Tag Archives: Leonard Cohen

Silent Music: Leonard, Prince of Paradox

Today I am spending the entire day honouring the memory of Leonard Cohen; poet, singer, guitarist and songwriter (1934-2016).  Although his death wasn’t announced until Nov 16th, he actually died on 7th, so it was one year ago today that we lost him.

Here’s how I found him.  It’s 1972 and I’m in a schoolroom in West London.  We are awaiting an English lesson when in comes a student teacher followed by a caretaker carrying a record player.  Great excitement: we rarely have music in class.  The teacher puts on the record and says, ‘we’re going to listen to this song and then discuss the lyrics.’  The guitar sounded, the voice began – and I was lost.

In those early days his voice haunted me like a busker on the underground, seeming to echo from afar down a long, dark tunnel.  But from the first inoculation he was in my blood, and there was no getting him out.  Vast wastes of emotion opened up in me: here was a way to link god and sex (which the church had cast asunder) here was a landscape of sublimity and pain – above all, here was one who was not afraid to stand and open his heart for all to see.  I loved that in him, as so many did.

Leonard was not a whole man, and he was unafraid to tell us so: the word ‘broken’ seemed to resonate through his early work where despair often won out over exaltation.  Whirled by winds of ‘deep distress’, he landed on Mount Baldy, a Zen monastery outside Los Angeles where he woke before dawn and walked through the snow to sit, silent and shorn, in meditation:

https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwiU7abRqKzXAhXiK8AKHWReAKYQjB0IBg&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.leonardcohenforum.com%2Fsearch.php%3Fst%3D0%26sk%3Dt%26sd%3Dd%26keywords%3D%252Bnovels%2B%2B%26fid%255B%255D%3D3%26ch%3D-1&psig=AOvVaw2SGymFgp4TNEmDg00wdVSE&ust=1510139077994737

Since he never spoke, the other monks knew him only as zhikan, ‘the silent one’, having no idea that outside the monastery he was a famous singer.  But then, Cohen had so many incarnations: poet, Cuban revolutionary, Scientologist (‘did you ever go clear?’) Jew, Zen Buddhist, prophet and guru – and those are only the ones I know about.

And as for me, what can I tell you, my brother, my killer?  How can I possibly explain what Cohen meant to me?  I loved the openness in him, the way he never put on a front or pretended to be other than he was.  I loved the way he pursued each line of a song, even to the point of crawling across a hotel bedroom floor at 3 am trying to get it right.  And most of all I loved the way he treated his audience.

For Cohen, tours were not so much a way of promoting a record (though they were of course that) as a kind of reconnaissance, a way of experiencing the zeitgeist.  He had a great respect for his audience and in concerts he gave his all, dispensing with a support act and doing encores which sometime stretched out as long as the main set.  The last time we saw him, though he looked so much older, he skipped off the stage at the end: he was then 75.

And yet in those early years I suffered for his art.  Like other disciples before me I was pilloried in public for my allegiance to Cohen; I was mocked and jeered at.  The ‘grocer of despair’ was too easily dismissed as the bard of the suicidal (‘one hand on my suicide’) by those who never glimpsed his beauty.  As for Cohen himself, in those early years he was described as having ‘the stoop of an aged crop-picker and the face of a curious little boy’ but with meditation the stoop went and by and large he aged well, still looking good right into his sixties:

 

Image result for Leonard Cohen

(image removed on request)

In public Cohen was courteous and dignified, refusing to hit back at his critics or fight rudeness with rudeness.  But, though many consider him a sort of guru, Cohen was no saint; and his Achilles heel was women.  He did go through a period of celibacy at Mount Baldy, but in general seemed unable to stop pursuing women; and not limiting himself to one at at time either: Jennifer Warnes once sadly remarked that she never had a relationship with Cohen because she knew it wouldn’t be exclusive.  From the outside it appears that he never found lasting happiness or stability in relationships: his early affair with the Marianne of the song seemed a brief oasis in a stormy life; a storm which escalated into a crisis when his agent Kelly Lynch stole $5m and left him penniless.  Cohen showed remarkable public forbearance in the face of such devastation: all he would say was, ‘we understand that these things happen.’  But though we felt for him we were also delighted because a career which had seemed dead and buried was resurrected: Leonard was on the road again.

