Gordon Campbell on Leonard Cohen

While New Zealand has been distracted by the earthquake, the outside world has gone about its business. Australia for instance, may have finally resolved at least a part of its offshore refugee problem…

Apparently, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has arranged a one-off deal whereby an unspecified number of the refugees currently trapped on Nauru and Manus Island will be resettled in the United States and Canada via a scheme to be administered by the UNHCR, assuming the US intake can pass the vetting process at Homeland Security. New Zealand would have been part of this deal if the Australians hadn’t formally declared that none of its offshore boat people would ever be allowed to settle in Australia. This condition had put Prime Minister John Key in the impossible position of creating two tiers of New Zealanders – those that enjoyed access to Australia, and those that didn’t. A few weeks ago, Key ruled that out.

Obviously, President-elect Donald Trump is the potential spanner in the works. Having the US pick up the burden when its “allies” fail to live up to their international commitments is exactly the sort of thing that Trump railed against, on the campaign trail. When it suits him though, Trump can be flexible. So far, draining the swamp and rooting out the political elites has seen the Republican Party Committee chairman Reince Priebus named as Trump’s chief of staff. Meanwhile, the President-elect is readying himself to sock it to the wealthy elites by handing them a huge tax cut, largely at the expense of the entitlements available to the battlers who elected him. There will be a few bucks on the side for military veterans, as window dressing.

The Trump tax cut will run along much the same lines as the budget formerly proposed by House Speaker Paul Ryan. Plainly, no substantive policy “rift” has ever existed between Trump and the Republican leadership. The prior opposition from party mandarins was based on their fear that Trump was unelectable, and would discredit the policies. His unexpected triumph now means full speed ahead for what looks like a joint agenda.

Leonard Cohen R.I.P.

If Bob Dylan owned the 1960s, Leonard Cohen was an inescapable presence during the early 1970s period, pre-disco and pre-punk. There were a lot of 3am moments during that era when, after the lovebirds and the lightweights had gone home, someone – and it was usually a woman – would put on a Cohen record. At the first chords, a few more people would take that as their cue to leave, with the likes of ‘Sisters of Mercy’, ‘Bird On The Wire’, or ‘Joan of Arc’ chasing them down the stairs. Cohen, meanwhile, would be beginning to spread his blanket of melancholy over the hardcore stayers. He always did provide such a classy soundtrack – Lorca anyone? – for solitude, and for one’s sharply honed, book-validated sense of despair.

It was reassuring, actually. If things were turning out this badly for Leonard and his sensual escapades on the sunny isles of Greece, the odds in Wellington’s cold rooms and hallways had to be a whole lot worse. Beautiful losers, huh. “Avalanche” seems like the soundtrack of that time, though “ Dress Rehearsal Rag” would run it a close second.

We got older, and so did he. Easy to sentimentalise the process of ageing, but for Cohen, it meant a lot of hard work. With the help of Zen and the Kabbalah (among other things) he worked his way through his lifelong battles with depression, which peaked in the late 1970s, and returned in force again during the 1990s. He made it much easier for his audience, though. From the time the I’m Your Man album arrived in 1985, Cohen had added extra leavenings of the gallows humour that had always been part of his music, but which we’d previously been too earnest to notice, let alone cherish. That wry Cohen wit became a central feature of the series of excellent albums (The Future, Ten New Songs, Dear Heather) he released during the final stages of his career. The Grand Tour that began in 2008 and ended in Auckland in 2013 was part of that same graceful long goodbye.

