He was rowed down from the north in a leather skiff manned by a crew of
trolls. His fur cape was caked with candle wax, his brow stained blue by wine
- though the latter was seldom noticed due to the fox mask he wore at-all
times. A quill in his teeth, a solitary teardrop a-squirm in his palm, he was
the young poet prince of Montreal, handsome, immaculate, searching for
sturdier doors to nail his poignant verses on.|
In Manhattan, grit drifted into his ink bottle. In Vienna, his spice box
exploded. On the Greek island of Hydra, Orpheus came to him at dawn astride a
transparent donkey and restrung his cheap guitar. From that moment on, he
shamelessly and willingly exposed himself to the contagion of music. To the
secretly religious curiosity of the traveler was added the openly foolhardy
dignity of the troubadour. By the time he returned to America, songs were
working in him like bees in an attic. Connoisseurs developed cravings for his
nocturnal honey, despite the fact that hearts were occasionally stung.
Now, thirty years later, as society staggers towards the millennium - nailing
and screeching at the while, like an orangutan with a steak knife in its side
- Leonard Cohen, his vision, his gift, his perseverance, are finally getting
their due. It may be because he speaks to this wounded zeitgeist with
particular eloquence and accuracy, it may be merely cultural time-lag, another
example of the slow-to-catch-on many opening their ears belatedly to what the
few have been hearing all along. In any case, the sparkle curtain has
shredded, the boogie-woogie gate has rocked loose from ist hinges, and here
sits L. Cohen at an altar in the garden, solemnly enjoying newfound popularity
and expanded respect.
>From the beginning, his musical peers have recognized Cohen´s ability to
establish succinct analogies among life´s realities, his talent for creating
intimate relationships between the interior world of longing and language and
the exterior world of trains and violins. Even those performers who have
neither "covered" his compositions nor been overtly influenced by them have
professed to admire their artfulness: the darkly delicious melodies - aural
bouquets of gardenia and thistle - that bring to mind an electrified, de-
Germanized Kurt Weill; the playfully (and therefore dangerously) mournful
lyrics that can peel the apple of love and the peach of lust with a knife that
cuts all the way to the mystery, a layer Cole Porter just could`t expose. It
is their desire to honour L. Cohen, songwriter, that has prompted a delegation
of our brightest artists to climb, one by one, joss sticks smoldering, the
steep and salty staircase in the Tower of Song.
There is evidence that the honoree might be privy to the secret of the
universe, which, in case you´re wondering, is simply this: everything is
connected. Everything. Many, if not most, of the links are difficult to
determine. The instrument, the apparatus, the focused ray that can uncover and
illuminate those connections is language. And just as a sudden infatuation
often will light up a person´s biochemical atmosphere more pyrotechnically
than any deep, abiding attachment, so an unlikely, unexpected burst of
linguistic imagination will usually reveal greater truths than the most
exacting scholarship. In fact. The poetic image may be the only device
remotely capable of dissecting romantic passion, let alone disclosing the
inherent mystical qualities of the material world.
Cohen is a master of the quasi-surrealistic phrase, of the "illogical" line
that speaks so directly to the unconscious that surface ambiguity is
transformed into ultimate, if fleeting, comprehension: comprehension of the
bewitching nuances of sex and bewildering assaults of culture. Undoubtedly, it
is to his lyrical mastery that his prestigious colleagues now pay tribute.
Yet, there may be something else. As various, as distinct, as rewarding as
each of their expressions are, there can still be heard in their individual
interpretations the distant echo of Cohen´s own voice, for it is his singing
voice as well as his writing pen that has spawned these songs.
It is a voice raked by the claws of Cupid, a voice rubbed raw by the
philosopher´s stone. A voice marinated in kirschwasser, sulfur, deer musk and
snow; bandaged with sackcloth from a ruined monastery; warmed by the embers
left down near the river after the gypsies have gone.
It is a penitent´s voice, a rabbinical voice, a crust of unleavened vocal
toasts - spread with smoke and subversive wit. He has a voice like a carpet in
an old hotel, like a bad itch on the hunchback of love. It is a voice meant
for pronouncing the names of women - and cataloging their sometimes hazardous
charms. Nobody can say the word "naked" as nakedly as Cohen. He makes us see
the markings where the pantyhose have been.
Finally, the actual persona of their creator may be said to haunt these songs,
although details of his private lifestyle can be only surmised. A decade ago,
a teacher who called himself Shree Bhagwan Rajneesh came up with the name
"Zorba the Buddha" to describe the ideal modern man: A contemplative man who
maintains a strict devotional bond with cosmic energies, yet is completely at
home in the physical realm. Such a man knows the value of the dharma and the
value of the deutschmark, knows how much to tip a waiter in a Paris nightclub
and how many times to bow in a Kyoto shrine, a man who can do business when
business is necessary, allow his mind to enter a pine cone, or dance in wild
abandon if moved by the tune. Refusing to shun beauty, this Zorba the Buddha
finds in ripe pleasures not a contradiction but an affirmation of the
spiritual self. Doesn´t he sound a lot like Leonard Cohen?
We have been led to picture Cohen spending his mornings meditating in Armani
suits, his afternoons wrestling the muse, his evenings sitting in cafes were
he eats, drinks and speaks soulfully but flirtatiously with the pretty larks
of the street. Quite possibly this is a distorted portrait. The apocryphical,
however, has a special kind of truth.
It doesn´t really matter. What matters here is that after thirty years, L.
Cohen is holding court in the lobby of the whirlwind, and that giants have
gathered to pay him homage. To him - and to us - they bring the offerings they
have hammered from his iron, his lead, his nitrogen, his gold.