Sunday, December 4, 2016

Leonard Cohen's Message for the Future

Leonard Cohen exited stage left just one day before his most cogent prophecy came to pass on US Election Day 2016. In the 1992’s “The Future,” he sang

There'll be the breaking 
of the ancient western code 
Your private life will suddenly explode 
There'll be phantoms 
There'll be fires on the road 
and the white man dancing

You may be a Trumphead or you may be disgusted, but there’s no doubting that western codes are being broken left and right and on every side of the pond, that dumpsters of racism and bigotry along with forests here, there and everywhere are burning, and that drums beating a violent overture for an age of political and environmental disequilibrium are banging while some men in white—white robes to be exact—are dancing for joy just a few yards from the White House.

“Things are going to slide,” Cohen sang,

slide in all directions 
Won't be nothing 
Nothing you can measure anymore 
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world 
has crossed the threshold 
and it has overturned 
the order of the soul

Cohen was not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet. He was actually the son of a beloved Jewish Montreal family and the grandson of a religious man with whom he used to study the prophets—the Book of Isiah to be exact—in the original Hebrew. But in his way, as much as rock and roll and popular culture can allow, he brought a prophetic message to the radio as effectively as any figure of our time, notwithstanding his pal Bob Dylan.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Here's to Dan Bern's "Thanksgiving Day Parade"

A song for the ages, but especially this age. Here's to Dan Bern's "Thanksgiving Day Parade."

Dan Bern - Thanksgiving Day Parade

Everybody was ecstatic
'Bout the light show on the farm
And everyone got crazy
And nobody got harmed
And the five televisions
Huge upon the stage
Had come to pay their union dues
And make a living wage
And the bathroom was the clubhouse
Where the colors all got made
And plans were cast in feathers
For the Thanksgiving Day Parade

And the DJ spins his records
From here out to the sun
And he flings them through a big hole
In the ozone one by one
And somewhere beyond Mercury
The wax begins to melt
And we touched a perfect stranger
And we loved the way it felt
And we all hung together
In our crew cuts and our braids
Floating down Broadway
Above the Thanksgiving Day Parade

And you and I were discussing Natalie
While you poised to thrust above her
And I told you how I admire her
And will always need to love her
And I told you how I lost
My best friend Mr. Neill
And we slowly started dancing
And began slowly to heal
And then we all held hands
And no one was afraid
On our way to sell our sculptures
At the Thanksgiving Day Parade

And Michelangelo finally came down
After four years on the ceiling
He said he'd lost his funding
And the paint had started peeling
And he told us that his patron
His Holiness, the Pope
Was demanding productivity
With which our friend just couldn't cope
And he rode off on his skateboard
With his brushes and his blade
Muttering something 'bout some food
And the Thanksgiving Day Parade

And we who were born in one millennium
And will die in the next
Are slightly underappreciated
And slightly oversexed
And as the seconds and the minutes
Start to vanish one by one
I'm watching more cartoons
As I get my toenails done
And we went downtown to deliver
Turkeys to people with AIDS
And then we headed uptown
To the Thanksgiving Day Parade

And the music keeps on grinding
And the electrophonic crunch
And my father's hair is thinning
And my mom ate some for lunch
And you, you were my babysitter
And you let me break my tooth
And we sit here tied together
In a bar in the back booth
And the band is in an uproar
Only the drum machine's been paid
And we'll have to bring our own tunes
To the Thanksgiving Day Parade

Australians are the coolest
People in the world
Let's all go down under
With strings of colored pearls
And lay them at the feet
Of the heirs of English crime
And listen to old Men At Work
And have a real good time
And we dug until we hit the rocks
Then we threw away the spade
And built a platform to get a better view
Of the Thanksgiving Day Parade

And I love whoever's next to me
I love them so, so much
They let me lean against them
Like a beautiful crutch
And everyone should come up
On the stage and grab the mike
And tell us one by one
Who they are and what they like
And the babies are the only ones
To have lately gotten laid
And I'm feeling young and eager
For the Thanksgiving Day Parade

And you explained to me that without your fans
You'd be back out on the street
With nothing but chitlins on your plate
And splinters in your feet
And if you die, you're gone you said
And your friends are left behind
And you'll be a statistic
And we'll be deaf and blind
And darkness is a virtue
And molasses is not afraid
To slow down the countdown
To the Thanksgiving Day Parade

