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Tuesday, 29 November 2016
Travelling Light: Remembering Leonard Cohen
Shortly after eight on a raw November morning, I arrive in the West Yorkshire town of Morley, trudge the frost-veiled park, along a roadside quilted in the crinkled ochre of fallen leaves, joined as usual by my friend Mario, a Romanian barber who commutes on the same train and who cuts hair, sometimes mine, in a salon behind my workplace. He shows me photos of his family on his mobile. We laugh about our mutual need for hot strong coffee on this bone-chillingly cold autumnal morning, and when we part at the cross-roads, it is to the welcoming confines of the Oxford Coffee Club that I am bound.
The walls are brightened by art, including one painting of multi-coloured splodges entitled "Hebden Bridge." Hebden being not far from where I live, it is easy to feel quite at home. The owner, also called Simon, greets me with his usual friendliness. As I sit awaiting my coffee, we banter about football - he relaying facts and figures, me pretending to comprehend, when in reality, my footballing knowledge extends little further than who won and who lost. Naturally, this does not matter. The point of friendly conversation of this kind is never to initiate complex discussion or debate - only to jog each other along, to have a laugh, to each play our part in helping the other to commence this Friday morning as harmlessly as possible. After a few mouthfuls of piping coffee, I am ready for the day, feeling that whatever may be happening globally, the word is still turning and I am okay, wishing only as I glance up at the clock that a few extra minutes might remain before I need to head back out into the cold. Focused on his mobile, a frowning Simon has gone unusually quiet, and the scrolling motion of his thumb makes clear that he is logged into Twitter or some other website of its kind. He looks up and asks, almost apologetically, "Were you a fan of Leonard Cohen?"
It is the past tense of his question that hits me, and my expression must convey the answer, because his in response conveys sympathy. And so another guest has joined the Sergeant Pepper pageant of Absent Friends which has swelled beyond the realms of decency throughout 2016, and this one is too much to take. The fact that he has died at the not-young age of 82 is of course irrelevant to the instinctive pangs of grief which accompany the news of any loss. For Cohen to die at this bitter end of a difficult and rather tragic year, seems the final straw. Simon apologizes for being the bearer of bad news, and I feel like a part of me has also died, as we sit there in the café with the traffic pootling past the window and my coffee slowly going cold.
How does one answer such a question as "Were you a fan of Leonard Cohen?" How to condense the decades of esteem, respect, affection, love, with a simple affirmation? Shall I plunge into the balm of treasured memories, wax lyrical and pour out tributes to the magic of the lyrics, the understated beauty of the voice, the majestic looks and impossible-to-fake sophistication? Should I talk of my ecstasy at seeing him in concert? Ought I to try and appear clever by speaking of his novels?
Perhaps I should talk about my introduction to the work of Leonard Cohen - a slow, staggered, gradual path that began in the days before youtube, when you simply had to save up and buy one or two records every few months, ask for them for Christmas or strike on them in charity shops.
I first read about Leonard Cohen in 1994, in a magazine interview with his ex-partner Rebecca de Mornay. The photograph of Cohen, immaculate in an almost-silver suit, immediately entranced me, although it was a full three years before I got round to listening to his music. What can I say? We were more patient in those days. My eventual discovery of a worn and dusty Songs of Leonard Cohen LP, upstairs in a junk shop overflowing with oak furniture and kitchen utensils, was like stumbling on a diamond in the desert, only far more valuable.
It has often seemed to me that my fascination with Cohen lies fundamentally in his enigmatic persona, and the way in which everything about him, despite his Jewishness, has always seemed far removed from anything I have experienced, seen or known. As a nervous and naïve teenager, I would gaze at his world-weary image, like that of a veteran of Decadence, and wonder precisely what kind of a life such a person must have had. I would look into his eyes on the cover of Death of a Lady's Man and know he embodied a Byronic heroism to which I could never aspire; I would read of his periodic retreats from the blitz and glitz of cocaine-coloured hedonism to the sanctuary of Greek islands, or mountain monasticism above Los Angeles, and know that all of these things were emblematic of a lifestyle utterly different to my own. Of course, like all great songwriters, Cohen does sometimes make the listener feel that he is singing about them. When, in the summer between art college and University, I listened to him retell how Like a bird on a wire / Like a drunk, in a midnight choir / I have tried, in my way, to be free, I felt - as millions of others have - that he was simultaneously soliloquizing my own inner yearnings and articulating an exoticism far beyond my reach. And I lean from my window sill in this old hotel I chose, crooned Cohen in 1968,
Yes one hand on my suicide, one hand on the rose. He is a poet whose visions defy classification, whose words gleam a delicate hairsbreadth between tragedy and beauty.
