falling, rather than flying. There's Bernadette, true to her belief and finally rewarded with the knowledge that there is mercy in the world. There's Leonard Cohen, acknowledging that each of us is torn by what we've done and can't undo.
Leonard Cohen : I think that we mostly do fail in these things, but the thing that makes these failures supportable are these moments like the one I tried to talk about in Hallelujah or the one I tried to talk about in Bernadette it's those are the moments when the thing is resolved - the thing is reconciled - not actually by moving pieces around it's not a chess game. As I say in my new version of Hallelujah, 'I've seen your flag on the marble arch, but love is not a victory march, it's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah.' Nobody's going to win this, not the men not the women not the socialists, not the conservatives. Nobody's going to win this deal. The only time we win is that moment when we drop the battle and we affirm the whole situation with this embrace.
JM: Ultimately the song of Bernadette is a plea for love. A celebration of the joy of faith. A statement of belief that we can get through to something clearer. It's one of Cohen's fiercest and most powerful lyrics.
Leonard Cohen: But I never sang the song alone; I've only sung it with Jennifer. It's a beautiful song I think.
[Song of Bernadette - Warnes]
The most enigmatic, most energetic, most exciting of the heroines in Leonard Cohen's songs is a compatriot of Bernadette Souberoux. Joan of Arc was a soldier, a mould breaker. She was too, a girl adrift in a political world she didn't fully understand or embrace. Cohen's song about her concentrates on the human being, the uncertain one behind the armour. He views her as a woman pursued by fire until eventually, inevitably, that fire is her consuming passion. Cohen's Joan is alone in her tent, the army dependent on her clarity of mind; a nation tied to her strategy. And what we find in that tent is a woman without interest in the war. Her armour no longer bright, without a man to get her through the night. She craves a wedding dress, something white, something at odds with the fighting about her. So, is Leonard Cohen saying a woman ultimately needs a man to be fulfilled?
LC: I was thinking more of this sense of a destiny that human beings have and how they meet and marry their destiny, how ultimately there is, you know, a male or a minus-plus, however you want to put it, you know a positive-negative yin-yang, male-female; that there is this connection that we have with our - with the unfolding of our lives. I don't want to suggest in that song that what she really wanted to be was a housewife. What I mean to say is that as lonely and as solitudinous as she was she had to meet and be embraced by her destiny. That's all I mean by that imagery, because - I've just been reading a lot about Joan of Arc again - she continues to fascinate me that woman, and seen from the point of view of the woman's movement she really does stand for something stunningly original and courageous. There's a great chapter about her in Andrea Dworkin's book, Intercourse. It's a grand chapter on Joan of Arc and really a passionate evocation of what her real achievement was at the time to by-pass everything and to go right into the centre of activity. So I don't mean to suggest that she really wanted a wedding ring and some kids and day-care.
JM: In the end it's the woman and the passion that remain: Joan and the fire. She can climb inside that fire, not in defeat, but believing in its glory - it's sexual and spiritual fulfilment. It no longer matters what people think. Perhaps she is Joan of Arc, perhaps she's just a piece of wood. Perhaps she initially winces in pain, but after the tears there's the glory - the long sought love and light. And what's true for Joan is true for all of us. Love and light, once found, must be taken. They come with cruelty - they dazzle and hurt. But for the hear and now, they're all we have.
[Joan of Arc]
Part 2 - 'If I've Been Untrue'
[Please Don't Pass Me By]
JM: Leonard Cohen live, nailing his colours to the mast of the tattered and the torn. A great deal of Cohen's writing concerns itself with that front-line living that involves us all and provides us with few victories and many defeats. There's the risk of love, the pain of loss, the hurt of mutation. Cohen's long time anthem and the song with which for years he opened his concerts was Bird on The Wire. A song as powerful in its understatement as the opening song, Please Don't Pass Me By is in its overstatement. Bird on The Wire is a song of darkness, but it had its genesis in the light of Greece.
LC: I think it was just a reportage. I remember sitting beside a window in my house in Greece years ago and I think they just put up the telephone wires. There hadn't been any telephone wires or electric wires and no electricity, and I just noticed the bird on the wire there. And the next image comes from there - from that little village too where I used to live - where other late night drinkers would come home you know maybe two three in the morning, and they'd stumble through the streets with their arms around each other's shoulders singing these, you know, just perfect three part harmonies. And nobody ever minded because even if you woke up to those strains you didn't mind.
