Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen – A Small Tribute

They say that music is the food of the soul. The music we listen to reveals much about us. As any reader of these pages will know I am practically a devotee of three great musical icons of the twentieth century, namely Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash. Growing up in Dublin, Ireland, in the late sixties, seventies and eighties of the last century I bought many of their records – LPs as they were then called. Obviously, more recently I have bought their CDs. Something in their songs caught my attention – perhaps or most probably at an unconscious level firstly. It was something in their voice which mirrored the authenticity of their soul, an honesty of heart, a congruence with self, an acceptance of the wholeness and integrity the of human enterprise in all its vicissitudes and a sincerity of expression. It is no surprise that all three are very spiritual beings in a broad sense – Cash and Dylan of the Christian persuasion of possibly different hues and Cohen a Buddhist with a Jewish background. Nor does it surprise me that the last should have spent 5 or 6 years living in a Buddhist monastery in California. (On California's Mount Baldy apprenticed to the Japanese Zen master Roshi.) Recently there has been a tribute film dedicated to the life and work of this great and enigmatic Canadian writer, novelist, poet and singer-songwriter. It’s called I'm Your Man and is based on a tribute concert that was held at the Sydney Opera House in January 2005 which was organized by producer Hal Willner. Cohen performs only once near the end accompanied by U2's Bono and Edge in a zesty rendition of "Tower of Song" at a special performance at NYC's Slipper Room cabaret. If you're at all a Cohen fan, you've got to see "I'm Your Man." Directed by Australia's Lian Lunson ("Willie Nelson Down Home") and built around the 2005 "Came So Far for Beauty" tribute concert at the Sydney Opera House, the movie features both stirring and quizzical performances. But it's fortified with excerpts from a biographical interview with Cohen, as well as testimonials from many of the performers as to his genius. However, some reviewers of this musical tribute-cum-documentary expressed regret that the work did not get to the heart of the man, that they were presented yet again with an enigma. One reviewer, whose name I forget and whose review I found among many others on the marvelous Rotten Tomato site had this to say: “This is not a satisfying film in that it leaves you with a lot more questions than answers. Cohen himself remains as elusive as ever. It is also far from being a great concert film. Maybe the filmmakers could never really decide where they wanted to go with this project. If you are a Cohen fan, as I am, it is still a film worth seeing. This film rates a C+.” Well, this reviewer, to my mind, is not too clued in on psychology, self-development or the life-long project of individuation (Jung), the process of self-actualization (Eastern spirituality) or self-actualization (Abraham Maslow) or even to a slight appreciation for the more spiritual (even if this is somewhat mystical or esoteric at times) quest that life is. Anyone who has listened to Cohen’s interviews over the years, and indeed they are too few (relevant snippets are available on the www and are easily found by googling the same), will appreciate the man’s struggles with life, his Buddhist equanimity and acceptance of his life’s journey in its wholeness and integrity, his honesty of approach, his truthfulness to self or as the great psychotherapist Carl Ransom Rogers would say his congruence with self. The snippets from the interviews with Cohen in I’m Your Man are nuggets of gold as Cohen is a mesmerizing narrator of his own life’s journey. It is no wonder, then, that his tunes, especially his cryptic, faith-probing "Hallelujah," have turned up in TV shows and movies to the point of cliché. I’ll finish with a few quotes from my guru songster. They are, needless to say, pithy sayings, almost Buddhist Koans in quality needing to be meditated over. He knows his Eastern philosophy artfully enough to conceal as much as he discloses. If, like me, you love the music of Leonard Cohen you will like these quotes.

 "He liked me for who I was," Cohen says of his Zen master. "Or maybe it was that he didn't like me for who I was. And, around him, the less I was like who I was, the better I liked it."

 "You have to write about something. Women stand for the objective world for a man. They stand for the thing that you’re not and that’s what you always reach for in a song."

 “I don’t believe in finding some (abstract) obscure objective correlative for sex… therefore the sex scenes and concrete body images rate highly in my first novel…”

 “I keep coming back to Canada to get sick… it’s a special kind of sickness…”

 “I’m all in one place!”

 “I’m not interested in posterity… Someone described posterity as “a paltry form of eternity”… Headlines like: “town finishes painting today.” I like that kind of horizontal immediacy, rather than something that will be around for a long time. I’m not interested in an insurance policy for my work.”

 “I just like to get up and sing my piece and sit down!”

 “You have to get into the centre of your own orbit… as Dylan says “You fade into your own parade.”

 “Take bricklayers – we can’t read the anguish of the man’s life in the wall… A writer must leave his anguish in his writing or work… if you can sell your anguish then you have probably done one of the best things you can do with anguish. “I’m for anything that gets you through the night” as Frank Sinatra said.”

 “Freedom - I feel free when I’m singing and I wish I was singing right now!”

 “I always thought of myself as a singer and kind of got sidetracked into literature.”

 “This old guy in his underwear with his guitar – there is something laughable and absurd about that…”

 “I don’t think that anybody has their act together…everybody is always on the edge of collapse, of finally throwing the towel in… pretty much nobody can stand what’s going down…”

 “Most of my songs are pretty poor, but now and again you hit it…”

 “If I knew where the good songs came from I’d go there more often…”

 “I have a notebook full of verses and sketches.”

 “I’ve never had much faith in my own take on things… the world far too complex for a solution - this is not the realm of solutions - we were exiled from the garden, that’s what I understand is the nature of the human predicament, this is not Paradise… Bigger visions, I don’t have the equipment, to penetrate, to unfold, to decipher this bewildering range of human activity that confronts me. I certainly accept that. I’m sometimes at peace at that and at other times riled up. I can’t figure it out, can you?”