Shefa Siegel is associate research scholar at the Vale Columbia Center on Sustainable International Investment, a joint center of the Earth Institute and Columbia Law School, and a contributor to Haaretz Books and the online magazine The Mark (www.themarknews.com).
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A Final Surrender to a Sacred Undertow
A PERSON HAS a thousand ways of being, not just one but many selves, and Leonard Cohen embraced them all.
He sang the blues with Old World struggle, rasped epic tales and sometimes gospel, strumming Spanish chords on a broken-down guitar. But his final album, You Want It Darker, released a month after his 82nd birthday and only 17 days before he passed away, was like someone transcendently singing the prayer for ascension at his own funeral.
As if chanting a private liturgy, there was no more hunger for a voice. At last Cohen was the praise singer, aged and fatigued, a pilgrim with just one journey left to make. From the opening supplication—“I’m ready, my lord”—to the closing blessing—“It’s over now, the water and the wine”—the album is an uninterrupted prayer unto death.
“Traveling Light,” You Want It Darker’s ecstatic peak, bids au revoir to the self and the soul, the lover and beloved, the human and divine. Even in old age, Cohen is still no preacher, sage, or a saint. “I’m just a fool / A dreamer who / Forgot to dream / Of the me and you / I’m not alone / I’ve met a few / Traveling light / Like we used to do.”
Gone is the seductive blurring of sacred and profane and peeking through the curtain to glimpse the dealer’s latest game. The verses slide into an older and saltier way of singing, a sacred undertow, always there in songs of love and of despair, now amplified by the kind of wordless prayer people once sang from dusk until dawn.
Leonard, Will You Smoke?
On September 21, Leonard Cohen Turned 80. With or Without a Cigarette, It’s Time to Celebrate.
“I hope I stay on the road a little bit longer - but you may not be so enthusiastic when you hear my reason. You see I want to start smoking next year when I'll be 80. It's been a long barren time. I think it’s the right age to recommence.” —Leonard Cohen
I dreamed you were in Florence, singing on some stage. Your back was to the men, the women by your sides. Your melody was tranquil, just humming do-re-me-fa, la-fa-re-me-do. And when there was commotion, some men quarreling behind the scene, you turned and faced them calmly, beseeching, “Gentlemen, let’s sing.”
You have left us these past months, ceased your universal tour. It gives us time to miss you, and wonder what you mean. This week you will be eighty, there’s no question, you are old. Your bones may creak or ache and I’ll guess your heart’s a little tired, but from outside looking in you seem settled in a pretty gentle space.
So in the dream your melodies kept coming, like a river from its source. “You’re doing it,” someone shouted. “It’s exactly what we want!” People were casually swaying until your voice started to get hoarse. “Well, I’m glad you like it,” you croaked joyfully, “I call this solemn mingling my little Florentine Prayer.”
Can You Hear My Song?
IF YOU ARE not overly familiar with the repertoire of a Leonard Cohen concert, it's hard to tell the new songs from the old. Songs from a different age sound neither anachronistic nor nostalgic, while the new echo as though they have been around forever. It's the same show night after night, with songs from the latest album, Old Ideas (released in 2012), woven into the familiar canon. Cohen tells audiences that his revivalist tour might end in two years, so that he can start smoking again by the time he turns 80.
It is a joke you know Cohen has cracked a hundred times, the kind that makes my brother call him the Jewish Dean Martin. The humor is one part of a precise choreography, whose arrangements shift from blues to waltzes to New Orleans jazz, Celtic, gospel, country, and disco, all set in the mode of Hebrew Minor and conspiring to create a vivid world that does not exist, except in paradox. Honey is the texture that comes to mind. Viscous and turbid, neither solid nor liquid. Sensual relief from the coarse, metallic world. And sweet. Sweet in the meaning of the verse from the Persian song "Navaee"—"High sweet melody, and sadness of love, dwelling in the bottom of the heart, where nobody sees"—the mixing of sorrow and transcendence into sublime paradox.
He is and has been many things to his devotees: poet, singer, writer, band leader, lover, satirist, artist, and novelist. But one thing Leonard Cohen is not is a preacher.
Prostrating and posing on bended knee, eyes knit tight, hat pulled low—he could say anything he pleases, from treatises to treason, and people would listen. Given a room and a crowd, the born preachers cannot tame the urge to climb atop the pulpit. This political instinct to prophesy and govern is noted but subdued in the opening song of Old Ideas, called "Going Home," the cry of an old man liberated from burdens of desire for love and for mission: "He will speak these words of wisdom / like a sage, a man of vision / though he knows he's really nothing / but the brief elaboration of a tube ... a lazy bastard living in a suit."
Down and Outraged
A dispatch from the shrinking middle class.