JM: The imagery of Bird on The Wire begins with attempted freedom - the bird and the drunk in the midnight choir, and moves to captivity - a hooked worm, a knight trapped in a book - and finally goes deeper, to pain with the poignant image of a still born baby tearing those who have reached out for its birth and its life. The song eventually synthesises in Cohen's long held opinion that there is no perfection in this world, and his appeal for any unkindness he may be guilty of to be forgiven. He insists that he has never really been untrue, not in his soul. There are echoes of Ernest Dowson's 'Sineray' [?] - 'I have been faithful to thee, Sinera, in my fashion.' The figures offering advice are a beggar and a woman in a darkened door. The beggar urges Cohen not to ask so much of life - the woman urges that he ask for more. In the face of it all Cohen keeps faith with love - it's the best that can be done.
LC: I think whatever that means to us when we hear that expression 'keeping the faith', I think that's - you know a lot of people live and die by that.
JM: But in spite of keeping faith, there is, too, in this complex song, the assertion that love inevitably causes as much pain as pleasure.
LC: Whenever you really walk into that, which only happens now and then I guess - well it happens with your kids, it happens with your parents, it happens with your mate. If you ever surrender the self - if you ever let the self die for a moment, then of course you're going to experience suffering - you're going to know what it's about. Because to surrender means you have to stop maintaining this hero at the centre of your own drama. Yet we spend most of our energy maintaining this hero. And this hero is doomed because nobody can live at the centre of the drama thinking that he's the hero and that everybody else has some kind of lesser role. So that's precisely the character we have to surrender when we move into that field of love, and it's always painful for him to take off his armour. He gets wounded immediately because there's arrows flying all over the place. As soon as he take's off his hero's costume he goes down with an arrow in his heart, that's why, you know, the figure of cupid arose. You go down with that arrow in your heart, it's no joke. It's no joke. You feel it with your children, you feel it with your mate, and you feel it with your parents, you feel it with your friends. If ever you take off the hero's armour, you get hit right away.
[Bird on The Wire: Live Songs]
JM: The first song I ever heard Leonard Cohen sing was The Partisan. The image of the wind blowing through the graves caught me immediately. As it happens, Cohen didn't write that song. It's the product of a collaboration between Anna Marly and Hy Zaret, but it's a song which fits Cohen's interpretation like a glove - A song he fills with feeling.
LC: Well there's something of course - there's something always attractive by that kind of figure. But deeper than that there's something that's always attracted me about the notion of a resistance, and sometimes that feeling gets - it's a subtle feeling - sometimes it very clear there are things it's worthwhile calling people on. But as the scene gets more and more complex it becomes clear to me that there is a kind of resistance and all of us are on both sides or participate on the many sides of this complexity. But somewhere down the - somewhere there's something in everybody that says well the public life doesn't represent me. And the public statements don't represented me, and my life is not represented on television. My life is not represented in the politician's plans. My life is not represented in the books and the songs. That there's something, that there's a big gap between my private life and the public expression. And I think we're in one of those times now, that gap opens and closes.
JM: The Partisan can be read in two ways: the central figure resisting the imposition of ideas, and also the specific resistance of the French Underground to the German occupation during the Second World War. The French version of the song is clear on this: 'The Germans were in my home. They told me to resign myself, but I'm not afraid', and later, 'an old man kept us for the night in an attic. The Germans took him - he's dead. I've lost my wife and children but I've many friends. I have all of France.' One can easily imagine Leonard Cohen being drawn to that figure.
LC: That figure, the protagonist of that song is really actively engaged in the war against fascism or tyranny or oppression. It's a little more complex right now because in a certain sense things have never been better. That's when it really becomes diabolic, is when things have never been better and you just know that there's this little numb part of your heart that is not being addressed by anything. That's when the soul becomes deeply threatened.
JM: When you hear Leonard Cohen sing the song you hear the suffering of the death camps echoed.
JM: A partisan of a different kind was a woman whom Leonard Cohen grew up with in Montreal - Nancy.
LC: Yes she was - at least the genesis of the song is connected with a young woman in Montreal. JM: As with so many figures in Cohen's songs, there's an air of martyrdom about Nancy. It seems so long ago, none of us were strong. She slept with everyone. She never said she's wait for us, although she was alone. I think she fell in love for us in 1961.
