Meditators' Blog 18/4/2012

OLD IDEAS by Leonard Cohen - by Jim Green

Leonard Cohen is fast becoming the unofficial patron saint of our meditation community. The credentials are impeccable: a Jewish, sometime Zen Buddhist monk with a strange and intimate take on the Saviour – remember this from 1967?

And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said: "All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them"

Oh, and he’s a ladies’ man, a singer, an ex-drunk, a poet, a depressive, an artist, a bard and a prophet whose work has spanned many decades and whose vision spreads even further. Cohen playfully offers yet more identities in the opening lines of his new album, Old Ideas:

I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

And, talking of identity, who’s this speaking, if it’s not Leonard? God? His muse? A Doppelgänger? Is he possessed?

…he only has permission
To do my instant bidding
Which is to say what I have told him
To repeat

And then comes a chorus of heartbreaking simplicity:

Going home without my sorrow
Going home sometime tomorrow
Going home to where it's better than before
Going home without my burden
Going home behind the curtain
Going home without this costume that I wore.

‘Leonard’ – whoever that is - is preparing for death.

The temptation in reviewing this album is simply to quote verse after verse of these haunting lines. But I no longer know how they read on the page. It’s poetry for sure, but above all, they are songs. And what songs. All of his moods and registers are here. I tried to organise the ten songs into his core modes, the fundamental Cohen grammar. We have the Devotional (Going Home, Show Me The Place, Come Healing), the Pithily Apocalyptic (Amen, Banjo), Romantic Noire (The Darkness, Anyhow, Crazy To Love You, Different Sides) and Whimsical-Minimalist-Zen (Lullaby, Banjo).

Keen-eyed readers will see that Banjo appears as both Pithily Apocalyptic and Whimsical-Minimalist-Zen. Which is the joy of Cohen. As I review the ten songs, I realise that they could pretty much all be smuggled in and out of each category. Over again, we find ourselves asking, Who’s he talking to, God or his lover? Is he in his bedroom (or someone else’s) or is he at prayer?

No matter – those of you who know Cohen will already be prepared to share in his old ideas. For those of you who don’t, there’s probably one old mistaken idea which has somehow percolated through to you over the decades. Namely, that Cohen sings songs of monotonous despair: Leonard is depressing. As usual with merely received wisdom, nothing could be further from the truth. There is a hard-won, clear-eyed joy woven into this “manual for living with defeat” (Going Home). And discovered wisdom:

O, see the darkness yielding
That tore the light apart
Come healing of the reason
Come healing of the heart

O, troubled dust concealing
An undivided love
The heart beneath is teaching
To the broken heart above

(Come Healing)

And if the angels in Heaven sound anything like his backing singers, I can’t wait to get there.

Jim

Jim Green is a UK-based oblate of WCCM.

 

Comments

I don't know where I was in the late 1960's to have missed Leonard Cohen, but somehow I did  until I read an excerpt of "Anthem" in....of all places...an advice column in the newspaper...I had to cut it out and then googled the name and found out about him and it seems that I constantly hear references to him, even here at WCCM!


Just in case you missed "Anthem"....the refrain is worth committing to memory.


"Anthem"

The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

We asked for signs
the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed
the marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
of every government --
signs for all to see.

I can't run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they've summoned, they've summoned up
a thundercloud
and they're going to hear from me.

Ring the bells that still can ring ...

You can add up the parts
but you won't have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.






 

Hello Jim,

I was delighted to see the title of your  entry on the meditators blog and then to read your review - like you I have enjoyed speculating about who Leonard is singing to and hear many of his lyrics as essentially prayerful.

 

I turned 50 last week and the Old Ideas CD was a present from the family that I was hanging out for.  On the actual day of my birthday I sat by the CD player with the head phones on and listed to the album all the way through - just drinking it in and feeling by the end of it deeply satisfied.  Since then I have listened to the album again numerous times and disconcertingly I have found some of the choruses and lyrics turning up in my meditation.

 

Anyhow thank you for your review - I love your categories especially whimsical minimalist Zen for Banjo - great!!

 

 

Hi, You might want to see my version of Anthem and the comments in the box. 

Enjoyed your article, included a bit of your thought in the concert intro to another Leonard Cohen song  Tonight Will Be Fine - that is “We find ourselves asking, who’s he talking to, God or his lover? Is he in his bedroom (or someone else’s) or is he at prayer?

Thank you for the blog,

Phillip