18 June, 2021

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Leonard Cohen: The Stranger, The Master

By Dayan Jayatilleka

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

The Master of the modern love song, whose intricate and intense musical cartography of the relationships between men and women provided the soundtrack of our private lives, has come down like Moses or Zarathustra from the mountain, gaunt, courtly, priestly, yet slightly noir-ish in broad-striped double breasted charcoal suit, tie-less, fedora perched rakishly on his silvering hair as if Bogart had somehow grown old gracefully.

Five encores I think there were, but it may have been one more, for this 74 year old, finishing the performance one hour later than planned, bowing to the audience, fedora doffed and held close to his heart, eyes softly shining.

The man is what he has always been, what he was from the beginning, before he sang. Leonard Cohen is a poet. He reminds us of this, reciting, not singing, one of his later songs in entirety – A Thousand Kisses Deep – which I remember from a movie scene with a weather-beaten Nick Nolte looking out of the hotel window at the casino he is about to rob, the cropped haired girl sleeping on the sofa curled up after her fix, lost.

leonard-cohenNot so much poetry set to music as poetry set in music. In the beginning and the first decades his songs meditated on the metaphysics of man and woman in love and lust, the Woman as the Other (not “the other woman” as in callow country music), angst finely wrought into art, but never overwrought.

The angel of angst has aged. The voice remains smoky, deeper than before, but instantly recognizable like those of Dylan and Van Morrison. Cohen has done with his voice that which Clint Eastwood has with his face, transmuted aging into an instrument of art.

He has always had women collaborators, and one remembers Jennifer Warnes and Anjani (his “partner in life”), but no one has played as big a musical role as Sharon Robinson, who is on stage with him at Montreux, classically trained pianist and blues-tinged jazz singer who has scored many of his latest songs.

At Montreux, Leonard Cohen has modified the music of some of his songs, turning Bird on the Wire blue-tinged. Again a new, blues opening riff and next to me Sanja is already cheering, recognizing as I have not, the opening of “Hallelujah” which Cohen delivers in genuflection, eyes shut, then rising, upright, face upwards, eyes still unopened, giving voice to his Psalm.

Suzanne he sings straight, the old introductory chords from his guitar, eyes open, looking into the crowd, changing a line: “And you know that she will find you…” Each one of us remembers when we first heard of Suzanne, a different kind of girl.

It wasn’t the first time I had heard Leonard Cohen. That was at the Liberty cinema in Colombo, as Warren Beatty walked through the mist across a rickety foot bridge, reins in hand, his horse behind him, the camera catching the crystalline dew drops, in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a completely distinct, unique voice coming over slow and deep with the opening bars of Stranger Song. I committed the credit to memory – Leonard Cohen – and went in search of his music. For not quite four decades he has inhabited my inner landscape and finally I have caught up with him. At Montreux he does not sing the signature Stranger Song (his 2003 volume of selected poems and songs is called Stranger Music) but does Sisters of Mercy. In the cinema of my mind I see the silhouette of women on burros against the hilly skyline at sunset in Altman’s movie as the song was sung the first time I heard it.

The soundtrack of the Altman film is from his debut album The Songs of Leonard Cohen and at Montreux he follows up Sisters of Mercy with So Long Marianne and Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, from it. The evening’s songs are selected from all the albums but most seem to be from the last three. First We Take Manhattan, Ain’t No Cure for Love, Everybody Knows, I’m your Man, Take This Waltz, Tower of Song ( all from I’m Your Man); The Future, Closing Time, Anthem, and Democracy (from The Future); In My Secret Life, A Thousand Kisses Deep and Boogie Street (from the latest: Ten New Songs).

Cohen’s homeland is the human heart and he lives in its labyrinth. Nietzsche’s master-slave syndrome, applied by Sartre to the foundational dialectic relationship, man/woman, is poeticized and set to elegiac music by him, studded and strewn with Biblical metaphor and allusion. But Leonard Cohen is not only the sketch artist of naked emotions and plumber of inner space. He occasionally walks into a different dimension, reflecting ironically on late modernity and post modernity, as in First We Take Manhattan, Democracy Is Coming to the USA and The Future.

