By Louise Haile
Inspiration that is….That congruence of ideas and values that is the late great Leonard Cohen have shaped me as I am today… for good and for ill…Ok, Cohen takes his place alongside the Bible ( Catholic childhood, convent education, decent and much-loved parents…. All-round potent brew) and Shakespeare of course ( where, once I shook off the irritation of being TOLD he was a genius, I discovered this fact for myself)… but LEONARD will always be special, and this is me working out why.
He dropped into my life alongside the complexities of adolescence, blithely rinsing the narrow stuffiness of hell and damnation that threatened any diversion from the narrow way, singing of the aching longings of the loins and soul, of betrayal and revenge, moving effortlessly between all the iconic symbolism of west and east, melding Christianity with Judaism, but always, always, always falling back on the driving imperatives of the heart and body. We – I was not alone- were addicted to the driving melancholy of his poetry, lost in the solipsism and self-indulgence of a love and loss that could not hold the line, that was more real than exams, parents, daily grind… life. What happened? I grew up of course – it is required; I fell in love and had a family, leaving Lenny to the stony path of longing, loss and desolation. Did I lose the faith? Never. His growing up proved a rather more global kind. He moved in and out of fashion, through the paces of Buddhist mysticism, bankruptcy and age, his melancholy moved towards a kind of global vison of the pathos of our world, the sustained frustration of our inability to change the world around us in any kind of meaningful way, our failure most especially to tolerate each other’s spiritual beliefs, and our turning of difference into violence, love into hatred. Solipsism turned into a kind of universal vision of the history, civilisation and the meaning of life in general. ‘ I’ve seen the ghost of culture’ he intones in one of his last albums, ‘ with numbers on his wrist/Salute a compromise/That all of us have missed’. Elsewhere he asks consistently why we cannot accept the vagaries of another man’s spiritual beliefs, why we seem incapable of any kind of ‘treaty’ between our different versions of ‘love’/belief. What I have valued more and more as the decades passed, and the music moved through country, rock, folk, anthems, was that way that he always understood the fight – the competition and power-struggle in love and relationships, yet also the strong sense of compassion which makes us most fully human. Like Yeats and Eliot he understood that we are shabby and deteriorating creatures who aim high, and fail, achieving most when we include and forgive, when we create from the sweepings of the street, when we let love overrule hate. His work is dominated by metaphors of power, desire, gambling, war, isolation… and all the drugs and intoxicants of our modern world: materialism, drink, tobacco, and of course desire, always desire, ‘the beast’, which finally in his 80’s he claimed he had laid. It was clearly a pun.
Is it surprising then that if you have heard of Coen it will probably be through his most successful track HALLELUJAH that centres metaphorically on the way we escape the routine and necessitous and dull through the pursuit of the divine, and then make sense of it through replication in love itself,and desire? For this is what interests us, what drives us. Cohen’s real sympathies are for the victims, the failures, the fall-guys ‘ the mother whose cradle is still unfilled’, the ‘prima ballerina who cannot dance a thing’, for the homeless on the streets – New York, London, Berlin…. Even as he knows that he is fenced from such personal horrors by the talent and wealth of his own life, he identifies… intoning ‘Please don’t pass me by’. He also understands that all attempts at knowledge are just ‘different kinds of failure’ that ‘all the maps of blood and flesh .. nailed to the door… (yet)we still don’t know what boogie street is for’. Life is a mystery, and what he mourned in his youth, he learned to celebrate in his age. At one of the most amazing concerts I ever attended ( and I have been to a few) he addressed his vast audience ‘just the other side of intimacy’. Ever the lover, the troubadour, the failed warrior ( Yeats again?) he courted us with passion, dignity, humility, but always with wisdom. He knew that he didn’t know… from the wisdom of the way, to the latest hit, to the flexibility of truth itself, he gave shape to the fact that there are no answers, merely the constant wrestling with the wording of the question. That we must keep asking, is the reality, that we will keep failing is the fact; that we do both through our bodies and mind is his subject. ‘We are leaning out for love and we’ll lean that way for ever’, and it’s through the cracks, that the ‘light gets in’…. of course. We know that. The bible tells us that, Shakespeare shows us , Cohen invites us to feel that truth. He died at the end of 2016. ‘There’s a great spirit gone’ (Will) or in his own words, he’s ’leaving the table’, ‘they’re closing the bar’… ‘the party’s over’ …. Yes, ‘but I landed on my feet’, maybe even still ‘standing on the corner/Where there used to be a street.’
Leonard Cohen exited stage left a day after the election of Donald Trump as president of the USA; the country that Cohen , a Canadian, called ‘the cradle of the best and the worst’ in his ironic track ‘Democracy is coming to the USA’. His inspiration – for me… and again, I am not alone….remains in his art, his music. But the beat goes on, in love. Did I tell you, my little grandson, born last week, has been named Leonard – lion heart… a name that seems almost too big for his tiny frame? This makes me very happy. Long live Lenny.
Who inspires you?