Audio Book/Video podcast: https://youtu.be/QHhWlWRH0UI
I want to write a different kind of book about Leonard Cohen. Nothing biographical or academic but something that would emulate and mirror the music. So what kind of book would that be then?
Certainly, the words would have to be well chosen, the meaning compressed, the form tight. There would have to have a good simple melody; it would have to be minimalistic — suggest more than it reveals. It would be highly enjoyable, and yet at the same time provocative; it would not fear to enter dark landscapes of the soul. Its philosophical pessimism would evoke hope and good-will; from the knowledge that things fall apart would arise a broken hallelujah. Perhaps I would add a choir of female backup singers (not sure how to achieve that effect in prose yet!).
So even though this is an amateur work — in other words written without promise of money but for sheer love of a man — I am not writing about Mr. Cohen without aim or vision. Each chapter is meant to be like a song in prose rather than a journalistic exposé, a compressed and suggest tune. Much is left unsaid and unspoken, and much is implied. Again, I think this is harmonious with Leonard’s own style and method.
I’ve got no interest here in gossip, nor do I pretend to be without subjectivity here. And much as I am a fan, I aspire to meet Mr. Cohen as a fellow songwriter and writer. This is a highly personal and passionate conversation with the works of an elder. It’s written with a fool’s freedom. I skip the Hollywood gossip, and go straight for the gold: his works. These essays are my way of humming along with his songs, but they also seek to be prose songs in themselves. As a songwriter myself, I work on the art of compression, and try to pack as much meaning as possible into a limited, formal space. You could also say these are a series of unrequited love letters, in the spirit of troubadour (Cohen said somewhere that he didn’t consider himself precisely a poet but a troubadour; though he was being falsely modest I know what he means. Artistically, I am Leonard Cohen’s devoted student; personally, I like to think of him as a Jewish father to my goy soul.
On the subject of Leonard Cohen the jew, I’ve done brief study here of how certain aspects of Judaism have affected his work. Without knowing very much about the Jewish religion, I have come into contact, by serendipity, with Cohen’s last Jewish teacher and self-declared heretic, Rebbi Yakov Leib HaKohain, who has been instrumental in writing this. While writing, I listened to the rabbi’s podcasts and his fiery sermons on the Zohar, and a richness insights flowed into these writings from that.
Strangely enough, I also met the late Kyozan Joshu Sazaki Roshi a couple of times at Mt. Baldy and in Montreal in late 90’s, a fiery Zen teacher from the Rinzai tradition who lived to the ripe old age of 107. Both of these men are beings who are rare, challenging, unpopular to many, and who one only meets by serendipity, chance, or blessings, as far as I can see. They are some of the secret sources of Cohen’s genius, and I am so fortunate to have felt their influence, if only a little. These chance meetings had an aura of fate, and Cohen and his teachers are always on my mind for one reason or another.
In Zen, which Cohen (and myself less intensely) studied for years, there is something called a Teisho. It’s a bit different than a sermon, in the sense that it is spoken without meaning to convince or convert. A teisho is a short and heartfelt exposition where words arise spontaneously. I conceived of these writings in that vein. If scholarly or theological elements come up, they are always secondary to deeper message being transmitted. And the speaker of a Teisho never knows what he is going to say before he speaks; there is little overall plan — that is how I have written this.
My hope is that these pages will allow people to enter Leonard Cohen’s works more deeply — as writing this has done for me. Like William Blake, Leonard Cohen’s lyrics contain a code language revealing a deeper world, little golden keys. For instance, when he talks about ‘Boogie Street’, he is speaking of samsara, or the wheel of birth and death; like the modernists James Joyce or T.S. Eliot, tradition is enlivened by the language and forms of popular culture. Nobody has ever told us what boogie street is for, he sings, perhaps because nobody ever can. Poetry exists to reveal mystery rather than gives us an explanation or a prescription for how to live.
