He was mocked as a miserablist, but he brought beauty out of the gloom
In the 1990s a whole new audience discovered Leonard Cohen through his song Hallelujah. It was recorded by Jeff Buckley in 1989, reached the younger ears of viewers of Shrek and went fully mainstream with the X Factor talent show.
The song was originally released in 1984 on his Various Positions album with some reluctance by his label CBS. Accepting an award many years later, Cohen, with his trademark humour, thanked CBS for “the modesty of their interest in my work”.
Humour was not a word associated with Cohen for most of his career. Smart comments were always made about the “Godfather of Gloom” and the “Bedsit Bard” and how utterly miserable was his music.
As a teenager in 1975, I was listening to Cohen in my bedroom when my father stormed in and demanded to know what dirge I was playing so loudly and who had died. What I, and so many who have followed his work over the years, found was not gloom but a deep spiritual search.
Cohen had been born into a wealthy family in Montreal, a family which was prominent in the Jewish community in Canada. His songs resonated with biblical themes, and featured a great deal of biblical material.
Hallelujah is a prime example, where his lyrics juxtapose the texts of 2 Samuel, chapters 11 & 12 and Judges 16, while the refrain of Hallelujah rings out:
Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord that David played, and it pleased the Lord – David
The baffled king composing Hallelujah – Saul
Your faith was strong but you needed proof, you saw her bathing on the roof – Bathsheba
She tied you to a kitchen chair, she broke your throne, and she cut your hair, and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah – Samson and Delilah.
In his deep spiritual exploration, eroticism vied with theology for attention, though he warned us wisely against too close a reading. There are many biblical references, both Jewish and Christian, in other songs and in his poetry, of which he wrote a number of volumes alongside two novels. In a live song, never recorded in the studio, Cohen sang of Jesus:
I saw Jesus on the cross on a hill called Calvary
“do you hate mankind for what they done to you?”
He said, “talk of love not hate, things to do – it’s getting late.
I’ve so little time and I’m only passing through.”
His first and most famous song before Hallelujah was Suzanne, where the third verse is:
And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
Cohen was drawn to Jesus but also other religious and philosophical traditions, and became a Zen monk at Mount Baldy in Los Angeles. Once when asked about Buddhism, he responded with words from his Zen teacher who said to Cohen: “You are not a Jew, I am not a Buddhist.”
His great lyric “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” was one of great theological insight, and his spiritual search through his song lyrics and poetry shed light on the spiritual quest that runs deep in us all.
Cohen’s musical journey, though unorthodox, was genuine and deeply rooted in a love of the traditional Jewish texts, mysticism and practice. In his Book of Longing, one of the poems is:
Anyone who says
I’m not a Jew
is not a Jew
I’m very sorry
but this is final
Last week in the post I received his final album, with the haunting title You Want it Darker. The album suggests Cohen was ready for his death, which he discussed in his final interview a few weeks back in New Yorker magazine.
The death of his former lover Marianne, immortalised in the song So Long, Marianne, weighed much on his mind. As she lay dying he had sent her a moving message saying: “I think I will follow you soon. Know that I am close behind you.”
Today, Leonard Cohen followed Marianne as he foretold. So long, Leonard, and with heartfelt thanks from I and others whom you have left behind.
Dr David Cowan is an author, speaker and visiting scholar at Boston College