Popular Music and Spirituality, Leonard Cohen

Popular Music and Spirituality, Leonard Cohen

By Fr. Robert Vallee

I love the songs of Leonard Cohen more than those of any other modern lyricist. If we were compiling a modern-day Old Testament, Leonard could cover the entire book of Psalms and half of Proverbs. He is a poet and a mystic, a sensualist and a bit of a Buddhist monk. Like the “little jews” who wrote our bible – old and new, Hebrew and Greek parts – he calls out from the darkness of this world so as “to gain the light.” True Cohen fans do not care that his singing voice eventually reached Dylanesque levels of decrepitude and Cash-like creaking and croaking – his songs, like those of Dylan or Cash, never depended on purity of voice anyway. His voice is a light bearing within itself all shades of darkness. I imagine this is how Ezechiel sounded when he prophesied over “dem dry, dead and desiccated bones.” If you want to compare dark tonalities, listen to Bob Dylan’s Tempest or Johnny Cash’s American Highways, vols. 3-5. They, too, turn croaks, wheezes and exhausted muttering into an art form and into a blinded prayer for light. As the blind man sat by the road, he must have sounded like Dylan, Cash or Cohen.

Leonard Cohen shows us that the great protest or political singers do not have to sing explicitly “protest” or “political” songs. By the greatness of their art alone, they are protesting and political, horrified and hopeful. In interviews at the time, “Leonard referred to democracy as ‘the greatest religion the West has produced,’ adding, ‘[as] Chesterton said about religion, it’s a great idea, too bad nobody’s tried it.’” Or as Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for every other form that has been tried.” Ah well, enough old quotes! Let’s take a detailed look at the exquisite lyric of Cohen’s Democracy:

“It’s coming through a hole in the air,

from those nights in Tiananmen Square.

It’s coming from the feel

that this ain’t exactly real,

or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there.

From the wars against disorder, from the sirens night and day,

from the fires of the homeless, from the ashes of the gay:

Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

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 U.S.A.”

The first verse gives a novel approach to the question of democracy. Instead of beginning from some general notion of the common good, ala Aristotle, or the greatest possible good, ala utilitarianism. The move toward democracy arises from, “the fires of the homeless and the ashes of gay,” from “the staggering account of the Sermon on the Mount” … and … “the brave, the bold, the battered heart of Chevrolet.” Leonard’s Jewishness persists here, alongside his Buddhism and his Christianity. God has a preferential option for the poor, the widow, the stranger, the drunk, the addict and those whom society spurns – the stones which the builders keep rejecting keep becoming the cornerstones. By the Lord is this done; it is a marvel in our eyes. The Hebrew Scripture gives this group of scorned stones a name, the anawhim, which is, of course, emblematic of a much longer list.

Also, notice that, “its coming through a crack in the wall.” One cannot help but think of the line from Cohen’s Anthem: “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. 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.” The crucifixion, the scourging at the pillar, exiles in Egypt and Babylon – all of these – show that there is a crack in everything, which is how the light gets in. All the way back to Genesis, the fall is a felix culpa, a happy fault that brought forth so great a Savior. If there were no original traumas of separation from Divine love, there would be no need for religion in the properly etymological sense of the word. Re-ligare means to be “re-bound.” There would be no need to be rebound, lest we had been loosed from love, by sin in the first place.

When I first heard this song, many years ago, it was this verse that blew me away:

“It’s coming to America first,

the cradle of the best and of the worst.

It’s here they got the range

and the machinery for change

and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.

It’s here the family’s broken and it’s here the lonely say

that the heart has got to open in a fundamental way:

Democracy is coming to the U.S.A. “

Cohen tends, at least in his later years, to eschew politics, “I’m neither left, nor right. I’m just staying home tonight, getting lost in that hopeless little screen.” For all that, I would definitely vote for a party or candidate that addressed our spiritual thirst. It’s here we’ve got the range and the machinery for change and it’s here we’ve got the spiritual thirst … We are the cradle of the best and the worst – the best when we are faithful to our founding principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all; the worst when we eschew those principles for the sake of greed, vanity or pride: “The heart has got to open in a fundamental way.”