In short: this is a dialogue with Cohen’s work, a way to uncover its profundities and joys, and to wrestle with its difficulties. My main method of research has simply been to listen to his songs and let them move through me. Often I write after meditation, which helps me open to what the bard is revealing to me. The more I uncover, the more surprises I find by this man whose has haunted me since he was my slum Landlord in Montreal, way back in the late 1990’s.
I don’t know why they sent me here to raise my voice in song sings Leonard. Similarly, I don’t know why I am compelled to speak about his works. Who knows why we do what we do: why we fall in love, for instance? In falling we cannot reason, we can only fall deeper. I can only say I have found Cohen an inexhaustible well, and I hope that more people in future generations will be lucky enough to fall into that sweet well.
(Note: most words in italics are lines from Cohen’s songs)
Meditations on Leonard Cohen #2
(written about a month before his death)
Leonard, I would say that you are number one, and I’m number zero — Bob Dylan
When people say they find the music of Leonard Cohen ‘depressing’, I reach for my shotgun — metaphorically speaking. Another friend of mine called his music ‘dark’, which annoys me even more. Bono once said that Cohen’s music is ‘brightly coloured’, which is more just. Those who find Leonard Cohen dark and depressing, just haven’t heard the ‘smile’ in his music, or noticed just how deep that smile goes (a thousand kisses deep perhaps?).
Leonard Cohen didn’t make serious music until he was over 30, so it’s normal that his music appeals to adults, not those stuck in permanent adolescence; he was always considered more European than American. In Europe older artists are beloved, and the cult of youth is not so pronounced. American pop culture sacrifices its young to to the moloch of drugs and fame, while the very few rise above. Leonard Cohen was a little different: firstly, he was Canadian and already quite mature when he was first noticed. He had already lived so much, avoided many of the deadly traps that fame provides a young and unformed person.
Cohen’s great songs bitter and sweet in equal measures; they have a supreme balance of taste, like a good vintage. The music is always subordinate to what is being said, unlike pop music which privileges sensation over meaning. Folk music can be sickly sweet, message-oriented, or nihilistic, and singer/songwriters are often known to wallow in narcissism — but Cohen is on another level. He is detached enough to make you laugh; engaged enough to cut you to pieces; he knows that he is putting on a show and how to make it real at the same time. That is why there is no better vocal music to put on after making love, in that state of infinite weariness and receptivity.
Sometimes it’s better to listen to artists than critics when talking about other artists. Bob Dylan, the first to notice that Hallelujah was a great song, got it right: he noted that while people talk about Cohen’s words all the time, they miss the brilliance of his ‘melody’ and understate his quality as a musician. The melodies are deep and subtle, which explains their lasting power; and unlike most singers Cohen’s voice became richer and fuller over time, as all those unnecessary high notes fell away. Some people say that Cohen has no voice, but they don’t notice how deep in the belly it really is. It’s a purely intimate voice, whispering in your ear, like the talking that goes on in lovemaking — again. It’s no surprise that when Leonard Cohen was a young man he was a master at hypnosis: he is hypnotic but also highly wakeful, connected to the heart. Cohen songs contain that three-in-the-morning wakefulness, for those moments of void and atonement.
I may be uniquely qualified to say something about Leonard Cohen’s music for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I know something of the landscape of his youth. Coincidentally again, I lived for ten years in his old neighbourhood in Montreal, and briefly in his old house, by the Portuguese park off Marie-Anne, which was Zen temple at the time. For a few years I practiced Rinzai zen in the same lineage: a lineage that is both austere and severe, but which also has an unsurpassed sense of humour. On top of all that, I received the same degree as Cohen in Literature at McGill University. The parallels are striking in my choice of hobbies: Zen, writing, and song. It’s as if I have been unconsciously following or imitating him all my life! But back when I met him in the 1990’s I had little idea of his effect on me. I was even surprised when a reviewer described my first album, called ‘Monotone’ — which was named thinking of Zen chanting — as ‘Cohenesque’. His influence wasn’t apparent to me at the time but actually grew on me over the years.