He continued recording almost to the day he died: his final album, ‘You Want it Darker,’ was released just 19 days before his death and recorded with difficulty.  In the end his son Adam had to stick a mic on a desk and into this Leonard breathed his last songs.  They do not, of course, have the vigour of his earlier work, but are nonetheless infused with a bleak beauty.

No, Cohen was no saint: but he was a prophet of sorts and for me a kind of paradoxical guru.  Leonard never would have wanted to be anyone’s guru: I never wanted to have a guru.  It’s the perfect relationship; and for me he will always be a guiding voice; bleak, sublime, courteous and above all, to his own self true.

If you want to know more, here’s the official site:

http://leonardcohen.com

and here’s my blog post about that concert in 2008:

https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2008/07/20/songs-of-leonard-cohen-170708/

RIP Leonard, we love you.

Kirk out

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Grace

I have said that Leonard was a bizarre kind of guru for me, and so he was: and not so much for his art as such (though that has influenced me like a virus in the blood) as for his manner.  The way in which he dealt with success has been something I’ve sought to emulate, above all because of his graciousness.

Leonard is gracious to his opponents.  In the early days, as many of you will remember, it was hard to be a follower of Cohen.  Along with others, I got a lot of stick for it: my parents unkindly called him ‘old groaner’ and people would trot out the usual tropes about ‘music to slash your wrists by.’  It was most unfair on someone who had a bleak and authentic beauty and a wicked sense of humour.  But things changed, and by the end of the 80’s, after ‘Hallelujah’, it was OK to like him.  He became mainstream – or almost – and everyone you met had heard his name.

You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name

I went to see him at some point around then and there was a sense of total triumph; not against his critics, but against those dark forces which had held him back for so long: depression and – yes, his unfortunate tendency to pursue women.  Deciding that this was no longer making him happy, he became celibate and entered a monastery; photographs of him were issued with a shaven head and wearing monks’ robes.  He embraced Zen and paradox as he had earlier embraced the poetry of Lorca, but without betraying any of his former influences, and this above all, is I think the reason I admire him so much.  Many artists go through phases where they renounce those things which influenced them so deeply before: Leonard never did that.  He wove it all into one amazing tapestry; past loves and past lovers, poets and philosophers, Judaism and Zen – it was all one.

And this led to an extraordinary grace in his public dealings.  I never heard him slag anyone off: when Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize which some thought should have gone to Cohen (not me, I don’t think it’s appropriate for songwriters) he said ‘It’s like pinning a medal on Everest for being the highest mountain.’  I think Cohen’s lyrics are far superior to Dylan’s, but that’s not the point.  He is always gracious in defeat; and when personal and financial tragedy struck with one blow and his agent and lover, Kelly Lynch, absconded with savings amounting to $5 million; all he said was, ‘We understand that these things happen.’  Despite a court order, Lynch never paid back any of the money, so Leonard was forced to go back on the road.  But he shows no bitterness, no condemnation, no vitriol.  And that is why I admire him so.

On stage he is unfailingly gracious too.  When I first saw him he was almost alone, sometimes accompanied by two or three women, but nowadays he has a raft of backing performers; usually a band and two or three singers.  He not only acknowledges them at the end, he gives them time and space to perform in their own right.  When we saw him in 2008 he gave ‘If it Be Your Will’ to the Webb Sisters to perform, and they were sublime.

This graciousness extends to the audience, too.  Leonard never, ever took his audience for granted, and I have read that when rehearsals are over and the stage is set, Leonard and the band sit down together for a meal and a drink wherein they toast the audience.  You can feel this appreciation for your presence when you are there, too.

We will never see his like again but as I said we can best honour his memory by following our own voice.

Here’s his best-known song: one whose rights, ironically, were stolen from him.  Later he said it should belong to everyone; and so it does.

Listen to Leonard’s comments about the song at the beginning, too.