Back to the light and the crack through which it gets in: “‘The light,’ Cohen explained, ‘is the capacity to reconcile your experience, your sorrow with every day that dawns. It is that understanding, which is beyond significance or meaning, that allows you to live a life and embrace the disasters and sorrows and joys that are our common lot. But it is only with the recognition that there is a crack in everything, I think, that all other visions are doomed to irretrievable gloom.’” Leonard’s sometime Zen Master, Roshi, managed to convey a bit of Buddhist wisdom here to his erstwhile pupil: a balancing of light and dark, yin and yang, even, truth and lies – maybe even Nietzsche gets a word in edgewise, which is Nietzsche’s favored way of getting a word in – creative lies, anyone?

Of course, some might take offense at the entire major premise of the song: “Democracy is coming to the USA.” How dare this Canadian Jew so slyly imply that it is not already here? Well, that is the whole point. Democracy, like religion itself and love itself, is an on-going project – once we stop fighting for it, we have lost it. Democracy is not something we have, or ever can, completely achieve. Many years ago, I gave the invocation at the robing of my friend, Raoul Cantero, as a Florida Supreme Court Justice. I think this little prayer makes the point:

Invocation for the Robing of Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero

“To call down God’s protection on this solemn assembly is a great honor.

Scripture sheds light on the importance of what we do here today:

´Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice,

they shall be satisfied.´

´The clue to understanding the nature of justice is that it lies perpetually out of our reach. Perfect justice is not attainable on this side of eternity. Hence, justice is something after which men and women of conscience need to ever hunger and thirst. The just human being is the one who pursues justice amidst the changing demands and varying tensions of concrete existence. What is just today may need reinterpretation and reformulation tomorrow – as situations, laws and circumstances change. Therefore, when we pray for justice, we are not praying for this or that particular thing, for some specific outcome. When we pray for justice, we are actually praying for an openness, a readiness, a thirst and a hunger within ourselves. It is as if we were saying: “Lord, change the world by changing myself. May my heart be more tender. May my mind be more subtle. May my whole being hunger and thirst for justice.” A Justice of the Supreme Court needs be one who is supremely hungry and thirsty for justice. Such is the precise basis of his or her honor.

Let us pray,

Lord God, send your spirit into our midst. Make our minds more subtle to grasp your truth and our hearts more tender to grasp your love. Make us hungry and thirsty for Your justice … Amen.”

I might well have added, “Democracy is coming to the USA.” I might now add that Leonard Cohen is an artist who hungered and thirsted for something like justice, with the humility that knows that we cannot know exactly what that justice may look like.

I do not mean to promote Cohen’s cause for sainthood. If you read the amazing biography of Cohen, I’m Your Man, by Sylvie Simmons, you will see that the Devil’s Advocate in Rome would have a field day with our wild, often stoned and sexually cavalier artist. However, I cannot help but share one story from the Simmons book, one story that shows the compassion, if not the thoroughgoing sanctity, of Leonard. Cohen in the 1970’s began the practice of performing for free with his band at mental institutions. Ron Corneilus, his guitarist, tells the story. One time, in a psychiatric ward: “One kid stood up with a triangle missing from his skull – you could see the brain beating – and he started screaming at Leonard in the middle of a song, to where we actually ground to a halt. The kid said, ‘Okay, big-time poet, big time artist, you come in here, you’ve got the band with you, you’ve got pretty girls with you, you’re singing all these pretty words and everything, well what I want to know, buddy, is what do you think about me?’ And Leonard just left the stage and before you knew it he had the guy in his arms, hugging him.” This may not be a proof of sainthood but I think it is a proof of mensch-hood. A priest or a monk might not always behave this way but I think Jesus or Buddha would have, so that is how priests and monks should behave in any event!

“Without music, life is a long journey in a desert which has not heard the distant rumor of God.”

[Pat Conroy, Beach Music]

It’s coming from the sorrow in 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.

From the wells of disappointment

where the women kneel to pray

for the grace of God in the desert here and the desert far away:

Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.”

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