In My Own Write: 'That's how the light gets in'

Discovering Leonard Cohen, all over again.

judy montagu 88 (photo credit: )
judy montagu 88
(photo credit: )
Tickets for Leonard Cohen's September 24 concert in Ramat Gan Stadium will go on sale Saturday night.... prices will range from NIS 350 to NIS 1,200. There will be no standing-area tickets - The Jerusalem Post, Friday July 31, 2009 All 47,000 tickets available for the September 24 Leonard Cohen concert at Ramat Gan Stadium have been sold, according to the show's spokesperson, Ronit Arbel - The Jerusalem Post, Monday, August 3 Looking back on my adolescence - trying to re-savor it, as it were - I see a kaleidoscope of colors, sounds and sensations all swirling around each other like a sort of impressionist painting-in-progress. No, there weren't any drugs, though this was the '60s. But there was a thrilling moment when I joined a small group of young teens invited by Vogue magazine - my father knew the deputy editor - to feature in a photo spread with The Beatles. It was the first time my mother let me wear lipstick. (The Fab Four never turned up, and we departed sadly, clutching glossy press pictures as consolation prizes.) Though, more and more, the music I listened to was classical and I sang in a couple of Jewish choirs, including, before my aliya, a short stint with London's famous Zemel Choir - ask me what songs I listened to during those adolescent years, and "Suzanne," "The Sisters of Mercy," "Hallelujah" and "So Long, Marianne" will be among the first to come to mind. I didn't consider myself a fan of Leonard Cohen - I lacked the dedication; but his unmistakable voice was an obbligato in the background of my growing up. 'FOUR decades after he emerged as a public literary figure and then a performer," Bruce Eder wrote in the All Music Guide, Cohen "remains one of the most compelling and enigmatic musical figures of his era, and one of the very few... who commands as much respect and attention, and probably as large an audience, in the 21st century as he did in the 1960s... "Cohen has held onto his original audience and has seen it grow across generations, in keeping with a body of music that is truly timeless and ageless." I have to confess I hadn't known that before he turned to writing songs, Cohen was a celebrated novelist and poet, making it into Oxford University's 20th Century Poetry & Poetics alongside T.S. Eliot, Robert Bly and Robert Frost. But the poetry-song combination is quite natural - the Hebrew word shira covers both - and it fits Cohen like a second skin: Some of his poems sound like songs, and vice versa. He was born into a solidly Jewish family in Montreal, and his Jewishness and awareness of God is undoubted. His work is full of Judaic allusions, even while he makes use of images from Christianity and, indeed, became a Buddhist monk in the late 1990s. "I'm not looking for a new religion. I'm quite happy with the old one, with Judaism," he said. But he distanced himself early on from what he saw as the superficial religiosity of the Montreal community, "the rabbis and businessmen taking over" and plaques on buildings honoring rich Jews rather than scholars and sages. CRITICS have dubbed Cohen "the godfather of gloom" and "the grocer of despair." A colleague of mine with a cynical turn of phrase called his oeuvre "music to slit your wrists by." It is, as Eder writes, "undeniably drenched in downbeat images." But far from provoking, in this listener at least, thoughts of suicide, Cohen presents, in his "appealingly sensitive near-monotone," the image of an explorer - excruciatingly lonely much of the time and trudging through impossibly difficult emotional terrain - but an explorer nevertheless, on his way to discovery. And discovery exists in a different world from despair. In a manner peculiarly his own, this "Canadian Bob Dylan," as Cohen has been called, sings about life closing in and shutting down in a way that - paradoxically - conveys an optimistic opening up. His crystal-clear-sightedness and unchippable honesty may have something to do with it. I REDISCOVERED Cohen, now 73, a few years ago, when I heard a tape of his Ten New Songs (2001) and loved it. I must have listened to its haunting and beautiful arrangements 100 times, and now feel I can call myself a fan. It was during high school in London that I learned poets don't take kindly to being asked to explain the meaning of their work. We were studying W.H. Auden for our O-Level matriculation exams, a particular poem was proving difficult and one of the braver girls in our class had the bright idea of calling Auden up to ask about it. She came to school next day chastened. "He got irritated," she said, ruefully. "He said, 'Young lady, if you expect me to remember what I meant when I wrote that...' and put the phone down." We absorbed this exchange soberly, and I realized then that it's best to leave the creators out of it and interpret their work ourselves as best we can. THERE are images in Ten New Songs that it would be fascinating to hear their writer expound; but some lines speak loudly enough in our epoch. Take "My Secret Life": "I smile when I'm angry / I cheat and I lie / I do what I have to do / To get by. / But I know what is wrong. / And I know what is right / And I'd die for the truth / In My Secret Life." Doesn't the modern world demand increasing conformity to modes of behavior we wouldn't necessarily choose, but adopt in order "to get by"? An alternative life where one stands up fearlessly for what one believes in might be a way out - at the risk of schizophrenia, perhaps. Again, in "The Land of Plenty," the lone individual contemplates a society where inequality and unjustness triumph: "Don't really have the courage / To stand where I must stand / Don't really have the temperament / To lend a helping hand. / Don't really know who sent me / To raise my voice and say: / May the lights in The Land of Plenty / Shine on the truth some day." The love songs are beautiful ("Alexandra Leaving") and "Love Itself," which seems to be about the awareness - and absence - of "the Nameless," or God. And Cohen remains as relevant as ever, especially to us Middle Easterners, with "You Have Loved Enough," singing: "When hatred with his package comes / You forbid delivery." BUT my favorite song is the catchy blues arrangement and ironic refrain of "That Don't Make It Junk": "I fought against the bottle / But I had to do it drunk / Took my diamond to the pawnshop - / But that don't make it junk." Too many people today are "taking their diamond to the pawnshop," seeing time-honored virtues and values scorned in the name of fashion and progress; seeing the skills and talents they have honed over a lifetime devalued and judged "uneconomic." "But that don't make them junk," we need to be reminded in these harsh times. Their intrinsic worth remains indisputable. PERHAPS Cohen's most powerful message lies not in any single line of a song or poem, but in the unwavering pursuit of his own truth, in his own way, unaffected by changing modes and currents, not giving in or giving up. It's a message we, especially the young, need in a world that thrives on impermanence and worships external appearances. "Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in" ("Anthem," from The Future) Stay true to your essence, to "the innermost decision / That we cannot but obey." Sing your own song, even when it isn't what everybody else is singing. It's a tough road, but it's the only tunnel that has any real light at the end of it.