Kirk out

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Prince of Paradox

There’s going to be a lot of Cohen on this blog in the coming days, so hang onto your hats just as he is in this photo:

The thing I want to write about today is his gift for presenting paradox.  As first of all a Jew and later a Zen Buddhist, Cohen was very drawn to what he saw as the paradoxes inherent in human life; and today’s song illustrates this beautifully – as well as being utterly timely.  In fact it’s tempting to wonder whether the election of the man whom I shall refer to only as Mr T, is what convinced him to go.  My tribute to this side of his work is very short: as I have said, Leonard was a guru of sorts for me; someone who seemed to show the way – or a way – to be an artist in this world, to handle fame graciously whilst never compromising in following his own voice.  That above all is what I respected in him.  Anyway, Leonard was the perfect guru for me because he would never had wanted to be anyone’s guru.  So that makes him perfect for someone like me, because like the Groucho Marx of discipleship, I would never choose for a guru, someone who actually wanted to be one.  So here’s my little wild bouquet for today:

Guru

Leonard
you taught me to embrace paradox
with both hands tied
behind my back.

He also taught self-deprecation.  This was a hallmark of his public style right from the sixties – when it was fashionable – through the nineties and after, when it most certainly wasn’t.  When every other performer was relentlessly engaged in self-promotion he undercut himself with jokes.  He was famous for being gloomy, but this was most unfair.  A lot of his songs are full of jokes, and when interviewed he had the journalists in stitches with his wry, self-deprecating humour.

So here’s today’s song.  I hope you find it as funny and as timely as I do:

And it may well be from the very concert we were at!

Kirk out

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Insecure Wednesday

Yes, it’s the first Wednesday of the month and time to be insecure again – and this month the question we insecure writers are asked to consider is, ‘What is your favourite aspect of being a writer?’

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com

Well I guess for me, my favourite aspect is the tremendous sense of liberation which comes from ‘unpacking the heart.’  That phrase is used rather disparagingly by Hamlet, but for me it’s an opening, a freedom; not so much a road as a river that you follow, never knowing where it may lead you.  Each day is a surprise and although it is often hard, just as following the course of a river is hard and can lead you into ravines and over rugged rocks; when you finally break through, the experience is stunning.

I never know where I’m going and I like it that way.  Looking back you find a sense of rhythm and purpose but at the time it often makes no sense: all you can do is pursue that infuriating river that twists and winds, falls and rises, expands to a sea and contracts almost to nothing.  It’s like Leonard Cohen once said: it starts off easy but then you’re on your hands and knees at 3 am trying to pursue a lyric.

OK so now I realise I’m getting away from the good stuff and talking about the difficulties.  But you can’t have one without the other folks!

Speaking of Hamlet, there was a guy on the radio the other day who claimed that the supposed universality of Shakespeare was all down to a conspiracy by the RSC.  Sounds a bit far-fetched to me…

Happy (and hard) writing!

Kirk out

 

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So Long, So Long Marianne

I just found out today that Marianne, the inspiration for Leonard Cohen’s ‘So Long, Marianne’ has died.  Not everyone knows that ‘So Long Marianne’ was about a real Marianne, but in the ‘sixties Cohen lived with her for a while.  She was Norwegian and in this memorial he describes her as ‘a beautiful soul.’

http://www.nme.com/news/leonard-cohen/95406

I keep thinking that any day now we will hear the news that Leonard Cohen is dead.  But the guy just keeps going on.  He’s a sort of guru of mine: any time I don’t know how to deal with a situation I think, ‘What would Leonard do?’  Of course, Leonard doesn’t want to be anyone’s guru – but that’s exactly what makes him perfect for me.  I have a sort of Groucho Marx approach to discipleship – I wouldn’t choose as my guru anyone who actually wants to be a guru.

There’s a nice joke in ‘Finding Dory’ – which we went to see for Mark’s birthday (his choice) where the heroine, whenever she’s lost and doesn’t know what to do, thinks ‘What would Dory do?’  The eponymous blue john dory suffers from short-term memory loss, but what was a brilliant joke in Finding Nemo turns into a rather dull, overworked trope in this follow-up.  It had its moments – I liked the character of the octopus with seven limbs – but basically it was lame.  Which, for film featuring a load of fish and sea-creatures, is some achievement.  Don’t bother.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2277860/?ref_=nv_sr_1

What you should bother with, though, is ‘Spotlight’.  I’ll probably come back to this as it deserves a full review and deeper consideration, but the 2015 film of the Boston Globe’s uncovering of mass abuse by Catholic priests in Boston and how it opened a can of worms far larger than anyone could have dreamed, is a masterpiece.  Beg, steal or borrow (but not from me).

