When the filth of the butcher
Is washed in the blood of the lamb
Tell me again
When the rest of the culture
Has passed thru' the Eye of the Camp
Tell me again . . .
—"Amen," Old Ideas (2012)
After 60 years of publishing and recording, seventysomething Leonard Cohen has something else to say; and, lo and behold, the "Camp"—the Bergen-Belsen of the remembered newsreels of his childhood—comes up. He also gets the "Eye"—Jerusalem's Eye of the Needle—in there, a Jewish metaphor from the Talmud and the New Testament. Add in the "butcher" and the "lamb," which appeared on his 1968 second album, Songs from a Room (where we also heard about ritual sacrifice in "Story of Isaac"), and he manages to get a lot of morbidness out of the era of the internet and reality TV. But does the man have an edit button?
Actually, editing is a defining thread through Cohen's career. He claims to write very slowly, and his images appear and fade like recurring characters. Cohen's latest album is Old Ideas. This piece is not a review of the album; there have been plenty of those, all positive, if sometimes showing a little bit of special pleading for a grand old trooper. Rather, it tries to suggest the pleasures of tracing some of Cohen's evolving ideas back to the source.
Old Ideas is typical of Cohen's constant recycling of his oeuvre and experience. When he was a graduate student at Columbia in the 1950s, he arranged a course for himself consisting of a study of his own first book of poetry. Early on, Cohen said he only wanted to be a "minor poet." He wrote both poetry and novels to critical acclaim, but they didn't pay the bills. In mid-1960s, inspired by Bob Dylan, Cohen decided to become a singer-songwriter.
His success was instant. His material was wordy and well-annunciated, largely secular yet conspicuously Jewish, as opposed to, say, Dylan's Americana. Cohen's song writing has been uncommonly substantial (his first hit "Suzanne" contains perhaps the most comprehensive four-note theme since Beethoven's Fifth) and his songs now increasingly play out the overtly Jewish themes—including his pioneering Ju-Bu attachment to Zen, covered perhaps more substantially in his poetry and books.
Poems or songs, Cohen lends himself to close analysis. You could sit in a Jewish studies seminar in most English-speaking universities—and many more besides—and analyze the rich content of Cohen's lines as if they were Kafka's or Bialik's. People do. You could also do this with Paul Simon or Carole King or Gene Simmons or Serge Gainsbourg or David Broza or Bob Dylan; but as exemplary as these individuals' Jewishness is, they're not exactly poets (I'd duel Christopher Ricks with maddened bifold album covers over that, should he accept). Cohen is good like that; accessible but not too obviously lightweight.
And Cohen has engaged in such a study himself, a lifelong task the fruit of which is largely available on the public record.
Cohen has continually worked and reworked his songs—and his old poems as songs—in palettes of images and themes. Cohen's 1970 recording of "Joan of Arc" is what he called a palimpsest, made up of overlaid edits, spoken word, and singing. He slipped out of fashion somewhat in the 1970s (although his 1975 Greatest Hits album was an instant classic), with his 1977 Phil Spector collaboration Death of a Ladies Man pitched well beyond marketability. His 1979 album Recent Songs is loved in those places, like Scandinavia and Israel, that really "got" him; but by then there was a sense that his career was faltering.
Today, Cohen's most famous song is "Hallelujah," from his 1984 Various Positions; but the song became a pop culture fixture only after it was featured in Shrek. The album contains more Jewish content than his previous recordings, with references to his entertaining the Israeli Army during the Yom Kippur War and his Kol Nidrei-like song "If It Be Your Will." The album's immediate success was modest. Around this time, the hippie character Neil on the BBC series The Young Ones lamented, "I feel like a Leonard Cohen record. Nobody listens to me."
Cohen's real comeback came with his 1988 I'm Your Man, in which Cohen assumes the role of Jeremiah to the MTV generation. In doing so, he went very Jewish indeed. The hit "Everybody Knows" lifts its chorus from Oliver; the Cockney-Yinglish "That's how it goes/Everybody knows," embroidered with an oud, an Arabic lute, perfectly summarizes Cohen's bleak observations. "First We Take Manhattan" is a fantasy in which The Protocols of the Elders of Zion meets Inglourious Basterds-style urban partisan, workers-in-song-unite! imagery ("First we take Manhattan/Then we take Berlin").
But there is also a critique of the increasingly deadening media hand. In the 1960s, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, decriminalizing homosexuality, had announced, "There is no place for the State in the bedrooms of the nation." In "Tower of Song" we hear, "Of this you may be sure/The rich have got their channels/ In the bedrooms of the poor." The positive freedoms of sexual liberation have, consensually, receded into the thrall of TV.
When it comes to politics, Cohen is impenetrable (he's against abortion, but try lining him up on other issues); but when it comes to our culture, Cohen is a member of the Allan Bloom and Theodore Darymple school of curmudgeonly zest. His money-making medium (and he's had to refill his coffers in the past few years) is a kind of pop—upper-middlebrow to lower-highbrow, to be sure, but pop nonetheless. And, as a creature of the shadows of popular culture, he has special credentials when he snipes at the dumbing-down of culture. He's no snob, often fondly referencing the popular culture of his youth. But at some point he seems to have formed a sense that culture overall has gone to the dogs.
Leonard Cohen, with liberality of editing and economy of phrase, has become a cultural icon. Through his work, it is possible to get a decent feel for his time on earth and the culture on which it has built. Don't expect to find the source of his ideas any time soon, but it's still worth looking.
Peodair Leihy studied the works of Leonard Cohen at the Universities of Melbourne and Oxford, and was doing pretty well on an Australian television quiz show with the special topic of "The life and work of Leonard Cohen" until he was overrun by a Doctor Who nerd.
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