Despite being a heavy authority on all facets of Anglo-American culture, Christopher Hitchens wrote with little enthusiasm for music. However some support is indicated for the great Leonard Cohen, describing ‘If It Be Your Will’ as ‘beautifully rendered’, adding that ‘Leonard Cohen is unimaginable without, and indissoluble from his voice (I now doubt that I could be bothered or bear to hear that song done by anybody else)’. This brief comment acts as legitimacy for my own obsession with Cohen.
As a teenager, the pursuit of finding new music seemed more concerned with the style and the social than with the literary, likely explaining why Hitchens did not care for it. Cohen was an exception from most Rock and Roll stars. He had attended Columbia University and prior to writing songs, had written two novels, The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966). This experienced command of the English language distinguishes Cohen from all other modern songwriters. It gives him the courage to confront themes of love, suffering and irony with an eloquence not expected from a guitar wielding performer.
When one listens to Cohen there is the immense sense that, through virtue of repeated plays, one may acquire the gifts of being irresistible to women and command over an empire of emotions. The desire to become Cohen is based on more than just his song writing. The songs act as a window to a polymath, a magician, a poet, a psychonaut, a man at home in Hampstead Heath, New York, Hydra, a member of one of the most powerful Jewish families in Montreal, a monk, a ladies man, a chain smoker, a poser, a novelist.
The gift of Cohens song writing stems from his honesty. Cohen is an artist who seeks to represent life as it is, articulating the truth merely for the power of doing so. The value of this quality is immense and the relevance of his words grow with all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
In the face of George Floyd’s murder and subsequent Black Lives Matter protest, it is Cohen, on There is a War (1974), who articulates an attitude that would get most politicians and journalists fired:
‘there is a war between the rich and poor, a war between the black and white, a war between the odd and the even’.
Following the nomination of Donald Trump, it was the Cohen song Everybody Knows (1988) that provided the most effective insight towards the collective disturbance, singing:
‘Everybody knows the war is over/ Everybody knows the good guys lost/ Everybody knows the boat is leaking/ Everybody knows that the Captain Lied/ Everybody got this broken feeling/ Like their father or their dog just died’.
No singer has articulate the fear of accelearting to a planet of 3 degrees global warming better than Cohen in The Future (1992):
‘Your servant here, he has been told/ To say it clear, to say it cold/ It’s over, it ain’t going any further/ And now the wheels of heaven stop/ You feel the devils riding crop/ Get ready for the future it is murder’// ’Things are going to slide/ Slide in all directions/ Won’t see nothing/ Nothing you can measure anymore/ The blizzard, the blizzard of the world/ Has passed the threshold/ And it has over turned the order of the soul’.
Cohen’s lessons are free from the chains of ideology or retail. While Johnny Rotten may go from the Sex Pistols to advertising Country Life butter, Cohen is worthy listening from Songs of Leonard Cohen in 1969 until his last album, You Want It Darker, released just 17 days before his death on the 7th of November 2016.
So Long Marianne, found on The Songs of Leonard Cohen, introduces us to Leonard Cohen’s longest love affair, conceived in Hydra and concluded on Marianne’s death bed. Songs from a Room includes a The Partisan a song originally sung by the French Resistance during World War Two and to my mind the provides the best use of French in English popular music. Famous Blue Raincoat from Songs of Love and Hate provides a riddle of lost love and rivalry through the medium of a letter. New Skin Old Ceremony houses Lover, Lover, Lover, written during the time of performances to Israeli troops during the Yom Kippur War, provides a vision of conflict through love, the self and the family.
Death of a Ladies Man, produced by a gun wielding and cranky Phil Spector, offers songs like Memories where Leonard Cohen injects 1950’s ballads with a heavy dose of lust. Came So Far for Beauty on Recent Songs provides a story, familiar yet never articulated, of an individual who fails to gain respect for spiritual and aesthetic achievements. Various Positions provides Cohen’s most famous song Hallelujah featured in The OC, The Watchmen and Shrek. Hitchens’ interpretation that Cohen’s voice elevates his songs beyond reach of covers is truest when listening to covers by John Cale and Alexander Burke but for many challenged by Jeff Buckley’s version. With the line ‘there is a crack in everything that’s how the light gets in’, found on Anthem in The Future, Cohen pens what would come the title of the planet’s biggest philosophy festival (HowTheLightGetsIn).
Ten New Songs provided the first Leonard Cohen album following a five year hiatus in the Mt. Baldy Zen Center. In my Secret Life, a song I first heard drinking in a beach hut in Gorkana, South India, Cohen confronts the difference between public persona of competition and conformity with the private persona of memory and principle. If you’ve ever thought what happens to lust around the age of 70, the song Because of on Dear Heather provides an intimate expression of the carnal appetite. The song Nevermind on Popular Problems articulates political contradictions and resignation in the face of an objective understanding of the past; ‘There’s truth that lives/And truth that dies/I don’t know which/So nevermind’.
On You Want It Darker, Cohen uses his final breaths to warn of the eternal struggle of existence. Cohen talks to the God of genocide, ‘they’re lining up the prisoners and the guards are taking aim’, and the murderous middle class ‘I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim’. In the last verse Cohen sings the same words Abraham replied on the suspension of his sons sacrifice, ‘hinenei hinenei/ hinenei hinenei’ (here I am here I am/ here I am here I am (Isaiah (6:8)) followed by ‘I’m ready my Lord’.