the consistency of leonard cohen: part one...

NOTE  I started this two weeks ago in Montreal but needed to let it simmer and ripen. In part one I describe a dialectic in the art of Leonard Cohen that worked at embracing both the anguish of real life and the promise of solace through mature love. Part two will offer deeper examples from both his early poetry and later music.

It wasn't my design to spend three weeks in Montreal thinking about Leonard Cohen. I had planned on resuming my reading about spiritual direction and wandering through the neighborhoods I had somehow overlooked. But the Scriptures are right: the Spirit blows where she will. So if we are listening, it is best to follow her lead - and that's what I tried to do with this on-going consideration of Leonard Cohen. In Montreal, I took time to walk in some of the places he walked, listened anew to what he had recorded, read again what he wrote, and ate at some of his favorite restaurants (next time its Moishe's Steakhouse on St. Laurent for sure.) Like the artist, I have an abiding fascination with the Montreal that only comes out at night and spent a number of late evenings in various jazz clubs. I have wrestled with my own haunting melancholia and embraced a spirituality linking mysticism with sensuality. My surprising pursuit of all things Cohen, therefore, was not merely a musical encounter; it was also a contemplative spiritual practice at the intersection of culture, art and illumination.

One discovery that intrigues me is the way public perception and artistic critique of Cohen has morphed since 1965. In his early days, Cohen was deemed the prophet of despair yet became an honored senex 50 years later. My hunch has been that this transformation is more about Western culture than Leonard Cohen. He remained steadfast in his brutally honest assessment of human integrity that was married to the efficacy of love. I also now sense that Cohen's deepening non-denominational song prayers helped create a "liturgical experience" for those without clearly defined spiritual or faith communities. He also tapped in to our inchoate longing for experiences of share beauty, awe, confession and trust in a transcendent grace.

From the earliest poems of Let Us Compare Mythologies in 1956 and Spice Box of the Earth in 1961, to music like the "Song of Isaac" in 1968, "The Future" in 1992, or "You Want it Darker" in 2016, the inventiveness human beings possess for wounding one another has been woven throughout his works. This carnage can be systematic and political, transforming a nobility just a little lower than the angels into a Social Darwinism that devours its young. Or it may also manifest itself in an intimacy that first burns hot with ecstatic joy only to turn ashen and bitter beyond rhyme or reason. Cohen has consistently named, witnessed, perpetrated and lamented this capacity for betrayal.

At the same time, the tapestry of Cohen's art is a testimony to the power of love to overcome hate - if only for a moment. Like St. Paul in a zendo, Cohen grasped that while love may be fleeting, it brings solace to weary souls. Yes, "Dress Rehearsal Rag" is constructed upon cynicism and depression. Still Cohen couples his critique with the exquisite innocence of "Sisters of Mercy." Mourning often dances with delight in his poetry and songs. Like the prophet Isaiah sang: Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

This is not to say that Cohen has always succeeded in his quest for balance: he has known emptiness, flirted with suicide, inflicted agony upon those he cherished and been out of his mind on drugs and alcohol only to dash back to the shelter of Roshi Joshu's meditation center. Still, he never chose to sleep long in the bleak house. He yearned for the "sun that pours down like honey on our Lady of the Harbor" and found it among lovers, partisans for justice, and allies in art who lived to nourish beauty with their whole beings. In an interview from 1993, he said:

I am so often accused of gloominess and melancholy. And I think I'm probably the most cheerful man around. I don't consider myself a pessimist at all. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel completely soaked to the skin. … I think those descriptions of me are quite inappropriate to the gravity of the predicament that faces us all. I've always been free from hope. It's never been one of my great solaces. I feel that more and more we're invited to make ourselves strong and cheerful. cheerfulness keeps breaking through.

My take on this waltzing through the polarities of pain and pleasure is that while Cohen mellowed over time, he never quit calling-out the cruelties of the human experience. In the 60s and 70s, critical reflection on Leonard Cohen was infected by the age of Aquarius. His early fans confused him for the rebellious Bob Dylan of his civil rights incarnation or the saturnalia of Haight-Ashbury (a locale preparing to market the 50th anniversary of "the Summer of Love" even as I write. Quelle horreur!) American culture was saturated in naiveté. The darker Cohen sang, the more he was vilified for his refusal to pay homage to sentimental love. He abhorred the "flabby hippie notions of love" that were ubiquitous and crafted songs of flesh and blood, love and hated as an alternative. His compositions were not for children - especially flower children.

Small wonder cultural critics heard only his agonizing laments without recognizing Cohen's relentless invitation to surrender to the sacrament of shared intimacy. This was not the case in Europe where his recordings sold well. He toured those lands throughout the 70s and 80s. When he could not secure an insightful popular review in the USA, he was honored as a sage throughout England, France, Germany, Israel and later the former Soviet bloc nations after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. 

So what changed? Why did Cohen's music and mature sense of balance become marketable in the USA - even cherished - during the last decade of his life? I submit that it was not a change of heart.To be sure, Cohen learned to better order his emotional life after five years of Zen meditation on Mt. Baldly. Forsaking alcohol played no small part in taming his inner demons, too. Additionally, his new groove of mixing Eastern European folk melodies with pulsing,techno-synthesizers and jazz rhythms seemed to impel his lyrics towards a prophetic and liturgical gravitas. And there's no denying that Disney, Rufus Wainwright and Jeff Buckley brought his works to a younger audience through "Shrek" at the same time he returned to his study of the Talmud and Kabbalah.

All of these changes, however, took Cohen deeper in his exploration of the layered ways sorrow embraces joy. One critical expression of his earliest insights took place with New Wave and Punk artists reclaimed his old songs like "Avalanche." Jennifer Warnes recorded a tribute album, "Famous Blue Raincoat," which did for Cohen in 1987 what Judy Collins had done in 1965: bring his poetry and sound to a broader and younger audience. As he internalized the value of reshaping his music for a new era, Cohen wrestled with the social chaos of the day - especially the LA riots of the early 90s. When Central Los Angeles became a racial war zone, when the first Gulf War evoked fears of the Apocalypse, when the greed of the Reagan Revolution was revealed to be a pyramid scheme for the wealthy, and the glut of once cheap cocaine gave way to horrors of crack: our cultural optimism was over. Lou Reed sang "stick a fork in them... they're done" in his 1989 masterpiece, "New York." 

One reason a Cohen revival took place in the late 80s and 90s is that the nation was ready. Our politics and aesthetics had finally caught up to his somber and broken heart. The ingenuous innocence of American popular culture had finally gone up in smoke. No where is this more clear than on "I'm Your Man" (1987) and "The Future" (1992) Cohen was still crying out against injustice and seeking solace in love. He continued to honor his familial calling in the priesthood of ancient Israel by mixing Judaic liturgy with contemporary jazz. And he was no less damning or caustic in his campaigns against silly love songs in a war zone than before. But now culture agreed with him.
(In part two of this reflection I want to suggest that the late Cohen revival was one part cultural lament for our lost innocence and another part non-sectarian/non-denominational revival through Cohen's secular hymns.)


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