by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
November 1, 2009
THE CHURCH OF LEONARD COHEN
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- As Leonard Cohen says in "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.
No one can mix spirituality and sex better than Cohen, which may be the reason why his popularity has endured - and will continue to do so, seemingly forever.
For the most part, the great musicians who ruled back in Cohen's day (and mine), no longer seem quite as relevant as they once did.
Play the Weavers today and you will cringe. I felt a sense of great loss when Mary Travers died a few months ago, but I'm not playing much Peter, Paul and Mary these days. Of course, Bob Dylan's early music is eternal, the voice of a generation - my generation.
But crazy fame drove him crazy, too. So what did he just release? Yes, a CD of Christmas songs. Pete Seeger may be the conscience of our age, but as a musician? Not so great. Another great political conscience, Joan Baez, can't sing the way she once did. And while her early music still holds up, Joni Mitchell deliberately drowned herself in jazz; today she's just out-and-out scary.
Rock has had more staying power - the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Who, Led Zeppelin - their work still resonates and influences. But even the bands who are left to tour - like the Who and the Stones - have turned themselves into their own cover bands. And they led us to Kiss, Motley Crue and Bon Jovi, so there's some blame there.
I can count on one hand the musicians still playing today who can dominate my consciousness: these include Neil Young, Richard Thompson and, yes, Cohen, who, at 75 (two years older than John McCain!) is, in my humble opinion, the sexiest man alive.
Last weekend, I was lucky to be at Cohen's Madison Square Garden concert in New York. He turned the Garden into a church and the concert into a spiritual experience.
Cohen is a poet, a singer, a songwriter, a lover and a spiritual seeker. He is the grandson of a revered rabbi and of another who was a founder of Montreal's Jewish community. In his song "The Future," he describes himself this way: "Oh, I am the little Jew who wrote the Bible."
Talking about his Jewish faith, Cohen, who is devout, said in an interview, "At our best we inhabit a biblical landscape... (It) is our urgent invitation and we have to be there. Otherwise, it's really not worth saving or manifesting, or redeeming, or anything. Now, what is the biblical landscape? It's the victory of experience. That's what the Bible celebrates. So the experience of these things is absolutely necessary." (The First Convenant Foundation: www.rainbowcovenant.org/pages/LeonardCohen.htm)
Cohen may have a deep Jewish sensibility, but he is also fluent in the use of Christian imagery. Just think of his 1967 hit, "Suzanne," which is ostensibly a love song but includes these lines: And Jesus was a sailor/When he walked upon the water/And he spent a long time watching/From his lonely wooden tower/And when he knew for certain/Only drowning men could see him/He said 'All men will be sailors then/Until the sea shall free them'/But he himself was broken/Long before the sky would open/Forsaken, almost human/He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.
Cohen has also put in serious time - five years of it - as a Zen Buddhist monk. In fact, he was meditating on a California mountain top with his teacher while his manager stole all his money - hence the reason he is touring now.
In the end, as I'm sure he recognizes, losing his money was a great gain as well as a loss. He started toured in 2008 by playing small venues, but his audience turned out to be anything but small. Now he's gone around the world with a superb nine-piece group of musicians. He's released a concert DVD and a two-disc CD. And Friday night aeek ago, he packed the Garden, which holds over 19,000 people.
"I don't know when we'll be passing through here again," he told us. "So I want to tell you that it is our intention to give you everything we've got tonight." And so he did.
He started most of his songs kneeling and ended them with his eyes closed and his face upturned as if singing to the heavens. He sang for over three hours. He gave his remarkable band all the room in the world to shine as individuals as well as a group. He received several standing ovations, including one for "Hallelujah." He was reverent, but he was also risqué; when, in "I'm Your Man," he offered to wear a mask for his lover, he made it, with a leer, "an old man's mask." Not so much, old man. Between encores, he skipped impishly off the stage, his fingers waving at the end of his skinny wrists.
At the end of the concert, he humbly thanked us all "for keeping my songs alive all these years."
That Cohen could create a living church inside a money-hungry sports palace like the Garden was a surprise. That his concerts have become spiritual experiences is not; his poetry and music have been holy all along. If the Bible truly celebrates the victory of experience, Cohen had it right long ago when he told us in "The Future," I've seen the nations rise and fall/I've heard their stories, heard them all/But love's the only engine of survival.
Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel.com) is a columnist and a journalist who lives in Dummerston, Vt. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.