|Leonard Cohen in 1988.
Photo: Gorupdebesanez/ Creative Commons
This tribute to LEONARD COHEN is by Juno-Award Winning Jazz Guitarist, Composer and Lyricist MIKE RUD, whose adoptive home is the city of Cohen’s birth, Montreal. Here he writes in tribute to his compatriot, whose death was announced today. Mike has prefaced his thoughts with two grateful acknowledgements:
“What follows refers to anecdotes taken from a wonderful book “Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen” by the Canadian writer Ira Nadel. I recommend it highly. I hope I haven’t pilfered too much of my central idea from him. There’s a good dose of Joseph (The Power of Myth) Campbell in here too, I must admit….” Mike Rud writes:
Leonard Cohen is gone now. It isn’t easy to summarize what he meant to us. But I believe it’s got to do with how the Eternal touches our everyday life.
Leonard was living on Aylmer street, right in the McGill University campus, around the time he wrote Suzanne. I used to walk down that street every single day. It was hard to figure out how Leonard could so effectively transubstantiate the everyday city into something Holy, like in churches, when common bread is made sacred through ritual and focus. We start with the worldly, literally the “mundane,” and make it into something rare and special that our emotions can understand. I think Cohen did this better than any other writer. Appropriately, his landscape is a mythic one. In his perfect early piece, Suzanne, (Songs of Leonard CohenReleased: 1967). he starts us off in Montreal, without quite saying it directly.
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbour
And she shows you where to look,
among the garbage and the flowers”
This is pretty clearly the statue at the sailors’ chapel, Notre-Dame de Bon Secours in the historic Old Montreal district. Montrealers don’t always get down there; it’s for tourists. But it means so very much to us, if we’re being honest. He was talking about our harbour. Cohen didn’t refer to Montreal directly a lot. He didn’t need to. It could not have been more evident which harbour he meant.
|Notre-Dame de Bon Secours in old Montreal in 2015
Photo from Streetview
The true landscape he was describing was interior though, an emotional one. To navigate this inner, emotional landscape credibly, a writer must have a voice. Cohen’s seemed to bubble straight up from of the history of this city and of the West, drawing heavily on Christianity and Judaism.
“And Jesus was a sailor, when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And just when he was 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 skies would open,
Forsaken, almost human,
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
Most of my generation in the Western world grew up hearing the Holy Book, even if sporadically. We couldn’t hear those words without a gut response that was profound, mysterious and vital.
Though he came from a Jewish family, Leonard had a nanny who took him to Catholic mass every so often, and he later joked that he saw Christianity, rather fondly, as the ‘evangelising wing of Judaism.’ Unlike other songwriters around him, Leonard Cohen used this history as a bedrock. While his contemporaries were fiercely grasping for the modern, Cohen adopted the tone of the Old Testament prophet:
You who build these altars now to sacrifice your children,
you must not do it any more,
A scheme is not a vision, and you never have been tempted
By a devil or a god
…You who stand above them now, your hatchets blunt and bloody
You were not there before,
When I lay upon the altar, and my father’s hand was trembling,
With the beauty
Of the Word.
That’s the closest I think he ever got to being a protest writer. Story of Isaac (Songs from a Room, Released: 1969). It assumes you know the story of Abraham and Isaac. He knew something about his audience at that time, and chose just the right words to remind them of their sacredness.
His way of keeping one eye on the worldly, another eye on the Eternal, helped make that transubstantiation possible. He knew what it meant to live in a society that had a temple on every corner. Montreal was written in his language. He could talk to us.
But this wouldn’t have meant much if Leonard wasn’t also possessed of an exquisitely keen sense of the human condition, especially suffering, love and loss.
…He was just some Joseph looking for a manger
And then leaning on your window sill
he’ll say one day you caused his will to weaken
with your love and warmth and shelter
And then taking from his wallet an old schedule of trains,
he’ll say I told you when I came I was a stranger
I told you when I came I was a stranger.
But now another stranger seems to want you to ignore his dreams
as though they were the burden of some other
O you’ve seen that man before his golden arm dispatching cards
but now it’s rusted from the elbows to the finger
And he wants to trade the game he plays for shelter.
You don’t write that (Stranger Song, from Songs of Leonard Cohen Released: 1967) unless you’ve taken a sustained and honest look at people, starting with yourself.
When he accepted Canada’s Juno award for best male vocalist in 1993 (LINK), he leaned in to the mic, saying
“It is only in a country like this that I could receive the award…”
and we were happy that he was right. Leonard Cohen knew himself, and that was why we trusted his view of us.
As an artist, he succeeded on a colossal scale. Thank you Leonard Cohen, for helping us make sense of ourselves and of one another. Thank you for making the world Holy.