And somewhere in the distance
An orchestra shows its face
With Natalie on the oboe
Ty on double bass
John plays the viola
Slik the tenor sax
James he blows harmonica
In vanilla skin-tight slacks
Hugo oozes alto sax
Ivory the trombone
Masuda squawks the trumpet
Andre xylophone
Ron he shreds the violin
In a green Italian suit
Mike talks on the telephone
On a tape with an endless loop
Geoff he blows the clarinet
With an old-time rockin' feel
Charlie dings the triangle
Dave the glockenspiel
Chris puffs on the tuba
H a big bass drum
Alfonso throbs the cello
Like he would a woman, with his thumb
And high up on the podium
In tails with his baton poised
Banksy leads the orchestra
In a glorious, awful noise
And on a float of dripping oil paint
The orchestra, it played
Kissing the whole universe
In the Thanksgiving Day Parade

And life is like a fairy tale
Every step feels like a dream
That keeps on getting nearer
And more and more extreme
And we just got switched with Venus
And we're closer to the sun
And I got no problem with it
Nor should anyone
And the cops just blew on in here
And we're in some kind of raid
I just hope they will release us
For the Thanksgiving Day Parade

Monday, November 14, 2016

Review | What in the World Are We Longing For? | Leonard Cohen's Book of Longing


What in the World Are We Longing For?

Book of LongingBy Leonard Cohen
240 Pages. Ecco $24.95

This review was originally published at, June 2006.

Image result for leonard cohen book of longingAfter composing much of his new poetry collection, Book of Longing, while living in a Zen monastery on Mount Baldy in California, Leonard Cohen winks at those curious or confused about his religious wanderings: "Anyone who says I'm not a Jew is not a Jew/I'm very sorry but this decision is final." Never one to deny Jewish influences since early days as scion of an esteemed Montreal family, Cohen persistently challenges mainstream Jewish culture. His eclectic, searching visions balance odes of love and loss as sensual as any in popular music with impassioned religious seeking filtered through Jewish vocabulary, stories, and ideas. With the publication of his first original collection of poetry since 1984, Cohen emerges now more than ever as a sensitive, engaged transformer of the Jewish canon, enlivening Jewish myths and themes in the shadows where secular and spiritual experience meet.

Book of Longing contains obvious evidence of Cohen's Jewishness—God is written as "G-d," there's a poem describing correspondence with a rabbi signed "Your Jewish brother, Jikan Eliezer" (fusing Cohen's Zen and Hebrew names), and the Shoah, the Sabbath, and kabbalistic and biblical terminology are referenced often. Cohen's book, and his entire body of work, is a vital addition to the Jewish tra
dition, creating its own brand of influence through fresh engagement with Jewish sources.

Cohen's understanding of the myth and mystique of exile offers the finest example of his Jewish voice. Book of Longing opens: "I followed the course/From chaos to art/Desire the horse/Depression the cart…/I know she is coming/I know she will look/And that is the longing/And this is the book." Amidst the reoccurring original black, white, and gray prints and drawings illustrating the book, one image serves as a kind of royal stamp: Two interlocking hearts curve to the shape of a Magen David, the Jewish star, a plump, rounded hexagram bordered by a circle and bounded by the words "Order of the Unified Heart." Like this floating image, the title and themes of Book of Longing place Leonard Cohen in the tradition of Jewish poets tracing national and personal journeys of exile between the harmony and heartbreak of theology, day-to-day life, and love. 

Exile has been amongst the most compelling forces of Jewish artistic, literary, philosophical, religious, and political creativity for the better part of two millennia, and archetypal Jewish notions of seeking harmony in spite of exile—longing for Jerusalem or Zion, courting the Divine Presence traditionally known as the Shekhina, or pangs of and for the Messiah—all tie into longing that began with the national heartbreak of the broken Temple. The destruction of the Temple, first in 586 BCE by the Babylonians and again in 70 CE by the Romans was a defining moment in the history of Jewish exile and longing. The Temple had been the literal and figurative heart of religious practice and imagination in the formative period of Judaism. As Cohen writes in "By the Rivers Dark," paraphrasing the most famous scene of biblical of homesickness: "By the rivers dark/I wondered on/I lived my life/In Babylon."

When Bob Dylan turned 50, Bono, the lead singer of U2, listed 50 reasons why he loved him. One of them was that Dylan tends to mix up women and God. As a believing Christian steeped in the world of religious allegory, Bono was referring to Dylan's ability to drape (or uncover) layers of religious myth and meaning on the day-to-day lusts and longing of love. Cohen makes use of this art as well, knowing that love and longing reflect both the sting of exile as well as temporary relief from it. Like the elusive bride of Sabbath evening prayers, Cohen's mystical lovers are objects of both worldly and other worldly desire. In "My Redeemer" he says: "I want all the women/You created in your image…/You can hear my prayer/The one I have no words for…/My Redeemer is a woman/Her picture is lost/We surrendered it /A hundred years ago."