Maybe I should answer this impossible but wonderfully inviting question with a nod to the nights of that long summer spent in the purple attic room of an artist friend called Anna, where anything from two or three to a dozen of us would converge on Indian rugs amid a swirling haze of tobacco, dope and incense, and where the older, rumbling voice of the middle-aged Cohen - live in concert - would tumble from the speakers like that of a stoned Barry White. Or to another group of friends with whom I sat, drowsy in the bliss of wine, at the close of summer, deep in the green lilac park, Cohen's melodies blooming in my mind, all of us - English, Italian, Israeli, German - watching a dreamy August twilight slowly fade into the ebony of night, somehow knowing that these days of innocence would never come again. The end of the Twentieth Century - what a time to be almost young.
Perhaps, as I reflect on the bittersweet, and sometimes sweetly bitter, influence of Leonard Cohen's presence in my life, I should dwell on the drizzled days of the fading Twentieth Century, when, struggling with the pressures of University life, I would traipse the terraced streets of Huddersfield in the autumn of 1999, going to the station to meet every train and repairing to a room which could almost have been Cohen's in Tonight Will Be Fine, were it not for the fact that not even a solitary prayer adorned my cell-like walls, listening to his sorrowful yet soul-warming psalms of Calvary and Cadillacs, gypsy thieves and thin green candles, Eskimos, saints and jealousy.
I was wandering wet and depressed through Huddersfield - a town I now love but which in 1999 I had only just met and had yet to get to know - and, taking shelter from a particularly torrential downpour, locked myself on a library shelf and was happy to hibernate within its sanctuary of books. The town's 1930's library became my refuge from the noisy vulgarity of University, where I devoured books of almost every kind: taking myself there when I should have been at lectures, my illicit afternoon binge-reading was a fine education. The music section overflowed with treasures, and I well remember returning for a visit home in Leeds with a clutch of Leonard Cohen albums, only to be discouraged from listening to them by my father. Having through the years acknowledged my enthusiasm with detached lukewarmth, he had by now grown wary. Fearing the music would push me deeper into a depression whose persistence and heaviness was becoming cause for considerable concern, my father urged me, almost pleaded with me, virtually forbade me, from indulging this obsession. "He's extremely dark - he sings about graves and death," my father would insist. "Its the last thing you need." And yet it would be my father, nearly fifteen years later and after several failed attempts at embracing Cohen's music, who would present me with a ticket to see the great man live - on a warm September night in 2013.
In a crumpled suit, tipping his hat and beaming a boyish smile, the 79-year old had looked somehow fragile, and vulnerable, and a feeling of total love welled in me as he launched into the opening song: Dance Me To The End of Love. The lyrics - Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn - could recall a love song from the time of the Exodus, and are actually inspired - for want of a better word - by the Holocaust. When Cohen sings, Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin, his lines describe a real historical scenario - musicians forced to play in the shadows of the crematoria: "(they were) pressed into performance while this horror was going on, those people whose fate was this horror also. (The music became) the consummation of life, the end of this existence and of the passionate element in that consummation.
It is at this point, having seen how Cohen's lyrics have at times been drawn from Jewish history, that I should like to turn to the confluence of his lyrics with the heritage of Jewish poetry - the most obvious example being the 1974 song Who By Fire.
And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of may,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?
Who By Fire is an adaptation of the 8th Century Unataneh Tokef prayer, recited in Ashkenazi synagogues at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and in an essay for Mosaic magazine, Hebden Bridge-based poet Atar Hadari ascribes to it a touch of English Silver Age poetry with the allusion to Thomas Dekker’s “merry month of May,” and, at least when Cohen sings it, I find that words like “barbiturate” and “something blunt” and oppositions like “greed” and “hunger” have a biblical force to them. And it does also capture a sense of him as a boy in a synagogue in Montreal, listening to that prayer being recited. That early autumn night, the songwriter stood downstage-left, hands cupped around the microphone in a penitent, imploring way, as this thousand-year-old song crept, then swept, upon us, it felt as though he were asking the questions for the very first time - yet asking on behalf of every generation past and future, posing the unanswerable to the unfathomable.
