When January starts grinding you down you have to find something to hang onto.See, I even ended a sentence with a preposition.January.If I’m not careful I can find myself getting quite depressed, so a bit of self-induced music therapy helps.Although I hate to admit it, I am a bit of a fussy person when it comes to my likes.My music tastes are quite personal and I mourn when a performer I like retires or dies.There’s not a ton of stuff that I enjoy and I don’t listen to music as often as I should.I work from home most days so I could have music on, but I find it hard to read (which is much of my job) with music playing.Like I said, fussy.
The other day—a weekend—I pulled out John Cale’s Paris 1919.John Cale is an underrated member of the Velvet Underground.Okay, with Lou Reed in the lead it’s gonna be tough to stand out.Cale, who suffers from competing with J. J. Cale (who was actually John Cale too; I empathize!), is a very thoughtful lyricist.Despite having been abused by a priest in his youth, he sprinkles his songs with religious references.“Andalucia” is a haunting single with the words “castles and Christians” hanging there for anyone to interpret.And “Hanky Panky Nohow” has an intriguing line about nothing being more frightening than religion at one’s door.There’s something profound here.
I grew up listening to The Velvet Underground & Nico when my older brother played it and the curtain door between our rooms didn’t block any sound.The only performer I could name was Reed.Years later, when the music of my young, virginal ears started in with a longing I couldn’t explain, I bought the album and learned of John Cale.I have to confess that I first encountered his name as the performer of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in Shrek.It drove me nuts when ill-informed students used to say it was Rufus Wainwright; yes, he performed it on the CD, but not in the movie.John Cale is one of those somewhat offbeat singers, who, like Nick Cave, salts his songs with images of a Christian upbringing that show a grown man clinging to something to which he somehow can’t fully commit.It makes us who we are and then leaves us wondering.It must be January.
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.
“It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.” Leonard Cohen has died. But can you blame him? This seems to be a week for losses. I came to appreciate Cohen’s work long after his best-known songs had been and gone. The interviews with and news stories about him that I’ve read convince me that he was an extraordinary man. Spiritual and sensual, he was a true contemplative. He strove to experience what it means to be human. I sometimes fear we’ve lost that as a goal. I see headlines proclaiming that we can now have chips implanted in our brains—we can become part computer. “You held on to me like I was a crucifix,” he once sang. Who believes in crucifixes anymore? Salvation doesn’t come from above. It comes from self-interest. From business and bank accounts. And that chip in my head.
My wife taught me the value of music therapy. When the forces of darkness gather, listening to music can help you through. Many artists have covered Leonard Cohen’s songs. So much so that some have forgotten who it was that wrote them. A true artist, I suspect, doesn’t mind. Those of us who delve in creativity know that we are more like receivers than gods. It takes worshipers to make a deity. The songs that Cohen wrote were messages to the world. Poetic and deeply personal, they are reminders that being human is okay. In fact, it’s what we’ve evolved to be. I have a feeling we’re going to be needing more poets in the days to come. Someone has to shine the shoes of those who work in Trump Tower. My mind is singing “Chelsea Hotel.” Everybody knows.
Cohen was a reminder that sacred and secular are not so far apart. In fact, they are often difficult to distinguish. There may be a problem when you discover that in seminary, but if you can put it into a song perhaps people will listen. Eras, it seems to me, ought to have anthems. F.D.R., one of the truly great Presidents of the century past, proposed “Happy Days Are Here Again.” I wonder what songs we’ll be associating with the presidency over the next four long years. Will there be any music at all? Far be it from me to proclaim any man a prophet, but can you listen to “First We Take Manhattan” and come to any other conclusion? Go to iTunes, or that chip in your head, and listen. You might just end up singing “Who by Fire” as well.
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.
It is not often that the military gets to rebuke an evangelical, no matter how much the evangelist may deserve it. In the world of Christian crusaders few come close to the stature of Billy Graham, a man who has had more than half a century of undue influence on American culture. At a library book sale a couple weekends ago a middle aged-couple hovering over the religion books (where I have professional obligations to hover) were discussing how they’d read all of Billy Graham’s books. When the family business passed to Franklin Graham, however, the scepter failed to be firmly grasped by the blushing co-regent. At the center of controversy since his comments about Islam beginning in 2001, Graham the younger was recently stricken from the (apparently) prestigious Pentagon prayer service roster.
I have to admit that I was surprised to learn that the Pentagon has a regular prayer service. My image of the military is one of beefy guys (and some gals) with ultimate confidence in their weapons and more than enough brashness to go around. They don’t project the down-on-your-knees-before-the-almighty image. “Guided by the beauty of our weapons,” as Leonard Cohen once sagaciously quipped, the military gets first crack at technological advances and heavy metals. The basic components of carnage and devastation. Yet they pray.
The old adage that there are no atheists in fox-holes glosses military service with a divine prerogative, so when these tough guys rebuff a famous evangelist there must be a story behind it. The military’s refusal to dis Islam displays a sensitivity uncharacteristic of most evangelical rhetoric and theology. The Religious Right’s revisionist claims that America was founded as a Christian nation are impotent without their WMD. Even so, the program should continue. “I don’t think it’s quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up,” do you?