Leonard Cohen Casts a Dim But Holy Glow on ‘You Want It Darker’

Update: Leonard Cohen died on November 7th.

Sunday evening marked the beginning of Shemini Atzeret, a Jewish holiday celebrating the end of the harvest festival, Sukkot. While Sukkot signifies the end of the harvesting year, Shemini Atzeret and its celebration of Simchat Torah mark the completion of the year’s Torah readings, the original five books of Moses that make up the Old Testament.

How fitting that Leonard Cohen would bless us with his 14th album of music, You Want It Darker, just before the harvest was over and the scrolls were rewound. That it arrived on a Friday, ushering in Shabbat with a dim but holy glow, is fitting too.

Cohen’s latest collection of songs proves a summation of the poet’s most enduring images, his most illuminated words, shaped into investigations of the soul and the body, the sacred and the profane. He goes back to sitting at someone’s table, a common image in his songs, only to leave the table a few songs later. He slow-dances through another waltz from the era when rock ‘n roll was young, subverting the message of young devotion with his grim, late-in-life reflections.

And by the album’s close he’s thrown away any infatuation with artifacts, from the ruins and altars that have populated his most classic explorations of biblical righteousness, to the unholy shopping mall that has come to define such righteousness today.

Still looming over this collection are his religious laurels, although they’re threatened. We’re inside the mind of a man who so intimately tied his spirituality to the beauty of a lover’s form, but now the form is missing from his life and mourned throughout. This is vintage Cohen in that way, the young poet prince of Montréal, sitting with his loneliness in ascetic reverence and near monastic thoughtfulness. “I’ve always had an attraction to that ascetic kind of life,” Cohen told Michael Harris in 1969. “Not because it’s ascetic, but because it’s aesthetic. I like bare rooms.”

Confined again to solitude, the master gambles alone.

“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,” the great author Tom Robbins wrote in a ’95 tribute to Cohen. “Quite possibly this is a distorted portrait. The apocryphal, however, has a special kind of truth.”

At another point Robbins adds, “No one can say ‘naked’ as nakedly as Leonard Cohen.”

“No one can say ‘naked’ as nakedly as Leonard Cohen.”—Tom Robbins

That’s why readers reacted so suddenly when Cohen said he was “ready to die,” a sentiment spiritually explored on the record and extracted from from David Remnick’s wonderful New Yorker profile on him from last month, by countless outlets hungry for a clickable headline. We remember he’d been saying that for years now listening to “If It Be Your Will”, although now he sounds like he means it.

The fragilities of Cohen’s age that Remnick catalogs in the piece—Cohen’s sitting in a medical chair, the compound fractures on his back, his curmudgeon-like willingness to lecture an author for being late and leaving an old man waiting—characterize a man who’s ready to make some grand, final statement. And to be fair, Cohen’s been making those for years now.

Seeking to correct the line which was severed from its long-form context, Cohen revised his statement to an L.A. crowd weeks later, saying, “I’ve always been into self-dramatization. I intend to live forever.” Cohen turned 82 last month.

Consider the subtext of You Want It Darker. Much has been made of the opening title track, with its chant of “Hineni” or “הנני,” which translates to “here I am” in Hebrew. Used in the Torah nine times, it is associated with taking responsibility and readiness, rather than a simple statement of location. Cohen claimed to be “going home” two albums ago, on the opening track to Old Ideas. But now, recruiting into his ranks a cantor and his choir from the old Ashkenazi synagogue in Montréal where generations of Cohens have worshipped, where a portrait of his great grandfather hangs on the wall of the temple, Cohen’s no longer going home. He’s there.

Even with this return, Cohen is not complacent. He’s at a loss this time around, and wants to level the imbalance before he leaves the planet.

That loss starts to play out over the album’s next track, “Treaty”, when he “wishes there was a treaty we could sign…between your love and mine.” I’m reminded of Cohen’s song “Night Comes On” from Various Positions, in which he alludes to the Yom Kippur War: “We were fighting in Egypt when they signed this agreement, that nobody else had to die.” Here in “Treaty” the agreement seems a distant pipe dream, while the idea that his love will be reciprocated sounds less inevitable still. That old song personified “the night” as a woman (“and the night came on, she was very calm”), but Cohen’s current nights seem to have no women in them at all.

More clues come still in “Treaty”. Cohen sits at this old lover’s table every night, transforming the surface into a meeting place, a common ground. He sings of Jubilee, a biblical festival from Leviticus 25 that marks a period, every 49 years, when slaves would be set free and debts would be resolved. Cohen’s celebrating his liberation by saying that he has long been a slave to love, but now he’s free. Like his most affecting moments, it’s bittersweet.

