September 21, 1934-November 7, 2016
Leonard Cohen’s voice will not be “still.”
His music will continue to live on in the hearts of millions now and to come.
Like many, when the news was released on November 10th that Leonard Cohen had passed away, I cried. Two days later, his son Adam posted a touching tribute on Facebook in which he honoured his father’s “unique blend of self-deprecation and dignity, his approachable elegance, his charisma without audacity, his old-world gentlemanliness and the hand-forged tower of his work.” These words all ring true.
Ever since 1967, when the first album “Songs of Leonard Cohen” was released, that man has occupied a cherished place in my heart. I recall, way back then, sitting with a few friends and my mom in our darkened living room (ambiance was important) and listening again and again to “Suzanne,” “Sisters of Mercy,” “So Long Marianne” and so on. I loved every one of those first songs—poetic, hypnotic, mysterious and beautiful. Reverential too, Cohen lets us know:
If It Be Your Will is really a prayer. And Hallelujah has that feeling. A lot of them do. Dance Me to the End of Love, Suzanne. I love church music, synagogue music, mosque music.
I had the good fortune to see Cohen twice. The first time was not long after the release of his 1992 tour-de-force album “The Future.” It was June 1993, and the venue was Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre, a real theatre with old-fashioned class and fabulous acoustics! Cohen generously performed for three hours, followed by an hour long encore! Throughout the evening it was like he was saying, “There is no place in the world I’d rather be than with you.” We in the audience felt the same about him. When I look back at that memory, “rapport” would not be not the right term to use; a “meeting of hearts” or a “sweet love affair” would.
Timeless and Timely
Cohen’s music, it seems to me, has both a timeless and timely quality. I shall try to make a distinction. By timeless, I mean—fitting, now and always—human emotions (love, yearning, loss, etc). The beautiful melodies and equally beautiful lyrics touch and sooth. There are many, including: “Suzanne,” “Hallelujah,” “You Got Me Singing,” “Anthem.”
Leonard Cohen reminds us to make space for the sacred within ourselves.
By timely, I mean–fitting a particular time, circumstance, situation—human behavior (“politics,” conflict). “Everybody Knows” and “Democracy” are prime examples. A fierceness in these two particular songs bids us open our eyes and seriously question what the heck’s going on in our world. Some of his songs fit both categories.
“If It Be Your Will,” tender and reverential, is one of those songs that is both timeless and timely. Timeless: we all, no matter the era in which we live, must accept our mortality, whether or not we believe there is a greater power to surrender to. Timely: it just takes one look at the news to see conflict, the intense anger, fear and pain so many experience, in the USA and elsewhere. In the last verse of the song, Cohen reminds us that we are all children of light, but with our fear of each other, we’ve lost sight of our true connectedness. We’re “dressed to kill”; our light is in rags. “Draw us near and bind us tight”: We need to come together to end the darkness of our despair. At a 1985 performance in Warsaw (the song was written over three decades ago), Cohen told his audience:
I don’t know which side anybody’s on anymore and I don’t really care. There’s a moment we have to transcend the side we’re on and understand that we are creatures of a higher order…There are, on both sides…people of good will. That is important to remember…Some struggling for freedom, some struggling for safety.[As a] solemn testimony of that unbroken faith which binds the generations one to another, I sing this song, If It Be Your Will.
With so many of Cohen’s songs—whether they be timeless, timely, tender and/or fierce—I am inspired by a sense of something greater, something sublime, something divine. His use of religious imagery and a reverential tone often help to convey that majesty. Time and again, Leonard Cohen has taken me out of myself and into the Mystery. Now Leonard has passed on to another dimension of the Mystery, and I will miss him.
“Let the Grief Inform Your Throat”
In writing this tribute to Leonard Cohen, I noticed a pull to include his friendship with a beautiful singer named Jennifer Warnes. They were kindred spirits, if not soul mates. In sharing their relationship, I believe I shed light on the heart and soul of Mr. Cohen. Ms. Warnes, who remained devoted friends with him from their first meeting in 1971, perhaps knew Cohen best.
Over the years, Jennifer Warnes sang back up for Cohen, and in 1987 they worked together on her album “Famous Blue Raincoat.” This album, paying tribute to Cohen’s music, infused new life into his career, which at the time was at an ebb. In discussing the album’s release, Cohen sketched (on a restaurant table mat) what Jennifer later called the album’s “true cover and unofficial title”: “Jenny Sings Lenny.” I include this piece of info as a wee testament to the special relationship the two artists had. The sketch appears at 1:33 in the above video.
Jennifer, who felt she was “born to be his conduit…born to bring the inner sound of what he did out,” loved Leonard for his gentleness, tenderness and “radical kindness.” Given the multitude of women drawn to him, she decided to become “an artistic friend, a creative friend, rather than a romantic friend.” (From a recent interview.) That decision may well have enhanced the beauty and longevity of their creative collaboration.
Several years ago, when Jennifer felt she could not perform when her mother passed away, Leonard told her:
Absolutely do not cancel. Show up and let the grief inform your throat. Remember Jenny, everyone has a mother, and audiences love the truth.
Jennifer Warnes, with her evocative voice and her throat informed with grief, is the perfect person here to sing “goodbye and God bless you, dearest Leonard.”
[Update: months after writing this blog post, I’ve discovered that the video I’d included of Jennifer singing “If It Be Your Will” was deleted by Vimeo. I am saddened by this. Nowhere online can I find a copy of her solo version, which is incomparable in my view. So, I will include here the duet version with Leonard and Jennifer.]
I’d love for you to share your feelings about Cohen, the song “If It Be Your Will,” plus anything else contained in this blog, in the comments section below. What is your favourite Leonard Cohen song? What makes it so special?
To read more about Cohen, please visit my last “Music to Build Bridges” blog post, Cohen, KD and Hallelujah. By the way, which of his songs would you like to learn more about? More Cohen posts are in the works, so please “stayed tuned.”