An artist is never really gone.I have been listening to Leonard Cohen’s posthumous Thanks for the Dance.Haunting in the way of Bowie’s Blackstar, there’s a poignancy to listening hard to the dead.Especially when they saw it coming.Artists are never really gone, and we can forgive them because they’re oh so very human.Cohen was an exceptional poet and this album captures a man who knows the end is near.Still he sings of girls and sins and God.There’s an eternal soul there, and Cohen captures longing better than just about anyone.The artist knows longing and understands not knowing for what.The album struggles with religion and depression, a remarkably common combination.Memories of glories that linger even as the body ages.
Listening to someone else’s music is taking a stroll through her or his head.Someone once gave me a disc of songs built around a theme.Although the theme came through I feared a little of what I heard here.Some who know me primarily from my overly pious upbringing would be shocked to find Cohen on my favorites list.For me he has no pretense.Instead of ignoring religion, sexuality, or politics, he tried to make sense of them through song.For me—and listening to music is a very personal thing—I think I understand when I’m drawn into his lyrics.His experience of life was vastly different from what mine has been, yet he’d accurately mapped the direction my mind might wander, if given free rein.Religion will hold your imagination captive, if left to its own devices.
Those who reduce Leonard Cohen to his over-used “Hallelujah” catch only glimpses of this complex man.I once read an article about Bruce Springsteen in which a friend of his said that if he hadn’t succeeded in music he might’ve become a priest.There’s an authenticity to these artists who write probing songs that have deep spirituality yet allow themselves to be human.Cohen’s songs revealed he could see death with some ambivalence from afar.Even in albums recorded thirty years ago the hints were there.Instead of running and attempting to hide, Cohen’s lyrics, at least, indicated that he’d continue to try to live.Maybe these are just the reflections of a middle-aged man who’s only glimpsed a fleeting connection between an artist in perpetual motion and a one-time scholar sitting up alone at 3:00 a.m., seemingly stuck in one place.Whatever else they may be, such quiet moments will ones be haunted by Thanks for the Dance.
A few weeks before Leonard Cohen died I saw a story on how his song “Hallelujah” had been done to death. Covered and recovered, it seemed to be on every cover artist’s playlist. It is a haunting song, however, and the notion of a cold and broken hallelujah feels somehow appropriate this Thanksgiving. Don’t get me wrong—I am thankful for more things than I can name or would care to share with complete strangers on the internet. In fact, when I literally tried to find a job in Canada in anticipation of a horrible November surprise, one of my immediate regrets was that I’d no longer have American Thanksgiving to celebrate. Thanksgiving, to me, has been images of a cozy indoors with special food while the chill takes over outside. Two days in a row off of work. Sleeping until I’m not tired any more rather than waking according to schedule, no matter how troubling the night might have been. In short, feeling safe and secure in a world growing colder.
Since the first week of November the iciness has been growing more intense. I know it’s the circles I go around in—and perhaps they are small enough to call them semi-circles—but I have seen more sad and depressed and scared faces in the past weeks than I have seen in my previous half-century on this planet. It’s Thanksgiving Day, and even vegetarians look forward to something special by way of fancy nourishment. But it feels like a cold and broken hallelujah to me. Entrepreneurs have already been reminding us that tomorrow is Black Friday. We should get our game-faces on and our credit cards out and head to our favorite retail establishments. Pack up our troubles in the old plastic bag and spend, spend, spend.
Thanksgiving, of course, was an originally generic religious holiday. It’s hard to give thanks without someone to, well, thank. You could be Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or even one of those who thanks dharma, karma, or chance. Just be glad that we’re here right now and even though the wind is gusting and there’s perhaps a bit of snow in the air, we have an indoors where nobody hostile is looking for means to exploit us any further than we wish to be exploited. That our planet, for the time being, still supports human life. And that by any measure other than the Electoral College we all really want progress and fair treatment for all. I am thankful and mindful of those who had to sacrifice to allow us the privilege of being here today. It’s Thanksgiving, and I’m thankful.
