Leonard Cohen, poet and singer, is approaching three score and ten years, after a half century of dazzling and sombre poetic creation. His oeuvre, in verse and song, is truly astonishing and should endure. Its ontological horizon is so wide that it swallows up to vanishing point the mass of juvenile and dyspeptic lyrics that the music industry has churned out since the late sixties.
Erotically, Cohen makes Keats seem as though he had freeze-dried testicles and Byron as though he had no heart. Politically, he breathes the spirit of Isaiah over the world after the Holocaust. His unique lyrical style is a wholly contemporary blend of the Psalms and Federico Garcia Lorca, the Chelsea Hotel, Nashville and the Greek islands, Zen Buddhism and the Song of Songs, Franz Rosenzweig and Bob Dylan.
Cohen is not an entertainer of spoiled children, or politically correct white collar workers. He is a master singer of the songs of Zion, by the polluted waters of our post-Christian Babylon. There are few others like him.
How does one become a master singer of the songs of Zion? The first requirement is to be born a Jew. The second requirement is to be immersed in poetry, song and the Judaic scriptures. The third requirement is to explore all this with radical freshness. The fourth is to be a vulnerable sojourner in the world. All these things have been true of Cohen. Born in Montreal in 1934, he was a fourth generation Canadian Jew, whose psyche was deeply shaped by Judaism from his earliest years.
He awakened to song through the superb contralto voice of his spirited mother singing European folk songs, in Russian and Yiddish, in the family home. * He was powerfully affected, at the age of eleven, by pictures of the Nazi extermination camps. He was instructed in the scriptures by his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Solomon Klinitsky-Klein, with the Book of Isaiah making an especially deep impression. Above all, however, he seems to have derived from his Judaism a ‘stranger’ ethic which withheld him from any orthodox or settled way of life and gave him his haunting lyrics. This was fertilised by his discovery of the songs of Federico Garcia Lorca, when he was fifteen. Lorca, he later said, “taught me to understand the dignity of sorrow through flamenco.”
If there is a single song that could be called Cohen’s signature song it is ‘The Stranger Song’, recorded on his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1968). It expresses a theme which deeply informs his sense of what human life is about. That theme is the burden of our freedom as something we must forever reclaim strenuously against the temptations of “giving up the Holy Game of Poker.” Cohen himself has practised Zen Buddhism for many years as an access to freedom from ‘attachment’, almost becoming a Zen Cohen, as it were, but his understanding of the burden of freedom is deeply Judaic. The Jew is, from of old, the perennial ‘stranger’ in the world – leaving Ur, leaving Egypt, exiled to Babylon, dispersed across the face of the world, hunted to death by the goyim. At several levels of experience and active metaphor, this is the temper of Cohen’s whole body of work.
His stranger ethos runs through his love poetry, his songs of existential fear and despair, and his songs of prophetic darkness. It is for this reason that, when his selected poems and songs were published, in 1993, he called the book Stranger Music 1) Cohen must have been aware of the ideas of Franz Rosenzweig, since he knew the work of Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem. In any case, Rosenzweig’s extraordinary book, The Star of Redemptionpublished in 1921, is probably the ideal theological and philosophical companion to Leonard Cohen’s songs.
During the deepening darkness of the Great War, Rosenzweig wrote: “It is imposed on us that we remain strangers…strangers even in the very depth of our being.” He went on to articulate a radical defence of the “high vocation” of Judaism as a witness to the revelation of fundamental ontological truths. His central insight was that Judaic spirituality had, from of old, stood for an ontology of human freedom against the idols of the ages, against the very currents of history itself. Its vocation within the Christian civilization of the West, he argued, was to give witness to this, even as the Christian Church worked within the currents of history to convert the pagan world to the God revealed by the Hebrew Bible. 2)
Rosenzweig died four years before Hitler was swept to power in Germany by the Great Depression. The Holocaust then annihilated the Central European Jewish culture and thus its high vocation within Christendom. Leonard Cohen was born, in the safety of Canada, a year after Hitler came to power and the horrifying reality of the Holocaust seems only to have come home to him in 1945. Growing to adulthood in its shadow and the heyday of militant Zionism, he seems nonetheless to have had a poetic affinity with the vision of Rosenzweig. It is an affinity which deepened over time, as Cohen matured and explored his Judaic faith against all other forms of faith or oblivion on offer.
