Leonard Cohen on The Story Of Isaac “The song doesn’t end with a plea for peace. It doesn’t end with a plea for sanity between the generations.”


It has fathers and sons in it and sacrifice and slaughter, and an extremely honest statement at the end. It does say something about fathers and sons and that curious place, generally over the slaughtering block where generations meet and have their intercourse. I think probably that I did feel [when I wrote it] that one of the reasons that we have wars was so the older men can kill off the younger ones, so there’s no competition for the women. Also, completely remove the competition in terms of their own institutional positions. The song doesn’t end with a plea for peace. It doesn’t end with a plea for sanity between the generations. It ends saying, ‘I’ll kill you if I can, I will help you if I must, I will kill you if I must, I will help you if I can.’ That’s all I can say about it. My father died when I was nine, that’s the reason I put that one of us had to go.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

Interview,by Robin Pike. ZigZag: October 1974. Image by Ji-Elle – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia Commons

Leonard Cohen On Story of Isaac: “It isn’t necessarily for war that we’re willing to sacrifice each other”

I was careful in that song [Story of Isaac] to try and put it beyond the pure, beyond the simple, anti-war protest, that it also is. Because it says at the end there the man of war, the man of peace, the peacock spreads his deadly fan. In other words it isn’t necessarily for war that we’re willing to sacrifice each other. We’ll get some idea – some magnificent idea – that we’re willing to sacrifice each other for; it doesn’t necessarily have to involve an opponent or an ideology, but human beings being what they are we’re always going to set up people to die for some absurd situation that we define as important. quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

From How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns – Interview With Leonard Cohen by John McKenna. RTE Ireland, May 9 & 12, 1988. Accessed at LeonardCohenFiles. Originally posted Nov 30, 2013 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric

Credit Due Department: Photo atop post by Roland Godefroy – Own work, CC BY 3.0, via Wikipedia

Hear Classic 1988 Leonard Cohen Interview: How the Heart Approaches What it Yearns

Shure_mikrofon_55S-700This is an extraordinary interview that includes this quotation that I consider the touchstone of Leonard Cohen’s perspective:

That’s what it’s all about. It says that none of this – you’re not going to be able to work this thing out – you’re not going to be able to set – this realm does not admit to revolution – there’s no solution to this mess. 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! That’s the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.

The following description is from Leonard Cohen talks to RTÉ in 1988 at the RTE site:

From the RTÉ archives: Kildare-born novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist and former RTÉ radio producer John MacKenna made two feature programmes in the RTÉ Radio Centre with Leonard Cohen in 1988, entitled ‘How the Heart Approaches What it Yearns’. Together, they offer a remarkable insight to Cohen’s life and work. Below, you can listen to them both in full. (From Leonard Cohen talks to RTÉ in 1988)

Note: A transcript of this broadcast is available at Transcript: 1988 RTE (LeonardCohenFiles)

The first programme ‘How the Heart Approaches What it Yearns’ is entitled ‘Isaac to Joan of Arc’ in which Cohen discusses his interest in and attitude to heroic figures in history. (From Leonard Cohen talks to RTÉ in 1988)

Programme 2 is entitled ‘If I Have Been Untrue’  and considers songs about people in the street. (From Leonard Cohen talks to RTÉ in 1988)

Credit Due Department: Photo atop this post “Shure mikrofon 55S” by Holger.EllgaardOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Don’t Miss The Spectacular 1985 Leonard Cohen Kalvøya, Norway Concert Videos


The Leonard Cohen Kalvøya Videos

After years of now you see them, now you don’t availability, the NRK TV broadcast of the June 30, 1985 performance by Leonard Cohen at Kalvøyafestivalen (Isle of Calf Music Festival), near Oslo, Norway has consistently online at the same site for the past two years.1

kbannerThe NRK offering comprises the entire broadcast of the festival, including  four Leonard Cohen songs: “Memories,” “Heart With No Companion,” “Story of Isaac,” and “I Tried to Leave You,” and a brief interview with the Canadian singer-songwriter.


The color and clarity of these recordings are outstanding and the performances, with Anjani Thomas on the keyboards and vocals, are solid. Most importantly, watching these videos is moving, exhilarating, and fun.
1985anjaniAnd, with his hair slicked back, his beard stylishly scruffy, a cigarette in one hand, and a microphone in the other (note the dramatic microphone dip at 1:58), Leonard Cohen’s matinee idol persona, typically used in the performance of “Memories,” has never been more enjoyable.