That’s all for now folks.  I’m in summer mode which means that posts are sporadic.  Sorry about that, but I expect you’re all sunning yourselves on some strip of sand somewhere in the Med and don’t need me anyway.

Kirk out

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Desert Island, Anyone?

I’ve been listening to this a lot lately.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ngk4sRQ2C-Y

I’ve loved Rufus Wainright’s voice ever since I first heard his version of ‘Hallelujah’ – which, incidentally, is one of my Desert Island Discs (prev posts).  Have you ever thought about what your eight records might be?  I’ve refined my list over the years and I think I’ve come up with the definitive set to last me through my time on the island.  They are, in this order:

‘O Jesus I have Promised’ (the original tune not the boppy modern one*)  This comes from my childhood when one day an organist asked which was my favourite hymn.  I couldn’t think of anything so I just said ‘O Jesus I have Promised’ and he played it for me.

‘Suzanne’ by Leonard Cohen, from secondary school where I heard it for the first time:

 

‘The Master Song’ also by Cohen, from the first LP I ever bought, ‘Songs of Leonard Cohen’

 

 

‘The News from Spain’ by Al Stewart, the saddest and most beautiful song he ever recorded:

‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ by the Who – my favourite EVER Who track (although, as Thing points out, it’s probably also the only right-wing pop-song ever recorded.  Though I dispute that it’s right wing…)  I got into the Who in my early teens and was particularly proud of the fact that they, like me, are from Hounslow and once played at the White Bear pub.  Which was a right dive…

Something by Bach – either a Brandenburg Concerto or Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.  Since I learned to play piano I have loved Bach.  When I listen to Toccata and Fugue I can feel bits of my brain knitting together.  Quite simply, Bach is god.

‘Hallelujah’ – the Rufus Wainright version.  This period of my life – when ‘I’m Your Man’ came out, is associated with pain and recovery and the song expresses it perfectly.

And finally, ‘If it be Your Will’ – also Leonard Cohen though sung by Anthony.  This is my favourite Cohen song and the most sublime thing he ever did.  It is also the song I would like played at my funeral.

So now you know.

Bong!  In other news, I am signed up to do a poetry gig at Bar Cultura, as part of a comedy night they are having during Artbeat.  It’s on 19th June and I’ll keep you posted.  I also discovered today that a friend with whom I have also discussed poetry is, like me, a great fan of C P Snow.  A guided tour of Snow’s Leicester haunts is promised….

And that’s it for today.

Kirk out

*except that there are about ten original tunes, none of which is the one I remember

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Heaven Knows I Was Miserable Then…

My attention was drawn to a youtube video today, featuring the band ‘Focus’ whose best-known single was ‘Hocus Pocus.’  I really like Focus – it’s my era, unlike, say, ‘The Smiths’.  I really can’t stand The Smiths: as far as I’m concerned they only sing on three notes.  Leonard Cohen may not have known more than three chords, but at least he sang on more than three notes.  (Actually, as he once pointed out in an interview, people were very cruel to him.  ‘They said I only knew three chords when I knew five.’)

It’s an odd thing, but Cohen fans also tend to like TS; and I have to acknowledge that lyrically they are very witty.  ‘I was looking for a job and then I found a job/and heaven knows I’m miserable now’ just about sums it up, in my experience.  When I lived in Leigh, Lancashire in the 1980’s people used to say ‘there’s money in owt but work,’ – and it was true.  Work hard in a factory (shop, bar, cafe) and someone else will get the rewards.

Of course, it’s a free country.  If you don’t like it you can always start up your own business.  Then when you get successful you can start exploiting other people.

I’m sure I’ve blogged about The Smiths before – but it’s lost in the annals of the past.  What is an annal these days?  Something annual?  Something anal?  There was a Roman bloke wot wrote annals, wasn’t there.  Juvenal?

Juvenile?

No!  How could I forget – it’s Tacitus!

He kept them quiet, ha ha.

We have now received the solutions to the Latin crossword we attempted a while back.  We haven’t done the next crossword though.  Might have a go with the doctor on Saturday I suppose.

Bit of a mixed bag today but I’ll leave you with a bit of Focus:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DUODEo8SORU&feature=youtu.be

Kirk out (of focus)

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