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Thursday, 13 November 2014

The High Priest of Modern Song.

Among the forests of words devoted to the life and work of Canadian singer-songwriter, Leonard Cohen is a website that takes a wry look at his many      nicknames. 

But I prefer my own - the ‘High Priest of Modern Song’.

How else to describe an artistic renaissance figure whose output – like his family name – is informed wholly by his Orthodox Jewish roots?

But  how may we also describe a very human individual who’s wedded to his Jewish faith, bolted to his art, but now aged eighty, has never committed to a steadfast relationship with any of his lovers – even the mother of his children?

Cohen’s work and life form part of the mental landscape of so many ordinary people, it is difficult to discuss him without being accused of either repetition or cliché. But here, nothing daunted, is my own view of him as a fellow Jew.


The cover image on his latest album, Popular Problems, cuts a lean, lupine figure, dressed as I’ve seen a thousand other elderly Jewish gentlemen, walking gamely to and from synagogue several times during a Sabbath day.

So I can imagine his arriving at morning services, then removing his trilby to reveal a skull cap,  reciting the traditional blessing as he wraps himself in his prayer shawl and then reading the Ma Tovu prayer - which he also recited at his 2009 concert in Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv, Israel.

But artists don’t think like ordinary mortals! So we have the cerebral and elegiac  Cohen wrestling with an  erratic, even  raffish existence in a private world off-stage.

His Wikipedia entry  reminds us how often he has used the Hebrew bible (Torah)  and Jewish cultural imagery as   sources for his work,  citing by example songs  like Story of Isaac and Who By Fire and also his second collection of poetry, The Spice-Box of Earth, whose title alludes to the Saturday night rituals performed as the Sabbath concludes.

The entry also devotes a separate section to the famous 1984 song, Hallelujah. I venture further that it remains Cohen’s most popular single song because it examines his unending personal struggle - the clash of  religious devotion with sexual temptation, symbolised by conflating the two stories of King David and Bathsheba with that of Samson and Delilah, then blending them most magically with his musical expertise.

Here he gives those new to Jewish thought a look at the distinction between the temporal and divine or ‘the holy and the broken’, as described by music journalist, Alan Light in his book about the song.

But there are two further interesting side issues I  want to discuss.

The first is Cohen’s involvement in Zen Buddhism and that he sees no split from his Jewish faith but rather, he insists, that “in the tradition of Zen that I've practised, there is no prayerful worship and there is no affirmation of a deity. So theologically there is no challenge to any Jewish belief”.

The other – superficially - has nothing to do with his Jewish faith but is how  he referred to Kelley Lynch, formerly his manager, friend and even briefly his lover after she was jailed for harassing him. They were not the words of a plaintiff but the sermonic admonition of a priest.

Cohen’s florid romantic life is well-documented. He remains unmarried, but while the mother of his children, Susan Elrod is Jewish it seems that Adam, a fellow singer songwriter and Lorca, a  photographer and videographer do not take their heritage as seriously as their father.  It remains to be seen whether any of Grandpa Leonard’s descendants will yet don his mantle.

Meanwhile, even at 80, Cohen continues composing and performing and his birthday album took only a few weeks to hit No. 1 in 29 countries on the iTunes chart.

I close with the promotional video clip for Popular Problems and the lyrics to Almost Like the Blues which Cohen wrote with Patrick Leonard:

Almost Like the Blues

I saw some people starving
There was murder, there was rape
Their villages were burning
They were trying to escape
I couldn’t meet their glances
I was staring at my shoes
It was acid, it was tragic
It was almost like the blues

I have to die a little
Between each murderous thought
And when I’m finished thinking
I have to die a lot
There’s torture and there’s killing
There’s all my bad reviews
The war, the children missing
Lord, it’s almost like the blues

I let my heart get frozen
To keep away the rot
My father says I’m chosen
My mother says I’m not
I listened to their story
Of the Gypsies and the Jews
It was good, it wasn’t boring
It was almost like the blues

There is no G-d in Heaven
And there is no Hell below
So says the great professor
Of all there is to know
But I’ve had the invitation
That a sinner can’t refuse
And it’s almost like salvation
It’s almost like the blues


Mark.Ulyseas_thumb10This piece first appeared in the December Vol. 3 2014 edition of Live Encounters magazine ( edited by Mark Ulyseas, a faithful supporter of Israel and all matters Jewish.

© Natalie Wood (13 November 2014)

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