Thursday, September 29, 2016

Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan Will Be Home for the Holidays

Image result for bob dylan 2015 tourWith the Days of Awe nearly upon us, it’s a good time to think about how Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen help people send their prayers where they need to go. Just as poets and seers over the past two millennia have built liturgies for people to plug into something greater than themselves, these two masters of popular song are pitching a ladder to climb the “Tower of Song” to “the place where martyrs weep and angels fear to tread.”

Of the two, Leonard Cohen is the more obvious inspiration for the High Holidays. He is a contemporary paytan, or liturgist, a role in Jewish spiritual life dating back to the biblical psalmist David, the star of “Hallelujah” who played a sacred chord that pleased the Lord. For thousands of years paytanim (the plural of paytan) have interpreted texts with virtuosity as part of the communal liturgy, using acrostics, allusions, allegories and hyperbole to linger on biblical stories, themes from the Jewish calendar or mystical reflection that anchored much of the structure of public prayer. 

These songs are called piyyutim (or piyyut in the singular), which is a Hebraization of a Greek term for prayer or devotion from which the word “piety” is derived. Some of the most beloved Jewish prayers are piyyutim: Adon Olam, Lecha Dodi, Ein Ke’Eloheinu. There’s also Heneni, a meditation on humility for those leading the Musaf portion of the prayer service rooted in the biblical phrase used by Abraham another others to say to the divine “I am here.” And this is alsobiblical phrase about to launch from the house of prayer to the charts, as Cohen recites it along with a cantor and synagogue choir in his latest release, “You Want it Darker.”

Cohen famously asks “Who By Fire?” in a direct reworking of the words and melody of U’netanneh Tokef (right here with none other than Sonny Rollins on sax), an anchor for the High Holiday liturgy. He adds barbiturates and a lonely slip and a mirror to make this story of mortality stick for contemporary listeners.  

Obviously, his liturgical canon also includes “Hallelujah”—which cultural critic Greil Marcus has said is the closest thing pop music of the last fifty years has come to producing a hymn and the New York Times rightly reminds us actually deserves a rest. Cohen’s musical urges are attuned to atonement, reflection and renewal on all days. But this time of year, with “If It Be Your Will," “The Faith" and so many other tunes joining the chorus, Cohen’s chops as a liturgical teacher of the heart for the Days of Awe are clear.

If Cohen is rock's liturgist, Dylan leads its epics of salvation. In the period when he marked himself as perhaps most important cultural figure of the 20th century—a span of fifteen months, March 1965 to May 1966, which included the release of three of the greatest rock albums of all-time: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde—Dylan was asked a great question by Nat Hentoff: “‘You told an interviewer last year, 'I've done everything I ever wanted to do.' If that's true, what do you have to look forward to?’ ‘Salvation,’” replied Dylan, “‘just plain salvation.’”

“Elvis freed your body, and Bob freed your mind.” That’s how Bruce Springsteen describes Bob Dylan. “He had the vision and the talent to expand a pop song until it contained the whole world.”

Body and soul, heaven and earth, life and death, love and loss, everything in the whole world and everything in between: That’s what Dylan sings about, and this breath and depth of  curiosity and vision is what made it possible for rock and roll as a culture to plum the gaps of meaning where religion had once powered human creativity, faith and imagination. 

Dylan’s songs follow figures in a dream, all representing the needs of the dreamer. These are heroes with a thousand faces. They float in and out of narratives that have been giving shape to quests across culture for thousands of years. More than any other figure, he is the person who brought the grandest and most common of human struggles to the radio, concert hall and to pop culture as a whole. And even in all of its commercialism and goofiness, questions of the spirit never left pop once Dylan brought them there. 