LC: Yeah I think that the world throws up certain kinds of figures. Sometime in abundance, sometimes very rarely, and that some of these figures act as archetypes or prototypes for another generation which will manifest these characteristics a lot more easily, maybe a lot more gracefully, but not a lot more heroically. Because I think that these prototypes that are thrown up in the generation before they manifest in abundance are always very interesting and heroic figures, and Nancy I feel was one of those figures, maybe a 60's figure or a 90's figure that was somehow manifested in the 50's.
JM: Ultimately, Nancy is isolated; unable, despite her strength, to exist in a vacuum. A 45 beside her head; an open telephone. Her friends had told her she was beautiful, they had told her she was free, but none of them was willing to meet her on her own ground. What, I wondered, was so attractive about Nancy? Her heroism? Her vulnerability? Or both?
LC: Yeah it's something like - it's something beyond choice. You know it's something - she just took things out of the air and acted on them without any regard to there consequence because she didn't have a choice in the matter. Another twenty years later she would have been just like you know, the hippest girl on the block. But twenty years before she was - there was no reference to her, so in a certain way she was doomed. If a person doesn't have any reference in their lives and nobody can place them anywhere they're in grave danger. They don't have any support themselves.
JM: In retrospect, Cohen views Nancy more clearly, more appreciatively, and suggests that there are second chances. In the hollow of the night, you'll hear her talking freely. She's happy that you've come. LC: [sings] It seems so long ago.
[It Seems So Long Ago, Nancy]
JM: Another Cohen song which reflects on an infatuation is Our Lady Of Solitude. Like the earlier Sisters Of Mercy, the title of this has a strongly religious feel - a feeling Cohen doesn't deny. But there's more to that song. It reflects a Christian influence but goes further into pantheism. Ultimately the imagery is strongly Catholic: the light from the ladies body, her dress of blue and silver, she is the vessel of the world.
LC: Well I don't think you can ignore those associations and I come from a very Catholic city myself and those images - you see I have a very sympathetic take of Catholicism and Christianity because I wasn't brought up as a Christian or a Catholic, but I saw it operating from the outside, so to speak, and I didn't have to suffer any of the things that my friends say they suffered from it although they seemed to be pretty healthy and pretty tough and pretty soulful people. Even the ones who complain about the tyranny of their Catholic education - I always said to myself, well I'm sure they're complaining about something that it real but they seem to turn out pretty good, in spite of it. So maybe there is a certain genius to that education that operates even though, you know, there's an occasional thorn and a stick. But anyways - no you can't disassociate the Catholic imagery from that song, I mean that is the virgin of the world, but even the church can't conceal that these things have deeper origins and refer to even more ancient mysteries.
JM: And more sensual. In the song, Cohen thanks the lady for keeping him close while so many others stood apart. So, would he term himself religious?
LC: well I would never claim that title for myself, I mean not remotely. But I do feel certain connections with certain entities or forces.
JM: But to pursue that point, Cohen's most recent publication, The Book of Mercy, is highly spiritual, if not religious.
LC: well I guess, you know in the - I think that everybody leads a spiritual life. I don't know if it's even worthwhile to designate it as that way Everybody is in touch with there own resources, with their own deep pools of divine activity, otherwise they wouldn't be here on this plane - they'd evaporate. I mean everybody is living a so called religious life, everybody lives a so called spiritual life, everybody is in touch with these powers otherwise they wouldn't be around.
JM: So, does he see spirituality rather than organised religion as the answer to a lot of problems?
LC: I don't want ever to set myself up as an enemy of organised religion because those churches, those mosque, those synagogues, they give comfort and solace to millions and millions of people, and real comfort and real solace, so I don't think it serves anything or anybody to become an enemy of organised religion. Organised religion on the inside is very tender to its members. On the outside it tends to be antagonistic to the other organised religions. They tend on the inside to act like family, on the outside they tend to act like states, and they're continually putting themselves in an abrasive positions in regard to one another. That, I think, is deeply sinful.
JM: All of those ideas are hinted at in Our Lady Of Solitude. She gathered in his soul. She touched him. Her fingers were the fingers of a weaver. There was light from her body. Her words were few and small. She was the mistress of us all. Perhaps she was the woman who appeared to Bernadette Soubirous, perhaps the encapsulation of womanhood.
JM: I've always thought A Singer Must Die to be one of Leonard Cohen's most overtly political songs, but I wouldn't have classed the bulk of his other songs as political. He disagrees.
LC: I think all my songs are political in a certain way but that one especially in the recorded version where the last verse is really very strong against a certain kind of authority.
