Leonard Cohen: Nothing On My Tongue But “Hallelujah”

Better to listen to Leonard Cohen's music twice than to read the critics once.

Leonard Cohen appears at King's Garden, Odense, Denmark, in 2013.
Leonard Cohen appears at King's Garden, Odense, Denmark, in 2013. (photo: Photo credit: Takahiro Kyono, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

“They give awards out for that kind of music? I thought they just gave out ear-plugs for it!”
— Woody Allen

Leonard Cohen, the Canadian poet/novelist — but especially noted as a singer/songwriter — died this past Friday. And while he’ll never win a Nobel Prize for Literature (as his younger 1960s companion, Bob Dylan, recently did), still for his tireless work as arguably the best bard to also string a guitar, even some members of the Catholic hierarchy are mourning his loss at age 83.

“Well, so what?” one might reasonably ask.

A couple of items to consider — or meditate on, as Cohen, born and raised in the Jewish faith, spent most of the 1990s in a Buddhist monastery (where he was defrauded of a lot of his earnings). And as always the caveat: better to listen to the music twice than to read the critics even once:

1. “Hallelujah”. Try to rise to the occasion. Thanks to TV's American Idol and America’s Got Talent, Cohen’s 1984 song, which recounts the story of David and Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah, and Pentecost, became a big, big hit by singers who seemed to have no idea of what they were singing about. Actually, this goes back to the first Leonard Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan (1991), in which John Cale (late of the Velvet Underground) does a majestic piano-and-voice-only treatment of the song — for my money, the best version ever. However, by 1995’s Tower of Song (another tribute album), U2’s Bono was busily “talking” an electro-loop version of it. Later that year, the young and doomed Jeff Buckley released what is perhaps the most popular cover of the best-known Cohen song on his only album, Grace.

2. “Joan Of Arc”. There are very few cases of pop-rock artists doing hagiography — the Grateful Dead flirt with it in their irreverent “Saint Stephen” — but Cohen pays a moving and true tribute to the young French female soldier-saint in this song, which is only fully realized in his Cohen Live album. St. Joan of Arc reappears in his song “Last Year’s Man”, too.

3. “Who By Fire?”. Despite living in a Buddhist monastery, and flirting with Christian themes, Cohen remained Jewish. The ballad “Who by Fire?” is based on an ancient Jewish “liturgical poem”. Credit for this is now taken by Jeremy Issacharoff, a deputy director general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who claims he pitched the idea to Cohen in the early 1970s. When Cohen’s work is called “biblical” or “like holy writ” (cf. the 2005 documentary on him I’m Your Man), it’s usually this deeply dark ditty that one thinks of.

4. “The Story of Isaac”. Aside from the Rolling Stones honky-tonk “Prodigal Son” (from their 1968 Beggars’ Banquet album), there are almost no major rock stars who have faithfully re-told a biblical story in song. “The Story of Isaac” is exactly what it says: Cohen’s envisioning of Abraham and his son Isaac climbing up the mountain of sacrifice. Not only is Cohen faithful to the Book of Genesis, but his view of what happens (and doesn’t) is almost Ignatian in its imagining of how Isaac must have felt, having almost been the victim at his own father’s hand.

5. “Suzanne”. An early Cohen song (though Cohen didn’t start writing songs until he was a well-established poet and novelist) that contains one of the most original re-imaginings of Our Lord in the lines, “And Jesus was a sailor / When he walked upon the Waters / 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…and you want to travel with Him / and you want to travel blind / For He’s touched your perfect body with His mind.”

6. “If It Be Your Will”. A title right out of Jesus’ agony in the Garden (Matthew 26: 39; Mark 14:36). In his live 2013 double-album, Live In London, Cohen says to his audience, “It was a while ago, faced with some obstacles, that I wrote a song — well, it’s more of a prayer — and I’ll give you the first few lines, then Neil Larson on the Hammond-B-3 and the Webb-sisters will unfold the song: [he then reads]

‘If it be your will that I speak no more

and my voice be stilled / as it was before

I’ll speak no more / I shall abide until

I am spoken for / If it be your will.

If it be your will / that a voice be true

from this broken hill / I will sing to you from this broken hill

all their praises they shall ring / if it be your will to let me sing.’”

7. “Ain’t No Cure For Love”. What good Catholic hasn’t just popped into a Church for spiritual respite and Spiritual Communion during a moment of crisis? In Cohen’s 1988 song the narrator speaks (by this point in his career Cohen’s vocal “range” was reduced to a raspy baritone and talking in a deep-throated voice) does something similar:

“I walked into this empty church, I had no place else to go

When the sweetest voice I ever heard whispered to my soul:

‘I don’t need to be forgiven for loving you so much’

It’s written in the Scriptures, it’s written there in blood —
I’ve even heard the angels declare it from above:

There ain’t no cure for love.”

Maybe one of the reasons the leaders of our own faith mourn this man of music and poetic-musings is that he was not only a serious — but not self-serious — singer-songwriter, but a serious spiritual searcher. One can certainly look askance at his many romantic dalliances (à la the young “John Donne”), but once Cohen had learnt that there was more to life than having multiple romantic conquests, his work turned, in his own words, “Darker” (and here one is reminded of the late “Rev. John Donne”).

Leonard Cohen, requiescat in pace. Amen.

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