November 8, 2021

Leonard Cohen died five years ago. I heard the news a day after Trump was elected. It made sense at the time. I wrote a poem and said Kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer that he explored on his final album, and felt that strange sense of mourning for someone I didn’t know, but who had meant a lot to me over a lifetime. Like the death of a beloved community Rabbi in a big Synagogue.

I knew his voice, I’d heard his sermons over many years, but I didn’t know him. A bit like Jonathan Sacks. And I thought that death had brought comfort to him, that the proximity of death had elevated him, and when it came, he was blessed.

There were five Jewish singer-songwriters who clouded my consciousness when I was growing up. Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Neil Diamond and Barry Manilow. (Marc Bolan didn’t really count.) Dylan was like an itinerant Protestant preacher from Minnesota, searching for a home he could never find. Tangled up in blue. Leonard, from Montreal, was the Catholic Priest burdened by original sin, and then adding a few more of his own. Ain’t no cure for love. Paul Simon ran the gospel choir, like a bridge over troubled water. Neil Diamond ran the summer camp. Sweet Caroline raised spirits round the fire. Barry Manilow was the only one who actually showed up at weddings and Bar-Mitzvahs and I can tell you, Copa Cabana and Could it be Magic were the only songs by this crew that my Mum really liked.

I thought that the five of them should get together and form a band called the Sanhedrin, but then again the only song that Cohen and Dylan recorded together, with Allen Ginsberg, was called ‘Don’t go home with your hard on’. Phil Spector was the producer. I let the idea go.

It was Dylan who towered over them all but then Cohen made a late bid for glory. The closer to death, the greater the work. The Future, released in 1992, bore the hallmark of prophesy and foreboding.

“It’s coming from the sorrow on the street
The holy places where the races meet
From the homicidal bitchin
that goes down in every kitchen
To determine who will serve and who will eat.”

His voice, his songs, and even his music became stronger in his sixties and seventies, full of wisdom and compassion. ‘Anyhow’, ‘Come Healing’ and ‘Amen’ are unique and profound songs and ‘Lullaby’ is the only song I know that directly speaks to insomnia. “If your heart is torn, I don’t wonder why, if the night is long, here’s my lullaby.” It is beautiful.

They are all from the album Old Ideas that was released when he was 78. Bob Dylan could barely talk, Neil Diamond could barely walk but Leonard Cohen, the firstborn, was still throwing lightning bolts of prayer and repentance until his death. In ‘Steer your Way’ from his final album the perfect diction of his prophetic heart was still beating:

Steer your heart, precious heart, past the women that you bought
Year by year, month by month, day by day, thought by thought.  
They whisper still the ancient stones
The blunted mountains weep
As he died to make us holy
Let us die to make things cheap
And say the Mea Culpa, which you probably forgot
Year by Year, month by month, day by day, thought by thought.”

And yet we didn’t. The greatness of his work is his ease with the ancient stones, the dry bones and the mountain tops of the Bible. Abraham and King David live again. The Psalms frame and animate his writing; Hallelujah. Jesus is a constant presence from first to last. Whether he was a sailor, who walked upon the water, or the spirit who will re-animate love, the holy spirit hovers over his work:

“It’s coming through a crack in the wall
On a visionary flood of alcohol
From the staggering account of the Sermon on the Mount
Which I don’t pretend to understand at all
It’s coming from the silence on the dock of the bay
From the brave the bold the battered heart of Chevrolet
Democracy is coming, to the USA.”

No wonder the election of Donald Trump was the final nail in his coffin.

His decades-long devotion to Zen Buddhism was also part of the story. He spent years in a Buddhist monastery in California, learning from Joshu Sasaki Roshi, who, it turned out, molested and abused hundreds of women in his role as head of the order. He claimed that sexual contact with a Zen Master would help women attain “new levels of non-attachment”. Who’d have thought?

And for all the drawing on the Kabbalah, in which sexual union is the most sublime expression of divine love, there is no mention of faithfulness, of marriage, of the fidelity to a woman and to God that is the basis of that teaching. Throughout his work, eros is disconnected from devotion. It is an escape, a healing, a triumph; but it is not bound by covenant or love. 

“And like a blessing come from heaven
for something like a second
I was healed and my heart was at ease”.

The Sixties, when Leonard Cohen abandoned the idea of being a novelist and a poet and moved to New York to be a singer-songwriter, was a cauldron of sexual liberation and enslavement. The over-the-counter-culture intensified the commodification of sex, the dissolution of its relational essence accompanied by celebrity endorsement. The idea that sex was sacred was profaned. It was a time full of sex cults, and the emergence of Kabbalah as part of an occult sexology was part of that story. And Leonard Cohen, who initially saw himself as a prophet of a new religion, was one of the high priests of that movement.

“It’s coming from the women and the men
Ah baby we’ll be making love again
We’ll be going down so deep
that rivers gonna weep
And the mountains gonna shout Amen.
It’s coming like the tidal flood beneath the lunar sway
Imperial, mysterious, in amorous array
Democracy is coming, to the USA.”

It’s hard to load the dishwasher after that. It is the lack of relationality in regard to sex that is remarkable. He would have benefited from a conversation with Mary Harrington. Love and eros were divorced and it is notable that in his final recording, having elevated sex to the sublime life force of creation throughout his work, he writes: “I don’t want a lover, no, no, the wretched beast is tame.” The body and the soul could not find reconciliation.

There was more than a dose of the biblical prophet in Leonard, and more than a dose of the new age cultist. His defrauding by his manager and ex-lover make sense within this story. The ‘wretched beast’, ‘my crazy’, and his adventures on ‘Boogie Street’ could not be constrained by his merger of Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism. They could not be bound; they could not be consecrated and so ‘love itself, love itself was gone’.

He was like Noah, a great man of his time, but unlike Abraham, Moses, Jesus or Imam Hussein, he could not make the sacrifice required for redemption. He was enslaved by sex. There was no liberation there. And unlike King David, the Kingdom was merely his own.

In 1992, Cohen promised: “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” The crack in the wall that creates a space for democracy and a cold and very broken hallelujah. In the end, however, the birth was betrayed and the marriage spent. He refused to be bound by his understanding, that the forgiveness of others is far more important that forgiving yourself. He had a messianic vocation but he could not fulfil it. He wanted it darker. And he blew out the flame.