Some Thoughts on Two Leonard Cohen Songs

My Visual Parable review of the new documentary on Leonard Cohen documentary Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song sent me on my own little journey into YouTube to listen to more of the great poet/composer’s songs. This is because I realize that I had heard just a hand full, and except for “Hallelujah,” had not given them the attention they deserve. And so I want to briefly look at two this time, first one that is in the documentary “Who By Fire,” and then “Anthem.”

“Who By Fire,” loosely based on the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgies, was new to me, so I was grateful that the filmmakers included it. Somber because of its subject–death–it consists of a number of questions about the manner of death that will come to everyone. On the Genius website we read of the origin of the Hebrew chant:

“Who By Fire” is adapted loosely from the Hebrew prayer “ונתנה תוקף קדושת היום” [“U’Netaneh Tokef Kedushat Hayom” (“Let Us Tell How Utterly Holy This Day Is”)], chanted on Yom Kippur. The Jewish narrative says Rabbi Amnon of Mainz was punished for not converting to Christianity by having his hand and feet cut off, and as he was dying from his wounds, he had a vision of God sitting and writing in a book. In his dying hours, Rabbi Amnon wrote the prayer that begins with “Who by fire? And who by water?”

Rabbi Amono obviously  was called by death in the form of martyrdom,  Cohen’s “brave assent,” whereas death calls others “by accident” and still others  “by his own hand,” and a lucky few “by very slow decay,” in other words, old age. But however and whenever, Death will come calling, its relentlessness emphasized by the song’s stead beat.

To fully appreciated the lyrics click here, and of the many excellent versions, I recommend the 6 1/2-minute one of Cohen’s London concert. This  is introduced by a talented guitarist, followed by Leonard’s singing, and including near the end another wonderful solo by the keyboard artist–wish I knew their names. Also there is a powerful solo moment for the bass player, the melody sounding especially deep and powerful on his massive instrument. These band members help us appreciate the tune more than any of the shorter versions do.

I liked “Anthem” the first time I heard it several years ago, with the iconic lines, “Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering /There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in. ” Wow, what an insight into the redemptive possibilities of pain, suffering, and darkness! But only now have I looked more deeply into the song’s meaning and realized what a prophet he was, as well as a poet inspiring the afflicted to carry on.

The song is, of course, a call to keep going in the face of disaster–“Don’t dwell on what /has passed away”– but late into the song Cohen declares “I can’t run no more/with that lawless crowd/while the killers in high places /
say their prayers out loud. ” This passage calls to mind  Isaiah and his withering  words to the people of Jerusalem, “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?…When you stretch out your hands,/ I will hide my eyes from you;/even though you make many prayers,/I will not listen;/your hands are full of blood.”  Isa 1:5-15) Pictures of our flag, the White House, and our troops burning the villages of Vietnam, and now Russian troops ravaging those of Ukraine, run through my mind as he sings of his resolve to shun the violent ones supposedly in charge of  national affairs.

And although ” that lawless crowd…the killers in high places” are in power, he calls us “to ring the bells that still can ring.” The struggle must go on against injustice, as it did in ancient Judah and Israel,  as long as” killers in high places/say their prayers out loud.” Just as they “summoned up a thundercloud” from Isaiah, so, Cohen promises “they’re going to hear from me. ” And if we take this Anthem to heart, we will add to the thunder of this poet/prophet.

Although I love some of the long versions of this song that are available on YouTube because they include his introductory remarks about this being a chaotic or dark world, my favorite is the 6 1/2-minute  Spadecaller Video ® version because it is a music video with appropriate photos and artwork (by Matthew Schwartz ) accompanying the lyrics. There are visual Biblical references–a man blowing a shofar, the infant Moses in a basket, a lamb, the adult Moses parting the Sea of Reeds, and of course the dove, the latter appearing again and again. At times the juxtaposition of images– such as Moses in the bull rushes accompanying “the birth betrayed “–is truly thought provoking. Or this one:

Image from The Spadecaller Video of ANTHEM.

The above image appears late in the video as Mr. Cohen sings again, “That’s how the light gets in.”

So, I hope you will read my review of the documentary, watch it, and delve even more deeply into the Cohen treasure trove of songs that his devoted fans have posted on YouTube. And, if there’s response to this post, I’ll be writing about some more of his gems. Can hardly wait to get to “If It Be Your Will”!


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