the consistency of leonard cohen: part two

NOTE:  My meandering reflections on all things Cohen continues to take more time than I first anticipated. This is, perhaps, appropriate given my desire to ponder his music closely in my heart to say nothing of the artist's own commitment to painstaking editorial review. After all, he himself noted that there were once over 80 verses to his masterpiece "Hallelujah" that took three years to distill. 

To date, I have brooded over Cohen's unique ability to articulate the brokenness of our era in ways that help us both grieve and dance into our aching desires. I have touched upon the sweet intensity he incarnates as a poet and performer, the nuances he brings to his own material, and the importance of other musicians sharing his work with a broader audience. I have noted that at the start of his career as a singer-song writer, the cultural immaturity of the US kept many from grasping the paradoxical truths of his music. And I answered my own question re: the way age and various meditative practices helped him learn to live more comfortably within his own skin. 

Now let me share an overview of the way his music and poetry remained consistent over a 50 year journey.  He ripened and refined his early intuitions of the embrace of sorrow and celebration, but never abandoned it or dumbed-it-down for popular consumption. The constancy of this artistic vision may yet be one more reason Cohen experienced near universal adoration during the final decade of his life: he genuinely remained true to being our Man.

Two quotes from the maturing Leonard Cohen give shape and form to my sense that between 1965 and 2016 the artist rarely wavered in his quest to create honest songs of the heart.  In 1995 he observed that his album, Various Positions, was "an attempt to explore how things really operate, the mechanics of feeling, how the heart manifests itself, what love is. I think people recognize that the spirit is a component of love, it's not all desire, there's something else. Love is there to help your loneliness, prayer is to end your sense of separation with the source of things."  One aspect of Cohen's art celebrated the joy of the transcendent touching our humanity. The other expressed the deficiencies of these sacred blessings that always proved incomplete. 
From his last collection of poems, Book of Longing in 2006:

I had the title Poet
and maybe I was one
for a while
Also the title Singer
was kindly accorded me
even though
I could barely carry a tune...
My reputation
as a Ladies' Man was a joke
It caused me to laugh bitterly
through the ten thousand nights
I spent alone.

In Cohen's laments there is always love. There is often irony and humor in his devotions and the bittersweet confession that the light of hope and healing come to us through the cracks. "Forget your perfect offering - there is a crack in everything - that's how the light gets in."

The light is the capacity to reconcile your experience, your sorrow, with every day that dawns. It is that understanding, which is beyond significance or meaning, that allows you to live a life and embrace the disasters and sorrows and joys that are our common lot. But it's only with the recognition that there is a crack in everything. I think all other visions are doomed to irretrievable gloom... let's look at the balance of dark and light, of truth and lies (Cohen interview 1992)


Starting with his debut album in 1967, Songs of Leonard Cohen, and running through his parting gift in 2016, You Want It Darker, the artist blended a searing honesty about the human condition - including our capacity for cruelty and deceit - with a tender commitment to the sacramental nature of love. "The Stranger Song" from his first recording is emblematic of Cohen's artistic paradigm. The music is haunting, the lyrics complex, the story-line vexing. Cohen writes in a minor key of a liaison that moves like "Joseph looking for a manger" into dreams that evaporate like smoke and feelings that are no more grounded than a game of poker. There is shelter from the storm for a season, but also anxiety. There is a yearning for solace as well as questions of trust 
barely breathed aloud between these lovers. And everywhere you look, there are open doors and railway schedules, culminating in the closing verse:

Let's meet tomorrow if you choose
Upon the shore, beneath the bridge 
that they are building on some endless river
Then he leaves the platform
for the sleeping care that's warm
You realize, he's only advertising one more shelter
And it comes to you, he never was a stranger
And you say,"Ok, the bridge, or someplace later." 
And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind...
And leaning on your window sill...
I told you when I came I was a stranger.

Besides Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, has there ever been a better line about disappointment than: "He's only advertising one more shelter?" On this same album that so carefully articulates the effects of alienation, Cohen insists on including the innocence of "Sisters of Mercy" and the gentility of "Hey,That's No Way to Say Goodbye." This is not accidental nor mere album filler and fluff. Rather, Cohen has given us the earliest expression of a vision that honors the mysteries of the human heart. It cuts deeper over the next five decades, but remains true to the contours of this first recording. 

I'm not looking for another as I wander in my time
Walk me to the corner, our steps will always rhyme
You know my love goes with you as your loves stays with me
It's just the way it changes, like the shoreline and the sea
But let's not talk of love or chains and things we can't untie
Your eyes are soft with sorrow
Hey, that's no way to say goodbye.

This vision of what it means to love and live for compassion in the realm of sorrow and shadows is vigorous - and becomes ever more universal in the years that follow. 

(Apparently there are additional installments to come... who knew?)

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