Human love as worldly manifestation of seeking the divine exists in many religious traditions. The Song of Songs—an erotic biblical love poem traditionally interpreted as a metaphor for the nation of Israel and God seeking each other in the dark—offers a prime example. Cohen most strikingly recalls "Golden Age" medieval Jewish poets such as Yehuda Halevy, Solomon ibn Gabirol, and Samuel Hanagid, eclectic figures born and bred in traditions of epic medieval Spanish-Arabic love poetry. As collected and translated in Raymond Scheindlin's Wine, Women and Death, "Golden Age" themes emphatically echo forward to Cohen's world. Nine-hundred years before his Canadian comrade, Spaniard Moses ibn Ezra writes: "Caress a lovely women's breast by night/And kiss some beauty's lips by morning light/Silence those who criticize you…/With beauty's children only can we live/Kidnapped were they from Paradise to gall the living."

While Cohen and his Golden Age ancestors find temporary reprieve from longing and exile in imagining earthly love, ultimate redemption rests in images of a transcendent, messianic age when the suffering of both love and exile cease. Book of Longing traces many themes of redemptive time with cogent biblical illusions: "The flood it is gathering/Soon it will move/Across every valley/Against every roof/The body will drown/And the soul will break loose/I write all this down/But I don't have the proof." In "Moving into a Period," Freud, Einstein, and Hemingway watch time cease in eternal Jerusalem as Cohen tries on the prophetic voice of Elijah, heralding an end to pain: "Have no doubt, in the near future we will be seeing and hearing much more of this sort of thing from people like myself." 

As Cohen corresponds with traditional religion and secular love laced with spiritual meaning, his religious voice stays sane by mixing humor and humility with reverence and daring: "I do not have the authority or understanding to speak of these matters/I was just showing off/Please forgive me," he writes in the poetic epistle mentioned earlier. Though he plays himself off as an imposter when confronting the religious establishment—"the old obsolete atrocity [that] made a puke of prayer"—his humor and self deference cannot defy ambitions for revolution, hope, beauty, and wisdom often against the powers and trends of the mainstream. 

In interviews for a recently released documentary film about Cohen entitled "I'm Your Man," the Edge of U2 compares reading Cohen's lyrics to reading the Bible. While rock stars living very large lives tend to inflate everything, including their own inspirations, if any contemporary popular artist merits credit for reinventing sacred text it is Leonard Cohen. While Bob Dylan—neck and neck with Cohen as the world's favorite Jewish popular prophet of the past 50 years—drones homerically thick with association, alliteration, and allusion, Cohen is biblically laconic and precise, crafting word maps for the valleys of emotional journeys intimate and cutting, full of wide gaps of silence for pondering and questions. 

In 1994 Cohen was asked by the Jewish Book Review about a vivid and telling line from his song "The Future." In explaining the words "I'm the little Jew who wrote the Bible," Cohen reveals a powerful and disciplined sense of Jewish mission: 

Image result for leonard cohen
As I get older I feel less modest about taking these positions because I realize we are the ones who wrote the Bible and at our best we inhabit a biblical landscape, and this is where we should situate ourselves without apology. The biblical landscape is our urgent invitation and we have to be there. Otherwise, it's really not worth saving or manifesting, or redeeming, or anything.
Leonard Cohen writes sacred texts in a time when much of what has been inherited as sacred text serves fundamentalism and fear. In "Dear Diary" he praises his own journal—the murmurings of his own heart—as a transcendent sacred text in and of itself:

You are greater than the Bible
And the Conference of the Birds
And the Upanishads
All put together…
Dear Diary
I mean no disrespect
But you are more sublime
Than any Sacred Text
Sometimes just a list
Of my events
Is holier than the Bill of Rights
And more intense

Confusing and fusing woman with God and God with self and self with everything, Cohen gives both thanks and witness to the spiritual magic and divine presence still possible despite the failings of traditional religious systems, Judaism included. He seeks and sees the face of his longing in the paradoxes of the world—this being the fleeting face of the divine—by rejecting it’s divisions, be they Buddhist and Jewish, sacred and profane, exile and love:

Dressed as arab
Dressed as jew
O mask of iron
I was there for you…
I see it clear
I always knew
It was never me
I was there for you…
Don't ask me how
I know it's true
I get it now
I was there for you

For those attuned or just tuning in to the sounds of the Jewish call for harmony, wisdom, and redemption, Leonard Cohen's words should sound very familiar.

This review was originally published at, June 2006.

Friday, November 11, 2016

I Love to Speak With Leonard

Image result for leonard cohen drawingAnd if I speak no more
On this broken hill
A lazy bastard in a suit
And if I've 
been unkind. 
I hope that you will let it go by. 
Living with the living. 
And dying with the dead
Love's the only engine of survival.
L Cohen.