My poet, my prize, thank you, especially for this tune that has somehow gotten me through the pain of heartbreak and beauty.
Today Leonard Cohen is 81 years old. Any lover of poetry and song has to acknowledge his influence if not his overwhelming charm, intellect and insight, aside from his stamina. The man endures but his words linger. Almost every occasion recalls a Leonard Cohen lyric to me.
I first heard of him in story, reading about Joni Mitchell’s love life when I was everything Joni as a young teen. Legend has it that they were lovers, his appearance cited in ‘A Case of You’ (“Just before our love got lost you said, ‘I am as constant as a northern star,’ and I said, ‘Constantly in the darkness. Where’s that at. If you want me I’ll be in the bar.'”)
I had never heard his music, which I would not have understood or liked back then anyhow. I much later came upon his name when I heard one of his songs sung by Rufus Wainwright in the movie Shrek, not knowing it was his song. The lyrics moved me so at the time, a time of longing for me for some unknown missing piece I could not identify, could not silence the wind whistling through its gap.
Since then, I got to see him in concert at a lovely venue in Los Angeles with a long-time fan (and beloved), who opened my eyes to the man whose music I had heard and lyrics I had known most of my life. It was like coming home to witness this stylized crooner-sidechick act, the beat poet gone show-time while the words rang and rang and rang. His poetry attracted me like a siren with a bad smoking habit; I love the gruffness in his swagger and throat.
Happy birthday, Mr. Cohen. You know you’re immortal when….
there are 60 versions of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah,’ Ranked. I still like number 3 the best, Wainwright’s version.
I Long to Hold Some Lady from The Spice Box of Earth
I long to hold some lady
For my love is far away,
And will not come tomorrow
And was not here today.
There is no flesh so perfect
As on my lady’s bone,
And yet it seems so distant
When I am all alone:
As though she were a masterpiece
In some castled town,
That pilgrims come to visit
And priests to copy down.
Alas, I cannot travel
To a love I have so deep
Or sleep too close beside
A love I want to keep.
But I long to hold some lady,
For flesh is warm and sweet.
Cold skeletons go marching
Each night beside my feet.
The scene is set in this song from the outset, longing for a body, any body (some lady) of not just the female kind, but one ascribed “lady” characteristics, suggesting manners and carriage, not just woman, which is neutral along the lines of female, a mere nominative term. In just the first line, a reader can see what Leonard Cohen is about in this song. Him.
His use of a mistress, the one night stand, a body, for his purposes, whether that is sexual or inspirational–the muse–is obvious. He refers to what he desires as “lady” and “flesh” and “bone”, which suggest the physical body and sexual desire, but he also uses words like “distant” and “perfect” and “masterpiece” along with religious figures of pilgrim and priest, suggesting the female figure as muse, on her pedestal, in his mental loins, a mere image for idolatry. But in the end of the poem, it becomes clear that woman is merely a placeholder for his own masturbatory lovemaking, the love he cannot travel to as it is so “deep”, I would posit inside of him, is the love of a woman….because he is so busy loving himself.
Leonard Cohen’s image as poet-lover is not unknown to others who know his music and writings, the lover who dabbled with so many women (Joni Mitchell one of the more famous of them), committing to none, and painted them on the walls of his imagination in his music and in his schtick, his gig, the crooner surrounded by the chick backup singers. Whether act or true story of his inability to attach/commit, he is devoted to promoting and expressing that romantic self image in just about everything he writes: Cohen as being Cohen. And that’s not a bad thing.
I like Leonard Cohen’s music and writing, most all of it. He is a caricature of a beat generation figure of freedom of expression and romantic love mid to late 20th Century style. He is historical. The brush strokes of his collage poetry is delicate and flavorful, like his last few lines: “For flesh is warm and sweet/Cold skeletons go marching/Each beside my feet.” The contrast of warm flesh, evoking the blood and bone imagery throughout, juxtaposed with the cold skeleton, life and death, is stripped purely in binary anatomical, biological terms. The romantic notion of craving someone gets reduced to blood, bone, and death. It is not macabre so much as a revelation that the “lady” was a mere idea in the first place–mistress muse of his imagination.
One may begrudge him for being a user and abuser of women for his purposes like any rapist, or one can judge him a showman plying his trade full of promotion and self-selfish love, or one can enjoy a poet using symbol and metaphor in his own style. Give him a break? For “there is a crack in everything (and everyone). That’s how the light gets in.”