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  1. On Aug 8, 2009, 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric, posted Baby, Baby, Baby – Leonard Cohen & Anjani Sing The Blues In Norway celebrating the YouTube appearance of three videos, “I Tried to Leave You,” “Heart With No Companion,” and “Story of Isaac,” extracted from the TV broadcast of the June 30, 1985 performance by Leonard Cohen in Kalvøya, Norway. Then, the videos were removed, then  reappeared, and then disappeared again. In 2013, some of the Kalvoya performances, including “Memories,”  a performance not previously available, were uploaded to Daily Motion. Sadly, “I Tried To Leave You” is missing. []

“[Leonard Cohen’s] Anthem … is kind of a Buddhist call to arms, if you can imagine that”

I’ve been helping out with the weekly music at church and this week our pastor requested an all-Leonard Cohen Sunday. … He’s [Leonard Cohen is] a lot like Dylan: can’t sing worth a damn, but he sure can write some amazing songs. A lot of his songs mix and match Jewish, Buddhist and Christian themes, which makes him a natural for church services. In addition to “Hallelujah”, we’ll be performing “Anthem” (which is kind of a Buddhist call to arms, if you can imagine that), “The Story of Isaac” (which turns the biblical narrative into an anti-Vietnam War protest song) and this one: “the Sisters of Mercy.”quotedown2

From Goats Reading Books: Cohen by Tim (February 09, 2008)

Note: Originally posted Feb 9, 2008 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric

Leonard Cohen & Wilfred Owen Grapple With God – Abraham’s Test Of Faith As A Plea For Peace


Caravaggio’s renowned depiction of the biblical Sacrifice of Isaac

By David D. Fowler

David D Fowler is a transmedia artist located in Metro Vancouver, Canada. His Multi Facet Fables blog can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/Multi-Facet-Fables-259922680696447/

 The Sacrifice Of Isaac As A Plea For Peace

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”

So wrote Bob Dylan, referring to the Old Testament legend of the Almighty using Abraham’s son to test the faith of Judaism’s founder.

Dylan’s song is really more about surreal roadside shenanigans than about Abraham sacrificing Isaac. While some songwriters tell the Old Testament story straightforwardly, evangelical Christian writers have interpreted Isaac’s ordeal through the filter of the New Testament as a poignant symbol of the sacrificial death of Jesus. Other writers, however, have used this evocative narrative as a most effective metaphor to comment on the scourge of war. The most significant of these, I would say, are Wilfred Owen and Leonard Cohen.

Owen has rightly been called the unofficial Poet Laureate of the Great War. His brilliant work is especially pertinent to Remembrance Day this year, the centenary of World War One. Owen was renowned for hard-hitting depictions of this ghastly conflict in poems such as Dulce ET Decorum Est, Strange Meeting, and Anthem For Doomed Youth. One of his most striking works, Parable of the Old Man & the Young, makes powerful use of the tale of Isaac – so powerful that Benjamin Britten made it a centerpiece of his choral masterwork, War Requiem.

Rather than honor the deep faith of the father figure in the original story, Owen paints a portrait of a psychotic butcher whose action precipitates the catastrophic bloodshed of the Great War. In the Bible, God commands Abraham to slay his son to prove his faith; but just before the patriarch complies, the Lord sends an angel to intercede – offering a lamb for sacrifice in Isaac’s stead, much to the loving father’s relief. Owen, however, turns this on its head in a harrowing passage: “An angel called him out of heaven, saying, ‘Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do anything to him. Behold a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns; offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.’ But the old man would not so, but slew his son – and half the seed of Europe, one by one.” The dramatic repetition of that final phrase is one of the most chilling parts of Britten’s oratorio.

Leonard Cohen, just as prodigiously gifted, expresses a more complicated view of war than Owen. In 1974, he provocatively told ZigZag magazine,

War is wonderful. They’ll never stamp it out. It’s one of the few times people can act their best, [with] the sense of community and kinship and brotherhood, devotion. There are opportunities to feel things that you simply cannot feel in modern city life. Very impressive.

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