Oh how well I now those ragged and poetic nights of Montreal bohemia! As a young twenty-something I lingered at the same type of open-mic cabarets that Montreal is famous for, opening for such singers as Rufus Wainwright and Godspeed You Black Emperor, who have since achieved some measure of fame. In the late 1990’s, before internet took hold, there was a lively scene there. Cohen has said that Montreal was in some ways more vibrant than the bigger cosmopolitan places like New York; perhaps because of the severe cold there was a lot of warmth generated in the arts scene. Montreal was the perfect place to be free and irresponsible and to make art — to get out of the rat race. But As Cohen once wrote ‘Beward of Montreal in Winter. It will bring everything down.’ The pull of that brightly coloured world, the women and the poetry, the dissolution these engender, are bound to lead one to religion or ruin!
I crossed paths with Leonard Cohen once, at the Zen Centre. Being an ambitious young songwriter, I had recorded a demo cassette, which I passed on to him. Leonard — always the perfect gentleman — graciously accepted my demo entitled Soon, Soon and said ‘A good title.’ He declined my invitation to a show I was playing that night and told me he had previous engagements, but the next day he asked me how it was: ‘A tough gig’, I replied. I had played to a half empty room with a bad sound system, where the espresso machine drowned out my un-miked acoustic guitar. ‘I’ve had my share of tough gigs’, he said, making us feel on the same level — even though he was an established world superstar, and I was washing dishes to pay the rent and playing music in a pizza parlour. Our meeting was full of warmth — the same warmth as his music — for the man and the music were the same combination of warmth, intelligence, and wit. Those songs are not depressing in the least: they are the antidote to depression.
During the Zen retreat Leonard was just another face, in a sea of faces, meditating in his dark robe, looking like a very exhausted old man. I could hear his voice chanting ‘gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha’ — which means ‘gone, gone gone to the other shore’ — a voice that was pronounced even in that setting. Few people know how that Japanese chanting affected his vocal styling and the hard work he did in Zen temples — or much about the ‘the secret life’ he sang about. Like me he washed dishes, but voluntarily — not because he needed pay the rent. Perhaps he submitted to all that arduous hard work as a counterbalance to the luxury of being a star; he knew how detrimental ‘being special’ could be to the soul. In Zen practice, nobody is special, nobody is a star,. The practice is communal, but also purely solitary.
After the retreat and the celebratory feast, I brought home his leftover lamb chops, which couldn’t be kept in the temple. After Zen monks life as a Vegetarian, when Leonard was in Montreal he went to a famous Jewish Deli to get some sacramental meat and liquor. When I brought the meat home I told my roommates proudly: ‘These are Leonard Cohen’s leftover lamb chops’. We ate them in silent awe and admiration as if they were a blessed substance.
That year I wrote Leonard a letter later by post: I addressed it to Mount Baldy Zen Centre, where he was apparently living an austere life. In the letter I wrote, among other things: ‘I am your son’. I was told that the letter caused a bit of a stir in the monastery, but I never knew why. It was pretty arrogant for me to say that, but there was something true there too. We are all the sons and daughters of those artists we love the best, and we are doomed to imitate them, until we can ‘make it real’ ourselves. Gasso. (A Japanese bow)
Meditations on Leonard Cohen #3
People who love Leonard Cohen ascribe saint-like qualities to the man. But before we canonised him, perhaps we should enlarge our notion of what is a saint. The Buddhist/Jewish saint (or Boo-jew) might actually have a wild sense of humour and be a bit of a hedonist. He might be an eccentric mensch (Yiddish for all round super guy) rather than someone with an aura of holiness. He might not feed the the lepers, but still feed those burning hearts in hell nonetheless.
The only time I saw Leonard Cohen’s live was at his final show in Paris in 2013. I had been afraid beforehand that I might be disappointed, as he performs more or less the same set every time, and I have heard those songs a million times. In the end, I couldn’t have been more wrong. After the first couple of minutes, tears began pouring from my eyes. I was struck by the fact that he was on his knees maybe half the time he was singing, as if in worshipful prayer. Those later later shows had the uncanny quality of a religious advent, as all great collective expressions of art should.
