Transforming Cohen

For stupid, superstitious, and personal reasons, I was glad to read that Leonard Cohen had died this week. I’d had a premonition that 2016 would claim him, as it has claimed David Bowie, Prince, and so many other talented artists – maybe no more than any other year, but something about the timing and the level of their artistry made it feel as if the Grim Reaper were throwing together an apocalyptic benefit concert and needed every genius he could cull.

It got so bad that, when Cohen’s new album dropped a couple of weeks ago, I thought it was a sign. And in a way, I’m glad it happened now, instead of in January, when I could construe it as an omen that 2017 would be just as bad, or worse.

I’m also glad that Canadian liberal grief on the internet found a new source, because grieving the election results in the United States might be inevitable, but it’s problematic for all kinds of reasons. I wrote a lot about those results, and I considered publishing some of them here, but ultimately I decided there was nothing I could add to the screaming match that (a) hadn’t already been said, probably more eloquently and persuasively, and (b) wouldn’t just add to the problem by drawing more lines in the sand. To clarify that last point, I’ll permit myself one inflammatory observation: Donald Trump stoked American fear and hatred chiefly by vilifying individuals on Twitter. Think about that the next time you’re about to click “share” on that anti-Trump meme.

So I feel like Master Leonard has passed in a canny, timely fashion, offering distraction and catharsis at a moment when his admirers need them most. Cohen was never political but he included political systems among his recurring cast of personal demons. Capitalism, communism, and especially fascism (Cohen’s family was Orthodox Jewish) formed ominous backdrops to his lyrical tragedies – reflections of the sexual and spiritual flaws that shaped his characters’ journey. Or maybe the personal was a metaphor for the political. Or both.

When I sat down to sort out my personal Cohen timeline, I quickly saw it bore the same topsy-turvy ambiguity as his writing. In rapid succession, I came up with half a dozen personal touchstones with his music, poetry, or prose – but I don’t remember which came first, or when I even recognized those incredible moments as having come from the same man.

So, to kick off my list of unreliable, nonlinear Cohen memories, there’s his unreliable, nonlinear 1966 novel, Beautiful Losers. This was probably the first postmodernist book I ever read. Someone recommended it to me during undergrad, and its title (and its smutty reputation) appealed to me. I’d always hated the pejorative “loser,” and I wanted to see how a poet reclaimed it.

My impression was…mixed. Some of the politics were lost on me, and most of the smut was unerotic. Looking back now, I can see I didn’t care about the characters, who are all deliberately ciphers (most are only identified by a single letter). But for all its unevenness, Beautiful Losers exonerates itself and earns a place in the Canadian literary canon for one passage alone, which bowled me over then and still gets me even now: the “God is alive, magic is afoot” monologue. Buffy Sainte-Marie set it to music once, but it’s better to hear it from the scribe’s own mouth.

Was this slouching mystic, this drug-addled ascetic, the same man whose songs became counter-culture anthems in Pump Up the Volume and Natural Born Killers? I loved the former film, in which Christian Slater played a teenage pirate radio DJ who exposes the hypocrisy of teachers and parents, and who starts every one of his irreverent “Happy Harry Hardon” broadcasts with Cohen’s smoky voice singing “Everybody Knows.” I was on-the-nose but so was Slater’s character, and it lent a measure of class to the proceedings. This kid deserved to have his own radio station; he had damn good taste.

But I hated Natural Born Killers, a carnival of amoral excess in which Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis roam around the Midwest killing people for fun. And I hated the fact that Cohen had contributed two songs to the soundtrack (“The Future” and “Waiting for the Miracle”) – and that another one of my favourite musicians, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, had engineered the soundtrack. And I hated the fact that the soundtrack was really, really good.

I never would have thought to list Cohen himself as one of my favourite musicians, but his songs were always somewhere in my life. I treated “First We Take Manhattan” like a code, endlessly intrigued by its clipped, cryptic narrative. I felt possessive of “Hallelujah” whenever some film would feature an inferior cover version on its soundtrack. And I coddled another one of Cohen’s greatest hits for the year that I was dating a girl who shared her name with its title.

But more than his songs, it was his poetry. I eagerly bought a first printing copy of Stranger Music, his 1993 anthology, which suggests that I was already a big fan at 18. Certainly, by the time I got married in 2000, I knew his repertoire backwards and forwards, and could select just the right poem to be read at my wedding (it was “You Have the Lovers”). But I had to really reach back to remember which of his poems I would have encountered first.

The answer surprised and delighted me: it was “The Cuckold’s Song,” and I knew it because my Dad read it to me when I was a teenager, from a book of Roloff Beny photographs called To Everything There is a Season. It may have been the only poem he ever read to me, so it stood out, and he’d always over a couple of lines:

I repeat: the important thing was to cuckold Leonard Cohen.
I like that line because it’s got my name in it.

And, from the finale:

The fact is I’m turning to gold, turning to gold.
It’s a long process, they say,
it happens in stages.
This is to inform you that I’ve already turned to clay.

In a year of personal transformations, Master Leonard’s alchemy is encouraging. For the rest of you, still moving through the stages of political grief, I’ll fall back on a more famous quote. Its abbreviated version is making the round on Twitter, but since you already know how I feel about that, I’ll quote from “Anthem” at length:

The birds they sang
At the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t 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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