If Leonard Cohen's songwriting has been influenced by the poetry of antiquity, his actual poetry has also often drawn from historical example, and from the Classical and Biblical world. As if to suggest this thematic territory, his debut publication is entitled Let Us Compare Mythologies, and begins with The Song of the Hellenist:
O Cities of the Decapolis across the Jordan,
you are too great; our young men love you,
and men in high places have caused gymnasiums
to be built in Jerusalem.
I tell you, my people, the statues are too tall.
Beside them we are small and ugly,
blemishes on the pedestal.
The story of my love affair with the work of Leonard Cohen could well revolve as much around his poetry - and this chapter of my story begins in the early days of 2003 when I returned North from the oblivion of London - where I would walk the moonlit, tangled tapestries of East End streets and spend my evenings among the drunk and dispossessed, returning to my frostbitten flat to listen to his records while I overlooked the overcrowded sink estates and rotting blocks of flats. Back in Yorkshire, picking up the pieces of my life, I dragged myself one doomy dark-skied evening up the sleety cobbles of a Bradford street, stumbling into the inviting clutter of a charity shop, crammed with cardboard boxes. I picked my way through the hundreds of books, and among them found the slim back and white volume which lies open before me as I write: Leonard Cohen: Poems 1956 - 1968. Over the years I would pore through it, consult it, read it backwards, reveling in the reverence, irreverence, the sex and violence, the Zepellins and insect suicides, horses' manes and waterfalls. Sometimes I understood what I was reading, often not - and like some labyrinthine kaleidoscope of contrasted but interconnected images, the whole body of Cohen's poetry, with its provocative blend of the poignant and the picaresque, its cast of eccentric characters from Galileo to Nijinsky, has woven its self in and out of focus in my life, bewildering and delighting with equal emotional power.
The poems seem to strike surrealist poses which mask avalanches of anger or of pain:
The Flowers that I left in the ground,
that I did not gather for you,
today I bring them all back,
to let them grow forever,
not in poems or marble,
but where they fell and rotted.
The reason I write
is to make something
as beautiful as you are.
The poetry of Leonard Cohen trembles with love, but it is so often a love built on fragility and insecurity:
May soft birds
soft as a story to her eyes
protect her face
from my enemies
and vicious birds
whose sharp wings
were forged in metal oceans
guard her room
from my assassins
You do not have to love me
you are all the women
I have ever wanted
I was born to follow you
while I am still
the many men who love you
("You Do Not Have to Love Me")
And in poems like Saint Catherine Street, Poem and Warning, the nightmare visions of lost love form a fittingly grim backdrop for Cohen's wry brand of Jewish humour. In Ballad (1956), an atmosphere of film-noirish Hollywood is conjured up in the grotesque parody of a murder investigation - the victim being the narrator's own beloved:
They promised me an early conviction.
We will eavesdrop on the adolescents
examining pocket-book covers in drugstores.
We will note the broadest smiles at torture scenes in movie houses.
We will watch the old men in Dominion Square follow with their eyes
the secretaries from the Sun Life at five-thirty...
Love its self is often underpinned by uncertainty and violence - in The Genius, we find the poet traversing every known Jewish stereotype in his bid to satisfy; in The Lovers, the eponymous couple consummate their relations in a death-camp. And yet, as poet rather than politician, Cohen is able to tell us - more reassuringly than any ideologue: Whatever cities are brought down, I will always bring you poems. And indeed he did. The poems of Leonard Cohen, although coloured greatly by blood and war, are also at times deeply beautiful, nowhere more so than when he writes about women:
Like ages of weightless snow
on tiny oceans filled with light
her eyelids enclose deeply
a shade tree of birthday candles
one for every morning
until the now of sleeping
Titles such as Disguises depict the world-as-stage predicament of the wandering bard ("wandering Jew"?) while poems with names like My Teacher is Dying, One of the Nights I Didn't Kill Myself ,The Only Tourist in Havana Turns His Thoughts Homeward and even All There Is To Know About Adolph Eichmann certainly do nothing to negate the "depressing" reputation of "The Godfather of Gloom", but also emphasize the tirelessly exploratory life which gave rise to these unusual, deeply moving works. His is a poetry borne of uncertainties and questions of identity and purpose, of self-reflection steeped in history:
Claim me, blood, if you have a story
to tell with my Jewish face,
you are strong and holy still, only
speak, like a Zohar, of a carved-out place
into which I must pour myself like wine
It is a poetry which defies, at times even ridicules, the political:
Each man has a way
This is mine
And it is at times deliciously self-deprecating: in a recent poem, Cohen actually delivers a raft of quasi-heretical denials reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan's Am I Alone, and Unobserved?