This is his only concert in Switzerland. He tells us when he last played in this hall he was “sixty years old, just a kid with a crazy dream”. Now, fourteen years on, at the 42nd Montreux Jazz Festival, where is he at? On our way into the Stravinsky auditorium Sanja had shown me the verse from his Anthem on a T shirt:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

He has assembled a sensitive, gifted backup band, Javier Mas on Spanish guitar (with whom Cohen often communes on one knee), Dino Solo on the sax and wind instruments, Neil Larsen on keyboards, Rafael Gayol on percussion, Roscoe Beck on bass, Bob Metzger on guitar, and Cohen’s chorus of angels – Sharon Robinson, and The Webb Sisters. He indicates a time that he could not write, and sings the first verse of the prayer that he composed at and for those moments, If It Be Your Will (from the album Various Position, as is Hallelujah).

If it be your will
that I speak no more,
and my voice be still
as it was before;
I will speak no more,
I shall abide until
I am spoken for,
if it be your will.

He leaves off after this opening verse, inviting the Webb Sisters to sing the rest and you understand, as Hattie plays the harp, why he repeatedly calls them “the sublime Webb Sisters”. A classical sketch of a woman, one breast outlined, playing a harp, is on the back cover of the souvenir as the motif of the 2008 world tour.

The mystique of the reclusive, emotionally masochistic bard in black – Field Commander Cohen, the title of a 1979 album – has lightened, thinned to the more accessible human essentials of a man in communion with others, offering his gift of song not to an elusive, fickle muse but to a deity of song or perhaps to humanity; to all of us. This is a man enlightened, made lighter and lit up from inside, by the way he has aged, his explorations into “the religions and philosophies” as he put it last night. As he has grown older, his voice huskier, his music is about letting go, standing back, bidding a long goodbye.

[Leonard Cohen, the master singer, songwriter and poet just died at age 82, a few months after the release on his 82nd birthday of his last album “You Want it Darker’. In his honor and memory I reproduce this review article which appeared under the caption ‘Leonard Cohen: The Master at Montreaux’ on July 8th 2008, on the website ‘Leonard Cohen-the official forum of Leonardcohenfiles.com and Speaking Cohen’ (http://www.leonardcohenforum.com/viewtopic.php?t=11605) during the 2008 world tour, after his Montreux concert that summer. At the time, I was serving as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador/Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva.]

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Latest comments

  • 2
    1

    Good to read some interesting stuff from DJ (even though written in 2008), away from the pro MR and JO nonsense he frequently writes about. Being a fan of LC I do appreciate this appreciation! My favorite is “Famous Blue Raincoat”. I hope DJ will one day convince MR to listen to Cohen and Dylan. Will be a game changer.

    “Ah, the last time we saw you you looked so much older
    Your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder
    You’d been to the station to meet every train, and
    You came home without Lili Marlene”

    • 1
      0

      Chedi, read the whole thing he has written.

      “[Leonard Cohen, the master singer, songwriter and poet just died at age 82, a few months after the release on his 82nd birthday of his last album “You Want it Darker’. In his honor and memory I reproduce this review article which appeared under the caption ‘Leonard Cohen: The Master at Montreaux’ on July 8th 2008, on the website ‘Leonard Cohen-the official forum of Leonardcohenfiles.com and Speaking Cohen’ (http://www.leonardcohenforum.com/viewtopic.php?t=11605) during the 2008 world tour, after his Montreux concert that summer. At the time, I was serving as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador/Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva.]”

      • 3
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        Yes Checker, DJ needs to detox all of this geneva stuff too and other baggage. I am sure DJ has a lot of good inside of him but is thrashing about trying to find himself.Lets give him a fair chance.

    • 3
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      I am surprised.. and have the feeling DJ is reborn.

      What happened to him really ?

      He has changed his way of writing and totally being awayfrom on going polics of the country – this is a surprise to me … why why why ?
      Else the boy loved to be in lanken spot light. I am curious to know what goes through his SELFPROCLAIMED head today.

    • 4
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      Thank you for this tribute to a very special man DJ. We love Cohen.

      A bit too much to loose both Amaradeva and Cohen in just one week.

      PS:
      It puzzles me how a man of DJ’s intellect, taste & exposure manages to keep scratching un-cultured Rajapassa Clan’s corrupt back. So un-critically. Un-worthy of you DJ.