His final album You Want It Darker has now taken that process to its logical, inescapable conclusion. Over to you, as to how you relate to it. There’s a fine line between dignity in the face of death and simply being morbid, but Cohen handles it on this album about as well as it can be done, even if ultimately, a degree of bathos is inevitable. The album will find a ready made audience. There are signs that the boomer generation is already prepping for death as the last fascinating phase in their fascinating careers. Yet I’d like to think that the You Want It Darker album will also be seen (at least in part) as a mockery of the impulse to turn one’s departure into a classy pageant, and to make a bid for a final round of applause. That element of self-deprecation is how I read these lyrics, anyway:

They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker, We kill the flame

Point being: there’s a hamminess here, and something stifling about the tasteful reverence. Dylan Thomas talked about raging against the dying of the light, but others have noted (see below) that this just wasn’t Cohen’s style – and nor, as he said, were Dylan’s ‘one hand waving free’ forays into the unknown. Being the literate ham was always a part of Cohen, and he knew it (“I struggled with some demons, they were middle class and tame”) and that’s not necessarily a bad, or an avoidable thing. We’re all inclined to be hams at our funeral. As David Foster Wallace once said, we’re been hardwired to treat our experience as the centre of the known universe – so how can we not treat its extinction as a big deal? Even if it isn’t, in the scheme of things. That was Cohen’s conundrum : each life, including his own, was vital, and yet unimportant. To the end, he kept as good a balance between those poles (publicly at least ) as anyone can hope to manage.

Other things

Cohen was a genius writer who inspired other people to write well about him. Sylvie Simmons wrote a very good biography (I’m Your Man) of Cohen, and in the last few months, there has been a gold rush of information vital to any full appreciation of him. I’m talking in particular about the New Yorker story by David Remnick that’s available here.

Remnick’s piece includes the touching goodbye note that Cohen wrote this year to his dying one-time muse Marianne Ihlen, along with excerpts from the last extended interview that Cohen gave. A podcast containing chunks of the Remnick interview can be heard here.

On the Leonard Cohen Facebook page, there’s also a brief, very touching video clip in which Cohen – visibly frail under the onslaught of the cancer that killed him – talks about the title track of You Want It Darker. That clip is available here.

The New Yorker article also contains several fascinating email evaluations of Cohen’s work written by Bob Dylan, who makes a convincing case that Cohen’s melodies should be regarded as being just as subtle and rewarding and worthy of praise as his lyrics. The comments about particular Cohen songs are as revelatory about Dylan as they are about Cohen. For example :

[Dylan writes] “In the song ‘Sisters of Mercy,’ for instance, the verses are four elemental lines which change and move at predictable intervals . . . but the tune is anything but predictable. The song just comes in and states a fact. And after that anything can happen and it does, and Leonard allows it to happen. His tone is far from condescending or mocking. He is a tough-minded lover who doesn’t recognize the brush-off. Leonard’s always above it all. ‘Sisters of Mercy’ is verse after verse of four distinctive lines, in perfect meter, with no chorus, quivering with drama. The first line begins in a minor key. The second line goes from minor to major and steps up, and changes melody and variation. The third line steps up even higher than that to a different degree, and then the fourth line comes back to the beginning. This is a deceptively unusual musical theme, with or without lyrics. But it’s so subtle, a listener doesn’t realize he’s been taken on a musical journey and dropped off somewhere, with or without lyrics.”

Dylan even manages to find something new to observe about “Hallelujah” – arguably a Cohen song that’s become so over-exposed as to be virtually unlistenable. “That song “Hallelujah” has resonance for me,” Dylan told Remnick. “There again, it’s a beautifully constructed melody that steps up, evolves and slips back, all in quick time. But this song has a connective chorus, which when it comes, has a power all of its own. The ’secret chord’ and the point blank I-know-you-better-than-you-know-yourself aspect of the song has plenty of resonance for me.”

[Remnick] also asked Dylan whether he preferred Cohen’s later work, coloured as it is with intimations of the end. “I like all of Leonard’s songs, early or late,” Dylan replied. “ ‘Going Home,’ ‘Show Me the Place,’ ‘The Darkness.’ These are all great songs, deep and truthful as ever and multidimensional, surprisingly melodic, and they make you think and feel. I like some of his later songs even better than his early ones. Yet there’s a simplicity to his early ones that I like, too.”

