Leonard Cohen: “No alibi … You have to stand up and say Hallelujah”

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I wanted to write something in the tradition of the hallelujah choruses but from a different point of view. I think the other song that is closely related to that is ‘Anthem.’ It’s the notion that there is no perfection–that this is a broken world and we live with broken hearts and broken lives but still that is no alibi for anything. On the contrary, you have to stand up and say hallelujah under those circumstances.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

 

From “Robert Hilburn Interviews Leonard Cohen” by Robert Hilburn (Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1995)

Note: Originally posted November 8, 2011 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric

Leonard Cohen On Songwriting: “I am completely open and transparent and therefore its easy for anyone to grasp the emotion that’s there…”

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I am completely open and transparent and therefore it’s easy for anyone to grasp the emotion that’s there. I am the person who tries everything and experience myself as falling apart. I try drugs, Jung, Zen meditation, love and it all falls apart at every moment. And the place where it all comes out is in the critical examination of those things – the songs. And because of this, I am vulnerable. There’s the line in ‘Anthem’ that says, ‘There’s a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.’ That sums it up: it’s as close to a credo as I’ve come.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

 

Conversation with Leonard Cohen by Thom Jurek (Metro Times – Detroit: August 18, 1993)

“There is another appetite that doesn’t involve victory but involves a reconciliation and that’s where we really long to be” Leonard Cohen

On “Anthem” he sings:
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

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There is a position that embraces all the worlds we live in. That position is one of reconciliation, that’s our real appetite. Our real appetite is not for the victory of the white race. Our real victory isn’t Judaism over Islam, not conservatism over liberalism. There is another appetite that doesn’t involve victory but involves a reconciliation and that’s where we really long to be. Sometimes in the midst of a song you find yourself in that momentquotedown2

Leonard Cohen

From Leonard Cohen: Hello! I Must Be Cohen by Gavin Martin, New Musical Express, 9 January 1993.

3 Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song #3. Artistic Design – Sacred Mechanics

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Note: This post is an entry in a series of essays considering the question, “What makes a song a Leonard Cohen song?” An introduction and links to all published posts in the series can be found at Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: Summary Page.

Sacred Mechanics:1 One Word At A Time

Leonard Cohen’s songs are the consequence of deliberate and painstakingly careful choices based on years of experience, study, and training.

Prior to his career as a singer-songwriter, Leonard Cohen was a well-known, critically acclaimed poet (and novelist). And, he was not a rock-poet, a folk-poet, or any other variant of pop songwriters are today’s poets-poet. Nope, Leonard Cohen was and is the kind of poet who has expertise in the actual craft of writing poetry, who knows a dactyl from a trochee, who understands how the elegiac couplet differs from the heroic couplet. He published volumes of well-reviewed poetry that sold well2 before anyone thought of paying to hear him sing anything other than square dance tunes with the Buckskin Boys.

Writing Poems Vs Writing Songs

Cohen’s perception of the relationship between writing poems & writing songs might best be described by the classic Facebook descriptor, “It’s complicated.”

In some interviews, Cohen presents poems and songs as equivalents:

I never made a big distinction between that which we call a poem and that which we call a song. It was the sort of expression which used beauty, rhythm, authority and truth. All these ideas were implicit. Whether Fats Domino sings “I Found My Thrill On Blueberry Hill” or Yeats writes “Only God could love you for yourself alone and not your yellow hair,” I made no distinction between the popular expression and the literary expression. I knew that “The Great Pretender” was a very good poem; I made no hierarchies.3

My songs are poems with a guitar behind them.4

Music was always the thing closest to me, and I saw poetry as part of that. My early poetry was very much influenced by Scottish Border ballads, the Spanish flamenco songs, the Portuguese fado.5

I don’t have any reservations about anything I do. I always played music. When I was 17, I was in a country music group called the Buckskin Boys. Writing came later, after music. I put my guitar away for a few years, but I always made up songs. I never wanted my work to get too far away from music. Ezra Pound said something very interesting, “When poetry strays too far from music, it atrophies. When music strays too far from the dance it atrophies.”6,7

On other occasions, he made a distinction between the two forms:

