A Tribute to Leonard Cohen

I endured Thursday night in the darkness with a glass of 10 year aged Laphroaig and Leonard Cohen’s Live in Dublin concert.
In his brilliant New Yorker article “Letting Go”, Atul Gawande writes:
           Dying used to be accompanied by a prescribed set of customs. Guides to ars moriendi, the art of dying, were extraordinarily popular; a 1415 medieval Latin text was reprinted in more than a hundred editions across Europe. Reaffirming one’s faith, repenting one’s sins, and letting go of one’s worldly possessions and desires were crucial, and the guides provided families with prayers and questions for the dying in order to put them in the right frame of mind during their final hours. Last words came to hold a particular place of reverence.
Cohen’s death last week seems in many ways an exemplar of the art of dying. This summer I shared Cohen’s letterto his muse Marianne (source of the classics “So Long, Marianne,” “Bird on a Wire,” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”) with my Philosophy of Life and Death class:
Well Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.
And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.
Cohen seemed to have tied up many loose ends in his life and accomplished some final projects such as the astonishing You Want It Darker. After a life a spiritual striving – as David Remnick’s Leonard Cohen Makes It Darker attests – Cohen seems to have achieved an uneasy quietude:

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame
Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker
Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord
Hineni – here I am – recalls the story of how the Lord told Abraham to slaughter his son Isaac and Moses responding to the God calling him from the burning bush. This is a god that presided over the holocaust, a world that is a dark, amoral place indeed:
They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker
Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord
There is weariness and resignation and tremendous anger. I suspect there is also wisdom and reconciliation.
My introduction to Leonard Cohen was the sound of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s guitar on Jennifer Warnes’ version of “First We Take Manhattan” from her Famous Blue Raincoat (still one of my favorite albums).

And I thank you for those items that you sent me, ha ha ha
The monkey and the plywood violin
I practiced every night, now I’m ready
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin (I am guided)
I have never known exactly what it means to take Manhattan, then Berlin, but I still find the prospect exhilarating.
Years later in high school I found the Best of Leonard Cohen in the Athabasca University library, along with Beautiful Losers which I read, too baffled to be titillated.  
Cohen is one of the great songwriters of love and loss, ache, infidelity, and forgiveness – the songs to Marianne, along with “Coming Back to You,” “Bird on a Wire,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” and “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” (to list some). But my generation’s Cohen album is The Future. Cohen was darker and heavier than any heavy metal (my passion at the time). Perhaps he was also angrier, redeemed by his sometimes violent humor.
“Waiting for the Miracle to Come”  and “Closing Time” are both modern classics, but the heart of the album was the prescient “The Future”.

Give me back my broken night
my mirrored room, my secret life
it’s lonely here,
there’s no one left to torture
Give me absolute control
over every living soul
And lie beside me, baby,
that’s an order!

Give me crack and anal sex
Take the only tree that’s left
and stuff it up the hole
in your culture
Give me back the Berlin wall
give me Stalin and St Paul
I’ve seen the future, brother:
it is murder.
It is hard this week to wonder if Cohen was not prophetic.
Cohen also sang about the future of democracy on The Future.

It’s coming through a hole in the air
From those nights in Tiananmen Square
It’s coming from the feel
That this ain’t exactly real
Or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there
From the wars against disorder
From the sirens night and day
From the fires of the homeless
From the ashes of the gay
Democracy is coming to the USA

We will see.
But the moral core of the album was “Anthem” which contains perhaps the most powerful statement of hope in the great North American songbook.

The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I seem to hear them say
Do not dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack
A crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

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