Footnote : For all of his classy moping and the reasons to be not cheerful, traces of optimism can be found lurking in the background of even the darkest of Cohen’s lyrics. I’m not talking simply about his wit or the amusing self-deprecation, either. As Cohen explained to Remnick, one of the themes of the Kabbalah is the notion that the Creation was a catastrophe, in that it dispersed God into a myriad of discordant parts – and therefore, the task of humanity (and of Jews in particular) is to try and repair the face of God, and put the pieces back together into some semblance of harmony. One of the best expressions of the task ahead – both the discord and the glimpses of unity are apparent – can be found in his song “Anthem”:

You can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come,
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Still, the magic of Cohen’s work can’t be reduced to merely a cross-examination of the lyric sheet. These are songs, not poems. And because they’re songs, the nights of repetition on stage inevitably blurred whatever the original motivation (or creative process) involved in writing them might have been. “I have no idea what I am doing,” Cohen told Remnick. “It’s hard to describe. As I approach the end of my life, I have even less and less interest in examining what have got to be very superficial evaluations or opinions about the significance of one’s life or one’s work. I was never given to it when I was healthy, and I am less given to it now.”

Out in the audience, the repetition and the familiarity make any definitive conclusions just as difficult, and almost as unrewarding. The well known Leonard Cohen songs have now become almost impossible to separate from the residue of personal associations we have with them. With great songs like ‘Sisters of Mercy’, ‘Joan of Arc’, ‘Who By Fire’ or ‘Tower of Song’, its hard to untangle them from the web of nostalgia, and hear them afresh. Memory does that. It reduces things to a narrative that can undermine the ability of a song to earn its keep in the here and now. For that reason, does Cohen – or Dylan – mean much to anyone under 30? Telling people ‘ you had to be there’ isn’t exactly a knockdown argument for why they should bother.

That’s partly why, if I had to choose a favourite Cohen song, I’d be inclined to pick something less encumbered, like say, “The Darkness.” Over the past decade, “Alexandra Leaving” has been my Cohen track of choice, and it is – I’d argue – the equal of any of the bigger hits in his back catalogue, even if I end up playing “Who By Fire” more often. “Alexandra Leaving” begins by acknowledging how one mistake can ruin love, irreparably. In subsequent verses, the narrator accepts the consequences, without rancour or self-pity. Like tectonic plates, the song suggests, people simply shift apart, even while they remain in proximity. Essentially, the song is about what regret becomes after it has been tempered by time, and by a decade or more of self control : even though the love in question is still palpably alive. I’m glad Leonard Cohen lived long enough to write it. It takes a long life – and luckily for us, he retained his faculties right until the end – to be able to write a song like this.

5 Comments on Gordon Campbell on Leonard Cohen

  1. As Australia continue to actively create more refugees that are fleeing from the invasion and war they are involved in. Australia, its safe to say, are not solving any refugee problems, they are creating more of them by ignorance.
    Making more refugees and killing allied soldiers, then exporting some of the many refugees they made over to the USA.
    You call that a solution!?
    The Federal Government says it will continue Australia’s (OP Okra) bombing missions over Syria in the wake of an operation that killed dozens of Syrian soldiers.

  2. All of the US and NZ corporate policy is from the same foreign banking cabal.
    A cabal invested in war, who owns Lockheed Martin, for EG there goes another $20 billion NZ to be wasted in NZ military spending and refugee making.

    Its offensive because we find that being peace loving kiwi’s, not having a nation/people as an enemy requires that no money is to be borrowed in our name to be spent on the bankers perpetual wars and anti- social policies.
    This is more fraud than fiscal mismanagement, done at a time when funding for our basic needs have been cut and so they are not being met ( health, social and economic) its called ” failed social obligations” .

  3. Wow! That first paragragh in the Leonard Cohen piece threw me right back into the ’70s, you described those times so perfectly. I was, of course, that usual woman!

  4. Alexandra Leaving is in fact a loose translation of a poem by Constantin Cavafy ‘The God abandons Antony’ and is both about the end of an affair and the acceptance of failure and loss of power. it’s great – agree one of the best, and all the more for the resonance.

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