Watching an early documentary on YouTube, I got the sense that most rock critics didn’t really have an adequate language to speak about Leonard Cohen. It helps to study spiritual and poetic traditions if you want to go deeper into the ‘secret life’ Cohen sings about, although the resonance of his songs will be present nonetheless. Perhaps, as one who has studied Zen a little bit I can offer some insight here. In Japanese Zen practice there is a strict container for meditation and work — everything is ritualised — and one performs the same gestures over and over again until they becomes perfectly natural. The paradox of Zen is that real spontaneity cannot exist within freedom, but only within limits; the limits themselves are the freedom, as every artist knows.
Although each show in the ‘Grand Tour’ was nearly exactly the same, Cohen was able to make those songs anew every single night. This was different than in the early days of his careers when performances appeared painful, a simulation, a parroting of feelings that had already had their time. But Zen training taught Cohen to perform from the zero point, as if for the first time, each moment. Perhaps that is why every concert he did from the age of 70 on was a memorable event — I have never spoken to anybody who didn’t feel that way about his later shows.
The remarkable thing about the last tours was to see an elderly man reach the summit of his spiritual powers so late in life. Usually such power is spent and wasted on youth, but Cohen actually seems to have experienced a ‘second life’ or spiritual rebirth at around seventy. The hunchback, the demon on his back, the beast with its horn, seems to have completely fallen away, and left him finally and totally available to his audience.
In those shows there was a sense that he worshiped his audience as intensely as they worshiped him — the sympathy was absolute. The fact that the band was a bit campy only added to the charm: Cohen didn’t need to be avant-guard because the substance was there. He played slow and not too loud (as in the song: I always liked it slow) because the audience was fully present. To be at those shows felt like ‘going home’ to quote another song title.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Cohen never burned out or became a nostalgic act; his last album is as good as the first. He showed that that one’s craft can be refined, purified, deepened over a lifetime; that an artist’s life doesn’t have to be an early bloom followed by a slow decay, which is the typical American outcome. A lifetime artist blossoms as a greater flower of spirit over time, even as the body is falls apart.
The few other songwriters with literary chops — like Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Lou Reed to name a few — have also endured, because they were poets I believe. But Cohen is in a different category. The former are poets ‘on fire’: their style is swaggering, theatrical, operatic, Homeric, BIG. They come from the school of Bob Dylan’s American, whereas Leonard comes from that far away country of ice and snow. He is a planet all of his own: Un Canadien errant, as one of his songs is named.
Cohen is the opposite force to rock and rock: he is what your spirit craves when you are tired of sonic overload and after the youthful excess has burned away. There is plenty of soul in Cohen there but almost no aggression there; he is never in a rush. He has a broken voice, but he is at ease with brokenness. The ‘Leonard Cohen afterworld’, as Kurt Cobain sang, is the place where hubris has died.
Cohen was absurdly modest, almost embarrassed to be a star, while at the same time he possessed a remarkable degree of confidence. This might be a peculiar ‘Canadian’ quality: Canada, the country where vast northern spaces make no room for the ego but let the spirit grow large. The individual melts into the terrifying northern beauty and vast wild spaces, is shattered against snow banks. That climate of Montreal, where winters are colder than Leningrad and summers are sweltering hot with armies of mosquitoes — that may be a perfect training ground for the Boo-jew saint.
In any case, if Cohen was a saint, it was not poverty but plenitude and generosity that made him one (although he did spend some times in a pretty harsh, aesthetic monastic environment). Of course Cohen also sang about being a sinner. According to his last teacher Rebbe Jakob, only a sinner can repair God, therefore only a sinner can be saint — or know God, in other words. How does the sinner like Cohen repair God? By offering up his sins, his dualities, his complexities, his contradictions, his sufferings — back to God, through that form of prayer called popular song.