Cohen has been a devotee of the erotic as well as the spiritual all his life. Indeed, he is surely better known for both his loves and his despairs than for his Judaism. He has always been obsessed with the beauty of women and has loved many, but has always moved on, in his restless need for freedom. When he began work on a book called Death of a Ladies’ Man, in the mid-1970s, his long-time publisher Jack McClelland exclaimed, “Christ, Leonard! Death of a Ladies’ Man? With a title like that, we don’t even need a manuscript!” As his biographer, Ira Nadel, wrote, “Cohen has sought to witness, touch and experience beauty at close quarters…[but] when he has obtained beauty he has abandoned it, feeling that it entrapped him.” 3)
He has a reputation, however, for passion not for seduction. In both his life and his poetry he is neither a Don Juan nor a Casanova. He has generally remained close to the women in his life and rather than treating them as conquests, has worshipped them – then fled to regain his freedom and creative solitude. Nadel quotes one long time female friend of Cohen’s as saying that he was “unique and amazing.” He “really loved women…He felt that women had a power and a beauty that most did not even know. To be with Leonard was to begin to know your own power as a woman.” It is this richly complex eroticism that gives Cohen’s poems of love and departure their profound appeal.
All of Cohen’s books of verse and song have been inspired by and dedicated to women he has known, except Book of Mercy (1984), which was inspired by his return out of a spiritual desert to the wellsprings of his Judaic faith, in the early 1980s. Marianne Ihlen was his companion on the Greek island of Hydra, in the early 1960s, when he left Canada to seek what he called a “twelfth century lifestyle” in which he could discover himself as a stranger poet. Suzanne Elrod, his most enduring passion, was nineteen when he met her in New York, in 1968. They formed a bohemian partnership that lasted until the late 1970s, and she became the mother of his two children, Adam and Lorca.
The muse of his most mature work was Dominique Isserman, in the 1980s. He met her on Hydra in 1982 and she soon became his lover. His album I’m Your Man (1988) was dedicated to her with the words, “All these songs are for you, D.I.”. She also directed a video recording of his song, ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’. His recording of that song with Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen as supporting vocals and Bobby Furgo on the violin must rank as one of the greatest beauties of his life’s work. 4) The lyrics carry us limpidly through 3,000 years of the erotic sublime, from the archaic Biblical world to a dream of violins under summer stars on the cusp of the future:
Dance me to your beauty
With a burning violin
Dance me through the panic
Till I’m safely gathered in
Lift me like an olive branch
And be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love.
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.
Dance me to the children
Who are asking to be born
Dance me through the curtains
That our kisses have outworn
Raise a tent of shelter now
Though every thread is torn
Dance me to the end of love.
There is probably no* song of Cohen’s which better instantiates the judgement of his longtime companion on the road, Jennifer Warnes, that Cohen’s love songs are “the place where God and sex and literature meet…the songs…beckon the soul with just the configuration of the lyric.”
Underlying the sensuality there has always been a brooding Judaic spirituality. The two cross over at times, to the point where Cohen can seem to be a devotee of Robert Graves’s White Goddess, as in ‘Our Lady of Solitude’:
And her dress was blue and silver
And her words were few and small
She is the vessel of the whole wide world
Mistress, oh mistress of us all.
In the desolation for which he is so famous, however, we find the resonance of the psalms. “I will hear a parable, I will speak a dark language with the music of a harp”, declares Psalm 49. “I am afraid and shivering, I am full of horror. And I said, Who will give me wings like a dove?”, asks Psalm 55. “By the stream of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. We hung up our harps on the willow trees, when the masters called for songs and the torturers for cheerfulness,” reads the famous Psalm 137. 5). This sense animates Cohen’s darkest and also his most luminous verse from first to last.
