Leonard Cohen: a deeply-spiritual poet and song-writer
Last night I joined Marianne, Suzanne and all the Beautiful Losers at the Favourite Game.
I was at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham for the first of Leonard Cohen’s three concerts in Dublin as part of his first tour in 15 years. It was a sell-out concert last night, with 36,000 people there. It was a fresh summer’s evening, and for three hours he treated us to with 23 of his songs and poems until well after 11 p.m.
Like many of his fans and many of my generation, I have been a fan of Leonard Cohen since the late 1960s. Yes, his records, poetry books and novels, were essential parts of the furniture and lifestyle in those “digs” and bedsits in Lichfield, Wexford and Donnybrook. I read his poems at every poetry reading I took part in the the early 1970s. The books and records have continued to be with me in the different houses I have lived in since. We just added the latest albums and books, including the tribute albums, and the vinyl s gave way to CDs.
John McKenna’s play in the Mill Theatre in Dundrum last year, Who By Fire, was a deeply disturbing account of the Holocaust using the songs of Leonard Cohen, and was written with his approval and co-operation. But last night we had Cohen’s first live concert in Dublin in 22 years. And he constantly thanked an appreciative and enthusiastic audience for our hospitality and the welcome he had received in “this city of poets and singers.”
I have always regarded Leonard Cohen as one of our great poets and singers. His works are tempered with a deep but sharp irony. He is frankly honest about his many broken relationships but brings beauty to his talk of love and his descriptions of sexual encounters and relationships. But, for me, he is also deeply religious and spiritual.
Leonard Cohen was born in 1934. Yet last night he was a man of grace, poise, generosity and stamina. I hope that at 73, in 17 years’ time, I am even half as healthy, as active, as good-humoured and even fractionally as creative.
His music is difficult to categorise. Yes, he loves jazz. Yes, they’re the songs of my generation. But there were moments when you knew this is the Bar Mitvah boy who had has always lived with the rhythms and cadences of the synagogue and of European Jewish folk music. And there were moments, sitting there in last night’s cool summer breeze, that I could have been in a taverna in Hydra or another Greek island, where Cohen was immersed in the music of rembetika, the mandolin, the bouzouki and the lyre.
And all of these influences are brought together in his opening number last night: Dance me to the end of love, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ki9xcDs9jRk&feature=related. It is a song with imagery that draws on Messianic hope and full of tender love.
Then we were given The Future: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_drEFOaPaK8&feature=related. It’s an apocalyptic poem asking whether the world is facing a dangerous future despite the fall of the Berlin Wall: “I’ve seen the future brother: it is murder.”
“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.”
And yet, his Jewish identity comes through as the voice of the victims of the past and the present and the future:
“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.”
He followed this with Ain’t no cure for love, during which we could see his dynamic working relationship with his musicians and singers: “Tell them sisters … There ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure for love. Oh-h no.” No, there is no cure for love. It just grows sweet or bitter. “I’m aching for you baby. I can’t pretend I’m not …”
Once again, in this poem in infused with his deep spirituality: “I walked into this empty church – I had no place to go – when the sweetest voice I ever heard came whispering to my soul. I don’t need to be forgiven for loving you so much. It’s written in the scriptures, it’s written here in blood. I even heard the angels declare it from above – There ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure for love.”
His fourth number, Bird on the Wire, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9tHvVqeWPF8, was written in Hydra in the 1960s. This was one of the first poems he wrote in Greece, at a time where there were few wires on any Greek island. Even then he was honest about his torn relationships: “I have torn everyone who has reached out to me.” And yet is he suggesting that he knows God’s deep forgiveness?
“But I swear by this song
And by all that I have done wrong
I will make it all up to thee.”
Then we were challenged by Everbody Knows. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h27HRNm_r4U. Co-written with Sharon Robinson in the aftermath of the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, this is a strong criticism of neo-conservative policies on war and the social issues of our day, and talks of an impending collapse of political economic and social life. “Everybody knows the deal is rotten. Old Black Joe’s still picking cotton for your ribbons and bows … Everybody knows … from the bloody cross on top of Calvary to the beach at Malibu. Everybody knows it’s coming apart: take one last look at this Sacred Heart before it blows. And everybody knows.”
In my secret life, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=meBNeNwiagw, also written with Sharon Robinson, comes from his album Ten New Songs, but is not included in his book Stranger Music. Who knows what goes on in anyone’s heart, even when we know what is wrong, and what is right. Would we die for the truth? “Thank God it’s not that simple, in my secret life.”
This was followed by Who by fire? This was the inspiration for John McKenna’s disturbing and challenging play last year. There is a wonderful version on YouTube with a Jazz interpretation of this song. This is Cohen’s interpretation of a Jewish liturgical song, with the words and melody echoing the Unetaneh Tokef, an 11th century liturgical poem recited on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. But you can also catch the Greek rhythms and influences on this version on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQTRX23EMNk.
Anthem, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w2PqbZ_-4p8, includes one of my favourite quotes from Cohen:
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
None of us is perfect, but God still works through each and every one of us.
After the 15-minute interval, we were invited to The Tower of Song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYJf4J7VBaY&feature=related, a favourite of Bono and U2. He laughs as he admits age is catching up on him:
“My friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the place where I used to play.”
And we all laughed as his eyes twinkled at the line: “I was born with the gift of a golden voice.”
Then we heard Suzanne, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFDynsY9_tQ. Despite beginning as a story of love and infatuation, Suzanne turns to a religious theme in the second verse:
“And Jesus was a sailor
when he walked upon the water …”
His “lonely wooden tower” is the cross, and Cohen is so fascinated by him he writes:
“And you want to travel with him
you want to travel blind
and you think maybe you’ll trust him
for he’s touched your perfect body
with his mind.”