The Wretched Beast is Tame
Meditations on Leonard Cohen #4
“Dylan’s achievement is so monumental. He was the Picasso. I’m the Matisse. I love Matisse, but I’m in awe of Picasso.” Leonard Cohen (1992)
Comparing Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen is to compare two archetypes. They are like alchemical poles. Dylan is all fire and speed in creation: he creates faster than he thinks, burns through forms and styles with lightning intensity and indifference to what is left behind. Conversely, Cohen is the deep earth, the slow bloom, the melody that comes from the perfection of waiting, intensity of concern and care for every syllable. Dylan is the hyperactivity and electricity of American generative force; Cohen is the slow ballad of deep European roots and soil.
Picasso’s, like Dylan’s, brilliance stuns, blinds, and seduces us; it revolutionising in its spirit; is endless in its provocations. It is also endless frustrating and elusive because we can’t pin Dylan, or Picasso for that matter, down. When we tire of that capricious youthful energy of Picasso and seek repose — we can count on Cezanne’s mountains and their depths. Cezanne painted hundreds of the same Mount Sainte Victorie; similarly, a Cohen song is structurally and thematically more or less a variation of the same theme. Cohen has only one theme, only one mountain. But that mountain, that perspective — like Cezanne’s mountain — can be regarded from every point of view.
In my twenties and thirties I listened to Bob Dylan, and now in my forties I listen to Leonard Cohen. Dylan resonates with a younger person. A person in their twenties and thirties is gloriously narcissistic and self-centered — as Dylan obviously was. The young fail in love because they are mostly in love with themselves and their own creation: their spirituality is subjective, they haven’t contemplated their own ‘doom’ sufficiently to feel that they are anything other than immortal.
I don’t mean to criticise Dylan, for he was truly great as well. His so-called protest songs were always transcendental, even if he appeared to be writing about the social issues of the day. Of course, such songs are relevant to the realm of politics but are rooted in the Self, with a capital S. Similarly, in Cohen, politicking is not really the main concern. Not to say these singers were indifferent to the happenings of the world, only, as artists, they worked with the sources of those concerns more than their outward manifestation. Deep art doesn’t have to take on the events of the world directly to illuminate — in fact, the mistake of conceptual art is to be too overtly literal, a meaningless diary of incidents. Both Dylan and Cohen tapped into a deeper mythological truth than verité.
While youth is about fire and energy, the second and the third act are about repose and ‘coming come’. In that sense Dylan and Picasso represent youth, and Cohen and Cezanne, maturity. We are in awe of youth, certainly it has it’s glory. But as we learn from our ‘doom’ (Dylan sang: it’s doom alone that counts). We need the strength that comes from weariness with time. (Cohen sang: My love aren’t you tired yet?) And in that weariness, in that darkness, we find repose and a deeper kind of force and illumination.
This is not to say that Dylan didn’t do great mature work as well — he did. But one senses a certain devastation in his later work — which has a sublime beauty of it’s own — and yet we feel that he hasn’t quite slain that beast. In Cohen the wretched beast is tame. There is a sense of reconciliation, which he aimed for and achieves in his later career. And this kind of reconciliation, as I have pointed out several times in these essays, is quite rare. Most of us are still out there fighting with that monumental beast.
The Silent One
Meditations on Leonard Cohen #5
Most singers do their best work in early life, in the summit of their physical prowess. Bob Dylan, for instance, experienced a few years of illuminated genius where everything he wrote was inspired — but we feel his light dimmed somewhat over time. Dylan’s best later work was coloured by nostalgia: he never quite recovered the brilliance of a song like ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’. Dylan mostly stopped singing about the future and instead sang about regret and loss — the blues in other words. But an early song like ‘Hard Rain’ was about ‘the world to come’ — in other words, the future — it was prophetic and poetic in the biblical sense. Dylan seems to have lost that taste for prophecy — not to dismiss his very great later works, but he has turned his back to the future to sing about a forgotten golden age.
Leonard Cohen, on the other hand, is the inverse of Dylan. Arguably, he did his best work — and definitely his best performances — in the final years. And Cohen never lost that prophetic sharpness or his visions of the future. He was always looking forward — albeit with dread — but with the steady determination of a captain steering his ship though dark water. The future is murder, he sings, and yet the future is also revelation: the bright soul is revealed and blooms even in the nasty business of ageing and dying. The future is both disintegration and becoming and Cohen embraced both.
