Leonard Cohen: You Want it Darker

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RIP: Leonard Cohen (illustration 2016 by jpbohannon)

About a month ago, a coworker sent me a YouTube link of the title track of Leonard Cohen’s upcoming album, You Want It Darker. She wanted me both to hear it and to help her make sense of it.

And it was dark. It was almost a challenge to a god that has allowed humanity to do what it has in the course of human history. It was punctuated by the opening prayer of Rosh Hashana, “Hineni, Hineni.” (Here I am, Lord).  And then it was followed by Cohen’s line: “I am ready, Lord.”

(Perhaps, Cohen shouldn’t have issued the challenge when he did. For in the week that he died, the world indeed became darker in many ways for many of us.)

There have been many wonderful obituaries written over the past week, articles that celebrated his music, his poetry, his novels, obits that detailed his fully-lived life, both the loves and the disappointments, the treacheries and the successes. (Here is The London Times’ obituary.)

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Cohen in London in 1978 (SIPA PRESS/REX/Shutterstock)

And, of course, there were the inevitable comparisons to Dylan. Over the past several weeks, both have been rightly acclaimed as momentous poets of  our times–death and international prizes undoubtedly will do that–but too many of the commentators positioned it as some sort  a race, a competition.

It isn’t. It never is.

Certainly, they were both poets, but they are greatly different. Dylan’s words, he claims, come easy; Cohen struggled long and hard on his. (He claims that “Hallelujah” took him five years to write.) But they both brought to their work an elevated sense of language and imagery, a modern sensibility far removed from the insipid themes of most popular music of the time.

I learned about both of them when I was a very, young boy. When I was eleven, my eighteen-year old cousin and I both got guitars for Christmas. So we learned together, except he was 18 and much more part of the world and the emerging folk scene. Consequently, what I first learned on guitar was the Dylan songbook and the folk music published in SingOut magazine.

My first songs were Dylan’s “Hollis Brown” (one chord, E-minor, throughout) and “To Romana” (two chords, C and G). Before too long I moved on to Cohen’s “Suzanne.” In the small and insulated world of folk music, the song “Suzanne” was everywhere, as everyone it seemed was covering it. ( I mainly knew Judy Collins’ version. I can’t imagine my cracking adolescent voice trying to imitate her beautiful soprano. But oh well, …)

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Milton Glaser’s iconic poster of Bob Dylan

My fascination with Cohen, however, came much later. Dylan was Dylan and, if I had a musical idol, it was certainly he. For most of my adult life. But as I grew older, Cohen seemed to speak to me more readily. Oddly, Dylan’s writing began to seem overly specific, whereas Cohen was speaking to me individually and universally.

And as I grew older, his disappointments were more understandable. In a October 17, 2016 profile in The New Yorker, Cohen stated that “I am ready to die.”

I have been thinking about my own death a lot recently. One learns only gradually that one is not immortal, or at least the understanding of that comes on gradually. Cohen knew that, but he still kept creating;  at 82, two weeks before he died, he put out this last album.

It is serious and resigned and thoughtful.

It is beautiful. And sometimes funny.

And it is wonderful to listen to.

 

 

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Book Review: Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen

illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

A few weeks back I saw a photograph of Jonathan Letham’s favorite books.   Among the titles on the row of spines,  I noticed a book by Leonard Cohen called Beautiful Losers.

Now, I am a big Cohen fan.  I listen to and play his music frequently–both new and old– and I am well aware of his  poetry, so I assumed Beautiful Losers was one such poetry collection.

I was wrong. It was a novel, first published in 1964–several years before the release of his first album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen.

And so I thought, what the hell.

Beautiful Losers is very much a work of its times. Frenetic and speeding. Erotic and rambling. Big-hearted and narcissistic.

It is the story of an unnamed narrator whose other two partners in a odd love-triangle –his wife and an elusive shaman-like man named F.–are dead. (His wife committed suicide in the unconventional way of sitting at the bottom of an elevator shaft and having the elevator crush her. F. is a member of the Canadian Parliament.) The other object of his love/lust is also dead but she’s been dead for 300 years and is up for canonization by the Catholic Church, Catherine Tekakwitha, the virgin of the Iroquois.

There are betrayals and reversals and climaxes and re-unions.  There is sex and loneliness and more sex.  There is 17th-century genocide and 20th-century nationalism and separatism. (This is early 1960s Montreal, after all.)  There are Joycean lists and Henry Miller-like rhapsodies, but all and all the whole thing seemed to me to be very much a part of the 60’s gestalt. (One of my favorite scenes is when the naked narrator watches his wife and her/his lover shoot up, only to discover later that they are injecting an odd mix of heroin and Lourdes water. He found the advertisement/receipts for the Lourdes water in his wife’s dresser drawer)

The whole thing reminded me more of late Ken Kesey or even Gilbert Sorrentino than it reminded me of Joyce or Miller (which connection the book jacket blurbs go on and on about). The attempt seemed old and tired…but maybe because  the energy of those times seems so old these days as well.  True, it is a pastiche of Joyce–but then again how many young artists were trying the same at the time.

But more than anything else, Beautiful Losers is the announcement of a unique and individual voice.  That that voice ultimately decided to be heard through poetry and song rather than through fiction was a decision that the artist himself made.

