Thursday, August 13, 2009

King Leonard and the Lesser Poets

Bow down, Bono. Be still, Bruce (Cockburn). Van the Man, raise up your hands. And yes, you too, Bobby Dylan -- stand aside (I can't believe I just wrote that). Leonard Cohen is back on stage and you all must take your proper, lesser places.

If you don't know who Leonard Cohen is, don't feel bad. The man is in his 70's now and has not had the kind of musical career that has churned out a string of radio hits. But, if you've heard Jeff Buckley sing "Hallelujah", or even Judy Collins warbling "Suzanne", then you've been with Leonard's work, perhaps without knowing it. So subtle is his magic that "Hallelujah" even showed up in "Shrek". Not bad for a Jewish Canadian word and songsmith in his seventh decade.

I've been a Cohen admirer for some years and even spent some time with a book of his poems this past year or so. Maybe that's why, when I saw that he has just released a "Live in London" 2-CD set with a lot of his best stuff on it (and backed by a crack band), I jumped without hesitating and placed an order. Boy am I glad for my reunion with his particular brand of genius.

Now, to be fair, not everything Leonard does is mind-blowing. Some of it is simply stirring, some of it merely amazing, and some just mildly astounding. What you don't get with Leonard is a soaring, beautiful voice (more of a rich baritone sometimes half-spoken croak). But, given what it is, that voice still communicates depth, poetry and a lifetime of experiences in its own inimitable way. Compare to, say, my dear Bobby Dylan's once-supple-now-poor voice which has descended into a state of (for me) total unlistenability.

And Leonard can do Dylan as good as Dylan does Dylan. Check out these lyrics from "Tower of Song":

"I said to Hank Williams: how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasnt answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me
In the tower of song"

Leonard Cohen does not have the pure volume of output of a Dylan, but what he lacks in volume, he makes up for in purity. And, one thing you can't miss about Cohen, is his obsession with religious imagery. There are few of his songs that DON'T refer to something like a midnight choir, angels, Jesus, The End of the World, judgement, prayer or some other religious notion. He has made no secret that he has long been a spiritual seeker -- even spending a year at a mountain monastery above L.A. studying Buddhism with a personal teacher. In spite of this, Cohen also freely drinks of the sensual and even erotic side of life which leads me to warn the squeamish not to look too closely into his poetry, lyrics and way-of-life. On the live album he quips that he has long indulged his fascination with studying various religions: "but cheerfulness kept breaking through". Nevertheless, he has done us the favor of reporting a few of his findings in lyrics such as: "everything beautiful is cracked, that's how the light gets in".

And how, pray tell, is it that after all these many years I still choke up when I hear the maestro sing his masterpiece "Suzanne"(okay, one of his masterpieces anyway):

"And Jesus was a sailor. When He walked upon the water.
He spent a long time looking from His lonely wooden tower.
And when He knew for certain only drowning men could see Him,
He said "All men will be sailors, then, until the sea shall free them"
But He, Himself was broken long before the sky was open.
Forsaken, almost human, He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone."

If you are searching for doctrine, don't look to Leonard's religious poetry: "I'm the Jew who wrote the Bible", he smirks in "The Future", one of my favorite Cohen songs. But if you're looking for a window that opens the soul to seeing the spiritual smack dab in the middle of the earthly, I can heartily commend him to you:

"Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won't be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned
the order of the soul
When they said REPENT REPENT
I wonder what they meant
When they said REPENT REPENT
I wonder what they meant
When they said REPENT REPENT
I wonder what they meant"

(The Future)

Well, I could go on but I'd rather have you spend your own time with the man, and if you still doubt his genius, consider the soaring beauty of his sung prayer "If It Be Your Will"

"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

If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you

From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing"


Christopher Faris said...

I have always been amazed by Cohen's lyrics, and disheartened by his voice. But I was that way with mewithoutYou, which I now find perfect. I need to give Mr. Cohen a real chance. Great lyrics to highlight by the way.

Johnnie said...

You should check out the Aug 24 issue of The New Yorker. Great profile/article on Cohen.