Why didn’t Cohen lose that original spark as so many artists do? One answer may be a certain hygiene: he balanced hedonism with intense bouts of monastic solitude; he balanced fame with anonymity, vulnerability with toughness of thinking, pleasure with conscious suffering. While serving a teacher and doing Zen training seriously, it was less important for him to be Leonard Cohen than Jihan, which means the silent one, and is his Buddhist name.
I sense that Cohen was running towards anonymity rather than fame, while fame was chasing after him. I don’t think Dylan was chasing after fame particularly either, but both were looking for something more essential — they were on a spiritual quest. We are drawn to such artists even more when they turn away from us, and both Dylan and Cohen were good at the disappearance act. The deeper ambition of a great artist isn’t fame but transfiguration and transcendence. Perfection of the soul means casting the shackles of personality aside: the person is just mask in the end, as Cohen and Dylan both knew well.
In interviews, Cohen was always deflecting, one feels his frustration when asked about his personal life. His extreme politeness was surely a survival mechanism, and with the vampires of fame surrounding him, he rarely complained. Still you feel he was in anguish when he wasn’t being asked the essential questions. Sadly, the average person just wants a nice pop jingle and gossip about an entertaining personality. Cohen, ever hospitable, gave the audience that as well.
Cohen had old world manners; he wasn’t condescending or defensive. Even his fedora suits show that he treated his position seriously and not casually. He had the ability to make the somewhat ridiculous occasion, like an interview, into something intimate and beautiful. His performances had this same quality, even in large venues: intimacy and humour.
I’ve Seen The Future and It Is Murder
Meditations on Leonard Cohen #6
As soon as I heard that Godzilla had been elected (I still believe it is unwise to give him any more ‘free advertising’ by mentioning his name) I put on the song Democracy by Leonard Cohen. The next morning I found out that Leonard had died at the age of 82.
The Future has some of Cohen’s most prophetic songs from the early 90’s. In it he makes the more obvious prediction that things are going to slide in all directions. And yet despite the catalogue of horrors he envisions (the breaking of the western code / fires on the road and the white man dancing / a woman hanging upside down, her features covered by her fallen gown) the songs are somehow upbeat — they make you feel better. That is because truth, no matter how bleak, is what the soul needs and wants to hear. And the truth is neither black nor white, as the song goes. The truth is complex and deep.
While letting the recent election debacle sink in, it occurred to me: in such genuinely apocalyptic times there is no more appropriate, instructive, healing and poetically truthful voice out there that I can think of than Leonard Cohen. Many people in the past have characterised Cohen’s work as depressive, while at the same time they put his music on in their most ecstatic moments. Again, I want to repeat: Cohen song are the antidote to depression, and there is no more effective medication that I can think of than his songs, especially now.
A couple weeks before Cohen’s death I wrote an essay about meeting him and what his music meant to me; but since his death I’ve realised that I wasn’t done talking about him yet. If I can’t write a Leonard Cohen song (and believe me I have tried) the next best thing might be to write a commentary on his work. Sometimes it is better to meditate on a work of art rather than to make it, and during times of low energy and creation, I often listen to Cohen for sustenance. We have to be careful not to become the lousy little poets trying to sound like Charlie Manson that Cohen spoke of in Democracy; we should listen to a mature and deeply intelligent voice like Cohen’s. If today’s society, where Godzilla and reality TV are at the helm, what we really need are adults. Cohen wrote music for adults, not the overgrown babies of American privilege. And this is what the future needs: mature beings to restore the humours of life.
What does it mean that democracy is coming to the USA? Does it mean that democracy is the ultimate calamity? Well, certainly the fascist leaders of the 20th century were elected democratically, but that’s not really the point. It might be best not to reach for an answer to such questions, instead hold that statement in its resonant complexity. What is this democracy?
