Leonard Cohen: Ambiguous Hallelujahs

By Benjamin Ivry

Published February 18, 2009.
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On February 19, famed Canadian Jewish singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, 74, will be performing his first New York concert in more than 15 years.

Leonard Cohen’s song ‘Hallelujah,’ rife with biblical imagery, has been revived for a new generation of music fans.
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Leonard Cohen’s song ‘Hallelujah,’ rife with biblical imagery, has been revived for a new generation of music fans.

Cohen’s song “Hallelujah,” rife with biblical imagery, has recently been revived for a new generation on such reality shows as “American Idol” and Britain’s “The X-Factor,” where young listeners refer to it as “The Shrek Song,” since it was included on the soundtrack of the 2001 animated film. This nickname is curiously apt, since Cohen’s songs often seem motivated by some primal shrek, or terror.

The product of an Orthodox Jewish upbringing in Montreal, Cohen has repeatedly told interviewers about the psychic scars he obtained when he attended synagogue during his youth, as relatives towered over him while a rabbi castigated him as a “sinner.” This angst has fueled Cohen’s creativity in such songs as “Who by Fire,” “The Future” and “Story of Isaac,” all delivered in Cohen’s menacing gravelly baritone. Often mislabeled as a “folk singer” (which folk sing like Cohen?), he in fact emerges from a 1960s style of vaguely ominous, ecclesiastical songs abounding with hallelujahs, such as the dated hit “Who Will Answer? by Ed Ames, an American actor/singer of Russian-Jewish origin.

Cohen’s cavernous, raspy singing darkens this style even further — earning him the labels of “poet laureate of pessimism” and “godfather of gloom” in the press — until he sounds like a Jewish version of Johnny Cash. Small wonder, then, that the most memorable covers of Cohen songs were by Cash, himself and by Nina Simone, another singer capable of scaring an audience out of its wits with grief-imbued anger.

Yet, against all odds, Cohen’s recent tours have been high-spirited, exalted occasions; they are audience love-ins where longtime fans exult to such spirit-stirring songs as “Democracy Is Coming to the USA,” which itself was recently made into a video supporting President Obama. Recent YouTube postings from Cohen’s ongoing world tour — so far, only an April 17 concert in Indio, Calif., has been officially added to the Manhattan date, although “Live in London,” his first new CD in five years, will be released next month by Columbia Records, drawn from his July 2008 United Kingdom concert — show him in a fedora and in a well-worn Armani suit, looking alternately like an old man davening in a synagogue; a sprightly uncle of snarky TV chef Anthony Bourdain, and German performance artist Joseph Beuys (1921–1986). Like Beuys, whom one art historian described as “both infantile and messianic,” Cohen sends out multiple, contradictory messages that have garnered him a confounding range of fans, including the unlikely duo of Ariel Sharon and Mel Gibson. Cohen won Sharon’s friendship during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when the singer/songwriter took a hiatus from his sybaritic musician’s life to volunteer for active duty in the Israeli army (sanity prevailed, and he was offered a stint instead, as an army entertainer).

The affiliation with Gibson is more profound, since he produced “I’m Your Man,” a 2005 documentary tribute to Cohen, notable for its near-total absence of any discussion of Jewish influences. Gibson also included Cohen’s song “By the Rivers Dark” on the 2004 CD “Songs Inspired by ‘The Passion of the Christ’” (Universal South). No artist can be blamed for the misprisions of his fans, but even the counterculture uprising called for in “First We Take Manhattan” sounds chilling in a recent live concert from Germany, when the rowdy Teutonic audience bellows, “Then we take Berlin!” At a time when compromises, rather than calls for invasions, are essential, this can seem particularly unfortunate.

Can a truly great poet be as professionally imprecise as Cohen is? Take one of his best-loved songs, “Bird on the Wire,”: “Like a bird on the wire/like a drunk in a midnight choir/I have tried, in my way, to be free.” This sounds good, but even Cohen’s exegetes have not agreed on what it means. What exactly is a midnight choir, why has a drunk joined it and how does such a presence in the choir equal an attempt to be free? This kind of confusion is compounded by Cohen’s insistence that he considers himself Jewish despite having become a Buddhist monk during a five-year stay, during the 1990s, in a Japanese Zen monastery in California (thereby bringing him perilously close to the so-called New Age “Jew-Bus,” who make a mishmash of Judaism and Buddhism, hoping to find the best of both religions). Cohen differentiates himself from this hybrid breed by insisting that his Buddhism is nondoctrinal and based on friendship with a Zen master, and that he remains Jewish first and foremost.

Such debates and concerns will be brushed aside by Cohen’s many devotees, especially those drawn by his enduring reputation — even in his 70s — as a chick magnet. His personal charm in relatively unguarded moments can be seen in “This Beggar’s Description,” a 2005 documentary about an alcoholic, schizophrenic Montreal street poet named Philip Tétrault. Cohen affectionately protects Tétrault, as if the poet were his younger brother.

The fact that Cohen himself repeatedly admits having sampled every kind of self-medication over the decades and somehow survived it all is permanent encouragement to listeners everywhere. His songs, catchy to the point of distraction, certainly will continue to be performed by younger artists, although few, if any, of these cover versions will have the authority and authenticity that will be heard February 19 at New York’s Beacon Theatre.

For clips from Leonard Cohen’s recent European tour, click here and here.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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