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  1. “We’ve got to be very careful, exploring these sacred mechanics. Someone will throw a monkey wrench into the thing, and we’ll never write another line…” Leonard Cohen quoted in The Wisdom Of Leonard Cohen by Kevin Perry. GQ: Jan 19, 2012. []
  2. OK, that sold as well as well-reviewed poetry sells. []
  3. Comme Un Guerrier by Christian Fevret (Throat Culture magazine, 1992). Found at Speaking Cohen. []
  4. Leonard Cohen by Ray Connolly. Evening Standard, July 1968 []
  5. Conversations from a Room by Tom Chaffin. Canadian Forum: August/September 1983. Found at Speaking Cohen. []
  6. The Ezra Pound quotation is from the Preface of his book, ABC of Reading (1934), and reads, in context, “The author’s conviction on this day of the New Year is that music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance; that poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music.” []
  7. Leonard Cohen: Cohen’s New Skin by Harvey Kubernik. Melody Maker: March 1, 1975. []

Leonard Cohen On “The Light” In Anthem That “Allows You To Live A Life And Embrace The Disasters And Sorrows And Joys”

There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.

Interviewer: What is the light?

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The light is the capacity to reconcile your experience, your sorrow, with every day that dawns. It is that understanding, which is beyond significance or meaning, that allows you to live a life and embrace the disasters and sorrows and joys that are our common lot. But it’s only with the recognition that there is a crack in everything. I think all other visions are doomed to irretrievable gloom. And whenever anyone asks us to accept a perfect solution, that should immediately alert us to the flaws in that presentationquotedown2

Leonard Cohen

From Leonard Cohen by Barbara Gowdy (November 19, 1992 interview published in One on One: The Imprint Interviews, ed. Leanna Crouch, Somerville House Publishing 1994).

Note: Originally posted July 31, 2012 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric

The Human Predicament In Leonard Cohen’s Music – Part 2

foisdg2rnzmNote: Much of the following was originally posted Apr 22, 2014 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric. The material has been revised and updated for this publication. This post  is the completion of The Human Predicament In Leonard Cohen’s Music – Part 1 and is one of a series of posts considering the question, “What makes a song a Leonard Cohen song?”  An introduction and links to all published posts in the series can be found at Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: Summary Page.

Embrace The Suck1

Clearly, Leonard Cohen has no patent on the notion of the human predicament, which is, Indeed, central to philosophical, religious, psychological, and political systems. For the purposes of this essay, a single, limited example should suffice to illustrate the ubiquity of this notion.

I submit that, in fact, had Leonard Cohen become a military professional rather than a singer-songwriter, he might have explained the solution to the human predicament not in the lyrics of “Hallelujah” but in terms of “embrace the suck.”

The military epigram, “embrace the suck” is defined in this excerpt from a post listing The Oxford English Dictionary words of 20032:

embrace the suck: A U. S. military catchphrase that arose among the troops in Iraq, to embrace the suck is to not only accept harsh and deplorable conditions, but to turn it into a character-building exercise.

That explanation is parallel to my favorite of Cohen’s explications of “Hallelujah:”

The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say “Look, I don’t understand a fucking thing at all – Hallelujah!”3

Of course Cohen composing an track entitled “Embrace The Suck” would have had an interesting impact on all those television and film musical directors who use “Hallelujah” as their go-to soul-stirring pop anthem, not to mention those competitors on X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent  faced with belting out “Embrace The Suck” rather than “Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord …”

The Hallelujah Solution

Well, Leonard Cohen did choose singer-songwriter-poet-icon over military professional so rather than “Embrace The Suck,” we have “Hallelujah.” (I should clarify that “The Hallelujah Solution” is only my shorthand for Cohen’s response to the human predicament, and that solution is not dependent on the invocation of “Hallelujah:”)

I wanted to write something in the tradition of the hallelujah choruses but from a different point of view…The other song closely related to that is ‘Anthem.’ It’s the notion that there is no perfection–that this is a broken world and we live with broken hearts and broken lives but still that is no alibi for anything. On the contrary, you have to stand up and say hallelujah under those circumstances.4

Continue Reading →

  1. Update: This section was not part of the original post, but when I discovered the military  argot, “embrace the suck,” I found it illuminating and added it to this essay. []
  2. 2003 Words by Dave Wilton. (Wordorigins.org: July 26, 2012) []
  3. How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns – Interview With Leonard Cohen presented by John McKenna. RTE Ireland, May 9 & 12, 1988. Accessed at LeonardCohenFiles []
  4. “Robert Hilburn Interviews Leonard Cohen” by Robert Hilburn (Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1995) []