If you get bummed out listening to Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, or Neil Young, or relentless icy rain on the roof for that matter, and think you can’t get any lower, there is always Leonard Cohen, the Canadian opiate poet songwrier. He’s deadly beauty in commotion that flows out of a bottomless, abandoned coal mine throat. Ghosts and steam rise out of echoing shafts leading from his tortured, half-buried, dying heart. He reminds me of steam grates on a New York City winter day that fumigate passersby in mysterious vapor, where homeless folks try to sleep under funky layers of old newspapers fished out of trash cans… and Leonard is the heat source way down below, brewing bitter beer in Hell. I’d recognize his voice anywhere, “Hello again, Leonard. I thought that was you, man. Come on in.”
I used to listen to Leonard back in college, the early 70’s. If you were feeling edgy or sad, making a noose maybe, he could fix that by totally obliterating any residual hope or joy in just one song. He could kick the chair out from under your dead weight and leave you literally hanging. His song “Suzanne” used to slither through my consciousness and bump into dirty laundry piles of longing and melancholy. I smoked filterless cigarettes then, having little concern about my health or future or anyone else’s. Leonard Cohen’s songs hung in the air like blue tobacco smoke in a sealed coffin room, permeating the clothes and furniture fabric there. They moved me off any easy rock and roll street I might have been dancing across, away from sensitive singer songwriters who offered love and hope and happiness. Instead, raw, slow Leonard lightning would hit my solar plexus and bring me just short of my knees, dry heaving at his truths… dark truths that would conjure tears I had no idea existed in me. Hauntingly sad, brutal beauty stirred in my guts, deep calling out to deep. It must be the foolish, self defeating Irish in me that sags and lingers over the Pieta or a lonely Corot landscape. I remain enthralled and fascinated by tragedy.
All those guys come from up north, come to think of it. Leonard & Neil–Canada, Dylan–Minnesota, Lou Reed–New York. Hmmm, Joni Mitchell is Canadian also, and she could toss your soul into a deep well in two stanzas, ropeless and hopeless. I know depression rates rise at you move away from the equator, so consider this observation one more proof of the intersection of psychological pathology and geography. North of 42* N equals longitudinal attitudinal dysregulation. Jimmy Buffet comes from the Gulf Coast. And lots of other rockers came out of L.A., Southern California. I think you see the sunshine pattern, right?
Wet, gray, cold, low pressure days simply elapse like trash fires that smolder all day. Not enough oxygen or fuel to thrive. It’s hard to tell what time of day it is. 10 a.m. looks the same as 4 p.m. so your sense of time is skewed further, even though we turned the clocks ahead Sunday morning. My watch and car clock are still an hour behind. I’ll change them when I’m good and ready, okay? Maybe by default in the fall. I love the old cynical observation that even a broken clock is right twice a day. So even the clown who refuses to set his clocks ahead is correct twice a day? No, I guess he just remains behind. He’s not broken just stupid.
What is time anyway other than man’s feeble attempt to measure and then control nature? I’m sure Leonard Cohen has something to say about time. His song “Closing Time”, as a matter of opinion, feels like battery acid on the tongue and a fork in the eye. The video version is shot in black and white because the lyrics and mood are so not colorful. People and clothes and chairs float across the screen as he moans the fallen angel lyrics. Yeah, there is beauty in brokenness, but you need an unbroken background to appreciate the ruins. If all the world looked like Detroit or Syria, photographers would find other subjects for their lenses. These desolate places can strike visceral chords in us because we have seen pristine beauty, ordered and glorious. A little Detroit or Aleppo goes a long way, thank you.
This is true of Leonard Cohen as well. Ruins and ghettos, devastation and devolution have no future. Cold, wet late winter days must yield to pure spring bursting forth Life’s force. It must and shall overcome the doom and gloom of desperation. It’s not any more naïve to believe in redemption than it is to believe in eternal damnation. The bitter existentialist says, “This is it. There is no more. Suck on it.” I prefer to wait and see for myself for what lies beyond. I expect one day Chernobyl will be the name of a nice medium sweet red wine and not a nuclear disaster story.
Then again there is Leonard’s “Hallelujah”, written way back in 1984. It winds through the historically religious use of hallelujah while also moving beyond exclusively religious context. This holy word is given common purpose, affirming the Life force beyond (or is it beneath?) King David, more like his adulterous passion. Leonard mingles the profane with the holy as he moves between choruses of Hallelujahs, claiming there are two versions of Hallelujah, a holy and a broken one. In his last verse Leonard seems to give a proclamation: despite or because of all his shortcomings, he will praise the Lord of Song with his broken hallelujah.
Yeah, and as usual he cuts your heart in two– one auricle for you, one for me. One ventricle for you, the other for me. Wine pumps through one side, formaldehyde cures the other. Leonard, you kill me… but please, will you sing this at my funeral?