Leonard Cohen's Temple of Doom
The Book of Longing was given to me by a lover with whom I share a poetic worldview: the struggle to see light above doom. Both of us are prone to melancholy, but we subscribe to Leonard Cohen's truth: "There is a crack, a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in."
It's taken us years to come to this kind of grace, and we've a long way to go. Leonard said the lyric was "the closest thing I could describe as a credo. That idea is one of the fundamental positions behind a lot of the songs."
"I always experience myself as falling apart, and I'm taking emergency measures," Leonard Cohen told Anthony DeCurtis in 1993's Rolling Stone. "It's coming apart at every moment. I try Prozac. I try love. I try drugs. I try Zen meditation. I try the monastery. I try forgetting about all those strategies … when I get to that place where I can't be dishonest about what I've been doing."
On rainy mornings, I like to be filled with Cohen's deep grey voice. For more than four decades, he has recorded moody softly apocalyptic folk music. He has hundreds of songs, and they've have been recorded thousands of times by others. And yet, when I think of Cohen, I think of him as a writer.
A writer who sings, absolutely, a writer who plays guitar. But a writer. His songs blossomed from the brooding beauty of his poems. His musical style is simple, spare, lean, and bare to illuminate the soul of the song -- the poem inside of it.
Judy Collins, Nina Simone, Harry Belafonte, Neil Diamond, Nana Mouskouri, Roberta Flack, Peter Gabriel, Aretha Franklin -- to name a few, all recorded Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne." But I met "Suzanne" in the musty dim afternoon of a library, staring up at the dance of the dust motes in the sepia light. She is among my earliest recollections of poetry. "And you know that she's half crazy but that's why you want to be there," I read. "And she feeds you tea and oranges that came all the way from China."
Anyone who has stumbled into Leonard Cohen's poetry, like me, moves immediately forward, hungrily. I was way too young to get my hands on his work, but I was haunted and seduced by titles like Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956), The Spice-Box of the Earth (1961), and Flowers for Hitler (1964). Then there was Beautiful Losers (1966) -- the most beautiful title a baby writer ever heard.
The highly experimental and filthy novel is still a staple of every Canadian bohemian, literati, professor, hipster, avant-garde filmmaker, and historian. The story in this masterpiece fiction wove sex and salvation, syphilis and saints, into a disjointed narrative that sent shock waves through society. Just as Let Us Compare Mythologies contrasted Judeo-Christian stories with other mythologies, Beautiful Losers played with religious iconography, this time a Canadian fusion of Catholicism and First Nations faith.
The story is about obsession, suicide, and sadomasochism, but the roots of these were planted in the 1600s just north of Cohen's birthplace, Montreal. There, the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha lived and died. She was a Mohawk orphan who devoted her life and virginity to the Catholic mission, and died young. She is the only Native American saint --her official canonization is underway as we speak. She had a dark penchant for penitence -- leg burning, thorn pricking, laying out in the snow. Using these themes as the basis for his thematic examinations of love, death, and sex was truly original, and uniquely Canadian.
Cohen was born in Montreal, Quebec in 1934 to middle class Jewish immigrant parents. His father was in the garment industry, but his maternal grandfather was a rabbi who wrote a 700-page tome on the Talmud. His other granddad was the founder of the Canadian Jewish Congress, so Jewish history, ritual, and folklore was an integral part of happy family life. Montreal, famous for its bagels and Canadian Jewish writers, is also, of course, predominantly French-Catholic. It was an everyday thing to walk among priests and nuns and many of the city's cultural institutions were Catholic. The contrasting and connecting of Jewish and Christian threads later became an integral part of the fabric of Cohen's most sacred -- and profane -- poetry.
Leonard was just nine was his dad died, and Cohen says little about the experience except that he wrapped up a bow tie with some written verses included in the packet, and buried it with his father. He was left an inheritance that helped fund his literary pursuit later; freeing him in young adulthood to work on his poetry. Like many teen boys, he was a handful, but after high school went on to study at McGill University, where he met another famous Jewish Canadian poet, Irving Layton. Cohen worked carefully on his craft (he said one song took thirteen years to write!), developing poems and fiction stories that were mostly critically acclaimed.
Now, Leonard Cohen is practically canonized himself, revered globally. He's "half wolf half angel," according to Anjelica Huston. Cutting a familiar figure in his fedora and dashing suit, he's revered as the "highest and most influential echelon of songwriters" (Lou Reed) and "our Keats, our Shelley, our Byron" (U2). Even Prince Charles lauded him. "I tell you who I also think is wonderful is a chap called Leonard Cohen, do you know him?" he asked. One son wondered if Cohen was a jazz musician. Prince Charles replied, "He's remarkable. I mean the orchestration is fantastic and the words, the lyrics and everything. He's a remarkable man, and he has this incredibly, sort of laid back, gravelly voice. It's terrific stuff."