      • 3
        1

        Ben,

        “It puzzles me how a man of DJ’s intellect, taste & exposure manages to keep scratching un-cultured Rajapassa Clan’s corrupt back.”

        – that precisely is the point. Why does DJ behave no better than the Kelaniya Mervin? I have no problem when Kelaniya Mervin does what he does – because he just does not know better, an therefore is just out of ignorance. When DJ does such uncouth things, that it is done knowingly, and intentionally – even to the extent that MR finds it fit to trash him rather nastily on Al Jazeera! One gets what one deserves!

  • 3
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    It’s funny how dayans musical heroes would find his political beliefs so despicable. Wasn’t dayan quoting Bruce Springsteen before? While listening to their music he should try understand what they are saying.

  • 4
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    Dayan,

    Fine piece!

    I never imagined that you could pull your head out of Rajapakse’s and write such a fine tome to a talent that is deemed great not for his musical ability but for his brutal honesty. No one will/can ever accuse him of using his talent for the written/spoken word disingenuously. Time to look in the mirror Dayan!

    If one can fault Cohen is that poetry at times can be pretentious. For sheer story telling without veering into pretentiousness one can hardly walk past Tom Waits.

  • 1
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    A fine piece Dayan.

    My fav is ‘Closing Time’ and it was such, just after ‘Maryanne’s’ passing.

    He knew, that was it for him as he penned his last letter to Maryanne.

    He lived his last days, in his wheelchair, dressed in his three piece suit with the fedora to boot.

    A fine chap he was in our times.

    ‘So long’ I say, this time to Leonard.

  • 4
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    How much is Kili paying you for your political comments on maharajano channel.

    • 2
      1

      Please dont go after that. That is the only revenue ways left to him by today. All the reserves collected over there years have run out since he had not foreign positions for the last 4 years.
      Besides, the self proclaimed analyst (even if he is in his late 50ties by now)is currently cornered to his 4 walls and isolated within their own circles too. I dont know any single person that would l add a term to support DJ by today. Yes, there were days they thought DJ was a good analyst. But since he has been smeared by all the extremetas of Rajano, now not even my 4 year old 4-legged pet would nod his head to support me regarding true colours DJ.

  • 2
    0

    Leonard Cohen’s immortal “Suzanne” is etched in my memory since Manik Sandrasagara and friends made the song familiar to us when he (Manik) made his presence felt in the musical scene in Ceylon in the pre-1972 period. Cohen is a giant in the musical scene in the West and a respected icon in his native Canada. Cohen’s lyrics, poems and songs had a touch of philosophy, politics, religion and all that is good in man.

    Thank you, Dayan, for the tribute to a great and enormously talented human being.

    Backlash

  • 2
    1

    For a change he has not written about himself, his drunkard late father, mother, wife (partner, or wife’s (partner’s) mother. Hoorah!

    • 1
      1

      I am afraid Julian Hussain is being terribly unfair to the late journalist icon Mervyn, Dayan’s father. It is very uncharitable to call him a drunkard. He was not. In the two decades I knew him closely before he died, he did take a beer – a social drink, if you like. In the many occasions I have met Mervin and Lakshmi in evening functions, I have never seen her “drunk” as you unkindly suggest. Please let us be fair to others. Particularly those who are no more and who cannot defend themselves.

      Backlash

  • 3
    0

    “The Master of the modern love song, whose intricate and intense musical cartography of the relationships between men and women provided the soundtrack of our private lives, has come down like Moses or Zarathustra from the mountain, gaunt, courtly, priestly, yet slightly noir-ish in broad-striped double breasted charcoal suit, tie-less, fedora perched rakishly on his silvering hair as if Bogart had somehow grown old gracefully.”

    Kawada indalada yako moo love karanna patan gaththe?

  • 2
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    i’ve learnt never to read/listen anything DJ says or writes, bcos its always twisted, like he’ll take a bowl of shit & try to convince you its soup.

  • 1
    0

    This a very interesting piece by Jayatilleka.It proves that occasionally he can write essays that do not promote the Sinhala chauvinistic cause and even get the facts right!

  • 1
    0

    Dayan,
    A fine piece of soul stirring. About some other comments-I think it was Nietzsche who said that those incapable of hearing the music think that those who dance are insane.’

  • 0
    0

    At last an article from Dhyan Jayatillaka which we can read and in which he does not tie himself into knots.

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