By contributing writer ROBERT BRUTTELL
The angels declare it from above …
The music of Leonard Cohen has struck at a deep place in me for many years. His hauntingly sensuous “Suzanne” takes me down to her place by the river every time the words run through my head. It suggests a place of abiding tranquility that generally eludes me but that I seek nevertheless. I hope that it will “Dance me through the panic ’till I’m gathered safely in” (from “Dance Me to the End of Love”).
One of his songs, “Hallelujah,” may have been covered by more artists than most any other song in our time, suggesting to me that Cohen’s lyrics haunt many other people as well.
It is a fact that many of us who would like to think of ourselves as peace activists have felt that sense of having been “sentenced to twenty years of boredom for trying to change the system from within” (from “First We Take Manhattan”). To one degree or another we are all working from within. It’s a tough slog that mostly provides no lasting sense of accomplishment.
Leonard Norman Cohen, born in 1934 in Quebec, Canada, has been writing poetry since the late 1940s and putting some of that poetry to music since the 1960s. While the generation born soon after WWII—who came to adulthood in the late 1960s and early 70s—are likely to know him best, “Waiting for the Miracle,” “Anthem,” “The Future,” “Bird on a Wire,” and “Sisters of Mercy” were introduced to other generations in movies. At his 2013 Detroit concert I noticed a wide range of ages giving him a standing O that elicited three encores.
At one point some years ago I had to pin down for myself that Cohen is definitely Jewish. His lyrics are often Christian allusions such as “he was just some Joseph looking for a manger,” “like a drunk in a midnight choir” or “the Sisters of Mercy are not departed or gone. They were waiting for me when I thought I could not go on” (from “The Stranger Song,” “Bird on a Wire” and “Sisters of Mercy” respectively). Despite the eclectic religious references, there is no doubt. He sometimes blesses his audience in Hebrew and refers to himself by his Hebrew name, “Eliezer Cohen” from time to time.
Cohen’s being is pluralistic. Born into a Jewish family, he says he keeps Shabbat. He also finds himself immersed in a Christian culture. Both provide him with rich images for his lyrics. An ordained Buddhist monk, Zen also appears to have a major place in his life.
Cohen was once mentioned favorably in a song by popular 90s grunge band Nirvana. After the suicide of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, Cohen said “I see a lot of people at the Zen Centre, who have gone through drugs and found a way out that is not just Sunday school. There are always alternatives, and I may have been able to lay something on him.” He is aware of the “broken hearted many and the open hearted few” (from “The Guests”).
During the Yom Kippur War in the early 1970s, Cohen found himself entertaining the Israeli troops and also meeting Arab soldiers. The experience resulted in the song “Lover, Lover, Lover” where he questions his identity and the “Father” responds:
“I locked you in this body, I meant it as a kind of trial, You can use it as a weapon, Or to make some woman smile.”
Cohen’s music is subversive. He does not take sides. He does probe deeply. In “Everybody Knows” he sings “Old black joe is still picking cotton for your ribbons and bows.” No one who listens to Cohen carefully can do any less than probe deeply looking for inner peace as well as peace in this world. In “The Tower of Song,” we hear “Of this you may be sure, the rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor and there’s a mighty judgement coming, but I may be wrong.” And as he sings in “The Future” “when they said ‘Repent, Repent’ I wonder what they meant.” Cohen gives us plenty to think about.
(Some details in this essay were taken from a well documented Wikipedia piece on Leonard Cohen.)
Leonard Cohen performs “Hallelujah!”:
Leonard Cohen performs “Lover, Lover, Lover” live in Tel Aviv:
Gail Katz says
I loved your article about Leonard Cohen, who is by far my favorite singer and composer. I can sing Suzanne and Hallelujah in my sleep, and have loved him since my undergraduate days!! Tanks for much for your meaningful words about this special guy!!
Wafaa Mustafa says
I love Leonard Cohen. He is my all time favorite poet/singer/composer/musician. I discovered him two years ago whilst watching a movie. I quickly wrote down the lyrics as I was listening to them play in the background and went home to Google him. The song was “Who by fire?” His words are so beautiful and his message is so powerful. Thank you for writing this article and addressing Leonards greatness. 🙂