According to the biographer and film-maker Harry Rasky, Cohen was once married to the Los Angeles artist Suzanne Elrod. The two had an important relationship in the 1970s, but Cohen says “cowardice” and “fear” prevented him from ever marrying her. They had two children, Adam (born in 1972) and Lorca (born in 1974), a daughter, named after the poet Federico García Lorca. Cohen and Elrod had split by 1979. But contrary to popular belief, Suzanne, which one of his best-known songs, refers not to Suzanne Elrod, but to Suzanne Verdal, the former wife of his friend, the Québécois sculptor Armand Vaillancourt.
Next came The Gypsy Wife, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-hOpyGKfmo. On first listening this is a sad story of betrayal. But once again, we heard Cohen’s apocalyptic theme of impending disaster:
“Too early for the rainbow,
too early for the dove
These are the final days:
this is the darkness, this is the flood.
And there is no man or woman
who can be touched,
but you who come between them, you will be judged.”
Sharon Robinson, who was co-written some tracks on recent Cohen albums, sang the opening of Boogie Street, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ZG2zpKt7Es, from Ten New Songs, with tearful passionate:
“O Crown of Light, O Darkened One,
I never thought we’d meet.
You kiss my lips, and then it’s done
I’m back on Boogie Street.”
Is this Cohen talking about one of his regular returns to depression?
But there were no signs of depression as the crowd rose to the strains of Halleluljah, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rf36v0epfmI, waving arms as if we were at a rally of charismatic evangelicals … well, one other priest messaged me on Facebook this afternoon to say he had spotted me at the concert last night.
We are all broken and sinful, “life is not a victory march, / it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah!” But even then the song tells us that even David, despite lust and vanity, could play a “secret chord” that “pleased the Lord.” Despite that lust, which is the whole story of Hallelujah, eentually it all goes right in the end, for without David, what would have happened to God’s plans? Cohen reminds me that there is always hope despite my sinfullness:
“And even though it all went wrong,
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah!
…and it’s not some pigrim who’s seen the light –
it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”
In Democracy, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5g8CA5ltR8, he criticises America but says he loves it: “I love the country but I can’t stand the scene.” But he also criticises the lack of interest in politics among the American public and their addiction to television:
“I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight
getting lost in that hopeless little screen.”
It was so relevant to America’s foreign policy priorities today:
“From the wells of disappointment
where the women knell to pray
for the grace of G-d in the desert here
and the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the USA.”
But he is damning about the role of the religious right in politics in America, where poor people
“got the spiritual thirst … the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way.”
As for democracy, “It’s coming … from the staggering account
of the Sermon on the Mount
which I don’t pretend to understand at all …”
Next he sang one of his most popular sings, I’m your man (intorduced on this clip by Bono: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDxQsa-xgJI&feature=related).
Did he ever get back with the women about whom he wrote:
“But a man never got a woman back / not by begging on his knees
or I’d crawl to you baby / and I’d fall at your feet …”
Instead of singing it as a song, Leonard Cohen recited his poem, A Thousand Kisses Deep, co-written with Sharon Robinson for Ten New Songs in 2001. You can hear a similar recital here on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xXaRT8CXmGE. Everyone present was moved to silence as the poet recited his poem. It was what we had come for. But was he still on Boogie Street? A sung version of it is at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0j14GrB-u8&feature=related.
Cohen named his daughter Lorca after the poet Federico García Lorca, and was inspired by him to write Take This Waltz, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dSWgnSE8A-I.
“And I’ll yield to the flood of your beauty,
my cheap violin and my cross.
And you’ll carry me down on your dancing
to the pools that you lift on your wrist, – O my love, my love.”
If we were waiting for a miracle, we certainly got one when we called for an encore. He came back on stage and sang Waiting for a Miracle, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQOok6zO-CI. Then came Cohen’s biting condemnation of the fashion industry and the way it has abused women: First We Take Manhattan, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFBKV0zVXSE.
And he stayed on the stage and gave us more. He thought it was appropriate that an Irish audience should hear That don’t make it junk:
“I fought against the bottle,
But I had to do it drunk – Took my diamond to the pawnshop –
But that don’t make it junk.”
I felt we were praying with him when he went on to sing If it be your will, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-myjV64xfs. The “sublime Webb sisters” played the harp as he sang and prayed:
“If it be your will
that I speak no more,
and my voice be still
as it was before;
I will speak no more, I shall abide until
I am spoken for,
if it be your will. And draw us near
and bind us tight,
all your children here
in their rags of light;
in our rags of light,
all dressed to kill;
and end this night,
if it be your will.”
Once again, I thought the night had come to a perfect end. It seemed a perfect prayer to end the night. But instead he went on to sign, once again with humour, Closing Time, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrPEM2qc-j8.
He just seemed to want to go on, but he had to say good night and go. And he did it with I tried to leave you, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J14XykL0LWs. We all laughed, and felt he didn’t want to leave us. But it was after 11. “Good night my darling, I hope you’re satisfied.”
Throughout the night he had constantly interrupted himself through song and poem to express his so-obvious appreciation for “the incomparable Sharon Robinson,” “the sublime Webb sisters,” and for each and every one of his musicians. But we were the grateful ones. The Beautiful Losers were winners at our Favourite Game last night.
Thank you so much for this, Patrick. I was at last night's (Saturday 14th June) concert and it was deeply moving and awe-inspiring. It's wonderful to relive it song by song through your blog and through the links that you provided. Well done.
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