And I for one believe it was a right decision.

In a very early poem, Cohen wrote:

So you’re the kind of vegetarian

Who only eats roses

Is that what you meant

with your beautiful losers?”

I’m not sure if this is where Cohen got the title for his novel or precisely what these lines might mean, but it reflects the  word usage and mindset of the novel.

Movie Review: Barbara, The Lives of Others, and Paranoia

Berlin Wall                     2013 jpbohannon

Berlin Wall
illustration by jpbohannon © 2013

The East German film Barbara begins with a sense of paranoia and never backs off. Colors are muted, weather is stormy and damp, buildings are dilapidated. And Barbara (Nina Hoss) enters the picture wary, distant and observant.

Remember that old Kurt Cobain lyric that states that “just because your paranoid it doesn’t mean they’re not after you.” Well, it has never been truer than with Barbara. The film opens in East Germany in the 1980s with Barbara arriving at her job early. She is alone, aloof, and very aware. As she sits having a final cigarette before going into work, we see two men spying on her from a window and they give us some back-story. They already know her life. Barbara was a prestigious doctor in “the city” and for some misadventure–we are never told what–she has been sent to work in the provinces.

Nina Hoss as Barbara in the film Barbara

Nina Hoss as Barbara in the film Barbara

Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), the young doctor who is her “handler,” is impressed by her skills but flustered by her attitude. He too has had a past that has sentenced him to this provincial hospital. But she sees him as nothing more than a pawn of the government. When he first offers her a ride home from the bus stop where she waits, he drives her home–without asking where she lives. Barbara is very certain of the eyes that are on her.

This oppressive watching makes Barbara’s secret plotting even more difficult. She is repeatedly meeting a lover who is arranging to have her escape to the West. And while the authorities are not aware of her plans, they are unhappy when she is unaccounted for hours at a time. Twice when she returns home, the Stassi are at her apartment, having rifled through her flat and subjecting her to a full body search. The humiliation and oppressiveness is palpable.

There are also two young patients that Barbara and her handler attend to, one of whom grows very fond of Barbara and begs not to be sent back to the work farm where she is sentenced. The young girl will play an important role later in the film, but it would be too much of a spoiler to say how. The other too is a fulcrum on which the plot balances.

Needless to say, the romantic tension between Barbara and Andre grows, but it is always secondary to the political and personal tension involved in Barbara’s escape.

Without giving too much of the ending away, let me just say that it is satisfying, heartwrenching and thoughtful.

The East German paranoia reminded me of another film The Life of Others directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. This too took place in East Germany during the 547_The-Lives-of-Others_375931980s, but the film was told from the point of view of a Stassi spy. Spying on a writer and his lover, he becomes increasingly involved in the life he is observing. And while the oppressive paranoia and wariness is as palpable as it is in Barbara, it is, perhaps, less personal. In the former, we are in fairly familiar territory–the spy thriller, albeit with a twist. In director Christian Petzold‘s Barbara, the paranoia, the fear, and the oppression–engulfing the lives of everyday people as it does– seems more suffocating, closer to real.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I’m not sure what Leonard Cohen has to do with any of this, except he tells us that “next we’ll take Berlin” in this, one of my favorite songs. But the water’s edge where the video begins is eerily reminiscent of the water’s edge where Barbara ends and that is what I thought of. Enjoy:

Sunday Music: Leonard Cohen Old Ideas

His voice is unmistakeable, his lyrics are second to none. And I’m not talking Dylan here. For nearly as long as Dylan has, Leonard Cohen has been creating incomparable songs–songs that deal with pain, sexuality, religion, the miscarriages of history, the ravages of love, and finality. And now at 77 years old, Cohen seems even more focused on the finality.

For instance, “Going Home,” the first song on his new album Old Ideas, is a description of a  “lazy bastard living in a suit” named Leonard. In the realization that he is “going home,” the fictional Leonard is wishing he had had a user’s manual for living, for living in defeat.

(If you know little about Leonard Cohen, you might be unaware that his manager did a “Bernie Madoff” on him and left him completely broke which is why he is touring the world and putting out new stuff at this stage in his life.  Unfortunately, he has to. Fortunately, it is still very good stuff.)

The music, like so much of Cohen’s work, is often just an understated support to Cohen’s enigmatic lyrics. Simple piano or guitar set up against the words.  At other times, the production  has beautiful, choir-like  singers (the Webb Sisters), whose voices are often in bright opposition to the darkness of his ideas. His work has frequently had the tenor of southern spirituals (cf. “Hallelujah”) and on this record, “Amen,”  “Show Me the Place” and “Come Healing” follow suit, while “Crazy to Love You” recalls the acoustic guitar work of Cohen’s early days.

But the music is ALWAYS secondary to the words.  How heartbreaking is a love song that begs “I know you have to hate me/But could you hate me less?” It is this heart-wrenching sadness, the jaded philosophy that makes Cohen so beguiling. And I find that in his old age, this jaded attitude is even more compelling–for underneath it all, there is something hopeful, poetically hopeful in the continuance of things. In a odd way, Cohen’s complaining about the world and its injustice implies that he wants to see it better, that it can be better, that it will be better.

Having Leonard Cohen’s voice in the world, having his striking words propped up by the most simple instrumentation, makes my world better. Hallelujah!