Consider a song that might be his most a spot-on choice for the Days of Awe, 1997’s “Trying to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door.” With thick chords of barroom piano and swamp rock guitar and drums, the song ends with this verse:

Gonna sleep down in the parlour
And relive my dreams
I’ll close my eyes and I wonder
If everything is as hollow as it seems
Some trains don't pull no gamblers
No midnight ramblers like they did before
I been to Sugar Town, I shook the sugar down
Now I’m trying to get to heaven before they close the door

Here is one of countless examples of how Dylan does what Springsteen says about making a pop song contain the whole world. Sugartown might reference a Cherokee capital city of the Old America, or the Nancy Sinatra song of a weird one; the images of a train and midnight ramblers cut across Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie (and as another song master Paul Simon said it best: “Everybody loves the sound of a train/everybody knows it’s true”). All of this is bookended by a dream and a death, the very same template in narrative form that Cohen employed in “Who By Fire.” It's the same epic call for life against every conceivable kind of death, holding that all life passes “like a dream flying by,” the phrase with which U’netanneh Tokef  of "Who by Fire" ends. 

Dylan dreams in his parlour of both life and death, or at least the cusp of death, which perhaps is the most cogent mood of the High Holy Day liturgy. People are asked to push themselves through memories of deeds done, people who have passed, hopes dashed, dreams flashing and fading, all words and images hold at the very edge of the world where waking ends. This is Neila, the final major prayer of Yom Kippur, literally the locking of the gates of repentance. Come close to the edge and peer into nowhere, which leads everywhere, just like Dylan's song says "when you think you've lost everything/you can always lose a little more." But this is also the moment where one's life passes before one's eyes, only to be returned to the dreamer again for another chance.

People have been using prayers as communal mirrors for thousands of years. The words and melodies of prayer reflect back the soul that gazes into them. Some of these prayers, particularly from the liturgy of the Days of Awe, have reflected millions of faces. Across time and space, people passing through the Tower of Song steal a glance and move on, but with a different point of view than when they came upon the reflection they had held before. What is a prayer? What is a song? And what is the difference if both can touch the places where martyrs weep and angels fear to tread? To quote Paul Simon again, "these prayers are the memories of God." Few have merited to bring more words of grace and reflection to the world for so many in the past half-century than Dylan and Cohen. Don't hesitate to visit them wherever praying happens for the holidays, and feel right at home when you do.

Image result for leonard cohen
The Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen Days of Awe Top Ten

Leonard Cohen
Who By Fire
If It Be Your Will
The Faith
You Want It Darker

Bob Dylan
It’s Not Dark Yet, But It’s Getting There
Tryin’ to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door
Lay Down Your Weary Tune
Going Going Gone
What Good Am I?
I Believe in You*

*Yes, we know that the last one comes from Dylan’s so-called Born Again Christian phase, but it is such a beautiful song of faith that we’d heart any time, just like Dylan’s wandering hero in "Brownsville Girl" would see anything starring Gregory Peck. He’d even sit through it twice. Just like us. Call it a bonus. Happy New Year.


Richard said...

Very beautiful piece for the Days of Awe. Thank you, Stephen.

To the Leonard Cohen Canon, we might consider adding, Bird on the Wire, The Story of Isaac, The Window, The Law, Coming Back to You, Anthem, The Healing, Amen, By the Rivers Dark .... so many, no?! Shana Tovah Umetukah.

Anonymous said...

I have been puzzled and amused, I guess, how many writers and fans describe Dylan’s faith as his “born again phase” as if Dylan has renounced his Christian faith.

Gerry Laverty said...

What a beautiful piece of writing about two of my favorite writers. Thank you and... Shalom

Anonymous said...

Agree with your observation. Soon after his Christmas album was released a few years back, an interviewer opined that Dylan sang The First Noel "like a true believer." Dylan responded, "I am a true believer."

Bette Alexander said...

Thank for putting this on Facebook. I need to reread to absorb all the great words.
Shana Tovah to you, Basmat and your family.

Tess Keller said...

I prayed for his salvation starting in1969 throughout the 70"s and still.

hippidy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ronnie sephardophile said...

thank you

Eyal Regev said...

Anyway, we will be nockin' on heaven's door soon...