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Leonard Cohen: Canadian Original

Whatever pride we are supposed to draw from the various and often-contradictory definitions of our identity and history, let’s face it, nothing inspires us so much as our own people rising out of this defensive culture to universal stature. We have been lucky in this, even outside our sports heroes, except perhaps in politics where the Diefenbakers and Trudeaus have been precious few.

Growing up in Toronto in the 1950s it was certainly encouraging to me to read that a global genius and eccentric such as Glenn Gould lived among us—a sheep who could jump the fence.

Cohen was already one of the most influential and popular Canadian writers when his songs gained him an international reputation (photo by Alexander W. Thomas).

In that colonial atmosphere where the Union Jack and “God Save the Queen” dominated the classrooms and television fed us a fragment of American corporate culture, it helped us to see that the air we breathed and the streets that we roamed could produce true originals, such as Marshall McLuhan, Oscar Peterson, Margaret Laurence, and Marylyn Bell. Even those, such as heldentenor Jon Vickers, who rejected their Canadian provenance were a source of wonder.

So it was that Leonard Cohen entered my life when I first became entangled in the tousled threads of love. Discovering his early book of poems Spice Box of Earth coloured and scented my experience. I tried to breath the lines, copy the images, project that unique sensitivity:

Wherever you move
I hear the sounds of closing wings
of falling wings.

About the time I was discovering the more nuanced culture of Montreal, with a girlfriend there and another feeling of inferiority under the sneers of native Montrealers of my Toronto-the-Good origins, Leonard Cohen began to “sing.” English professors were appalled and in those early days the voice was high and thin. But those songs! Played by candles burning in drained Mateus bottles, they helped love find its edge. My girlfriend bristled at the impertinent lyrics and called him a “brat,” which only made me admire and envy him more. I still cannot hear that song “Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” without inhaling the fragrance of those days:

Your eyes are soft with sorrow
Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye

It would be presumptuous to say that I grew up and then grew old with Leonard, but he seems to have enriched my life all along the way, as his voice darkened and his lyrics sharpened. In that remarkable and lesser-known song “The Window,” Cohen sang:

Then lay your rose on the fire
The fire give up to the sun
The sun give over to splendour
In the arms of the High Holy One
For the Holy One dreams of a letter
Dreams of a letter’s death
Oh bless the continuous stutter
Of the word being made into flesh

As Stephen Scobie wrote in The Canadian Encyclopedia, “only Leonard Cohen could conceive of the process of the Word being made Flesh as a stutter – and only Cohen could bless that insight.”

Some of that old envy of his power over women flares up when I see their seductive grins during songs such as “I’m Your Man.” I know that he is “their man.” It is his acute sense of irony that saves it all from sentimentality. The irony that cuts through depression and even despair: “Waiting for the Miracle to Come,” “Sisters of Mercy,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Everybody Knows.” I am not a Buddhist, or a Jew or a Christian but I can accept his resignation:

And draw us near
And bind us tight
All your children here
In their rags of light
In our rags of light
All dressed to kill
And end this night
If it be your will

“Rags of light!” This from a Canadian troubadour.

Finally there is that anthem, that remarkable song “Hallelujah”. Along with Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”, it is the most played item on my Ipod, a song greater than anyone can sing it, even that other Canadian original k.d. lang. By the sheer force of its astonishing lyrics, the song has power to survive its mediocre covers, its appearance in Shrek, its reported use by the Israeli armed forces and even its popularity as a ringtone:

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

[Note: In honour of Leonard Cohen's 77th birthday, Legacy Records released The Complete Albums Collection, the Leonard Cohen oeuvre - 17 of Cohen's albums, both live and studio-recorded.]

James Marsh is Editor in Chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia

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