As a lifelong fan of Leonard Cohen I have been watching the tributes pouring in since his passing a couple of weeks ago. As one who signed on in the sixties as a teenager thrilled with his sombre delivery and poetic language, feeling, as did the celebrated British DJ John Peel, upon playing Sisters Of Mercy for the first time on Top Gear, that hearing it upon waking in the back of a van as he traveled home from an all-night mini-festival was like waking up on another planet, I was much gratified to see the second and third waves of Cohen fans, signing on on around I’m Your Man and The Future, as lovingly devoted to his vision and its elaboration as our delicate finger-picking generation, for whom New Skin For The Old Ceremony fittingly capped a glorious arc through the night skies of our imaginations. For us to watch the dvd concert films Live At The Isle Of Wight (1970) and Bird On A Wire (1973) is to fully inhabit the rough magic of that sixties portal into the psychedelic eternity that we thought would last forever. And judging by the recent and seemingly incessant creep of legalization it might well do. That psilocybin is being touted as a cure for depression, especially that engendered by terminal disease, says a lot for that wave of celebrating stoners in which I was a mere bubble on the foam.
While we all tried in our way to be free, we found, much like our forebears, that the pressures of economic life, or the many avenues of supposed escape from its clutches, trapped us in nets not cast by the Jesus who said “all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them”. Those nets fed us, limb by labelled limb, to that soft machine churning out useful cogs for the daily supply of suffering and profit.
Just to utter those sentiments takes me back to little toking circles where some friend of a friend, usually minus the education necessary for any kind of economic or political analysis, would assert that ‘the whole shitstorm’s gonna go up in flames any day now’. Whilst suppressing the inevitable giggle, one supposed such claims were the bastard child of some Marcuse toting pal or the haphazard descendant of the Marxist insistence that capitalism was bound to collapse from its own inner contradictions. As far as this old graybeard can tell, capitalism has developed the almost magical ability to resusitate itself out of any crisis it creates, much like the humanity whose addictions drive it. Ah, but we were so much older then, we’re younger than that now.
Cohen’s contribution to all this was and is perhaps too subtle and complex to fully countenance in such a brief space, but some between-song chat from the Isle Of Wight dvd seems apropos: “It’s a large nation, but it’s still very weak. It needs to get a lot stronger before it can claim a right to land.” And later, “One of these days we’re gonna have this land for our own. We’re not strong enough yet, you can’t fool yourselves.”
Of course this was at four am before a restless and partially violent audience, some of whom had already set fire to parts of the stage after, and, I believe, even during Hendrix’s scorching hour in that electric church he was so fond of referencing. The phrase Woodstock Nation had yet to come into its own, but I fancy Leonard knew he was addressing it in its infancy. Some would take those ‘wooden ships across the water’ to the myth of the counter-culture and set up shop for a few seasons before returning somewhat chastened to the fold of career accountability and family obligations.
As he ascended from a talented equal among equals to the dizzy heights of sainthood and cultural icon for those half his age and younger, we began to see the canonization of his internal confusion – I’m a singer living in L.A. – I’m a Buddhist up the silent mountain – I’m the grocer of despair- I’m a reverent Jew – I’m a worldwide success in a bespoke suit – I never really was a ladies man – , and in this week’s Guardian I see more of the same. “What gave his work its uncommon gravitas wasn’t that he knew the answers, but that he never stopped looking. He searched for clues in bedrooms and war zones, in Jewish temples and Buddhist retreats, in Europe, Africa, Israel and Cuba. He tried to flush them out with booze and drugs and seduce them with melodies. And whenever he managed to painfully extract some nugget of wisdom, he would cut it and polish it like a precious stone before resuming the search” (Dorian Lynskey), “He finds shades in the blackness that feel like colour” (Bono).
Some of the above reminds me of the confusions we tried to resolve in the 60/70’s, with Seth, Gurdjieff, Castaneda, meditation, LSD and Spiritualism etc. In those years Cohen’s turmoil was a shining light, but the sheer beauty of its utterance, as with his lesser known contemporary Nick Drake, is what lasts. Those of us old enough to have reached the dry land beyond “the churning sea into which Cohen’s songs are like anchors flung” (Lynskey), know that the polarities which transfixed Cohen and his younger fans, are merely illusions, shadows cast upon the walls of our cave by unbridled passions, ignorance, ancient rule-books and political repressions. We have walked out of that churning sea made of emotions and ambitions and have no need for anchors.
Metaphysical poets like Rumi (and others), whom Cohen tried to emulate in The Guests, have evoked this state, and Coleman Barks translations have joined us to that eternity of understanding. It is a state of serenity, of calm, even bemused, acceptance in which the madness of desire, ambition and paranoid power mongers have no purchase. Both Cohen and Drake have touched these places but either would not or could not remain there. I strongly suspect that it’s the false belief that serenity cannot sustain a career in the emotional see-sawing that is the popular song is what keeps them swinging from pole to pole.
As Lynskey quotes Cohen, on discovering Lorca at fifteen, “The loneliness was dissolved, and you felt you were this aching creature in the midst of an aching cosmos, and the ache was okay. Not only was it okay, but it was the way you embraced the sun and the moon”. A doomed romantic ideology if ever I saw one, and one that will certainly gather in its adherents over the generations. Mind you this was also the man who sang I ache in the places where I used to play, and as I settle with the odd comforting groan into my sunset years I can only agree.
What he might add to this now, settled on the other side and surveying the lives that Leonard lived, one can only guess, as some would say. I, however, will go you one better: I shall attempt to find out.
And I did, on Youtube, a few days ago. Check out “WordofGord: spirit contact, Leonard Cohen”, where ‘I’ seemed to meet him outside a rather resplendent synagogue in the astral plane version of Montreal. A very polite, deferential and somewhat relieved Leonard settling in to something like eternity, although if he knew his Buddhism as well as he implied in interviews, the velvet gloved threat of return to the valley of the shadow of death hovered discreetly in the background.
As he once memorably sang, “Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows” (The Old Revolution).