Whose love has ended, releasing him from bondage? A line toward the end of the song suggests he’s singing to Marianne Ihlen—“I’m so sorry for that ghost I made you be, only one of us was real, and that was me.” Cohen has long treated Marianne as a near-messianic figure in his life and work, immortalizing their first parting in song. “In the mid-’60s, as Cohen started to record his songs and win worldly success, Marianne became known to his fans as that antique figure—the muse,” writes Remnick.

Is she the ghost Cohen’s apologizing to? His willingness to render her love a romantic antiquity for the sake of his songs certainly suggests so, as did the days leading up to her death earlier this year. It was an odd story to go viral, but Cohen wrote Ihlen a letter days just before her passing, which was read at her funeral. “Well Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon,” he wrote. “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”

For legions of adoring fans, the timeless song “So Long, Marianne” then became a dirge, somberly rooted in the present.

Reading Remnick’s profile, Cohen’s lucidity in remembering the years when he met Marianne while living on the Greek Island of Hydra read like a bohemian dream.“There would be a gardenia on my desk perfuming the whole room,” he said. “There would be a little sandwich at noon. Sweetness, sweetness everywhere.”

The drugs, the exotic location, the muse—all these elements became a part of Cohen’s mythos, and he might regret weaving Marianne into it, even suggesting that he’s responsible for making her a ghost. Cohen’s narrative here than becomes less about him reaching for a clever final sonic statement, the way Bowie made his exit, and more a sort of Johnny and June Carter Cash dynamic—when the one you’ve always loved is gone, it’s hard not to feel at a loss.

The true essence of God has long been hidden, just like the beauty of a woman who Cohen can’t convince to undress.

A Greek instrument called a bouzouki, similar to a mandolin, can be heard later on the song “Traveling Light”, suggesting that Cohen still remembers their days on Hydra with a sacred lucidity. “I took trip after trip, sitting on my terrace in Greece, waiting to see God,” he told Remnick. “Generally, I ended up with a bad hangover.”

Robbins also counted those years as key to the transformation of his mystique. “In Manhattan, grit drifted into his ink bottle,” he wrote. “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.”

Buried in Cohen’s talk of traveling light is a deeper wisdom still. Cohen never claimed to be any sort of learned sage about Kabbalah, the study of Jewish mysticism. But his work often mirrors Kabbalah’s five worlds, charting man’s quest toward enlightenment past veils of concealment. The true essence of God has long been hidden, just like the beauty of a woman who Cohen can’t convince to undress. The act of physical creation becomes a sphere, a gateway to witnessing divine forms, until man ascends to see the light of God, unobscured, in primordial essence.

Cohen’s embrace of counterculture meant he saw value in the capacity of cosmic and psychedelic esotericism to generate a similar sense of infinite meaning in his life and bring him closer to the divine. For that reason his messages of peace and unity have always reminded me of the great countercultural Rabbi, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

Reb Zalman was famous for ushering in the Jewish Renewal movement, which embraced Gaia consciousness to realize that our planet was a living thing. He tripped acid with Tim Leary and advocated psychedelic experimentation as means of bringing one closer to God. It was only then that we could examine the image of a burning bush as the first recorded psychedelic experience in history, really. Reb Zalman’s studies legitimized the esotericism of Kabbalah for later generations of pop stars and yoga moms to swallow, in diluted forms.

Leonard Cohen.

Leonard Cohen. Courtesy of Leonard Cohen.

There’s a story that Remnick recounts with Cohen, toward the end of Cohen’s ’72 world tour, where he leaves the stage in Israel after the show isn’t going well, and is resurrected through an improvised acid trip. Ira Nadel’s Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohenir 1 1 int Leonard Cohen Casts a Dim But Holy Glow on You Want It Darker    also captures the moment beautifully, where the psychedelic indulgence doesn’t separate Cohen from the reality at hand, but somehow brings him closer to it.

“The pressure of performing the final concert of the tour in the holy city of Jerusalem had contributed to his state,” writes Nadel. “In the dressing room, a distraught Cohen rejected the pleas of his musicians and manager to return to the stage. Several Israeli promoters, overhearing the conversation, walked out to the crowd and conveyed the news: Cohen would not be performing and they would receive their money back. The young audience responded by singing the Hebrew song, [“Hevenu Shalom Aleichem”]. Backstage, Cohen suddenly decided he needed a shave; rummaging in his guitar case for his razor, he spied an envelope with some acid from years ago. He turned to his band and inquired: ‘Should we not try some?’ ‘Why not?’ they answered.

“And ‘like the Eucharist,’ Cohen has said, ‘I ripped open the envelope and handed out small portions to each band member.’ A quick shave, a cigarette, and then out to the stage to receive a tumultuous welcome. The LSD took effect as he started to play and he saw the crowd unite into the grand image of ‘the Ancient of Days’ from Daniel’s dream in the Old Testament. This image, ‘the Ancient of Days’ who had witnessed all history, asked him, ‘Is this All, this performing on the stage?’ Deliver or go home was the admonition. At that moment, Cohen had been singing ‘So Long, Marianne’ intensely and a vision of Marianne appeared to him. He began to cry and, to hide his tears, turned to the band—only to discover that they, too, were in tears.”

