A little winning streak
‘You win awhile, and then it’s done. Your little winning streak.’
Like many people around the world, I had long been dreading the confirmation of what my fears had made a seeming certainty: the incipient Presidency of Donald J. Trump.
I confess to a little gloom.
And like many Leonard Cohen fans around the world, I had occasionally wondered over the last five years when this sad day, now arrived, would come.
The actor Mark Critch may have put it best: with Trump confirmed as President elect, “Leonard always knew when to leave a party.”
A fellow fan, some weeks ago, sent me an email linking an interview. ‘Leonard is in a bad way’, s/he said. She was echoing that convention Cohen fans share, of speaking of the man as if he were an intimate.
‘I’m hoping for one more tour, to see him one more time’, I replied.
It has certainly been a week to remember. And we might not be left off remembering it for some time yet.
A secret chord
“I heard there was a secret chord / that David played and it pleased the Lord …”,
Buckley began, after an introverted opening. I remember thinking, when I first heard that, straight up: wow, that’s the Bible. Who writes lyrics like that?
Then there was this:
“And I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch / and listen, love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah …”
Soon after, I bought Volume II of “The Greatest Hits” on CD. Those were the times.
It had a live version of “Hallelujah”. But—let me confess a heresy—I remember being underwhelmed, although the song “Suzanne” made me think twice.
At 25, I probably wasn’t ready, as I imagine the songwriter might have laughed, with the quiet smile you can see in the interviews youtube has bequeathed us.
The ends of love
I seriously don’t recall when I rediscovered Leonard Cohen’s music. The key memory I have is of his Australasian tour in 2010. Other fans everywhere will have countless other Cohen stories.
I had been hosting an event somewhere, it doesn’t matter where. It hadn’t gone especially well. By lunchtime, I was moderating between disputing factions, and wondering what an academic was, and why I might have chosen to be one.
True to form, the last session went too long. My schedule was tight. I had to get the taxi direct to the Cohen concert.
Leonard literally skipped onto the stage. He was tipping his hat, dressed like some elegant cross between a gangster and Frank Sinatra. The band began:
“Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin/ Dance me through the panic 'til I’m gathered safely in /Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove/ Dance me to the end of love.
The band played for two hours. Then more. Three hours. Acts that I had seen half his age hadn’t played half as long. No one left.
'I tried to leave you, I don’t deny /I closed the book on us, at least a hundred times. / I’d wake up every morning by your side.’
At different points, Cohen’s knees touched the stage as he bowed to tip his hat once more and thank his musicians.
There is a magic about large public gatherings that observant people have always remarked, and the rest of us have felt:
And certainly it is most true, and as it were a secret of nature, that the minds of men are more patent to affections and impressions, congregate, than solitary. (Francis Bacon (1623))
It was some combination of the lyrics, the extraordinary band and singers Leonard assembled for those last tours; the entire liturgical feel of the event, and above all Cohen’s clear sense that this meant something, this gathering of people, here, in one of four dozen cities he was touring …
Some alchemy like that, and the presence of the man, explains what everyone leaving the venue seemed to have shared:
‘For he touched your perfect body with his mind’.
Beneath the lunar sway
If anyone else you’ve never met addresses you ‘friend’, you know you’re in for a scam. But—let other attendees bear me out—what was remarkable about those shows in 2010 and 2013 ‘down under’ was that Cohen seemed, as he clearly was, _quite serious.
In a famous incident from his younger life, Cohen walked off stage in Jerusalem. He did not feel that (per the Kabbala, you understand) the male and female sides to his persona had aligned. So God was not on the throne, and Cohen wouldn’t stay on stage.
The bizarre scene ended in tears for all concerned off-stage, including "Marianne” of abiding Cohen fame. But it attests to the seriousness with which Leonard Cohen always took his performances, his songwriting, and his music.
Of course, cynics will deny it. A popular image, highlighted in The Young Ones, will poo-poo it. But let me wager here, amidst the rightful global sorrow today, that if Leonard Cohen had a message, one which explains his lasting success, it doesn’t lie in his patented (alleged) gloom.
A little experience makes a person gloomy. A larger purview makes one laugh, someone said. Leonard was a worldly man, even a Lady’s Man, and his wit animates nearly everything, even his gloomiest songs, alongside an invincible joie de vivre.
Cohen’s irreplaceable legacy-beyond the underrated melodies, that is-lies in the sheer, completely uncynical openness this singer-songwriter and poet brought to the most elementary, uncomfortably unavoidable dimensions of the human condition: friendship, love, loss, wonder, finitude, stupidity, comedy and death.
If it is gloomy to suppose that human beings are mortal, let Cohen be gloomy. But since poets also remind us that this mortal condition is laced with wonder, let Cohen sing:
‘Ring the bells that still can ring / forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.’
To be sure, few of us are not wise enough today not to mock such sincerities:
‘She broke your throne and she cut your hair / and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah’.
Yeah, right. But Leonard himself measured cynicism well, reflecting on a comment he had made about the imminence of his death in his last interview: “I think I was exaggerating. I’ve always been into self-dramatisation. I intend to live for ever.”
And what if the worldly wise have all the self-certainty of the truly enlightened, without any of the … well, enlightenment?
Leonard Cohen after all died in the same week that the nation that embodied the best dreams of one enlightenment has voted decisively for a man who thinks climate science is a scam and has come to power on the back of a politics of fear, hatred and division.
‘The widowhood of each and every government / signs for all to see’?
Of course it is too early to say, except for poets and prophets. Perhaps America really will be great again. Yes, but the songwriter interjects again:
‘Every heart to love must come, but like a refugee’.
So as we grieve for Mr Cohen, and a loss that really is irreplaceable, let us not forget the joy and the wit of the man: this impish, romantic poet whose comeback in the 1980s begun with the immortal line:
‘they sentenced me to 20 years of boredom / for trying to change the system from within …’;
and who adds to this prescient exploration of the mindset of political extremism the line:
‘remember me, I brought your groceries in.’
With the laughter I expect he’d want from us, let mourners say of Leonard what they say in the ‘land of plenty’ very much in the news this historic week: God bless Leonard Cohen.
But it might best to give Leonard the last word, and finish with his prayer and hope for America itself, through the squalls of hate and the reefs of greed, to the shores of need:
It’s coming from the women and the men/ Oh baby, we’ll be making love again / We’ll be going down so deep /The river’s going to weep, / And the mountain’s going to shout Amen / It’s coming like the tidal flood/ beneath the lunar sway Imperial, mysterious / In amorous array / Democracy is coming to the USA.
Authors: Matthew Sharpe, Associate Professor in Philosophy, Deakin University