Succoth in Waukesha, Wisconsin. A pillar of the local synagogue had invited me to come to his booth with some of my seminary students to let them celebrate an ancient tradition and talk to a Jewish believer about it. We were all having a good time, and someone mentioned Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah.” One of the seminarians, brash as always, spoke up and admired “Rufus Wainwright’s cover in the movie Shrek.” Although I’d corrected many students before, I let this faux pas ride. Music is very personal to me, and the cover played in the movie Shrek was John Cale’s version, although the soundtrack substituted Rufus Wainwright’s cover of John Cale’s cover. And this student was far too young to have appreciated the Velvet Underground. I was a little surprised, then, when my wife pointed me to a CNN story this week about the thriving popularity of the song. Instead of putting my paltry words out there on CNN for all the world to see, I decided to address them here, to my private audience.
Leonard Cohen has been described as a man who writes songs with a prayerbook in one hand and a picture of a naked lady in the other. He has spent time in monasteries and his lyrics have a very serious edge to them. What the many self-proclaimed experts commenting on CNN seem to have missed is that Cohen’s song is a song for old men looking backward. Yes, it is rife with biblical imagery, but no, it is not a religious song. Not in the sense that it is often used today. John Cale got that. When I hear his early work with Lou Reed or even his first cover of “Hallelujah” that managed to capture something even Cohen hadn’t (no mean feat, that), I can hear the aging Cale casting a glance back to the same place that Cohen saw. We are all aging and we all remember the vitality of those years when possibilities seemed endless. No, it takes decades for a hallelujah to become broken. All the versions by popular artists trying to breathe soul into a tragedy have missed the point. It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.
I only listen to this song when I’m alone, preferably with John Cale. When Leonard Cohen sent him the lyrics there were 15 pages of them. The CNN report cites the 75 or 80 verses that Cohen wrote. That’s because the song is a life. The biblical images of the song first captured my attention, but I also realized that it was a song about something that’s gone and that’s never coming back. Not for guys my age. Not for guys who can still remember being eighteen and feeling like life hadn’t even begun yet. Now I look back over five decades. I hear “Heroin” seeping from my brother’s room, somehow knowing the dissonant chords would stay with me for the rest of my life, although I have never personally used drugs. There is a longing there, a longing for something that life offers maybe once, for a few short years. Age and inevitability catch up with everyone, and breathy young artists think they’re chic when they cover a song that is meant for old men who remember what glory used to feel like. Only those with experienced ears can really hear Leonard Cohen’s hallelujah.
I discovered Leonard Cohen is an unusual way. Having grown up with very limited funds for purchasing music, most of what I listened to growing up was what I heard on the radio out of a small-town station or what I heard emanating from my older brother’s room. My musical tastes, however, always included a “religious” element, whether that be a blatant religious message or provocative lyrics combined with compelling tunes. It was only when I first watched Shrek that I learned about Leonard Cohen. The moving scene where Shrek and Donkey have gone their own ways, both disappointed in love, is framed by John Cale’s rendition of Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It is particularly poignant even in an animated movie, and I wanted to learn more about the haunted composer. The official movie soundtrack included the song covered by a different artist, but I found Cohen’s name listed as the writer. That’s when I began to explore.
I can’t pretend to be a groupie of any performer, but I find much of Cohen’s music to be moving and provocative. His lyrics, self-effacing and tentatively assertive, seem to capture the ideals of many religions. Reach out but don’t touch. Seek your own fulfillment, but put others first. I was reminded of this the other day while listening to some of his songs. A commentator once described Cohen as an artist with a Psalter in one hand and a picture of a naked woman in the other. An artist who struggles to overcome his humanity, yet who thoroughly enjoys it. “Hallelujah,” Cohen once explained in an interview, began as a religious song and ended up an erotic one.
As the nights grow longer and the days grow colder, my thoughts return more often to his provocative lyrics. After viewing Shrek I began to purchase Cohen CDs (this was back in the day when I was fully employed). I was amazed at what I’d been missing. There is an honesty about Cohen’s work from which many who overtly claim religion could learn. Cohen is the sinner who does not pretend to be a saint. His work openly expresses the struggle. If those who want others to join their religion could learn this simple trick of being honest, they might be surprised by the results. Self-assured bravado cannot convince as readily as the confessions of a lost but sincere seeker.