Consider Cohen’s evoking the eucharist here as one of many examples when his worldliness eclipsed strictly Semitic theologies. While Kabbalah goes back to the middle ages, Cohen’s merging of spirituality and sex seems also to hark back to that time, too, as we see in the cover image of New Skin For An Old Ceremony, which depicts an engraving of two angels about to fuck from the alchemical text Rosarium philosophorum

“It is not possible, in my opinion, to appreciate the kabbalistic resonances in Cohen without considering his complex fascination with this fundamental Christological creed,” Elliot Wolfson writes in his New Jerusalem Glowing: Songs and Poems of Leonard Cohen in a Kabbalistic Key. “At the moment, we must focus our lens more narrowly on the impact of the Christian monastic ideal on the blend of eroticism and asceticism that characterizes Cohen’s ever changing, yet distinctly recognizable, spiritual yearning.”

That yearning took many other forms, too, whether up on California’s Mount Baldy as he studied to become a Zen monk, or down with Remnick, schmoozing in his Los Angeles apartment. “To this day, Cohen reads deeply in a multivolume edition of the Zohar, the principal text of Jewish mysticism; the Hebrew Bible; and Buddhist texts,” writes Remnick. “In our conversations, he mentioned the Gnostic Gospels, Lurianic Kabbalah, books of Hindu philosophy, Carl Jung’s Answer to Job, and Gershom Scholem’s biography of Sabbatai Sevi, a self-proclaimed Messiah of the 17th century.”

These are the deeply spiritual recesses of Cohen’s mind where he reaches across the room, where transforming the table from a mutual place of compromise in “Treaty” to a gaming surface a few songs later in “Leaving the Table”.

“Leaving the Table” is a waltz that plays like “Memories” from Cohen’s Death of a Ladies Man, going back to an imagined dance in his high school gym had the Nazis won, with Cohen pinning an Iron Cross to his lapel. In that moment of intimidation Cohen rises to the challenge of reclamation—”I walked up to the tallest and the blondest girl, I said, ‘Look, you don’t know me now, but very soon you will!’ ”

“Leaving the Table” has a similar sense of old-timey schmaltz, signifying another act of reclamation—Cohen’s no longer seeking the mercy of love. He says he’s out of the game, and no longer needs a pardon. He’s danced to the end of love, and still figuring out what comes after.

“Maybe he’s liberated by the realization that all the spiritual exercises, all the dog-eared pages to his well-worn tomes, were in pursuit of understanding something far more esoteric than those words.”

But there’s joy even in Cohen’s freedom from love’s bondage. If the mind and the body are on one spiritual axis, maybe mercy and judgement are on another.

Cohen’s lamentations meet the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue choir again on “Seemed the Better Way”, but the heaviness gets sunnier. On next track “Steer Your Way”, Cohen navigates away from his own dualities and bipolar absolutions to suggest an optimism in abandoning them. After going past the altar and the mall, he steers past artifacts less tangible: “Steer your heart past the truth that you believed in yesterday, such as fundamental goodness and the wisdom of the Way. Steer your heart, precious heart, past the women whom you bought, year by year, month by month, day by day, thought by thought.” Cue the rare change to major key.

Maybe it’s a downer to consider that Cohen’s connection to the “wisdom of the Way” has been severed, or maybe he’s liberated by the realization that all his spiritual exercises, all the dog-eared pages to his well-worn tomes, were in pursuit of understanding something far more esoteric than love to begin with.

The flawless “Master Song” off his first album comes to mind when dwelling on the beauty he’d always seen in possession—”Your Master took you traveling, at least that’s what you said, and now do you come back to bring your prisoner wine and bread?” It’s as if Cohen’s finally woken up to the ugliness of such possession and the tainted legacy it leaves, all these years later, when no amount of beauty can wash the realization away.

“Master Song” encapsulates that gritty side of the ’60s that baby boomers never really talk about all that much, the comedown from enlightenment when the dose wears off and a petty, fleeting insecurity gives way to tremendous jealousy. The woman who he’s brought to the “Master” could equally be a shared lover or a ritual sacrifice. Either way, she’s with the Master now, and her thighs are ruins. But he and the Master are connected, no matter how much Cohen feels betrayed. And to some older lover of hers, Cohen was probably a Master too.

“There is evidence that the honoree might be privy to the secret of the universe,” writes Robbins, “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.”

Maybe Cohen’s true lover has always been language, whether the words be illuminated by past masters or written in his own hand. Now, free from the bondage of love, he can finally see his words for what they are—memories of the flesh and prophecies of the spirit.

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