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A Tribute to Leonard Cohen, RIP: A man whose songs were like cracks that let light in

November 10, 2016



A Tribute to Leonard Norman Cohen (21 September 1934 – 10 November 2016)
by guest blogger Ron Wells

From “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” by Leonard Cohen:
I loved you in the morning, our kisses deep and warm
Your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm
Yes, many loved before us, I know that we are not new
In city and in forest, they smiled like me and you
But now it’s come to distances and both of us must try
Your eyes are soft with sorrow
Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye

When I was in college I began a life long love affair of the work of singer/songwriters. Bob Dylan, the 2016 Nobel prize winner in literature, taught me that song lyrics could be poetry, and that these same lyrics could profoundly matter in my own life.

Soon after, I discovered Leonard Cohen. I heard “Suzanne” (hear the song and read the lyrics here) and knew immediately that this was a major artist whose songs I would return to time and again during my life, for his musical poems changed and grew with me over time.

From “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen:
Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night forever
And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer that you’ve always been her lover.

His voice was almost a monotone, and his singing was often like a soft and prayer-like reading of sacred verses. He gave me images of, and insights into, life and places that I had never imagined. They spoke to me of sadness and love and hope and humanity.

“Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Bird on a Wire,” “Hallelujah,” and “Sisters of Mercy” are only a few of his deep meditations on life that have carried me through good times and bad.

From “Bird on a Wire” by Leonard Cohen:
I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch
He said to me, “you must not ask for so much”
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door
She cried to me, “hey, why not ask for more?”
Oh, like a bird on the wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free

Leonard Cohen shined a penetrating light on a path through the world that is often cloaked in darkness. For this, we are eternally grateful. In his own words:

  • “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
  • “I think the term poet is a very exalted term and should be applied to a man at the end of his work. When he looks back over the body of his work and he’s written poetry then let the verdict be that he’s a poet.”
  • “If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often.”
  • “This is the most challenging activity that humans get into, which is love. You know, where we have the sense that we can’t live without love. That life has very little meaning without love.”
  • “Well, for one thing, in the tradition of Zen that I’ve practiced, there is no prayerful worship and there is no affirmation of a deity.”
  • “Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.”
  • “My sense of proprietorship has been so weak that actually I didn’t pay attention and I lost the copyrights on a lot of the songs.”
  • “I always considered myself a minor writer. My province is small, and I try to explore it very, very thoroughly.”
  • “My two great heroes are W. B. Yeats and Federico García Lorca.”
  • “I was 15 when I first became deeply touched by the rhythm and structure of words.”
  • “Journalists, especially English journalists, were very cruel to me. They said I only knew three chords when I knew five!”

Promotional video clip for tribute LP “Poets In New York” (1986). Leonard Cohen performs Take This Waltz, his song based on his own translation of Garcia Lorca’s Pequeño vals vines. A friend of mine says that this video was filmed in Granada Spain, home of Federico Garcia Lorca, the original author of the verses. Much has been written by Spanish scholars of literature about the brave license Cohen took with Lorca’s work. But all consent that he not only retained the poem’s essence, he truly improved it by adding music, and a few genius adjustments to the verse that worked perfectly. 

To a man whose songs were like the cracks that let the light in, Rest in Peace, Leonard Cohen.

Ron doesn’t mention it, but Leonard Cohen’s songs have been beautifully interpreted by many great artists. KD Lang singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is one of my favorites, and it seems fitting to close this blog post with it.

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