I Have Not Lingered In European Monasteries
and discovered among the tall grasses tombs of knights
who fell as beautifully as their ballads tell;
I have not parted the grasses
or purposefully left them thatched.
I have not held my breath
so that I might hear the breathing of God
or tamed my heartbeat with an exercise,
or starved for visions.
Although I have watched him often
I have not become the heron,
leaving my body on the shore,
and I have not become the luminous trout,
leaving my body in the air.
I have not worshipped wounds and relics,
or combs of iron,
or bodies wrapped and burnt in scrolls.
I have not been unhappy for ten thousands years.
During the day I laugh and during the night I sleep.
It is a poetry which travels from Montreal to New York, Jerusalem to Ancient Greece, from the hordes of Mongolia to Miami Beach, reflecting the same internationalism as his music which would, long before the genre of "World Music" had been invented by journalists and HMV, bring together performers (and fans) from every corner of the globe, and continues to do so. For all of its supposed cult value, there is something for everyone among the multi-layered totality of Leonard Cohen's work: when, in 2009, his arguably most famous song Hallelujah was covered on The X-Factor by Alexandra Burke, I refused then and refuse now to be cowed by the choruses of sanctimonious cynics who despaired at this "commercialization". I feel that she spectacularly captured its Gospel-inspired essence more beautifully than any of the Cohen copyists of the preceding twenty years.
Cohen's own latest offerings have again encompassed diverse styes and settings, and many have suggested that his final album, You Want it Darker was a conscious valediction. I believe it is too early to make an assessment of this kind, and my personal interpretations of so much of Leonard's output have often taken years to assume concretion. What seems to be indisputable, though, is the impact of our current global turbulence on the themes and lyrics. From the telling title, to the faux nonchalance of Traveling Light, the sense of a pared-down sparsity is both bleak and elegaic:
I'm traveling light
Its au revoir
My once so bright
My fallen star.
While Leaving The Table may evince a sort of Learian liberation from the rigors of the system, the overwhelming sense is one of honest realism. Some of the lyrics make painful listening, rueful laments which might be echoed by many of us who have this year made decisions - personal, professional, political - we severely regret:
It seemed the better way
When first I heard him speak
But now its much too late
To turn the other cheek
Sounded like the truth
Seemed the better way
Sounded like the truth
But its not the truth today
The late writing of Leonard Cohen may embody an enormity of worldly disorder and despair, as amid bloody hills and devils, They whisper still, the Ancient stones / The blunted mountains weep, but there is, in language framed uncannily in the terms of both current international politics and Biblical Universality, a definite and unshakeable search for unity:
I wish there was a treaty we could sign
Its over now, the water and the wine
I wish there was a treaty
Between your love and mine.
During times of upheaval, the poetry, prose and music of Leonard Cohen have been constants in my life, as I know they have for millions of others. So rich and multi-faceted is his galaxy of words that my love of his work will only increase as every song or poem reveals further wonder and beauty on each revisiting.
When I saw Leonard Cohen in 2013, the performance was theatrical and joyful: a band comprised of musicians and instruments from all over the world, The Webb Sisters backing him, and a glow of life-affirming vitality beaming from the stage. Leaving the venue, as I threaded through the Saturday night streets of Leeds, I passed battalions of men and women amid their nights on the town, waving bottles in the air or yelling at each other from club doorways, noticing just how angry, aggressive and unhappy almost everybody seemed. What a contrast to the buoyant euphoria I had left behind, but on whose wave I would ride all the journey home. In these dark times of division and despair, it is to Cohen I so often turn, not to affirm my belief in any ideology or dogma, but to escape the chaos of a world I sometimes fear I no longer recognize. It is to his words and familiar voice I have so often listened "through the nights of wild despair," and I know that as the terrain of an uncertain future unfolds, he will continue to be with me, like a friend, as I wait for the light to get in.
So yes is my answer, naturally. Yes I was - and forever shall be - a fan of Leonard Cohen.