Things We Can’t Untie: Leonard Cohen In My Life
“Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld/ So I can sigh eternally.”
– Kurt Cobain
Sometime back in 2011, an office colleague of my mother came to know that I am interested in music from all over the world. It began a few years before and I was gradually discovering more and more of the nuances of different genres and cultures through my aimless voyage on the musical ocean. The colleague sent me some of his collection from which I discovered many musical greats, 1930 onwards. I discovered Perry Como, Engelbert Humperdinck, Patsy Cline, Pete Seeger, and many more. The collection was huge and it took me till 2012 to discover one particular singer, who would enthral me forever.
It was a hot summer afternoon. I was alone in the house and I played a track, the name of which attracted my attention, “Last Year’s Man”. And came rain, on a cloudless summer afternoon, pouring through my eyes. It is difficult to recall, after all these years, what my exact thoughts were; but I remember, the feeling. As if, I could see my loneliness, as a person, and he is singing the song, which is blaring through my soul, which has become a megaphone.
2012 was a year of multiple heartbreaks, in personal relationship terms, as well as career wise, which lead to an existential audit. I was discovering things inside me and outside, which I was constantly reconciling, desperately trying to make sense of things happening and not happening. As the bold voice sang, “The rain falls down on last year’s man,/ An hour has gone by/ And he hasn’t moved his hand.”, it felt like he knows of my paralysed mind. As if he knows that since I gave up on my dreams of pursuing a career in fine arts, I now find it difficult to pick up a brush. It was a hidden trauma. “And the skylight is like skin for a drum I’ll never mend/ And the rain falls down amen/ On the works of last year’s man” – it still reminds me of those words of Van Gough, “The sadness will last forever.” Each line, each word of that song carved into my heart.
One by one, I listened to, not necessarily in this exact order perhaps, “Famous Blue Raincoat”, “Bird On The Wire”, “Suzanne”, “So Long, Marianne”, “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong”, and so on. Gradually, the CDs were not sufficient. I could care less about the internet bill, I was drunk in and I was meditating on Cohen. Suddenly I found newer expressions, I found songs/poems that echo my soul and give voice to the feelings I did not know how to express previously. I had taken up writing when I gave up on fine arts. I needed an outlet which had to be liberating, creatively challenging. When I began, Pink Floyd, Dave Matthews were my influence but slowly, with newer complexities and demands of life, loss of friends and trying to adjust with newer people, I found more and more solace in Cohen. My way of writing became more allegorical and my tendencies became such that I was searching the outside world inside me and I was searching myself in the outside world. I was looking for answers before I listened to Cohen, I was still searching after I listened to him, but the lack of or the complexities of the answer did not bother me anymore; I had started enjoying the questions.
I listened to Cohen because his songs felt relatable, especially at the lowest moments and moods. But his dark lyrics hardly ever made the depression worse; they rather became a coping mechanism. But I gradually discovered that there is more to Cohen than just talks of lust, longing, devotion, and depression. In his songs, “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong”, or “So Long, Marianne”, I discovered that this man is full of humour. This understanding was reaffirmed by many of his works I discovered later on, such as in “Going Home”, he self-deprecates while asserting that he feels God has not set as his purpose to just write love songs or suffer all along. A strong sense of eudaimonia, achieved through reconciliation with himself is reflected in this song. In another poem, “The Only Tourist In Havana Turns His Thoughts Homeward”, he skims various social and political issues, which is bound to make you think while bringing a smile to your face.
The deeper I went into Cohen, the more shades I found of him. Everything about his writing was subtle, thought provoking, simple and never very imposing, except his political writings, most of which are unequivocal in nature. In songs like “First We Take Manhattan”, I discovered this side of his for the first time. In an interview, Cohen once said, “I think it means exactly what it says. It is a terrorist song. I think it’s a response to terrorism. There’s something about terrorism that I’ve always admired. The fact that there are no alibis or no compromises. That position is always very attractive. I don’t like it when it’s manifested on the physical plane – I don’t really enjoy the terrorist activities – but Psychic Terrorism.” He continued, quoting a poem of his former professor and friend, Irving Layton, “I once read; I’ll give you a paraphrase of it. It was ‘well, you guys blow up an occasional airline and kill a few children here and there’, he says. ‘But our terrorists, Jesus, Freud, Marx, Einstein. The whole world is still quaking.'” In a Rolling Stones interview, he said, the premise of “Joan Of Arc” is that, “there can be no free men unless there are free women.” In yet another song, which may easily be mistaken for discord between lovers, “If It Be Your Will”, he talks of violence and oppression. The lyrics of “Everybody Knows” leave no space for ambiguity: “Everybody knows that the war is over. Everybody knows the good guys lost. Everybody knows the fight was fixed. The poor stay poor, the rich get rich. That’s how it goes. Everybody knows.”. If one takes a look at his political works in a chronological manner, it becomes apparent that in his later works, he has expressed an increased sense of horror.
My entry into adult life; my experiences of heartbreak, loneliness, longing; my political views – everything has a patina of Cohen. His Jewish biblical references mix with present day situations to create a sense of magic realism in a five minute song. It is through his work that I figured how political and devotional love is and how to be poetic about all the problems of life. He turned heartbreaks and disappointments, and every other flaw and mistake, whether his own or of the society, into art: “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” (Anthem). It is said, even in his final days, he was very active and full of creative ideas. His voice used to sound deeper than ever. The lyrics of “You Want It Darker”, tracks of “Old Ideas”, and his posthumously published works perhaps put forth the understanding that he was playful with the idea of departure while weighing his own deeds against what God put him through. The rebel young poet, who once declared himself a soldier against the malfeasance of humanity, was unapologetically honest in his conversation with the lord. “Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” – Leonard continues to burn inside me, an eternal flame.
Deeptendu Chandra is a graduate in commerce (Hons. in Accountancy) from the University of Calcutta and is currently pursuing a degree in Cost and Management Accountancy (CMA) from The Institute of Cost Accountants of India. He also has two diplomas in fine arts. Despite being a student of commerce, he has moved beyond the traditional stream based education and keeps himself enthusiastically engaged in various fields of studies.
Artwork by Agnibha Maity
Cohen‟s name does not simply invoke an image of a sage who is standing tall in the Mount Sinai with a dim candle in his hand and singing “Suzanne‟. His eyes are not only filled with sorrow. His deep melancholic voice and poetry not only transcend and trans-infuse the border and give us a sense of belonging but also uncover the meaning to us or crudely speaking, provide the essence behind a “meaning”. So the expression, “Hallelujah‟ is not necessarily biblical to us anymore instead a part of our existence; to follow Cohen‟s own words “deeper and bigger than ourselves”. Our Dasein or “being-in-the-world” in this techno-scientific episteme is deeply shaped and harmonized by our perceived truth (aletheia or unconcealment) of his oeuvre. He stood still and firm like the Greek Temple in the middle of a barren valley uniting the pilgrims in their “birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace.” On the eve of this holy moment, thus I pay my homage and rent to the tower of his song.