In his ‘Song for Abraham Klein’ (1961), Cohen wrote:
The weary psalmist paused
His instrument beside
Departed was the Sabbath
And the Sabbath Bride.
Through many wanderings among the teachers of the heart and the soul, he returned to this theme most powerfully in some of his finest lyrics of the 1980s. Two of the most beautiful and haunting are ‘If It Be Your Will’ and ‘Hallelujah’, from his 1984 album Various Positions. The latter opens with an invocation of King David as psalmist:
I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played to please the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing hallelujah.
The Book of Mercy (1984) overflows with this redolence of the Psalter, for example in a passage headed ‘Sit Down, Master’, in which Cohen wrote: “Sit down, master, on this rude chair of praises, and rule my nervous heart with your great decrees of freedom…In utter defeat I came to you and you received me with a sweetness I had not dared to remember. Tonight I come to you again, soiled by strategies and trapped in the loneliness of my tiny domain. Establish your law in this walled place…”.
The enduring influence of Isaiah can be found, Nadel rightly remarked, in Cohen’s eloquent repudiation of illusions, oppression and deceit. One of his better known late lyrics, which became a byword in Europe years ago, is ‘First We Take Manhattan’:
They sentenced me to twenty years of boredo
For trying to change the system from within
I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.
I’m guided by a signal in the heavens,
I’m guided by the birth mark on my skin,
I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons.
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.
This was little more than folksy apocalyptic for Cohen, which he described wryly as “a sort of demented manifesto”. The undercurrent was forceful, though. It could erupt on occasions, as when he challenged an unruly German crowd at the Berlin Sportspalast, in 1972, in the very words Joseph Goebbels had used there, thirty years before: “Wollt ihr den totalen Krieg?” – Do you want total war?
From ‘Stories of the Street’ (1968) to ‘Everybody Knows’ (1988), Cohen’s dark outlook on the post-Holocaust world has been one of his most abiding characteristics. Yet the luminous influence of Isaiah glows like a candle even in this darkness. Nowhere is this more so than in his brilliant late song ‘The Future’, which makes no concessions at all to Babylonian optimism. The refrain draws the ancient Hebrew prophet into the apprehended twenty first century:
Things are going to slide in all directions
Won’t be nothing, nothing you can measure any more.
The blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold
And it has overturned the order of the soul
When they said REPENT
I wonder what they meant.
The third verse spells it out even more clearly for the hard of hearing among the goyim:
You don’t know me from the wind
You never will, you never did
I’m the little Jew who wrote the Bible
I’ve seen the nations rise and fall
I’ve heard their stories, heard them all
But love’s the only engine of survival.
Cohen participated in the folk revival of the late fifties and early sixties in America, but moved on when the merchants took it over. He has never succumbed to the dark powers of the music industry. Instead, he has sung mournful songs of exile.
“I am like the crow in the desert and the owl in the ruins. I sit awake wailing alone like a bird on the roof”, says Psalm 102. The last phrase inevitably brings to mind Cohen’s famous song ‘Bird on the Wire’ (1969): “Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free.” Cohen’s way of being free, however, has been cumulatively extraordinary. His hypnotic songs call upon us to own the radical freedom that is our birthright. His prayer is that the Lord of Song will bless all of us in his mercy:
If it be your will
If there is a choice
Let the rivers fill
Let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will
To make us well.
His vocation has been just what Franz Rosenzweig might have hoped for from a Jewish poet. We, in Babylon, owe him a debt of gratitude for both his weeping and his singing of the songs of Zion.
* * *
1) Leonard Cohen: Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, Vintage Books, New York, 1993, 415 pp.
2) Stephane Moses: System and Revelation: The Philosophy of Franz Rosenzweig, Wayne State University, Detroit, 1992.
3) Ira Nadel: Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen,Pantheon, New York, 1996, 325 pp.
4) Leonard Cohen: More Best Of, Sony Music Entertainment, 1997.
5) Peter Levi: The Psalms, Penguin, 1976.
About the Author:
Paul Monk is senior fellow of the Australian Thinking Skills Institute and convenes a graduate seminar on security issues in contemporary Asia at Melbourne University.