JM: But, A Singer Must Die is specifically about politics. About the struggle of the singer to keep the truth in the face of lies. Listening to it the ghost of Victor Harrer[?] is in the air. So where did the song come from?
LC: I guess that's some kind of basic view I hold about the thing, that it doesn't really matter what the singer is speaking of, it doesn't really matter what the song is. There's something I listen for in a singer's voice and that's some kind of truth. It may even be truth of deception, it may even be the truth of the scam, the truth of the hustle in the singers own presentation, but something is coming across that is true, and if that isn't there the song dies. And the singer deserves to die too, and will, in time, die. So the thing that I listen for is that note of something big manifested that is beyond the singer's control.
JM: Cohen has rewritten the song significantly, moving it out of the specifically political realm and widening its relevance. Making the issues more mundane and thus, more universal. Bringing the war down to a struggle between individuals. Save me a place in the ten dollar grave with those who took money for the pleasure they gave. With those always ready, with those who undressed so you could lay down with their head on your breast. A struggle between men and women.
LC: Well I think that's in there and me, I just happen to go through those conventional approaches to love. It is a very subversive position. Subversive is not quite the word - it's a radical position in that song that is beyond left and right. It talks about a reaction, an organic reaction, a convulsive reaction, that's not even a strategy or a plan of action, it just - you just can't tolerate the way things are. You can't lay the responsibility to the police or to the critics or to anything - but the whole song says there's a lie and because there's a lie it's going to die.
JM: He has never recorded the re-written version, though it's the one he sings in concert. It's the one which appears on Jennifer Warnes album Famous Blue Raincoat. But first, his own recording.
[A Singer Must Die - both Cohen's and then part of Warnes]
JM: Who By Fire is one of Leonard Cohen's most simple songs, and a song that is drawn deeply from his Jewish background. It's an apt song on which to close. A song that goes right down the line for everyone. A song about death. I wondered if he feared death himself.
LC: I don't like the preliminaries. The actual event I'm not sure about one way or the other, but I sure don't like the preliminaries.
JM: Who By Fire is a song based on a prayer recited on the Jewish Day of Atonement. That prayer in itself has an interesting background. The popular story is that Rabbi Amnun urged by the rulers of Myencae[?] to change his faith, asked to be given three days to consider. When he failed to appear after the three days he was sought out and arrested. Forced to plead guilty his hands and feet were cut off as a punishment. On the new year, Rabbi Amnun was brought to the synagogue at his own request and recited the prayer-poem, 'Let Us Tell'. Having recited it, he died.
LC: Well it's a great prayer. It's chanted in Hebrew on the Day of Atonement. The Day of Atonement is just one of the calendar holy days in the Jewish calendar and the most solemn day when you have to stand before the judge. And part of the literature that day is this recital of various ways you can leave this vale of tears. You know, some will go by fire, some by water, some by poisoning, some by hanging, some by drowning. So that's what it's about: who by fire, who by water. And I've just expanded on that into some maybe more complex - though that's plenty complex as it stands, that thousand year old prayer.
JM: The prayer itself outlines the ways in which death can come calling. On new year, their destiny is inscribed and, on the Day of Atonement, it is sealed. How many shall pass away? And how many shall be brought into existence? Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall come to a timely end and who to an untimely end? Who shall perish by fire and who by water? Who by sword and who by beast? Who by hunger and who by thirst? Who by earthquake and who by plague? Who by strangling and who by stoning? Who shall be at ease and who shall wander about? Who shall be at peace and who shall be molested? Who shall have comfort and who shall be tormented? Who shall become poor and who shall become rich? Who shall be lowered and who shall be raised? But repentance, prayer and charity cancel the stern decree. Like the prayer, the song states the ways in which we may die and, like most of Cohen's songs, when listened to and absorbed, it cannot be dismissed as pessimistic or depressing. Its mood is one of hope; its style is one of beauty. Its importance is its relevance to everyone. It's written and sung with concern for the beggar on his crutch, the woman in the darkened door, the still-born child, the persecuted singer, the individual caught by the things he's done and can't undo. It's a summation of Cohen's belief. Here and now there is no conclusion, no reconciliation, no fulfilment. But beyond the dying, there is a place where differences are reconciled, solutions found. In a way, it's like his own body of song: once you've crossed the bar, you find relevance you never expected.
[Who By Fire]
Thanks to Martin Godwyn for editing the interview from archive tape!