Today "Everybody Knows" Leonard's Songs of Love and Hate, Various Positions, and The Future. Hallelujah, with its erotic noir undertones played out by the Biblical epic of David and Bathsheba, is one of the most haunting -- and most covered -- songs. With all that global recognition, it's easy for others to forget that Cohen's a Canadian bard. But here at home, he's our national pride.
Way back in 1968, Cohen was honoured with Canada's highest literary honour in 1968 -- Canada's Governor General's Award -- for his poetry. He refused it, for reasons clear to no one. His work was writing poetry until that fateful decision to record "Suzanne." And so, our literary hero stepped out of Canadian literature into the wild world of rock 'n roll.
"Cohen is not so much a representative of a Canadian sensibility as a living mythology in this country," said writer Eric McMillan. "We're never quite sure what he is -- poet, performer, novelist, philosopher, satyr, monk, con artist.... We're never certain he hasn't been putting us on, that his works have not been just a private language he occasionally makes public to tease us. Yet we continue to hum his songs and quote his poems as if they mean something to us."
It wasn't much of a leap, in truth, from our very own beat poet to rock 'n roll superstar. Cohen was a wild card, frank in his pursuit of wine, women, and song, even as religion and mythology provided the backdrop for these staples. Cavorting with Janis Joplin, rabblerousing with beatniks at the Chelsea Hotel, writing songs about threesomes and anal sex, lollygagging on Greek islands, watching trash heaps sprout daisies after ingesting LSD, avoiding traditional shackles of marriage, popping amphetamines, and of course, drinking, the only strange thing about jumping into music was his age. He was 32 when he decided to check out the possibilities. Selling poetry, surprise surprise, was not really very lucrative. "Aren't you a little old for this game?" asked a New York agent. But thankfully, The Songs of Leonard Cohen was released in 1967. Upon being signed to Columbia Records, talent scout John Hammond warned: "Watch out, Bob Dylan!"
Today, Cohen is his 70s and more popular and sexier than ever. The ladies' man, who has been linked with beauties like Rebecca De Mornay and Joni Mitchell, is inarguably at his most handsome -- utterly elegant in his droll, somber style. The current of dark humour and apocalypse rolls throughout his personal carriage as well as his Old Testament baritone. Writer Tim de Lisle calls "the godfather of gloom"'s deep voice a "smoky rumble."
Yes, Cohen has just reached the pinnacle of stardom as a senior citizen who is in the midst of a vast world tour. It almost didn't happen, because the tower of song retired in his 60s to become a Buddhist monk. "Religion is my favourite hobby," he told Elena Comelli. "It's deep and voluptuous -- a pure delight. Nothing is comparable to the delight you get from this activity. Apart, obviously, from courting. If you are a young man, that is the more amusing activity."
He went into retreat to finally silence that gloom and doom that had spun for half a century or longer through his head. Becoming a "religieuse" was perhaps the ultimate fulfillment of the themes of his soul -- and ever the contrarian, he didn't choose either the Jewish or a Christian path from his youth. His spiritual name is Jikan -- "the silent one." What Leonard longed for most, strangely, was to stop writing. Yet 2006's The Book of Longing was born from his years as a monk. Cohen said he'd been looking for silence all his life, moving towards it. And yet he couldn't stop himself.
"I tried to stop, but my relationship with writing is like that of a bear running into a hive -- he can't resist the temptation to steal honey. It happens continually. It's delightful and it's horrible … I'm sure that silence, sooner or later, will arrive."
Maybe. But it didn't arrive in 2008 when Cohen set out on a massive global tour. In part, he was driven to it for financial reasons, after a swindling scandal bled him of his savings. But those witnessing the concert are certain he's finally finding that salvation, not in silence, but in accepting his role as messenger, bearer of the world's weight. For an old man, he feels timeless. For poetry of such dark intensity, the crowds are bonding in hope, war be damned. No matter that thirty years ago, his songs were infamously panned as "music to slit your wrists to." Today, his longevity, his serene and elegant presence is Zen itself.
The manic depressive tension between light and dark that has informed Cohen's life, his writing, his intense yet luminous nature is still there, despite a life spent seeking ways to silence it. "The recreational, the obsessional and the pharmaceutical -- I've tried them all. I would be enthusiastically promoting any one of them if they worked," has said, about his search for relief. But today it seems clear that the solution to stability is to stop chasing it -- to simply let it be.
And today on this gloomy afternoon, I've drenched my soul in Cohen standards and reread the whole of The Book of Longing. The old adage is true --there is no beauty without pain.
I had the title Poet
and maybe I was one
for a while
Also the title Singer
was kindly accorded me
I could barely carry a tune
For many years
I was known as a Monk
I shaved my head and wore robes
and got up very early
I hated everyone
but I acted generously
and no one found me out
Right now, Cohen's continually exhausting schedule is running through Slovakia, Serbia, Czech Republic, and slated for multiple U.S. appearances in the fall. In high school, Cohen said his dream was to become a "world famous orator." Will these concerts be Leonard Cohen's famous last words?
I doubt it.