Cohen tells us democracy is both a boon and a pestilence: ‘It’s coming like the tidal flood beneath the lunar sway; Imperial, mysterious, In amorous array; Democracy is coming to the USA’. Well, it’s here: Democracy is the whore of Babylon here, decked out in all her finery. She is garish, she is spectacular, she is calamitous. She is the ultimate bitch Godzilla. But as she tears the world apart we have to finally see that: ‘The heart has to open in a fundamental way’.
Ok, I will say “her” name just once: Donald. ‘She’ might be the terrible whore Cohen sang about. If you you want to know precisely why the maniacs in Trump Tower will soon run the American machine go and listen to the song Democracy by Leonard Cohen.
Let Me Take This Temple Down
Meditations on Leonard Cohen #7
Like the ancient troubadours who sang the ‘news’ though song, Leonard Cohen responded to traumatic global events, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall or Hurricane Katrina, through little manifestos of the heart. The news he sang of was the spiritual news, not a record of facts and statistics, but as a deep feeling response to the epic upheavals in our world.
In the song ‘Samson in New Orleans’ he sings: So gather up the killers / Get everyone in town / Stand me by those pillars / Let me take this temple down. Notice that Cohen doesn’t preach, he volunteers. Cohen will take the temple of illusion, the temple of the killers down all by himself. In saying these he is taking responsibility, rather than casting blame. This tells me that he is deep, in a spiritual way, because all deep spirituality is fundamentally about ultimate responsibility. The revolution Cohen sings about is the secret one, the revolution of the heart. When the foundations of the house are rotten and the imperial power has become the ultimate Whore of Babylon — what else is there to do but do the spiritual work oneself? The whore has to be unrobed — imaginatively. Not though blind and violent revolution but through inner conversion.
And we who cried for mercy / From the bottom of the pit / Was our prayer so damn unworthy / The Son rejected it? This anguished interrogation is not only for the American powers that be, but also for God. Does Jesus (the son) not hear the prayers of the poor and the destitute? Why has God forsaken them? Why are the innocent sacrificed in the engines of power, while the prodigal son sits on a golden throne with his mouth full of steak? You can hear the anguish in Cohen’s voice in these later works, a new kind of emotion: the anguish of compassion.
The king so kind and solemn / He wears a bloody crown / So stand me by that column / Let me take this temple down. There is the crown of spiritual and the crown of worldly power. The crown of power rules over its empire in imperial disarray, while the spiritual crown lies hidden in the wreckage.
You said how could this happen/You said how can this be/The remnant all dishonoured/On the bridge of misery. Dishonoured may be a polite word for rape here — the rape of the world by mismanagement. We are talking about a violation here — a twofold violation by man and also nature. We stand on the the bridge between militarism and the crushing maw of nature and her storms. Where is mercy and love, intelligence and wisdom there? Imagine the helpless people of Hurricane Katrina being pushed deeper into the pit of misery, doubly helpless against nature and an affluent class, which protects the privileged and leaves its poor behind to drown.
You said you loved her secrets / And her freedoms hid away / She was better than America / That’s what I heard you say. New Orleans here is the ‘soul of America’ — she is ‘better than America’. She is the spiritual power of America found in in Jazz music, the greatest art form America has given the world. New Orleans represents a land of real soul in the midst of a phantasmagorical shopping mall wasteland.
One would hope America (Samson the strongman) with its bloody crown and shorn head would weep with remorse for what it has done to the world. Not so. The golden-headed devil is riding high and there is going to be an even more terrible storm. This is the ‘denial’ of love, of homeland, of reason, of goodness, and nothing can be measured anymore.
Let us finally take down the temple of a bully America and find that real ‘land of plenty’. For the temple is actually a tinsel town whorehouse, filled with harlots and philistines. (There’s a woman in the window. There’s a bed in Tinsel Town).
You said how could this happen?/You said how can this be?/The chains are gone from heaven/The storms are wild and free. How could this happen indeed? And yet the impossible can and will happen. New Orleans, after a terrible storm, was shorn by government henchman and profiteers. Human corruption is as much to blame as nature (the dams were improperly constructed). Is America broken or is Democracy coming to the USA? A dangerous new clown antichrist is sitting in the White House throne of blood with the nuclear codes. So let us take this the temple down.