11 November 2016

‘The Favourite Game’ comes to an end
for one of the ‘Beautiful Losers’

Leonard Cohen at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham in 2012 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I have said with humour and full sincerity that when my coffin is being taken into the church at my funeral (later than sooner, I hope), that I want to hear Leonard Cohen’s ‘If it be your will’ … and when my coffin is being carried out I want to hear his ‘Dance me to the end of love.’

For almost 50 years I have been an enthusiastic fan of Leonard Cohen’s poetry, music and song. I have been collecting his books of poetry since the late 1960s, I listen to his albums constantly, and I have been to most of his concerts in Ireland, including the O2, Lissadell House, the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, and in the 1970s in the Stadium on the South Circular Road.

I have drawn on his poetry and his imagery in lectures on spirituality and Judaism and in Good Friday reflections and sermons.

It was announced this morning that Leonard Cohen has died earlier this week. By the time the announcement was made, he had already been buried. He died during the week that I have been visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau, and exploring the Jewish Quarter of Kraków with intensity.

Leonard Cohen’s poetry and songs were marked by the scars of the Holocaust and reflected with intensity the spirituality of Central European Jewish spirituality. The rhythms of his music and his imagery also drew on the time he spent over many years in Greece.

Last month I bought his newly-released album, You Want It Darker, and I have been listening to it carefully ever since. I have still to write about this album, which is both deeply spiritual and at the same time gives voice to his expectations of imminent death.

In an interview with the New Yorker magazine to coincide with this new album, he declared a determination to keep working at his craft until the end, yet seemed to be aware that death was coming: ‘I’ve got some work to do,’ he said. ‘Take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.’

Early this year, shortly before his first muse, Marianne Ihlen, died in July, he wrote her a farewell letter telling her: ‘I will follow you very soon.’

The title track of You Want It Darker sounds like the bleak, religious confession of a man facing his own mortality. It is filled with allusions to Jewish liturgy, Christian liturgy and Biblical texts. The backing vocals are provided by the cantor and choir of a synagogue in Leonard Cohen’s home city, Montreal:

If You are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If You are the healer, I’m broken and lame
If Thine is the glory, then mine must be the shame
You want it darker – we kill the flame.
Magnified, sanctified is your holy name
Vilified, crucified in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker – Hineni, Hineni, I’m ready, my Lord.

Here Leonard Cohen is quoting the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead (‘magnified, sanctified …’). He addresses God directly as the God who has dealt Cohen out of the game, and who has ignored the ‘million candles’ lit in vain hopes of salvation.

It is dark, but those who reach into the dark depths that are met on the most intense journeys in spirituality know that this too is accepting the majesty of God and the inevitability of death.

The Hebrew word Hineni which Cohen repeats in this song literally means: ‘Here I am.’ When it is uttered by Abraham and repeated by other Biblical figures, it is an assertion of moral responsibility: Here I am. I am not running away. Here I stand.

The word Hineni is also the title of the Cantor’s Prayer on Yom Kippur, in which the cantor confesses to being unworthy to represent the congregation and stand before the Almighty. It is almost as if Cohen is making a similar confession. I may be a poet, a hero, and a star, but You know as well as I do that I am unworthy of all that. I am here before You – ready for You to take me.

The song is enriched by extensive Jewish collaboration. The track features background vocals from Gideon Zelermyer, cantor of the Shaar Hashomayim synagogue in Montreal, along with the Shaar Hashomayim choir.

The Shaar cantor and choir also contribute to another song on the album, ‘It Seemed the Better Way.’

This was an 82-year-old poet at the end of a long and deeply spiritual life. It is not surprising, therefore, that this song echoes the language and rhythm of the Kaddish, the prayer for mourners that reaffirms faith in God.

Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world
which He has created according to His will.
May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days,
and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon;
and say, Amen.

May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honoured,
adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He,
beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that
are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

He who creates peace in His celestial heights,
may He create peace for us and for all Israel;
and say, Amen.

Leonard Cohen was a generous artist, generous in his tributes to his musicians on stage and generous to his audiences, staying on stage for four or five hours at each concert. ‘May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us.’

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